After an off-season where so much was made of new beginnings, Saturday night at BC Place didn’t exactly feel like the fresh start everyone was hoping for, infact, far from it.
Many of the players we saw on opening night were new, the club revitalised it’s front office in the offseason, adopted a new approach to player acquisition, and Marc Dos Santos finally appeared to be coaching his team up the way he wanted.
So why did it look exactly the same as last year?
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I may have gotten caught up in the pre-season positivity. Why does this feel like a carbon copy of last year? #VWFC— Samuel Rowan (@samuel_rowboat) March 1, 2020
This is a question I struggled with as I watched the Whitecaps continue to be overrun in the middle of the park, and unable to respond defensively to second chance opportunities and broken plays.
Some of the newcomers looked decent, and perhaps the only theme which remained consistent from the pre-season was the solid play of David Milinkovic, especially in the first half. For a man who was practically run out of the city of Hull, the Frenchman has been far more impactful than anyone could have expected in his early days in Vancouver.
“I got the one assist, and after this I played much better” said Milinkovic in his post-game media availability. “In the second half, me and the team we came back into the game for the win, but it didn’t come. That’s football, it’s the first game.”
Milinkovic also reflected on the differences between the pre-season and the matchup with SKC: “Everyone was ready and the guys played very well in the pre-season tournament. It was the first game at home, and maybe there was a little bit of pressure, because the support was very good.”
It seems that all of the Whitecaps players are acutely aware of just how volatile the support for the team is at the moment, and perhaps no one stated this more effectively than front-man Lucas Cavallini.
“The relationships between players and fans is really positive, good to see a lot of kids looking up to us and cheering for us, it’s great for the city, but in order for this to happen each game, we need to bring some results. We need to start winning.”
Cavallini was also critical of his team’s execution from a tactical standpoint, and given that Lucas only saw the ball at his feet 22 times over the course of the match, it’s easy to imagine the source of his frustration.
“That’s not my type of game, as a team that’s not our type of game.” Said the Canadian striker. “If we were to lose and played well, I would tell you....The first half, there were a lot of moments where we were just playing the game Kansas City wanted us to play...we were falling into their trap. We just needed to stick with our game. Keep the ball on the ground, start moving it, and just relaxing with it. Don’t feel under pressure, just go with the flow.”
As far as Marc Dos Santos was concerned, the aforementioned nerves and pressure seemed to be the most logical conclusion to explain the team's stuggles on opening night.
“The beginning was disappointing,” said Dos Santos. “A lot of anxiety on our side. We really wanted to do well, we were ready to play, but for some reason, we didn’t start the way we wanted to.”
While there’s certainly some credence to the notion of opening game jitters, what’s more difficult to understand is the team’s second half performance. Although the blow is perhaps softened by some decent possession statistics, the Whitecaps lack of incisive passes and direct attacking play looked much the same as most of last year. While we saw both Russell Teibert and Inbeom Hwang play increased attacking roles in the pre-season, little of that forward play was found from either midfielder on Saturday night.
If you take a look at all the completed passes by Hwang and Teibert in the opponent's half vs. SKC, it’s not exactly overwhelming.
Although many Whitecaps players could be charged with being far too passive in the home opener, Jake Nerwinski was not one of them.
After what Nerwinski described as his most frustrating season as a pro last year, the New Jersey Native came out of the gates determined to get his season off to a good start, even if the rest of the team wasn’t quite on the same level: “It’s a long offseason, I was upset with how we ended last year, both as a team and personally...So when I got the goal, I was excited. I thought it was big because we got right back in the game after that.”
“[Marc] told me preseason that he wants me to get forward and get the ball up and down that right side of the pitch.” Said Nerwinski of his role from the right back spot. “I tried to do that as much as I could. I think, at times, when we were defending a lot, I was a bit overloaded, so I wasn't always able to get forward as much as I could.”
The question that remains looming for this Whitecaps team is whether or not they truly have a solution to the problems that plagued them last year, and seem to have crept back into the mix for the start of 2020.
Perhaps newcomers Bikel and Owusu can provide answers, but those two have amassed less training sessions with the Club cumulatively than you can count on one hand thus far, and it’s a big ask for a couple of unproven commodities about to play out their first professional football on this continent.
The individual likely under the most pressure in all of this right now is Marc Dos Santos.
Last year, there were many logical and obvious reasons which kept Dos Santos from being fully effective as a manager and tactician. But after an offseason which was much more within his control, and all the talk of him having found players which actually fit his “profile”, it’s time to see that talk translate to positive play during MLS regular season games.
One game does not a season make, but at the moment, it still looks like this team is a long way off from where they want (and expect) to be.