Caps ready for what Earthquakes and “great guy” Almeyda have to offer

The Vancouver Whitecaps (6W-12L-9D) take on San Jose in a rematch of a contest that the Earthquakes (11W-10L-5D) took up in Vancouver back in July, winning 3-1 at BC Place. In a battle of third-wheel sides in MLS’s Rivalry week, Vancouver will look to repeat some 2018 California magic, as they won 3-2 in San Jose last year, despite being down 2-0 early on. 

The Caps continue to rebuild the rebuild. After a spell of games that torpedoed their season, washing away their hopes in both MLS and the Canadian Championship, the Caps have found a life raft floating in a late-season MLS sea, and they have clung onto it with dear hope, staying above the waterline with 7 points from their last 4 matches. 

In San Jose, they face the side that sent them one of the final waves on the proverbial Tsunami back in July, when they shook BC Place with a commanding 3-1 victory. Less than a week later, the Caps were out of the Canadian Championship at the hands of CPL side Cavalry (the after-shock, one would say), a defeat that would send their 2019 aspirations to sail away into the lost seas. 

So you’d forgive manager Marc Dos Santos if he felt even a little bit of spite or anger towards his southern foes, resenting them for what they did to their season. But he doesn’t, as he isn’t wired that way. Instead, he remains completely focused on what is a unique challenge, as San Jose doesn’t play like many other teams in MLS. 

“The preparation has been like when we prepare for any other game,” Dos Santos said Thursday after training. “Of course, now the dynamics of San Jose and how they play, and their dynamics as a team, we will try to recreate a lot of it in training yesterday and today.”

“We have a good idea of what we’re going to face. They’re a team that is special, in my opinion. It’s a team that can be very good in some moments, so we’re aware (of them) as playing away is never easy in this league.”

San Jose presents a pretty unique challenge for most teams, with manager Matias Almeyda implementing a strict man-marking system that has worked wonders for him at all levels, with his performances at Chivas Guadalajara and now with San Jose bringing a lot of attention to it. 

In contrast to Vancouver, who prefer to play a purely zonal system, attempting to mark space and keep rigid defensive positioning, this match provides the kind of tactical intricacies that a seasoned strategist would love. 

“The man-marking situation they have and the commitment in that system that is different,” Dos Santos said of San Jose. “It’s very demanding but at the same time they stick to it, so credit to Almeyda and the staff for putting the identity there, but like I said, it’s different, and we have to deal with that.”

To counter that, a team could try and open up space via attacking players making creative runs and trying to open up pockets on the pitch by having attackers that can play in between the lines, attempting to draw defenders out of shape. But that’s easier said than done, and with San Jose’s players having great conditioning, as well as being completely 100% invested in the system, they are ready to adapt if opponents try to get creative. 

Part of that is down to the eccentric Almeyda, who does well to draw commitment from his players. A passionate man, he has done an excellent job to get everyone on this San Jose squad to buy-in, transforming them from a basement-dweller to a playoff contender in less than a year, despite only making a couple of personnel changes this past offseason. 

Dos Santos is a big fan of what Almeyda has done down in the North of California, and while the Caps are not directly imitating San Jose in terms of how they play, Dos Santos has drawn a lot from what the long-haired Argentine has to offer in other areas of the game. 

“I met Matias at the combine, and I was very impressed by the man,” Dos Santos said of his opposing number. “Great guy, very open, great stories because he played with a coach that’s in Europe that I know very well, they played together at Lazio, (so) he’s told me great stories, he’s a very humble guy, he asked me a lot of questions about MLS. I like him a lot.”

But all of that goes out the window on Saturday. The Caps have a lot to draw upon from when these two teams last met, and with Almeyda having to sit in the stands as he serves a suspension from an outburst from a couple of days ago against LAFC, the pleasantries between the managers will have to remain well before and after the match. 

“We’re trying to focus on what we did in the last 4 games,” Dos Santos said. “We’ve found again an identity and what we want to be about. We looked today during the video session, there were a lot of clips from when San Jose was here, but it was to learn, this we didn’t do well, this we could have exploited better, but we can’t linger on that.”

Cornelius steps up:

Derek Cornelius prepares to clear a ball against DC United (Keveren Guillou)

It is unsure if Canadian international Derek Cornelius will start for the Caps on Saturday, but with regular centre back Erik Godoy, who has played all but 13 minutes this season, training lightly this week, Cornelius looks likely to feature alongside fellow Canadian Doneil Henry in the heart of Vancouver’s defensive line. 

After starting the campaign slowly, Cornelius has picked it up of late, culminating in some strong performances for the Blue and White. During the last match out against DC United, he was arguably the man of the match, racking up 9 clearances and 2 blocked shots, not to mention the countless aerial duels he won on both ends. For a team that wants to defend the space, limiting opponents shots and crosses, Cornelius’s defensive work has been sterling as of late. 

“I just think as a team everyone was all committed to the defensive side of the game,” Cornelius said Tuesday. “I always say clean sheets are not just the goalkeeper or the backline, it’s a real team performance, and I think everyone was locked in.”

His style of play has also aided the team offensively, with Cornelius being noticeably adept with his feet. He started the campaign nervously, often slamming routine balls out into touch, but as he has settled into the team, he has improved massively in that regard. 

While the Caps have struggled to create chances all season, with the midfield being a notable area of concern, the passing from out of the back has been a strong point, with Cornelius playing a key role in that. With the team starting to win more as of late, his confidence has continued to grow, and it has given him a big boost heading into upcoming road swing. 

“It’s good not just for my (confidence) but for everyone’s (confidence),” Cornelius said of the boost provided by a victory. “We’ve had a lot of unlucky parts during the season, so it’s nice to get three points at home and start going into road trips on the positive foot.”

Thanks to the three-headed defensive monster of Cornelius, Godoy and Henry, the Caps have put the defensive struggles of 2018 behind them, as they have mostly been a good defensive team this campaign, the months of June and July aside. 

For Cornelius, who only really became a defender three years ago, it’s continuing to improve on that, as he knows that for all the positive work his crew has done, they need to continue to both keep up and improve on it if they want to avoid falling below the standard. But no matter which of the defenders get called upon to lead, they’ll all be ready, it just happens to be that Cornelius is the one that shines brightest as of late. 

“I’ve said it all season long,”. Cornelius said. “Throughout training, throughout the games that I’ve been in and out of, there’s been chemistry going on between all three of us, me, Erik (Godoy) and Doneil (Henry).”

“We feel comfortable, you saw Doneil come in as a substitute last game and he didn’t miss a beat, he was right there, ready to help the team, he knew what he had to do, and it’s just continuing to play the way we play and how we defend, which makes it’s very easy when you come in.”

“You stick to what the team is doing and go from there.” 

Vancouver Whitecaps vs San Jose Earthquakes, Saturday, August 24th, 2019, 19:00 PST (Ayava Stadium, San Jose)

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