The Vancouver Whitecaps drew LAFC 2-2 in a thoroughly entertaining match. There was a lot to like from the young Vancouver side but there were also some familiar shortcomings.
In the first half the Whitecaps came out looking a lot more like the team I was expecting to see this season. LAFC, naturally held most of the possession but Vancouver looked stout defensively and every time the they took the ball off of LAFC they were dangerous in transition. Javain Brown in particular stood out in defence, getting the better of 2020 golden boot winner Diego Rossi on several occasions. The centre back pairing of Godoy and Veselinovic generally looked solid, aside from a couple of times Veselinovic’s passing got him in trouble. The midfield three of Bikel, Baldisimo and Alexandre looked very good, advancing the ball with speed and fluidity that we have rarely seen from the Whitecaps (i.e slightly above average). The front three also looked dangerous when the ball got to them.
This good play was rewarded with two goals. Firstly some interplay between the front three forced a defensive error that allowed Deiber Caicedo to blast the ball into an empty goal. The play was started by a good pass from Brown to Brian White. Vancouver’s embattled centre forward was able to control the ball and play it wide to Cristian Dájome who’s cross was touched beyond Tomas Romero in the LAFC goal by his own defender and then converted by Caicedo.
Then Dájome once again was forgotten about by opposition defenders on a set play and doubled Vancouver’s lead off a Cristian Gutiérrez free kick.
But LAFC are still LAFC. They responded quickly with a goal by Carlos Vela off a brilliant through ball from Eduard Atuesta. The goal was initially called back for offside but after a VAR review it was given. The goal showed the quality of some of the LAFC players but in fairness to the ‘Caps, it was the only really good chance they gave up in the first half.
Bob Bradley was clearly not pleased with what he saw as he made four subs at half time. LAFC did come out with some fresh energy and created a couple of chances. Thomas Hasal made a solid save off of a free kick and Veselinovic came up with a goal line block.
For a while it was looking like Vancouver was going to hold on to the lead. LAFC looked dangerous with the ball but for the most part they were only creating shots from bad angles and long range. But, just as Russel Teibert and Tosaint Ricketts stood ready on the touchline to come on and close the game out, Diego Palacios floated a beautiful cross into Jose Cifuentes who hit an exquisite valley beyond Hasal to tie the game.
The Whitecaps had a goal correctly ruled out for offside but other than that there were not many chances for the rest of the game.
It’s hard to know how to look at this game. In a vacuum the performance was encouraging. A Whitecaps team without any DPs went toe to toe with one of the most talented squads in the league with the young players mostly leading the way. But viewed in the larger context of the season one starts to see some familiar downsides.
The ‘Caps blew yet another lead and once again a big factor was that the opposition made changes and the Whitecaps didn’t. On the broadcast Paul Dolan pointed out that LAFC had more good players to draw from on the bench. But every player that subbed on was in their early 20s and one of them, Corey Baird, is credited as having “no significant strengths” on whoscored.com. So I think the idea that LAFC had an army of amazing players to call on might be a bit exaggerated. Are those four players better than their Whitecaps equivalents? Sure, maybe. but are they so much better that it’s not worth even bothering to get some fresh legs out there?
Russel Teibert came on for Caio Alexandre in the 76th minute. That might be a defensible sub with the team up a goal and Alexandre struggling with a knock during the week. But after conceding a goal wouldn’t it make more sense to go with the more attacking Leonard Owusu? Owusu apparently has committed the unforgivable sin of not quite living up to expectations in the weird Covid season. He played all the time last season, even starting over Michael Baldisimo on several occasions, and now he apparently can’t even be trusted to play the last 20 minutes. True, he wasn’t exactly amazing last season. But when you look at how a player like Veselinovic has bounced back in a slightly more normal season you have to wonder if Owusu might have more to offer.
On a more positive note I thought the back four looked fantastic. LAFC average 14.5 shots per game and 1.65 xG but they were held to just 10 shots an 0.9 xG. Some recognition has to go to Gutiérrez and Veselinovic who were weaak links in last year’s version of this fixture, a 6-0 thrashing, but looked great on the night. I also really liked the midfield play of Baldisimo, Bikel, and Alexandre. It’s a shame that we are only seeing those three play together now and, with the imminent arrival of Ryan Gauld, probably won’t see them play together all that often in the future.