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Post Match: Vancouver Whitecaps Play Some Soccer

MLS: Preseason-Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Chicago Fire FC Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps played two friendly matches today against the Chicago Fire and Indy Eleven. In the first match the ‘Caps played a stronger side while the second match was mostly contested by young players and academy trialists.

The more experienced side managed to beat Chicago 3-2 thanks to a Lucas Cavallini brace and one goal from Cristian Dájome. There is zero correlation between pre-season results and regular season results so we won’t get to bogged down in the scoreline. What does matter is the way the Whitecaps played and what their strengths and weaknesses were.

The Fire finished 11th in the Eastern conference season but they underperformed their underlying metrics a bit. So this match should give one a reasonable measurement of how ready the Whitecaps are to take on the median MLS team. They came out in this formation:

At least four players who would be starters were missing (Godoy, Adnan, Alexandre, and Gaspar). But it seems pretty clear, ladies and gentlemen, that the Vancouver Whitecaps will be playing 4-4-F***ing 2 in 2021. I do not hate this. This system worked pretty well for them towards the tail end of last season, even though it isn’t quite the free flowing, high pressing football the Marc Dos Santos era was supposed to be all about.

Because I have been stuck inside taking online classes, I have had Soviet history on the brain lately and I have jokingly compared this formation to the N.E.P. If you aren’t familiar; after the end of the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks faced a difficult task. Their nation, which had already been one of the poorer European powers to begin with, was totally trashed by WWI and the civil war. They had to give up a lot of valuable territory to Germany in order to get a peace deal and Russia was just generally very unstable. So, in 1922, Lenin introduced the new economic policy (N.E.P). This was a less radical economic program which allowed for some (heavily regulated) markets. Overall it was pretty effective at stabilizing Russia and growing the economy. This 4-4-2 is a lot like that! It is not exactly the radical change we were hoping for but it’s not totally the same as before either.

The Whitecaps generally defended in a mid block. They would allow Chicago to pass the ball around in their own end but would look too clog up the midfield and either force the Fire to try and play through them or attempt a more difficult long range pass. You can see an example below.

MLS teams are notorious for skimping on defence and as such their desire to play out of the back is often not commensurate with their actual ability to play out of the back. So forcing opposition defenders to make difficult passes is not the worst strategy. The Teibert, Bikel, and Owusu troika was very difficult for Chicago to play through, though they had more success when Owusu went off with a tweaked hamstring.

Vancouver also looked pretty dangerous when they won the ball back. Dájome, Cavallini, and Caicedo all looked quite dangerous in transition moments. Two of Vancouver’s three goals came directly from this type of situation. The attack was perhaps a bit flattered by the fact that they converted almost every big chance they created (that isn’t always going to happen). But they were also still building chemistry and the building blocks of a pretty deadly transition based attack seem to be there.

To go with those positives there were also some negatives. Vancouver looked dangerous in transition but when they had to build out of the back they looked a lot less assured. The most obvious example being Maxime Crepeau misplaying a pass that lead to Bikel giving away a penalty. But there were lots of other times when things went less than smoothly. Often the ‘Caps relied heavily on their centre backs (Andy Rose and Ranko Veselinovic) to make line breaking passes out of defence. Last season a midfield player would usually drop into the back line to help out the centre backs but that was not really happening in this game. This lead to a lot of situations like the one below, where a centre back did not feel confident passing the ball into midfield and instead tried a more difficult long range pass.

Relying on the centre backs to make line breaking passes might work if it’s Erik Godoy doing it but I would not be super confident in the ability of any of the other centre backs to do that. Hopefully they can make some tweaks and the introduction of Caio Alexandre (maybe even Michael Baldisimo) makes a difference.

The ‘Caps were mostly solid defensively. Chicago was mainly limited to long range shots, which you would expect Crepeau to deal with most of the time. However Vancouver continued to look very weak defending crosses to the back post from the left side. Chicago had 5 shots inside the box from open play (a quick glance at suggests that’s pretty good) and four of them were crosses to the back post, one of which was a goal. Crosses, statistically speaking, are not super dangerous so this is not the worst weakness in the world to have but it definitely stands out as something the opposition can exploit.

Lastly, the ‘Caps were clearly starting to gas out towards the end of the match. This is to be expected due to the nature of Vancouver’s preseason but it could be a big problem in their first two games against Portland and Toronto, both of whom are already playing competitive games in the CONCACAF Champions League. MLS is still allowing teams to make 5 subs this season so you would hope MDS will use those subs aggressively to mitigate his side’s like of match fitness (N.B he is almost 100% not going to do that).

The less experienced Whitecaps team fell 2-0 to Indy Eleven. It was an encouraging performance from the Whitecaps youngsters but in the end Indy’s experience carried the day. Indy featured a lot of MLS tweeners like Jordan Hamiliton, Karl Ouimette and Gershon Koffie, so it was was a tough test for the young Whitecaps. The baby ‘Caps came out like this:

The back line consisted of two players outside their natural position (Francois and Facchineri), a player who joined the team last week after his entire 2020 season got cancelled (Brown), and a 16 year old (Campagna). Suffice to say they looked a bit shaky at times. But other than that the youngsters gave a good account of themselves.

Kamron Habibhullah, long hailed as the next Alphonso Davies, had four or five shots and a number of good runs. Calling him the next Alphonso Davies might be setting expectations a bit too high, but maybe “the Canadian Jeremy Doku” would be more appropriate.

Damiano Pecile also played extremely well in a more advanced playmaker role. Pecile is probably number 6 or 7 on the centre midfielder depth chart but he made about as strong a case for himself as he possibly could have. He combined well with Habibullah and Bair, and also tested the keeper with a few shots of his own.

Michael Baldisimo had a bit of an uneven performance but he showed flashes of the stuff we all love him for.

Theo Bair was used as more of a traditional target man and looked a lot more comfortable in that role than he has on the wing or as a second striker.

I thought Keishean Francois showed some flashes of good dribbling and tackling but his decisions making let him down sometimes. I could see him developing quite well into the defensive winger role we sometimes see Russel Teibert in right now, but it probably isn’t his time just yet.

Up next, the Whitecaps open their season on Sunday at 7:00pm against the Portland Timbers.