Ten games into the 2019 MLS Season, there have been two key issues which the Whitecaps have struggled to address so far this year: capitalizing on their offensive chances, and avoiding costly defensive errors (especially those leading to PK’s).
The Vancouver Whitecaps face a Portland Timbers team this Friday which presents both challenges and opportunities in regards to the Whitecaps addressing their issues - and with the potential for a full three point result to vault the Caps back into a playoff place, the stakes couldn’t be higher this early in the season.
Here are two ways in which the Whitecaps might address their struggles and secure a result this Friday based on what I observed at training this week.
Marc Dos Santos has stressed several times this week at training the way in which Portland likes to sit in two relatively “linear” banks of four defensively. This can materialize either as a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2. Either way, while this gives the Timbers good initial structure, it hasn’t necessarily translated to on-field results defensively, as they’ve allowed the second most goals in MLS this season (behind the Rapids) with 20 GA.
Why might this be the case? On Real Salt Lake’s lone goal against Portland last week, we can see the two lines of Timbers defenders, and how one key ball (a beautiful back-heel flick) was capable of breaking their defensive lines open.
This could be key for the Whitecaps on Friday. While in many matches this season the Whitecaps have looked to be patient offensively, they might look to play a key ball quickly on the counter if the opportunity presents itself - I think that even long balls over the top might be on the table (I know, the horror). Specifically, the Caps could use Montero to hold up play while Bangoura and Venuto charge down the wings - this could be a recipe for success (so long as the Caps field a similar lineup to last week).
Equally however, the Whitecaps are unlikely to enjoy the same success they found last week capitalizing on the Rapids’ overall poor defensive play and complete lack of organization. Although the Timbers are not an elite defensive team by any stretch, under the tutelage of Giovanni Savarese they are unlikely to concede as easily as the Rapids did on the Andy Rose game-winner - and this was perhaps the least egregious of the goals as far as Rapids defenders are concerned.
Defending the Second Phase
On the defensive side of things, a big talking point for the Whitecaps this week at training was staying alert and structured when defending the second phase of play in their own box. While the Caps have been a solid defensive unit on the whole, the failure to organize for the second phase of play has proved costly, with a great example of this being the second penalty conceded in Colorado. The Whitecaps first unit spent a good 15-20 minutes defending corners (and secondary balls off those corners) on Thursday, likely in response to MDS’s frustration with conceding this goal.
On this play, the Whitecaps have far too many stationary defenders ball-watching, which in turn leads to Montero/Levis’s desperation attempts to defend the back post. A similar defensive ineptitude could prove costly against the Timbers - especially if their last match against RSL is any indication.
On the first Timbers goal in Salt Lake, Blanco is defended decently on his initial attempt, but multiple RSL defenders are caught flat footed on the follow-up and Blanco is allowed to retrieve his own rebound and smash it home past RSL keeper Andrew Putna.
Similarly, Valeri gets on the end of Blanco’s blocked shot attempt on the second Timbers goal. Although this goal likely has more to do with the quality of Valeri’s finish than anything else, this is another demonstration of the Timbers aptitude for converting second chance opportunities.
The moral of the story is, both Valeri and Blanco have the quality to score from almost anywhere in the box. If they’re given multiple opportunities, they’re likely to put the ball in the back of your net.
This will be the greatest challenge for the Whitecaps come Friday night. Can they improve their defensive discipline to the point where they don’t allow multiple opportunities in the box for the likes of Valeri and Blanco?
If the Whitecaps can successfully address this issue, I like their chances to secure a full three points at home Friday Night at BC Place. While the Timbers won’t give away anything egregious defensively, there are weaknesses which can be exploited, and hopefully the Whitecaps’ new front three is up to the task (even if things don’t come quite as easy as they did last week).