In this first edition of Second ‘Caps thoughts, a day-after column where we break down the Vancouver Whitecaps game from that weekend, we look at what we can take from the ‘Caps opening-day loss to Sporting KC, both positively and negatively.
After riding the high of a successful preseason, it was a sobering gut punch, snapping them right back to reality.
The Vancouver Whitecaps opened the 2020 MLS regular season at home on Saturday, hoping to ride a new wave, starting things off with an emphatic home victory. After a relatively successful training camp, where they picked up 3 wins from 6 games, they were hoping to continue and build off of some of the goodwill built up ahead of the home opener.
But in a sight too familiar to those who watched the 2019 MLS season, they came out looking like a shell of that preseason team, as they not only wilted in front of a strong Sporting Kansas City, but they also strayed from their gameplan, looking very much like the Whitecaps of old at times.
Instead of pressing relentlessly, or trying to play out of the back, two things both promised and shown throughout the preseason, they sagged back defensively without the ball, while also turning to the famed hit and hope approach when they found themselves unable to play through SKC.
Had the ‘Caps stuck with their original gameplan, even as SKC pushed forward, taking a similarily tough defeat while playing the way they hope to one day win with, the result would have been easier to stomach, but alas, old habits die hard, and that showed in flashes on Saturday.
Yet at the same time, not all is doom and gloom for the team. The ‘Caps showed glimpses of brilliance going forward, finding themselves only let down by their finishing, which considering they have a man paid $6 million dollars to do just that, should correct itself over time. Even when looking quite lacklustre, they not only gave themselves the chance to win, but they were also unlucky, which on most nights, gets them the three points.
The key will be taking those moments of flash, and make it so that they show up more than just for pockets. Flashes will always be there, the key is how you get them out of the team on a more consistent basis, which for coach Marc Dos Santos, will be his biggest concern going forward.
Will that come via a tactical change? A personnel change? A little bit of column A and a little bit of column B?
That’s what he’ll have all week to work on, but at the very least, the problems were quite evident, which for a coach, makes his job a lot easier.
Take away the ‘Caps slow start, and this could have been a whole new game.
It’s concerning that they came out so flat, no doubt, especially considering that the crowd was pretty loud to start the game, which could have given their heavy legs some much-needed fuel. Instead, they looked listless and uninspired, with some players having some pretty nervous moments on the ball early on.
For a team that wants to press people off of the park, seeing them come out and look disjointed both with and without the ball was quite surprising, especially considering that winning the ball back could have been a way to counteract their slow offensive start.
They started slow against both Minnesota and New England in preseason, as well, so maybe it’s part of a more global trend, but seeing how it tanked them on Saturday, it’s a trend they’ll need to snuff out sooner rather than later.
“The beginning was disappointing,” Dos Santos told reporters after the game. “A lot of anxiety on our side. We really wanted to do well, we were ready to play the game, and for some reason, we just didn’t start the way we wanted. The reasons, we don’t know. The guys were ready and very, very excited for this game. But especially those first 20 minutes were not good.”
At the same time, don’t discredit the work done by SKC, who were excellent on the night. They found a few weaknesses in Vancouver’s alignment, and did their best to maximize them, while also limiting a few of the strong points in the ‘Caps squad.
Had Vancouver started stronger, establishing their territory from the get-go, that might not have happened, but chalk it up as another learning lesson for the team. If the ‘Caps aren’t going to take their own turf, good teams will do it for them, hence the importance of starting well, even if the touch isn’t quite there at first.
Because if not, then you allow teams like SKC to take control of the game, which as suggested by their pedigree, is something they’ll always jump at the opportunity to do.
“I thought the guys handled it very well,” SKC head coach Peter Vermes said after the game. “They implemented the game plan really well. They were committed, we were fit, and the guys deserved the victory based on all those components.
Maximizing the positives
For all of the negatives from a performance like that, there are some positives to derive, which hopefully are built upon in time for next week’s clash with the LA Galaxy.
After the slow start, the ‘Caps did wake up, finding a nice goal. They also had some nice other spells to round off the first half, and definitely made a claim to enter the second half with 2 goals.
While some of the good defensive habits from preseason were forgotten, offensively Vancouver was quite good, with their front 4 looking quite dangerous when in possession. Did they get the ball enough? No, but it’s positive to know that when they do get it, things will happen.
Even despite being isolated for good patches of the game, the offensive trio of Cristian Dajome, Yordy Reyna and David Milinkovic made some noise, turning their limited touches into good moments. Reyna only had 50 touches, while Milinkovic and Dajome had a measly 30 and 40, respectively, yet they combined for 4 key passes, which is a pretty good return on investment.
You get them on the ball more often, and those numbers only go up, which is why getting them that service is so huge. If they want to get their DP Lucas Cavallini goals, they need to get his 3 supporting members the ball, because when they did, they created for both them and their teammates.
“We tried,” Dos Santos said of the team’s offensive approach in the 2nd half. “We spoke, our possession was better. Pressure was better. But we did not originate as many chances as we could. I think a lot of the guys really wanted to do well, show well, and sometimes you’re thinking too much and then sometimes the decisions are not always the best.”
“We were not able to find our best players in the right spots. And then when we did, we missed two very good chances. So that’s disappointing.”
One thing was clear exiting preseason, and it’s that the front 4 is legit, with this game doing nothing to disprove that.
Cavallini should have arguably had 2 goals, yet he only had 22 touches, so it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine that if you improve that service, his production should rise as a result.
“Lucas put himself in a situation to get a goal, and today it didn’t happen,” Dos Santos said. “But it’s going to come for sure.”
The famed midfield springs new worries
But for all of the flashes we saw from the players up top, the midfield was less than inspiring, which contributed to the lack of service up front.
Along with their struggles on the defensive end, it overall just wasn’t a banner night for Hwang In Beom and Russell Teibert as a pairing, highlighting the need to start integrating new midfielders Leonard Owusu and Janio Bikel into the fold.
From an individual standpoint, neither Teibert or In Beom were bad, but together they didn’t seem to work well together, allowing SKC to press and bend them at their will. When they had the ball, space around them was closed in a hurry, nullifying many of their passing options, and when they didn’t have it, they were often pushed right back onto the ‘Caps centre backs, allowing SKC endless space at the top of the box.
So it was no surprise to see the visiting team score their second and third goals with the ‘Caps right on their heels, highlighting the deficiencies in a Teibert-In Beom pairing. Without the ball, they seemed too passive, and ceded valuable space at the top of the box, which against most teams in MLS, will never lead to good things.
They can make things happen going forward, benefitting from Reyna being allowed to drop from his striker position more often as the game went along, but the defensive worries may be too much to overlook in the long run, especially with the arrival of Owusu and Bikel.
With the two aforementioned names being known for their rangy athleticism, commitment in the defensive end and forward passing, they seem a lot more suited to the role Teibert and In Beom were asked to play, which gives Dos Santos options.
Does he shift back to a midfield 3, putting Bikel, Owusu and In Beom into a trio, while dropping one of the front 4 to the bench? Does he go to a back 3? Does he pair Owusu and In Beom in a 2 and put Bikel at right back?
Those are all questions he’ll have to answer, but at least he has options from this point on, which is more than he can say for in this match. When things went south versus SKC, he didn’t necessarily have the personnel to change things up tactically, and that made a difference.
Could he have thrown in a Patrick Metcalfe or an Andy Rose in the midfield, giving them a third body to help overcome the SKC middle overload? Maybe, but it’s no doubt he’d feel more confident having some of his new players as options, especially considering the pedigree that they bring to the table.
“I’m trying to maximize a player like Yordy Reyna, trying to offer more players around Cavallini,” Dos Santos said of his current formation choice. “That’s why right now that’s the choice of the formation. We’re waiting on guys that are going to start training with the team as of tomorrow, like [Janio] Bikel and [Leonard] Owusu, and we’re still waiting on Ranko [Veselinović].”
“And that couple (may) make us shift and try to maximize more when we have everybody here. But right now, we went with the best team available in our opinion, and playing like that was the best way to maximize the pieces that we had.”
Because if there’s one thing that he nailed on the head there, it’s that choice was one of his biggest enemies, playing a big part in the midfield’s struggles. The 4-2-3-1 did look good in preseason, but its use has mostly been out of necessity, not by overwhelming choice, so having the option to go back to the 4-3-3 certainly will be enticing for Dos Santos in coming games.
As seen by this one, just having those various options will be huge, especially in the middle, because if not, teams will continue to target that area of the pitch, making life difficult for the ‘Caps talented frontmen in the process.
The Silver Lining
For all the worry, however, not all is complete gloom and doom.
Despite the many aforementioned struggles, the ‘Caps still did enough to win, winning the XG battle by a significant margin.
As shown by the XG map here, based on the quality of chances they created, they should have scored twice, while SKC should have only scored about half a goal, which shows why shoring up the midfield is going to be so important going forward.
Say we call the first goal a wash. Yes, it was a poor reaction to the 2nd and 3rd balls after Derek Cornelius’s original wide set-piece clearance, but they tied things up soon after, thanks to Milinkovic’s effort and Nerwinski’s finish.
That 2nd goal was a backbreaker, however. Despite it being a 1-1 game, Cristian Dajome and Jake Nerwinski failed to close down their opponent out wide, before Teibert and In Beom allowed Gadi Kinda way too much space at the edge of the box, which the Israeli midfielder adeptly punished them for.
Had they not conceded that goal, it’s still a tie game, and from there, anything can happen. Yes, on another day that shot gets put into the supporter’s section behind the goal, but these are professional players, so you have to defend with the mentality that your opponent is going to score on every shot.
Considering the XG numbers, it does show that despite their shakiness in both playing out of the back and clearing the ball, the ‘Caps defenders did what they need to do, which like the positive play of the attackers, shows them where the problem lied.
So checklist for next week? Better defensive midfield pressure, better ball transition to the forwards, and a strong press. They limited good chances at the back, and generated them at the front, they just need the midfield to help the former, while also maximizing the latter.
“We tried. We spoke, our possession was better. Pressure was better. But we did not originate as many chances as we could.” Dos Santos said. I think a lot of the guys really wanted to do well, show well, and sometimes you’re thinking too much and then sometimes the decisions are not always the best. We were not able to find our best players in the right spots. And then when we did, we missed two very good chances. So that’s disappointing.”
Luckily for the ‘Caps, they get right back into the swing of things next week in Los Angeles, where they’ll take on Chicharito and the Galaxy in their 2020 MLS home opener. They’ll be equally as hungry, fresh off a disappointing draw against Houston, which should make for an exciting game, as both teams look to show off how they can play when they’re at their best.
For Marc Dos Santos, it gives him a week to pour through the game film from this week, finding fixes to the problems seen, allowing his squad to maximize their strengths next week. No doubt, the likes of Bikel and Owusu will help, but they might not be available, so some of the fixes may have to come from within.
But some of those changes can come from simple tactical shifts. Get the midfielders playing more aggressively defensively, closing down space on their opponents, while also dropping Reyna back down into the #10 role from the #9 position he played, and that already helps them defend and transition better.
We saw a lot of the 2019 habits last night, yes, but we also saw glimpses of what they can be, and we still do have the memory of a successful preseason in the back of our minds. Now, it’s time to show that they can push those glimpses more towards the forefront, while limiting those bad habits.
While this first-week result stung, the framework is there, now it’s just time to build on it.
Up next: LA Galaxy vs Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Saturday, March 7th, 2020, 19h00 PST (Dignity Health Park, Carson)