Pacemaking: Vancouver Whitecaps show growth, offensive flashes in 2-1 loss to Timbers

The Vancouver Whitecaps kicked off the ‘Rose City Invitational Tournament’ on Sunday, where they narrowly fell to the Portland Timbers, 2-1. Here are the coaches’ post-game thoughts, as well as a look at what went well, and what went less well. 

As one man famously once said, no one ever remembers your preseason record at the end of the campaign. 

That doesn’t quite discount the importance of having a good training camp, but it instead shows the priorities that come to the forefront in these before-the-season games, where the emphasis is less on results, and more on growth. 

The Vancouver Whitecaps are continuing to work on finding the latter, and they took another step towards seeing the level of it they want to see on Sunday, as they took on the Portland Timbers in Portland in an exhibition clash. Despite there being just under two weeks until the MLS regular season kicks off on February 29th, both teams looked quite sharp for periods, with the Timbers ultimately overtaking their Cascadia rivals by a score of 2-1. 

Scoreline aside, it was overall a pretty positive performance for Vancouver, who looked a lot more like the team that head coach Marc Dos Santos will want them to look like at first kick, especially during what was a pretty strong first half from the blue and white. 

“A lot of the things we want to be about as a team, in some moments, we saw them,” Dos Santos said. “That’s growth, and that’s positive to where we want to be.”

As for the rest of the game, there were definitely pockets of brilliance, intertwined with some classic rusty preseason ball, but overall, there was a lot of good to takeaway. The ‘Caps defended from the front foot, they forced Portland into playing long balls, they had some lovely spells in possession, overall looking like a team that will play some fun, exciting football going forward. 

While there were some concerns mixed in there, with some individual errors in their defending costing them the two goals, along with some lacklustre transitional moves, with this being the 4th of what will be 6 tune-up games, those mistakes can be stomached, provided they continue to diminish game-over-game. 

Defending and pressing in a fluid 4-2-2-2, with Lucas Cavallini and Yordy Reyna leading the line defensively, the Whitecaps pressure without the ball would lead to good things with it right from the get-go, almost resulting in an early goal. 

Ali Adnan, who started strongly down the left flank, got onto a lovely Reyna through ball in the 15th minute, before finding Cavallini at the back post, with the Canadian DP somehow snatching his chance just wide. 

While the finish certainly left a lot to be desired, for a Whitecaps team who ranked among the worst in MLS last year in creating chances, those are the kinds of opportunities they will be happy to see, as they figure someone like Cavallini will finish them more often than not. 

But while defensively they were solid for most of the first half, they switched off at a couple of crucial moments, none more impactful than the lapse that came in the 33rd minute. Derek Cornelius, who was otherwise solid on the evening, bundled into Portland’s Felipe Mora with a clumsy shoulder barge, granting the Timbers a penalty, allowing Diego Valeri to step up and open the scoring. 

It was an unfortunate error, one that was seen far too many times last season, which surely had many people saying ‘here we go again…’

Yet almost more impressively, the Whitecaps didn’t lie down, as they would tie the game less than 5 minutes later, on what was arguably their most impressive sequence all game. In a multiple pass move, one that included a Russell Teibert switch, a David Milinkovic nutmeg and a Hwang In Beom roulette, finished off with Adnan making another great run, it allowed the Iraqi to find Cavallini again, who this time would finish off his chance rather confidently. 

The finish itself might have been unspectacular, with it being a solid header from the Canadian, but the sequence itself was what fans had been hoping for since Dos Santos’s appointment. Confidence in possession, constant attacking movements, quick and incisive passes, all finished off by a no-nonsense strike. 

Buoyed on by the goal, Vancouver would finish the half strongly, showing some bright flashes, impressing both defensively and in possession. There were breakdowns, but they managed to offset them with solid forrays forward, with many of the starters putting in a good name for themselves heading into the bigger matches. 

“There’s some guys recognizing each other better, and being more and more aware of the strengths of each player,” Dos Santos said after the game. “So again, I think it was very positive, the first 45 minutes, a lot of good things.”

What will be most interesting to see is how the Whitecaps progress from here, because as they showed to start the second half, the Jekyll and Hyde nature is still very much within them, with it just being less pronounced than last season. 

Adnan, who looked lively in the first half, fell asleep twice on defensive assignments in the first 5 minutes of the second, with one turning into an absolutely strange goal from near the goal line by Andy Polo, while the other was very luckily sent over from Sebastian Blanco after a nice ball in. 

But for all of the Hyde that we saw to start the half, they did a good job to find the Jekyll for the rest of it, as they started to build up a solid cache of chances. Derek Cornelius slapped yet another solid Adnan cross just over the bar in the 54th minute, before Adnan would find himself twice denied by Portland’s goalkeeper, Ivacic, as he had a pair of strong strikes from inside after he did well to use his crossing power to trip up defenders.

All-in-all, it was a solid performance from the ‘Caps, who might have fallen on the night, but they showed glimpses of hope, which is what preseason is really about. The breakdowns do leave a bit of cause for concern, but they did well to limit them, at least compared to last season, and they responded well each time that they were struck by them. 

“I think the two goals we concede are goals we could do a lot better, it’s disappointing,” Dos Santos admitted after the game. “Certainly the one that starts the second half, we could have done so much better, there’s a shot, or a cross, and it goes in, but overall, we created good chances, we had good moments, so I think there was a lot of positive things.”

Especially for a team that is still a few weeks away from MLS action, that’ll give them time to work on those lapses and other holes in the game. The team is yet at full fitness, as evidenced by some players burning down a little earlier than they would have hoped, but as shown by the flashes, when those kinks are worked out, there seems to be some potential there. 

With more preseason clashes coming up, both coming against 2019 MLS Playoff sides, the New England Revolution and Minnesota United, they have plenty of time to keep working and keep growing, while also building off of today. Those two opponents might not be rivals to Vancouver, at least not like Portland, but they are still MLS calibre sides, and can certainly provide a similar level of intensity that the Timbers offered. 

“It was, it (really) was,” Dos Santos said of the intensity. “The intensity that the game was played (at), some of the fouls, some of the yellow cards, nobody cheating, I think that shows there’s never really an exhibition game between Portland and Vancouver, it’s always serious, it’s always business.” 

He also added: “Physically both teams dropped a little, it’s normal at this stage of the season, but we want to keep growing as a team, and we saw growth today.”

Ali Adnan and Hwang In Beom at training last week (Keveren Guillou)

In the Mixer: 

  • Shout out to Yordy Reyna, who looked great in his #10 role. We profiled the Peruvian last week, looking at what he can bring, but we weren’t quite sure if he could be up to snuff to play the #10 role in the Dos Santos system. He threw that concern out of the window early on in this one, playing quick passes, timing his dribbles well, while also showing some good defensive work rate. If he can keep this up throughout the whole of the preseason, there is a spot in the day 1 starting 11 waiting for him. 
  • Vancouver’s front 4 plus Adnan, Hwang In Beom and sometimes Jake Nerwinski were quite electric. They were fluid, they were interchangeable and just overall they found ways to move the Timbers defenders around, causing them problems. Along with the likes of Theo Bair, Ryan Raposo, Tosaint Ricketts and Fredy Montero on the bench, the ‘Caps seem to be set up front, with the team looking quite solid in that area of the pitch. 
  • Elsewhere, the midfield was up and down. Russell Teibert and Hwang In Beom looked good together, transitioning the ball forward well, but defensively there were big gaps, with both midfielders not offering enough athletically. Leonard Owusu can change that, as he and In Beom could be a good pair in that regard, but Teibert, who looked fit and composed in the ball, just unfortunately couldn’t fulfill all of the physical demands of his role. It’s too bad, as he looked good, but with the Whitecaps electing to go with a front 4 instead of 3, he may have to limit himself to a sparkplug role off of the bench to start the season, with there being plenty of opportunities to rotate in going forward.
  • Defensively, Nerwinski and Adnan did a mostly good job tracking back in the first half, but in the second half, Adnan noticeably struggled, while Nerwinski seemed a tad bit off. It’s normal at this stage of preseason, especially with the full backs having to fill such a demanding role, but it’ll be something to monitor going forward, especially with the two players being such important cogs in the Dos Santos system. 
  • At the back, Derek Cornelius and Jhesser Khemiri were solid, bar a few mental breakdowns. One was costly, leading to a goal, but overall they kept the game in front of them and defended well. They did play quite deep, which was surprising after comments made by the team after San Diego, but they did play well in that deep role, so it wasn’t so bad to watch. With Erik Godoy and Ranko Veselinovic also being options, Vancouver won’t be short at the CB position, which allows Dos Santos to have the opportunity to rotate things based on how he sees fit. With Khemiri still getting back to his 110%, it gives Dos Santos time and options to ease him back in, which may prove to be fruitful in the future. 

Looking Forward

The Whitecaps get things back underway on Wednesday, where they’ll take on the Revolution, before they close things out with a Saturday afternoon clash against Minnesota.

After showing flashes in this one, they’ll just want to keep getting more and more consistent, building up towards what’s hoped to be a strong opener against Kansas on the 29th. 

But as we saw in this one, there is a lot of good things to take away, it’s just about bottling those up, learning from them and turning them into consistent performances when the regular season kicks off. 

This may seem hard, but that’s the beauty of preseason, and those are what the main takeaways will be from these games later on in the season, where the results will probably already be forgotten, as that famous man once said.

Cover Photo credit: Vancouver Whitecaps/Jon Hair

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