Two matches played, zero points so far for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Yet surprisingly enough, they are still in the fight to make it out of the group stage at the “MLS is Back” tournament in Orlando.
What lies ahead of Marc Dos Santos’ squad is a Chicago Fire team which has been a mixed bag so far in this tournament, beating Seattle in their opener before surrendering two late goals in a loss against the Earthquakes on Sunday afternoon.
Now on Thursday morning, at 6AM pacific time, the bottom two teams in Group F will fight it out for the chance to reach the tournament quarterfinals. The Whitecaps will need some help along the way, but if everything goes according to plan, a two-goal victory could see the Whitecaps make it out of the group stage as one of the top third-place teams.
(Update) Since this article was originally published, FC Cincinnati’s victory has ensured that a two goal victory would see the Whitecaps through to the quarterfinals.
That #FCCincy victory is huge for #VWFC and #IMFC. The Impact go through with the result, and Vancouver now "only" have to win by 2 goals. It's a big only, but it's a lot more simple than having to win by 3 or 4 goals. #MLSisBack— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) July 23, 2020
When asked about how he would approach the matchup with the Fire, Marc Dos Santos was keen to point out that keeping things solid defensively will be as important in earning a two-goal margin as anything else.
“We need to defend much better than we defended in the last two games.” Said Dos Santos. “Then, we need to score the first goal. What I tell the players, is first we have to win the game 1-0. Then if we get to the late stages, we can take all of the risks possible.”
Trying to keep the ball out of the Whitecaps net will be youngster Thomas Hasal, who after making his MLS debut vs. Seattle in relief duty, will be forced into the fold as a starter now that Maxime Crepeau has been confirmed to be out of the tournament with a fractured left thumb.
In a normal regular season, this would be a devastating blow for the Whitecaps. But given the uncertainty of the remainder of the regular season, Crepeau may have ample time to recover before he is called back into regular duty. In the meantime, Hasal must shoulder the load.
Fellow Whitecaps’ youngster Theo Bair provided his perspective on Hasal’s preparedness for the moment Tuesday morning, and if his answer is anything to go by, we should expect more of what we saw on Sunday night from the VWFC Academy product.
“He’s been with me pretty much every step of the way.” Said Bair of Hasal. “I think he knows what he’s being asked to do and I’m really proud of him. I think he’s ready for the moment.”
At the other end of the pitch, attacking production was an issue for the Whitecaps against the Sounders. They registered just two shots on target, and the combination of Yordy Reyna and Cristian Dajome up top proved largely ineffective.
Crucially, Marc Dos Santos ditched his favoured 4-3-3 formation in favour of a 4-4-2 against Seattle, citing the need to support Reyna up top. And while the possession numbers looked much better against Seattle than San Jose, the tactical switch didn’t necessarily have the desired end-goal. The Whitecaps’ three phases of the pitch continue to feel disjointed, with the transition from the midfield to attack being the most notable problem on Sunday night. With this issue continuing to plague the squad, young Canadian forwards Ryan Raposo and Theo Bair seem poised to grasp an opportunity.
Albeit in limited sample size, both have created chances at an impressively high rate so far in this tournament, and could look to take advantage of a Chicago Fire team which was conceding expected goals (Xg) at a historically high rate during the first two matches of the regular season.
When asked about the opportunities that have been made available to him so far, Raposo displayed what is quickly becoming a trademark level of confidence in his abilities.
“Getting to come in a bit earlier, I got to settle into the game and connect my first few passes and gained some confidence...I’m pretty happy with my performance against Seattle. That’s the type of player I am... I’m the type of guy to see what I have to do, and then go do it.”
It will be interesting to see what front six players Marc Dos Santos chooses to field against a Fire team which has most often employed a five-at-the-back system, and whether or not Raposo or Bair may have earned themselves a start in the manager’s eyes.
Beyond the tactics and individual performances, the Whitecaps simply need to put together a cohesive, full 90-minute performance on Thursday. Something which they have struggled mightily to do so far in 2020, and will only have been made more challenging by the early start time.
With the Whitecaps desperate to return from Orlando with something to show for it, I’m cautiously going to predict a 2-1 scoreline in favour of Vancouver.
While I do think the Whitecaps have the tools to break down the Fire defensively, Chicago also possesses a high number of dynamic attacking threats (such as Przemyslaw Frankowski and Robert Beric). With this in mind, and given Vancouver’s obvious defensive woes so far, especially on set pieces, I can’t see them keeping a clean sheet.
More importantly, what are your predictions for the match thursday morning? And will you be getting up bright and early (like I will), or will you be watching the match on tape delay?
Last but not least, if you want to dive deeper into what the Chicago Fire have to offer, be sure to check out “The Third Sub” Podcast, where myself and Alexandre Gangue-Ruzic of Between the Sticks spoke with the “Sons of a Pitch” podcast and broke down all things Chicago Fire. You can find that here.