Much like people lost at sea, the Vancouver Whitecaps midfield has often found themselves stranded on the pitch this season, unable to link with the mainland, which in this case has been the forward line.
The Caps have struggled in the midfield area for a large part of the campaign, unable to push the play forward, often finding themselves hemmed in front of the defensive line. For a team trying to play attractive football, the Caps have been held back by the work of their midfield, as they have mostly seemed unable to play the style of play that manager Marc Dos Santos expects from them.
So when the Caps came out this past weekend against Cincinnati and found a victory, largely aided by their midfield, it was seen as a bit of a surprise. For a unit that had combined for 2 goals and 5 assists all season, to see them come out and score both goals and provide an assist in a 2-1 win came as a bit of a surprise.
For Dos Santos, it was exactly what the doctor ordered, as offence on a whole has been an issue all season, so to have any sort of production came as a boost for his squad.
“When you’re a team, with a big T, you work together,” Dos Santos said post-match Saturday. “You don’t really care where the goals come from. Of course you always wish to have many different players scoring and having an attack that can be very very provocative, very hard going to goal, but when that doesn’t happen other people have to come in a help, (Hwang) In-Beom with a great shot from the outside, and then the run from Russell (Telbert) and Felipe was aggressive (to score), I am happy for them.”
After conceding an early goal to Allan Cruz, the Caps were able to get back into the game, and it was via In Beom Hwang, the young DP from Korea. After a poor set-piece from striker Fredy Montero out wide in the 42nd minute, where the ball into the box hit off a Cincinnati head and out, but it bounced right to the feet of In Beom, who was able to get over the top of the ball to strike it off the half-volley. It was a difficult technique to use, but he did it well, as the ball sailed into the low corner from about 25 yards out, not too dissimilar to a cruise missile seeking its target.
It was In Beom’s 2nd MLS goal of the season, and his 3rd in all competitions, placing him tied for 3rd on the team. He is 4th on the team in shots per game with 1.5, so it is not unreasonable to expect the offensive side of his game to continue to shine, which should have fans excited for the rest of the campaign and into next year. After starting the season hot, dancing through defenders and lashing out at strikes that would always seem to just stay out of the goal, he slowed down, hit with a midseason slump driven on by fatigue and the team’s woes.
But with 2 goals in his last 3 matches, things are looking up for the South Korean international. Along with the goals, he’s been getting things done in other ways, leading the team in key passes with 1.5 per game, 0.6 ahead of the next best Cap (Yordy Reyna), which places him 37th in the league in that regard, in the middle of names like Alberth Elis and Mark-Anthony Kaye, who have 1.4 and 1.6 key passes per game respectively.
His statistical prowess doesn’t stop there, as he has been getting things done defensively as well, where he is 5th on the team in tackles per game with 1.5, as well as 2nd in interceptions with 1.6 per game, which places him 33rd in the league in that category. Despite his smaller frame, he excels as an eight, influencing the game on both sides of the ball. It’s a sentiment shared by fellow midfielder Felipe, who touched on In Beom’s influence after the match Saturday.
“I think (Hwang) In-Beom has been fantastic for us,” Felipe said. “Especially in that (8) position. He’s been playing the best all year long, I think because he has more freedom. He can dictate the rhythm of the team.”
Felipe, who has been a favoured whipping boy of fans and analysts alike, played hero on Saturday, picking up the winner in the 85th minute, giving the Caps their first win since May. After a great run from Russell Teibert, who did well to get on the end of a deep Ali Adnan ball, Felipe ran right to the edge of the six-yard box, getting himself in a great position to tap home Teibert’s pass, that found Felipe via the gap in between Cincy goalie Tyton’s legs.
It was Felipe’s first goal in nearly a year, and only his second in two seasons with the Caps, but after a rough two years, it was a huge relief for the Brazilian midfielder, who has had to balance a lot of off-the-field turmoil with his playing career. With things looking up for him, he will look to keep his good run going into the rest of the season.
“Rusty (Teibert) is Rusty,” Felipe said of his goal. “He is always fighting, he is always giving everything. I said it was 50% his goal, but I think it was 99% his goal and 1% for me. He put a great ball in.”
“It means a lot, this goal for me. I dedicate it to all my family, because my wife knows how much I suffered all year long. I think it’s a great moment, especially for the team. I thank every single person that was behind me all year long. Hopefully, we keep going, we keep getting wins, and we’ll do a count (of wins) at the end of the season”
So while the match was considered a positive for the trio, who have put together back-to-back quality performances together. With Jon Erice in the dog house for now, they have taken their chances and ran with it, giving Dos Santos some options. Felipe ($500 000) and Teibert ($170 000) cost around as much as Erice does (654 000), so despite the solid play of the Spaniard, he may soon be out the door, with Dos Santos looking to replace his production with a cheaper domestic player, who will also be younger and more athletic than the 32-year-old Erice.
But that is just one piece of the puzzle for Vancouver. Even if they do replace Erice on the cheap, they still have some pressing needs. In Beom will stay, Teibert and Felipe have shown a lot, Andy Rose is good depth, if not a bit expensive, David Norman Jr and Michael Baldisimo look almost ready to at least compete for minutes, but that still leaves 1 or 2 spots to fill.
The biggest needs, as evidenced by the graph in the tweet above, remains someone who can help get the ball into the final third from the midfield. To fill that giant number 10 sized hole in the Caps heatmap, they will either need someone who can play a more box-to-box, ball carrying role, not too dissimilar to Hwang, or pick up a true number 10, someone who can operate in between the lines and push the ball forward, much like Alejandro Pozuelo has done over in Toronto this year.
The Caps are last in the league at possession in the final third, spending only 22% of their time there, and a big part of the problem remains the midfield. While the reported signing of Michaell Chirinos will help a lot, as the Honduran winger loves to cut in and create chances for both him and his teammates, there needs to be more coming from the middle of the park, making life easier for their strikers.
With Lucas Venuto already gone, Erice looking soon to join him, there is room to make moves, but the investments they make will have to be calculated. As mentioned in our piece Saturday, they have hired some new scouts, with a director of recruitment on the way, so hopefully they can identify the right midfielders to push this offensively-starved club in the right direction.
With a couple of days left in the summer transfer window, the Caps might push another name across the line, having possibly analyzed one of the names needed to upgrade the midfield. While the winter window is expected to bring in some goodies, with the scouts having had a chance to identify a list of names that will be expected to help the club, if they can pick up someone for the next 6 months and beyond, that adjustment period will prove critical in the future.
Until then, performances like the ones shown from Felipe, Teibert and In Beom on Saturday will go a long way for them. While they have their limits as a trio in MLS, they work hard enough to get things done, and will play a big role next year, either as starters or as depth pieces.