The Vancouver Whitecaps wrapped up their preseason slate on Saturday, as they downed Minnesota thanks to a late Fredy Montero winner, giving them 3 wins on the preseason. Here is how things went down in Portland.
In many ways, Fredy Montero continues to turn back the clock.
He might not be a teenager anymore, but in a habit he started at the end of 2019, he once again left things late in this one. With Vancouver pushing for 90 minutes to try and take down the mighty Minnesota United, who had yet to lose all preseason, Montero, who was inserted late in the second-half, popped up at the right place at the right time.
Like the university student leaving his assignments way too close to deadline, it left many to sweat, but with a magic touch, Montero turned a lovely Ali Adnan cross into a lovely Ali Adnan assist, granting the Whitecaps with their second consecutive victory.
After scoring in Portland so many times, having played for both of the Timbers rivals, Vancouver and the Seattle Sounders, it was a good way to finish off the preseason for the Colombian, who was happy to add to his tally of goals that he’s racked up in Oregon over the course of his career.
“No, it’s normal for me,” Montero said after the game, when asked if scoring in Portland is special for him. “Maybe the first 5 goals, but now they know my name, when I score goals here.”
While it’s still only preseason, with the results from this tournament meaning nothing in 6 months, it was the latest moment of brilliance that we’ve seen from the team over these last few weeks, as this Whitecaps side continues to impress. They still have flaws, as they showed early on in this one, but they’ve also got a fighting spirit, and they play an ‘in your face’ style of play that isn’t easy for opponents to play through.
As a university student might relate to, it was a tough start to the afternoon for the ‘Caps, who seemed a team that had accidentally hit snooze on their alarm clock. It all came back to bite them in the 5th minute, when Minnesota’s Chase Gaspar played an innocent-looking through ball, which Jhesser Khemiri completely misjudged, making a mess of what was supposed to be an easy clearance.
With that mistake, it allowed Kevin Molino to get in behind him, and from there it was trouble, as the Minessota winger squared it for Ethan Finlay to tap home with ease.
But that chance would serve to be the real alarm bell for the Whitecaps, who took their game, threw it into the oven, and ramped it up a couple of hundred degrees. They started to pepper Minnesota’s Tyler Miller in his goal, first through Lucas Cavallini, whos in-close strike in the 13th minute tested the American goalkeeper, before Ali Adnan forced a nice save with a right-footed hit from distance a minute later.
Adnan, whos been lively going forward all preseason, continued to press forward, frustrating the Loons defensive players in the process. Longtime Vancouver wind-up merchant, the former Seattle Sounders midfielder Ozzie Alonso, took exception to Adnan’s energetic presence in the 20th minute, pushing over the Iraqi international during a stoppage of play, which planted the seeds for a mini-brouhaha.
“We’re competitive,” Vancouver’s head coach, Marc Dos Santos, said with a smile when asked about the scrum post-game. “The way we want to play brings a lot of the competitiveness out of the players, and I understand. Minnesota is also a competitive team, and when both teams want to win, sometimes it can become like a league game.”
But luckily for Vancovuer, Adnan, who can often find himself drawn into those kinds of battles, kept a cool head, channelling his energy instead towards finding an equalizer. He nearly helped his team do just that soon after, as he found Yordy Reyna with a lovely weighted pass, but the Peruvian found himself denied by Miller on his outside the box curler, after he had done well to shimmy the 2019 MLS defender of the year, Ike Opara, right into the light-rail station just outside Providence Park.
With this persistence offensive push, it was felt that Vancouver could eventually find a breakthrough, but with Miller standing strong, they needed to be perfect to score, and unfortunately for them early on, they were everything but. Russell Teibert would feel the pain of that luck, as his well-hit 30-yard strike sailed just over in the 37th minute, before Reyna, who was lively in the first half, found his left-footed volley blocked by Ike Opara 2 minutes later, with the defender denying him of what looked to be a low-corner goal.
It would force the ‘Caps to return to the locker room without that pivotal opening goal, but it wasn’t for lack of trying, as they had done well to keep Miller and his defenders sweating. While there were some defensive breakdowns, usually in transition moments when Vancouver would flood bodies forward, they made Minnesota work without the ball, which denied them of the legs needed to really hurt the Whitecaps on the run.
After both teams had allowed themselves a crucial period of 15 minutes to rest and recuperate, they came out for the second half, which for Minnesota, just meant jumping back right into the fire. Vancouver, who often struggled to start second halves last season, continued to push their foot right down on the gas pedal, while also limiting the Loons few forrays forward.
And that pressure would pay off in the 55th minute, as the Whitecaps put together a lovely sequence of play, passing the ball around like a team that has played together for a while. In a dizzying 10 pass sequence, one that included David Milinkovic, Ali Adnan, Cristian Dajome, Yordy Reyna and Jake Nerwinski, the ball would fall right to Russell Teibert at the penalty spot, whos strike would find itself blocked by the arm of Chase Gaspar.
With the referee pointing straight to the spot, it appeared that the Whitecaps had finally found themselves a breakthrough, especially given the fact that the referee had denied a clear Dajome advantage to call the penalty. After pressing all half, they had their breakthrough, and an opening goal seemed inevitable.
But then in typical Vancouver Whitecaps fashion, their favourite friend, VAR, paid them a visit, denying them of a penalty. While the call is very much up for debate, with the whistle denying them of what seemed to be a good Dajome chance, it was a tough call to stomach, especially with it only resulting in a 50/50 dropped ball.
Instead of pouting, however, Vancouver kept their heads up, and alas, it would pay off, as 10 minutes later, they would get the referee to point to the spot for real. After a great wide run, Lucas Cavallini found himself in behind Michaell Boxall, with the former Whitecaps defender able to do nothing but foul the Canadian.
Which from there, it was lights out for the Loons, as Cavallini would confidently pick up the ball, stroll to the penalty spot, and tie the game. With his 4th goal in 4 straight games, he continued his strong run of form, finally finding the breakthrough that the Whitecaps had so desperately searched for.
Yet after showing so many minutes of positive play from the ‘Caps, those flaws emerged for a short moment less than 5 minutes later, nearly undoing all of their hard work going forward. With plenty of Whitecaps shirts sent forward, Minnesota’s new #9, Luis Amarilla, did well to find Kevin Molino all alone in the box, but luckily for Vancouver, the Minnesota #7 shanked his shot just wide.
And from there, he would come to rue his missed chance, as it would be one-way traffic from Vancouver. Backed by some solid Derek Cornelius blocks, they pushed bodies forward, finding chance after chance, but unluckily for them, it would all amount to nothing, as Miller stood strong time-after-time, none better than his effort to deny In Beom’s Hwang dipping effort from range in the 78th minute.
But then, right at the death, it was breakthrough time. With Vancouver rotating their front 4, resting their likely day 1 starters for the last 10 minutes, they continued to push forward, and it led to some Montero magic.
After a precise Rusell Teibert through ball, which found Ali Adnan in full stride down the left side, Montero did well to shade back post, with Adnan finding him with a lovely clipped cross. Completely unmarked, Montero showed why he’s one of the best finishers on the ‘Caps, as he struck the ball first-time, beating Miller at the near post with his volley, before passionately kicking an ad board in celebration.
In the midst of what has been a long preseason for the Colombian, who has dealt with rumours about his departure, with his place in the squad looking not so assured heading into first kick, it was a moment of brilliance, and you could tell what it meant for him based on his celebration. When the team needed a hero, he stepped to the forefront, and showed what he’s capable of in flashes, giving his team a deserved 2-1 lead.
And while the result ultimately will mean nothing, with preseason results counting for little other than morale-boosting, it certainly fulfilled that function quite well, and it’s set the table for a strong MLS start. Even despite the absences of the already-signed Ranko Veselinovic and Leonard Owusu, along with the injury that has so far kept their 2019 unsung hero Erik Godoy out of action, this Vancouver side has looked good to start the year, and looks ready to finally get things going for real.
Which starting next Saturday, they’ll finally have the privilege to do.
“It was good,” Montero said of preseason. “From the beginning to the end, we felt that we are growing so much, knowing the players that came into team late on in the preseason, and obviously, the next weekend is a game that really matters for us.”
“Well, I take away the full preparation,” head coach Marc Dos Santos added. “Last day of preseason, everything that done for us to grow and get ready as a team (we did). I’ve always said, what we need to see is growth in preseason. Growth in the volume, growth in our physical aspect, growth in our model of play, and you saw that. You saw growth from day 1, first game against Columbus, until now. And we need to keep working.”
In the Mixer:
- Offensively, Vancouver continues to show signs of life. With 11 goals in 6 games this preseason, they’ve already reached a total it took 15 games (pre and regular season) to hit last year, as they just look like an overall better offensive side. From the personnel, who seem to click well together, to the tactics, which have mostly allowed them more offensive freedom, they have found a way to generate more chances. It’s a bit worrying how they sometimes throw too many players forward, but by doing so, it tires out defences, and they seem fit enough to track back defensively, at least for the first 70 minutes or so. It’s not the end of the world, however, because with the season still coming up, they’ll surely keep working on that part of the game, which should help them hit another gear offensively.
- If there is one area to be concerned so far, it’s been in transition, which hasn’t been too kind to the team. With so many bodies forward, you have to be careful where you lose the ball, and there were some moments where that slopiness nearly led to goals. With the midfield already being stretched as it is, the last thing that they need is their two midfielders having to overwork defensively due to a stretched out transition game, so it’ll be in their best interests to keep working on cutting down those mistakes.
- Defensively, it’s been a rough start to the preseason for Jhesser Khemiri, who’s looked quite rusty so far. It’s to be expected, as he hasn’t played much over the last year, but with Vancouver having so much defensive depth, it may cost him a spot early on. With Veselinovic yet to arrive, and with Godoy being injured, he’ll have some time to work his way into the form the coaching staff believes he can reach, but when everyone is back, those mistakes will need to slowly be phased out as he goes along. From what we’ve seen of his pedigree, that should happen, but it’s been far from a dream start for him in 2020.
- Another big part of the offence has been Ali Adnan, who certainly looks like someone who took advantage of the offseason, as he looks so much more rested compared to last year. Defensively, there is still brain-farts, but he makes up for it with his aggressive offensive ability, which has given defences fits. It seems that every time Vancouver generates a chance in open-play, it’s because he’s up the pitch making things happen, so look for him to come out of the gates flying next Saturday.
- Cristian Dajome looked a lot better today. After a slow couple of games, he looked a lot more like the player that the ‘Caps were hoping to get from Independiente de Valle, as he looks to be growing into his right wing role. Along with Reyna, who looks a lot sharper in the final third, and Milinkovic, who’s been a revelation, it’s given Vancouver some good pieces to complement their big fish up top, Lucas Cavallini.
All-in-all, it was a good end to the preseason for Vancouver, who looked good in their final dress rehearsal. While the next step will be translating that to the real games, they’ve shown plenty of glimpses of how they’ll want to play this season, which at the very least, should make for some interesting matches.
There are still things to work out, no doubt, but no team is ever perfect heading into the start of the campaign, so it isn’t too much of a worry. With several MLS clubs scrambling heading into next week, as many suffer from Champions League fatigue, or a lack of players due to the late CBA deal, or even both, Vancouver finds themselves in a good position relative to their peers, which could lead to a strong start.
After a strong performance today, in which they imposed themselves against a very sharp Minnesota United side, they certainly look poised to come out of the gates running. In what was their stiffest test of the preseason, they came out strong, and found a victory as a result.
And as they look to build off 2019, a season where they didn’t always find that resolve to find the victories they desire, things are certainly looking up in Whitecaps-land.
Now it’s just time to see how far they can push themselves.
Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Sporting Kansas City, Saturday, February 29th, 2020, 19H30 PST (BC Place, Vancouver)
Cover Photo credit: Vancouver Whitecaps FC/Sheldon Rogers