As the Vancouver Whitecaps fell to New York City FC by a score of 3-1 on Saturday night at BC Place, they were eliminated from 2019 MLS Cup playoff contention.
While this hardly came as a surprise to anyone around the club, it was a somber moment, a confirmation of a season which never really got off the ground, and one that felt as though it slipped away long before the dog days of summer had even arrived.
Looking back, perhaps the lone highpoint of the Whitecaps season came way back in April 17th when the homeside Caps got the better of league leading LAFC by a score of 1-0. The Whitecaps handed now supporters shield runaways LAFC one of their only three losses (to date) on the season, and In-Beom Hwang scored his first goal as a Whitecap. On that night, it felt like the Whitecaps may have been in the ascendancy, but boy, that didn’t last long.
If one player has epitomized the Whitecaps struggles this season, it’s probably Jon Erice. The Spaniard midfielder arrived in MLS with a well regarded track record, as well as the promise of providing some much needed leadership and stability in a tumultuous midfield. While Erice’s qualities (or lack thereof at times) have been much debated amongst Whitecaps supporters this season, the one thing that cannot be denied is that things probably haven’t turned out how either side was hoping they would. It’s obvious that Dos Santos feels he made an error in evaluating Erice (as shown by his prolonged absence from the starting lineup spanning almost six weeks), and if his perfomance on Saturday night was any indication, I’m not sure we’ll see much more of Erice in a Whitecaps shirt.
On the first NYCFC goal, Erice was caught out back a suspect back-pass from Jake Nerwinski. While the pass wasn’t ideal, Erice’s lack if ability to react quickly and shield the ball from the oncoming NYCFC attacker shows exactly what Marc Dos Santos feels like he’s missing by having Erice in his midfield.
.@Heber__Araujo capitalizes on the turnover and it's 1-0 to @NYCFC early. #VANvNYC pic.twitter.com/NCTspK5ftt— Major League Soccer (@MLS) September 1, 2019
I’ve gone to bat for Erice on countless occasions throughout this season, and still maintain that he could be a positive and impactful MLS player, but unfortunately for Jon, two very big obstacles are standing in his way.
For one, I think that Erice is best suited as a complementary piece, he’s someone who helps make life easier for good players, but not necessarily someone who’s going to make the players around him noticeably better. Secondarily, if Erice is going to be that complimentary player, he needs to be compensated in a way that reflects that. Erice is the second highest paid player on the Whitecaps, and while that shouldn’t be held against him (he’s got every right to be compensated as well as possible), there’s a legitimate argument to be made that someone like David Norman Jr could be stepping in and filling a similar role for less that a tenth (!) of the price. As much as the MLS is about spending money, it’s also about getting the most out of your top end players, and billing Erice as a “top end” player, I think, was a mistake.
Although the Whitecaps have been their own worst enemy at many points this season, VAR certainly hasn’t helped. As if almost tempting the fates, Marc Dos Santos took VAR to task earlier in the week over possible favoritism to “premier market” teams. So inevitably, a VAR decision had to go against the Whitecaps on Saturday night.
Already down 2-0, the Caps had a chance to draw one back when Tossaint Ricketts hustled after a loose ball near the edge of the box, and appeared to be taken down by a charging Sean Johnson.
Thoughts?— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) September 1, 2019
VAN 0-2 NYC | #VWFC pic.twitter.com/u6GjFr9eNq
There were a number of questions on the play, but in the end, VAR deemed that Ricketts wasn’t actually fouled, and therefore the original penalty call was nullified.
While in the end this may have been the right decision, VAR time and time again has called into question what exactly the definition of “clear and obvious” is. If you look at the video review systems in other sports, Hockey and American Football in particular, there must be “indisputable evidence” to overturn a call on the field. In my opinion, this standard does a much better job of preserving the integrity of these respective games and keeping the majority of power in the hands of the on field official. In the MLS this season, it seems as though any play which is even somewhat borderline immediately goes to video review, and the original call on the play has little to no say in how the VAR outcome is decided.
The VAR decision enraged the Whitecaps bench, as well as the video board director in the stadium, and a rather wild few minutes ensued...
#VWFC Assistant Coach Vanni Sartini, and Goalkeeper Coach Youssef Dahha have both been tossed from the match. They did not agree with the VAR decision. 2-0 #NYCFC 35 #MLS— Har Journalist (@HarJournalist) September 1, 2019
Keep that same energy.#VWFC #MLS #F*CKVAR pic.twitter.com/hnBkBlvmec— B&G Media (@b_and_gmedia) September 1, 2019
#VANvNYC - That foul was just shown on the video screen @bcplace. That will likely result in a fine for #VWFC. That said the contact was pretty visible.— Manuel Veth (@ManuelVeth) September 1, 2019
The contentious decision left the Whitecaps facing a 2-0 deficit at halftime, and without a lot of positives to draw on (other than the indignation they felt from the VAR fiasco). Despite this, Dos Santos seemed to be able to re-group has squad at the half, and the Whitecaps enjoyed their best spell of play during the opening moments of the second half. This culminated in a 64th minute goal from Yordy Reyna off a great set-up from Ricketts, who maintained focus under the pressure of an impending sliding challenge.
Reyna, who took the team lead in goals (7) on his impressive strike, was extremely clinical from a tough angle, and continues to carry the majority of the offensive load for a team that’s notably challenged in that department.
No stopping this one from Reyna. Game on! #VANvNYC pic.twitter.com/4td4OvUFuF— Major League Soccer (@MLS) September 1, 2019
But like most things for the Whitecaps this season, their early spell of success in the second half couldn’t be maintained. As the Whitecaps continued to concede the majority of possession, NYCFC pushed higher and higher up the pitch in an effort to put the game out of reach and in the 71st minute, they did just that.
The Whitecaps were caught napping on their free kick set-up, and high-priced Romanian international Alexandru Mitrita made the Whitecaps and goalkeeper Max Crepeau pay immediately, as he struck the ball home just inside the near post.
SENSATIONAL from Alexandru Mitrita! pic.twitter.com/psdCklNJDT— Major League Soccer (@MLS) September 1, 2019
Mitrita’s goal took the majority of the steam out of the game, and the Whitecaps quickly came to realize that their chances of a result (and a mathematical shot at the playoffs) were all but done and dusted.
In an attempt to make things interesting, Dos Santos pulled out all the stops he could as time wore down, first inserting Theo Bair into the match, and then setting up in an ultra-attacking 2-2-2-4 (?) shape.
So #VWFC are playing 2-2-2-4 now? pic.twitter.com/DBVKil5eLD— Manuel Veth (@ManuelVeth) September 1, 2019
Even with this out of the box thinking from Dos Santos, the Whitecaps couldn’t make a dent in the NYCFC defensive lines, and much like the majority of the season, the home side was left wondering what went wrong in a match where they held their own, but ultimately, had let the result slip away.
With the playoffs now officially out of reach, the Whitecaps players and coaching staff will be forced to do some serious soul searching over the final four matches of the 2019 regular season. Marc Dos Santos admitted in his post-match press conference that being eliminated so early is a feeling that he’s largely unfamiliar with - so finding a way to motivate his team over the final matches will be a new experience for him.
If I was on the Whitecaps staff, I’d think that there’s only one way to approach the rest of this season. For all intents and purposes, 2020 starts now. Much was made of the lack of pre-season and preparation time that Dos Santos and his staff enjoyed in early 2019. Next year, they will not have that excuse. With six-ish months to focus firmly on the 2020 season opener, there’s lots of time to think, and act (without excuses), as to how the club can improve on a 2019 season that felt like it was over before it even started.