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False start: Caps battered 4-0 against Columbus Crew in 2022 debut

SOCCER: FEB 26 MLS - Vancouver Whitecaps at Columbus Crew Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Maybe if we try turning the 2022 Whitecaps off and back on again, things will go better.

The Caps were battered in their first match of the year, falling 4-0 to Columbus Crew and Field in a match that was one to forget from start to finish.

Two first half goals left Vancouver a mountain to climb and Jake Nerwinski’s second yellow card of the afternoon buried the odds of a second half comeback.

For their first starting XI of the year, Vanni Sartini had to get creative without a couple key pieces. Jake Nerwinski, Ranko Veselinovic and Tristan Blackmon comprised the three-at-the-back, with Cristian Dajome and Javain Brown at wingback. Michael Baldisimo played in the number 6 role behind Ryan Gauld and Russell Teibert. Deiber Caicedo and Lucas Cavallini paired together up top.

It did not take long before Columbus opened their account on the season. With the Caps seemingly unable to hang onto the ball, Miguel Berry launched a long range shot and it deflected off of Ranko, totally wrongfooting Thomas Hasal. It was an unlucky goal but one that was coming, even just eight minutes in, after a poor start.

It was one-way traffic for all of the first half. The backline was all out of sorts to allow the Crew a second, with Derek Etienne left completely unmarked before chipping Hasal. While it was a great switch of play from Yaw Yeboah, Javain Brown and the three centerbacks were totally on different pages to allow Etienne the space that led to the goal.

Things didn’t get better from there, with the Caps treating the Crew final third like it was covered in lava. The home side outshot Vancouver 14-2 in the first 45 minutes.

Sebastian Berhalter made his Caps debut at halftime, replacing Baldisimo.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse. A broken Caps free kick led to a streaking Yeboah. Jake Nerwinski got tangled up with Yeboah and was sent off for a second bookable offense. A bit hard to take for Vancouver, as the first yellow was not deserved and I see the second as questionable. Nonetheless, it basically ended the Caps’ odds of mounting a comeback.

The Caps deserve credit for fighting back and looking lively in the second half but the Crew perhaps inevitably got a third. A gilded edge chance for Columbus almost passed them by after some nice defensive work by Blackmon but it slid to Luis Diaz, who finished it off from an acute angle.

To really deliver the hammer, Lucas Zelarayan got a goal of his own, a fine individual effort after some nice footwork to skirt Ranko and find enough space for a shot.

General Observations

  • While I think the absence of Brian White was keenly felt, no Caio Alexandre hurt also. The Caps needed a guy who could ping aerial balls over the top past the Crew high line and the team instead elected to rely on a slower build up of play through the middle, with Cava holding play up.

But the Crew press was too effective, not helped by the Caps making some high-risk passes in inopportune parts. Columbus just did not allow Vancouver to string together an 8 or 9 pass sequence

  • Sartini clearly made a conscious decision to play via the wingbacks, except the wingbacks didn’t cooperate. In fact, Brown and Dajome frequently got caught up field, didn’t track back quickly or both and it put a lot of pressure on the back three.
  • I feel for Michael Baldisimo, because I thought he had some decent moments but was simply asked to do too much. He got absolutely buried by the Columbus press and really needed Teibert to provide more defensive support or a more conventional number 6 to partner with to get him at his very best.
  • This might be a minor thing but Cava is really going to need to learn how to press without fouling if he’s going to keep getting serious playing time in Vanni Sartini’s system.
  • You gotta feel for Nerwinski. Tough to get screwed over by MLS refs in your first match of the year because even if the Yeboah foul was a yellow (I acknowledge that call was defensible), his first yellow was Charmin soft. Hopefully Vancouver’s first and last red of the year.
  • Liked what I saw from all three of the subs and think Vite and Berhalter should be in line for a start next weekend.
  • Thomas Hasal with a decent enough performance to get under his belt. Dude had to be fuming at the defensive effort but he was composed and made a few good, confident decisions to come out for balls. More of the same, please.

Overall Takeaways

If you were worried about the defense this year, this match will probably have you reaching for some Xanax.

I’m not sure I like the Blackmon-Ranko-Nerwinski back three; would have liked to have Erik Godoy in there as an anchor. In their defense, a lot of the issues were created by chaotic wingback play and an absolute domination of the midfield by Darlington Nagbe but if you took the under on the “Will the Caps better their 2021 goal differential?”, well, I have bad news.

All-in-all, the defense just suffered from some bad coordination (see: the second goal, where no one was in position to cover for Brown), which is a nightmare in a zonal marking system, and similar mistakes as we saw last year, despite having a full offseason to adjust. Tough to hold the goals against them after the sending off but the fourth goal, where the entire team let Etienne and Zelarayan glide past them ... yikes.

The midfield was also discombobulated but Berhalter helped things considerably and it’ll be interesting to see whether Sartini thinks a change in formation or a change in personnel will get the most out of his side.

Overall, one to forget but credit to the Caps for fighting in the second half to try and grab a lifeline. A lot of things to work on (we didn’t even talk about set pieces) but at least the positive energy was there.

All-in-all, the most discouraging result post-2021-Voyageurs Cup for the Caps. The bad news is it felt like we were back in the Marc dos Santos era. The good news? Lots of time to make us forget about it.

Man of the Match

Thomas Hasal, Ranko Veselinovic and Ryan Gauld are the only starters who really made all that positive of an impression.

Tough to really give it to anyone in light of the circumstances, but Gauld probably gets it for being the only one to create many chances. Credit to Berhalter for stabilizing the midfield and Vite for providing some danger, however.