It’s the Knockout Round! After getting exactly what they needed in the last match of group play, the Vancouver Whitecaps (2-3-0) are on to the Round of 16, where the games only matter for the sake of this tournament alone, to face Group D winners, Sporting Kansas City (4-1-0).
Where: ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, FL
When: Sunday, July 26th at 8 PM PST
How: TSN1, TSN4 (TV); TSN App, TVA Sports (Internet)
*One note before diving into the preview: is it just me, or is it bizarre that the Whitecaps are going from playing at 9 am EST to 11 pm? I guess technically that’s an extra 12 hours of rest sandwiched in there, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Following that mess of an opener against San Jose, where they were gifted three goals on two shots only to lose 4-3, and the dour 3-0 loss to Seattle, things looked grim for Vancouver’s chances to advance in the MLS is Back tournament.
But despite having lost stalwart goalkeeper Max Crepeau to injury, the Whitecaps fought for an unexpected 2-0 victory against Chicago in their final group match, propelling the club into the knockout round through virtue of being one of the top four, third-place teams.
The Whitecaps are going up against Group D winners Sporting Kansas City, who incidentally had a bizarre opener of their own. Despite leading 1-0, losing keeper Tim Melia to a red card in the 74th minute, and finishing with a gaudy 62% possession, SKC conceded two stoppage time goals to Minnesota, losing 2-1. Because MLS.
From there, SKC held a game Colorado, 3-2, again earning a majority of the possession in the win, before flipping the script on possession without doing so on the scoreline, claiming the group with a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake. In the finale, SKC dominated in shots attempted, 10 to 5, despite being out-possessed by RSL, 58/42.
What Happened Last Match?
We discussed the previous game against SKC here and gave out some purposefully fair and attentive report card grades here, but in short it was this weird combination of penalty area abstinence and ugly finishing that did the Whitecaps in to open the season.
The gist was that the Whitecaps allowed three goals on four shots, didn’t necessarily do the best job of building through the middle, and when they did the return was 1 goal from an xG of 2.16. When you compare that to SKC’s 3 goals from an xG of 0.52 ...yeesh.
Vancouver did earn themselves a fairly decent overall Passing Accuracy number at 83%, but that number dropped to 68% in the final third, where the team spent very little time.
Alan Pulido, an offseason transfer from Chivas in Liga MX, opened the scoring in the 17th off a well struck header where he really should have been marked tighter.
Jake Nerwinski drew the ‘Caps level eleven minutes later, sliding in a cross from David Milinkovic, who created the chance with a strong run with the ball, around Graham Zusi and along the endline before feeding Nerwinski inside the six.
SKC jumped ahead, another eleven minutes later, when Gadi Kinda one-timed a beauty into the near top corner.
And of all people, it was former Whitecap Erik Hurtado with the 90’+5’ garbage time volley where, like the first goal, the scorer was left relatively unattended. Despite how deep into stoppage the goal came, it gave the game a scoreline it arguably deserved.
For the sake of recapping, Lucas Cavallini, Fredy Montero, Georges Mukumbilwa, Tosaint Ricketts, and Andy Rose all did not travel with the Whitecaps for the Orlando tournament, while Bryan Meredith remains unavailable, having left for New Jersey following the death of his mother.
Still injured are Janio Bikel (adductor strain), Eric Godoy (quad strain), and Crepeau (fractured thumb), while knocks picked up by Jasser Khmiri (knee) and Milinkovic (hamstring strain) in the ‘Caps final group game may keep them out of this match.
For Sporting KC, the only absentees are midfielder Felipe Gutierrez (knee surgery) and defender Andreu Fontas (quad strain), both of whom have been absent for the entire tournament to this point.
Who’s Worth Watching?
Alan Pulido vs. the Defense
I’m going to borrow from Matt Doyle and his Armchair Analyst post on this one, where Doyle succinctly points out how, despite playing as a high-sitting No. 9, Pulido does a great job of pulling back from the top of the attack to draw out centerbacks before playing balls to his wingers. He quickly creates space for himself in which to operate, then moves the ball just as rapidly.
The trick may be to close down on Pulido immediately before he can turn and distribute. In all three MLS is Back games, based on his heat maps and passing patterns, Pulido appears to either receive the ball inside his own half, to distribute backwards or make square balls, or just outside the opposing penalty area, again primarily distributing square balls. When doing so, he’s constantly moving towards the wings rather than staying in the center.
Oddly enough, of those three games it was the loss against Minnesota where Pulido got in far more touches (63) and dribbles (8) while staying towards the center of the pitch than he did against Colorado (49 & 1) and RSL (45 & 3), the games SKC won. Pulido works best when he gets wider, stays nimble, and improvises.
So what can we take from that? It’s a given that he’ll pull away from whomever is playing CB on Sunday (most likely Ranko Veselinovic and Derek Cornelius). He’ll need to be closed down upon quickly, but it’ll also be necessary to take his passing options away. No square balls to on-rushing wingers whatsoever, which will fall to Ali Adnan and Nerwinski on the wings. Make Pulido play with it rather than create for others.
But no matter what: like any No. 9, for the love of God just know where he is at all times.
And hell, keep an eye on Johnny Russell if and when he gets on the pitch, because he always seems to be a pain in the butt for the Whitecaps.
Who’s Going to Win?
With the way Sporting Kansas City can attack, I get the feeling Vancouver will offer up more of what we saw against Chicago: jamming the middle to force low percentage shots from distance as best as possible. If Khmiri can’t go, maybe that means the Whitecaps will revert to a 4-4-2, which can work if the Ranko and Cornelius partnership continues to perform. Just please, no ball-watching.
Offensively, this may be a weird one for Vancouver. Through all five games this season, SKC has done a great job of limiting total shots and shots on target while maintaining various levels of possession, which have ranged from 42% to 62% (again, that loss to Minnesota). Aside from those two late goals from Minnesota while down a man, SKC has done well in stymieing opposing offenses. That doesn’t bode well for Vancouver, who have yet to truly break down any opposing defense in their final third.
Admittedly, the Whitecaps had decent chances when the teams first met earlier this year. But like then, Vancouver’s problem this weekend will once again be to earn that final third and make those chances happen, Sporting’s defense has been difficult to unpack for all comers and I can’t see that changing on Sunday.
As much as I hate to say it, I can see this one being a 2-0 victory for SKC, finally bursting Vancouver’s bubble in Orlando.
Vancouver Whitecaps - Hasal; Adnan, Veselinovic, Cornelius, Nerwinski; Dajome, Teibert, Owusu, Hwang; Reyna, Bair.
Sporting Kansas City - Melia; Martins, Besler, Puncec, Zusi; Kinda, Sanchez, Espinoza; Gerso, Pulido, Shelton.
Referee: Victor Rivas; AR1: Eduardo Mariscal; AR2: Ian McKay; 4th: Guido Gonzales, Jr.; VAR: Fotis Bazakos.