The more I’ve sat back and reflected on the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday night, the more I think that it’s a microcosm of this team’s season as a whole. In a way, the Whitecaps have been incredibly difficult to pin down this year: there have been wins which could have easily been losses and losses which could have easily been wins. There were also a lot of matches which could have ended in draws but simply didn’t. In another way though, the evaluation of this team can be much simpler, they simply haven’t been good enough.
The reason I am writing this piece is because head coach Marc Dos Santos provided what I felt was a lot of interesting food for thought in his post match press conference (if we ignore the complaints about the condensed schedule), and I thought that these comments were worthy of further discussion.
One of the things this Whitecaps team has struggled with the most this season is the delicate balance between defensive solidarity and attacking creativity, as evidenced by their second-worst –19 goal differential in MLS. No matter what lineup takes the field, the idea that you’d have to play so tentatively that you’d be unable to register a single shot on target over the course of 90 minutes simply doesn’t make sense. Even with this tentative approach, the Whitecaps managed to allow two goals against, and the Sounders had a few other decent chances as well.
Dos Santos’ thoughts on the balance of defensive organization and attacking creativity are likely applicable to not only this match, but to the season as a whole. Sure, the defensive structure is impressive, but what does it matter if you’re conceding goals anyways and are unable to create anything going forward?
“It impressed me how they stuck to the game plan, how they stayed very compact, didn’t give space to Seattle, a lot of communication between them, a lot of work between them.” Said Dos Santos. “Unfortunately, the downside of that is we weren’t able to get the ball out of pressure when we wanted to generate a little bit more offensively.”
In my estimation, the Whitecaps have played their poorest football this season when their tactics and system caters to the opposition. Too often it feels as though Marc Dos Santos reacts to his opponent rather than dictating the style of play. On the odd occasion that the Whitecaps have gone into the match with a clear identity, it’s achieved better results, with the recent run in the 4-4-2 as an example of that. Usually, this still means holding less than 50% of the possession, but when this team has a good idea of what they want to do on the ball, the overall performance takes a turn for the better. Dos Santos speaks a lot about the moments where his team wins the ball, but I think it’s hard to focus too much on this unless your attacking identity is clear to begin with.
“We addressed a lot the moment where we won the ball.” Said Dos Santos. “We could have done better, and we showed them two clips that we got from upstairs to show them what we meant by that. And we reinforced that defensively, we had to stay very close to each other, continuing like that. And in the moment of transition when we won the ball, make sure that we got that ball out of the pressure, open the lines very well, because there was more space than we thought. Unfortunately, I think that goal makes us have to push to go after the tie in the second half.”
The last part of that quote is why the Whitecaps are yet to earn a draw this season. Again, it feels like the tactics of this team are reactionary rather than pre-emptive, and when you are playing against a top-drawer team like the Sounders, your reactionary moves are going to be exposed.
Now I do want to give Marc Dos Santos a bit of credit here because on the whole, he has done a good job of developing an identity for his team over the last few matches, the loss to Seattle notwithstanding. In an ideal world, Dos Santos wants his team to play a possession based 4-3-3, but with the current realities of his squad, he’s discovered that isn’t possible. While much of this can be blamed on his own poor recruitment, Dos Santos has done a nice job adjusting his tactics by evoking a 4-4-2 which gets the best out of his best player: Fredy Montero.
“Today we changed to a 3-4-3, it is a system that I would call our second system.” Said Dos Santos after the 2-0 defeat. “Our first system is the 4-4-2 right now. And we must go back in the next two, three days and reinforce how we want to look like tactically for the game against Portland. But we won’t take this game and just put it on the side, we’re still going to take parts of it and go through it with players because I think there’s good moments to show the players.”
This brings me to Dos Santos’ approach towards these last four matches of the regular season. It’s not like the short turnaround against Seattle was a last minute thing, and so I can’t help but wonder if the manager could have utilized some more subtle squad rotation over the past few matches to have his team ready for Seattle. If they’d done this, perhaps the Whitecaps could have stuck in a 4-4-2 throughout and integrated players more seamlessly to the starting XI. But perhaps Dos Santos was simply content to throw in the towel for this Seattle match (which could be some serious 4D Chess, because they probably would have lost to Seattle at full strength anyways). Yet even if that is true, the choice to essentially cede the match comes at a greater cost than the three points lost.
The cost of this choice lies in the development (or lack thereof) of his young Canadian players. All throughout last season (in 2019), Dos Santos told a cautionary tale of placing too much excitement or expectation in his young players before they were ready. While this was tough to hear at the time, it seemed to work out over the course of the season, especially for Theo Bair, who grew wonderfully into the team as the season went on.
This season though, Dos Santos’ stance on young players has been far more inconsistent. MLS is Back forced Dos Santos to include young players in his lineup (even if he didn’t want to at the time), and many performed admirably. Then when the Whitecaps entered the Canadian stage of play, Fredy Montero was left out of the team in part to create opportunities for these young Canadians who had earned Dos Santos’ trust. But after the Canadian matches, things began to look a lot more like last season again. With the rise of Fredy Montero and the battle for playoff spots intensifying, Dos Santos turned a blind eye on many of his young players. Theo Bair, for example, was removed in the 20th minute of the 6-0 LAFC match through no fault of his own, and basically didn’t see the pitch again until his start Tuesday against Seattle.
This is why the choice to make wholesale changes against Seattle was so disappointing to me. The Whitecaps’ young players are simply not being put in a position to succeed at the moment. How can you expect the likes of Raposo and Bair to look dynamic and creative against a top-tier Seattle team when they haven’t played a full 90 minutes in over a month and are stuck in a formation the team has rarely used this season? Dos Santos can’t seem to make up his mind about how he truly wants to utilize his young players, and if I’m finding this inconsistency frustrating, I can’t imagine what it’s like for the players themselves.
“If we want young players to grow, they have to be involved in very hard games that mean something.” Said Dos Santos Tuesday night. “We had a lot of U-23 players that could represent Canada in the Olympic team. You had Derek, Guti, Ryan Raposo, Theo Bair. To give them a game that has so much meaning allows them to grow, understand the game, and become even better.”
Earlier this year, Dos Santos said that it would be unfair to thrust young players into situations they weren’t prepared for, so needless to say, this quote has me perplexed. I’m not saying I have all the answers on how to develop young Canadian soccer talent, but this hot and cold approach Dos Santos has chosen to employ is not getting the most out of his promising youngsters.
If the Whitecaps can earn themselves 3 or 4 points out of these last two matches, they may very well find themselves in the MLS Cup Playoffs, but that won’t solve the serious deficiencies this Whitecaps team has shown this season. Whether it’s the quality of the roster construction itself, the inconsistent tactics, or the unpredictable treatment of young players, all aspects of this team require a serious examination before the team heads into 2021, even if by some miracle this team manages to win themselves a playoff match.