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Post Match: Caps’ unbeaten run chopped down by Portland

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MLS: Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Caps’ unbeaten run fell Friday night at BC Place, with the Portland Timbers inching by 1-0 in a key match with implications for both Cascadia Cup and both teams’ chances at making the playoffs.

Vanni Sartini went back to the three-at-the-back that looked solid against Austin, opting for Russell Teibert and Patrick Metcalfe as wingbacks. Michael Baldisimo and Janio Bikel were in the middle of the park, with Ryan Gauld, Cristian Dajome and Brian White in the advanced midfield and striker positions. Max Crepeau returned to the starting lineup straight away after his international duties ended, with Lucas Cavallini and Javain Brown on the bench.

The first half was mainly a stalemate, a bit sloppy from both teams and one in which there was some degree of excitement but few forays into the final third and even fewer clear cut chances. Ryan Gauld was a bit off early but settled into things and created the Caps best chance off a corner. The backline was generally stout, though Sebastian Blanco found some space in between the midfield line.

The Caps looked better in the second half, spending more time in the Portland final third but it was Blanco who unlocked the Caps, finding Felipe Mora at the back post. Mora’s shot was punted right into the Caps’ net by Ranko Veselinovic, who probably will feel he could have done better clearing the ball in hindsight.

Despite a spirited final few 10 minutes, including a goal line clearance on a Deiber Caicedo long range shot and a Steve Clark stop on Cava near the goalmouth, the Caps were not able to continue their unbeaten run.

Major Takeaways

  • If Sartini is going to gravitate towards this formation (as he professes to want to do), it is clear he’s goin to have one center back edging up at any given moment when the Caps are in possession. Given the skillset of the three first-choice centerbacks I don’t mind that but I would prefer it be Florian Jungwirth to be the man inching up — he almost can serve as a deep-lying playmaker to advance the ball up the pitch given his long ball abilities.
  • Team didn’t lack for possession but seemed to be caught in two minds a lot. Passes didn’t get moved on as quickly as needed and sometime the wrong option was picked out. Things improved as the match went on, but while the confidence was there the composure wasn’t. Think this was especially true for Gauld — a bit of an off night.
  • I get our fullback situation is in flux and Javain Brown’s return will help but I’m not sure I want to try the Patrick Metcalfe at fullback experiment anytime again. Not trying to be harsh on the youngster but when Brown came on there was an instant impact and I wasn’t impressed with Patty in that role.
  • In that vein, I actually kind of liked Russell Teibert’s performance at wingback. The presence of Dajome and/or Gauld on that side took a bit of the pressure off him in terms of creativity and he had some good moments of ball progression and the trademark defensive energy. He isn’t Cristian Gutierrez but Rusty has had a pretty good run of matches all the same.
  • The Caps were uncharacteristically weak in the center of the park again. It wasn’t for a lack of physicality but Sebastian Blanco was just able to pick them apart and find pockets of space. His whipped ball is ultimately what created the own goal and it was unfortunately Janio Bikel who was worked in the process, capping off a bit of an off night for him.
  • Even when the Caps reverted back to a two-man center back formation, Sartini clearly directed Baldisimo to play as a sweeper. I kind of dig it and his long balls got more lethal as the match went on.
  • Overall, I thought Sartini approached this match as well as he could have. The subs were on point, though I thought we could have seen Deiber Caicedo a bit earlier. I think this formation will look a bit better start to finish when Brown and Cava are able to go a full 90 minutes.

Personal Thoughts

The Caps always fall to Portland under strange circumstances and this one probably qualifies — it was an energetic affair but one where neither side had as many clear cut chances as they probably would have liked.

This is the first league loss of a post-Gauld era (setting aside the Match That Shall Not Be Named) and it felt differntly than before. It wasn’t the best performance from Vanni Sartini’s men but it was a pretty tactically sound match. The difference was ultimately that Ryan Gauld was not humming as much as he has been, with some of his passes slightly — yet noticeably — off kilter (worth noting that a bad night at the office for Gauld still includes four key passes — a big step up from where the team was previously). This is a side that was noticeably lacking good fullback play as well, with Javain Brown’s introduction really changing things for the Caps.

Yet still they nearly came away with a result, with some really good chances late that were denied by a resolute Timbers defense. Portland helped socking the way with some CONCACAF-esque time wasting. A tough defeat but plenty of material to take away to inform a big midweek match against the Sounders.

A final note: After having Cascadia matches away or on neutral turf, it felt nice to have a rivalry game back at BC Place. The, erm, feisty last 20 minutes had some genuine animosity there and it feels like these matches have a bit more juice to them again. We’ll see if that continues over against the Sounders as well.

Man of the Match

A bit of an unconventional shout but I’ll say Florian Jungwirth here, who stood tall when asked and had perhaps the most active defensive performance of any of the backline members. He also was solid on the ball, not hesitating to make forays up into the Timbers half. The trade to acquire the German is looking to be wiser and wiser and is giving the Sartini a bit of a new tactical wrinkle, which he has leaned on more and more with each passing match.