Growth Curve: Vancouver Whitecaps continuing quest to establish tactical ‘trademarks’ against LA Galaxy

Ahead of their clash with the LA Galaxy, the Vancouver Whitecaps have been hard at work this week, as they continue their quest to become a more solid team tactically this season. Against the Galaxy, it won’t be easy, but they appear ready to give it their all.

It’s early days, but heading into the 2nd game of the season, they’re still searching for their identity. 

Them being, in this case, the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are fresh off a tough opening day loss to Sporting Kansas City less than a week ago. 

Having promised a high press, free-flowing passing and strong chance creation, they only really did the last of those 3 things against SKC, with that coming almost in spite of their woes in the first two areas of their game. 

Luckily for them, and many disappointed fans, they get the chance to make amends nearly right away, with a short turnaround between games. There are still 33 games left to play, with 99 points up for grabs, starting this weekend against the LA Galaxy, who are reeling after a tough opening day draw on their end. 

Despite a collection of stars that can make most teams envious, the Galaxy looked flat last week in Houston, unable to break free against a Dynamo side that not many have shown to be bullish on heading into the season. 

Maybe they should be, with the Dynamo mostly controlling the flow of the game last Saturday, something which irked the main man in charge for the Galaxy, head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto. 

“We did not occupy the space in the middle,” Schelotto bluntly told reporters this week. “That reason was because Houston managed the ball better than us, we need to figure that out in the next game, but everyone knows the wrong things that we did in the game with Houston, and we can do better. Because the more important thing is more about that they managed the ball more than us, they controlled the game more than us, and I don’t want that here.”

While Scheletto didn’t mention it, either, there was another big gap in his squad last week, as well. 

That hole? The absence of one certain DP, Jonathan Dos Santos, one of the best midfielders in MLS on his day, who was nursing a niggling injury. When he’s in the lineup, the Galaxy’s midfield goes from bottom third to top 10 in MLS, with Dos Santos one of the best tempo-controlling players in the league. 

No offence to his replacement, Perry Kitchen, who has nearly 200 games in MLS under his belt, but having Dos Santos back changes up the ball game, as he provides a boost over most players in MLS at his position. 

Luckily for the Galaxy, and the rocking crowd expected to show up on Saturday, their Mexican maestro appears to be in good health, ready to at least feature against the Whitecaps. 

How long of a cameo will that be? It’s yet unsure, but his presence appears to be a guarantee, at least according to the man in charge. 

“He trained very well this week, so we expect him to be ready for Vancouver,” Schelotto said. “I don’t know how long he can play next Saturday, but he’ll be ready to be at least on the 18.”

On the other side, the ‘Caps have issues of their own to sort out, with an impressive list of absences to rival anyone in the league at the moment. Their 2019 unsung hero of the year, Erik Godoy, remains out with a calf problem, while Ranko Veselinovic is expected to finally arrive in Vancouver this weekend, with their unfortunate woes robbing the Whitecaps of arguably their two most naturally talented defenders to start the season.

You factor in the recent arrivals of midfielders Janio Bikel and Leonard Owusu, who both started training this week, after Bikel (late signing) and Owusu (Visa issues) only joined the team in the last days leading up to first kick, and there is a lot of talent still yet to be unearthed for this ‘Caps team. 

We’ll start to see some of that potential this weekend, with Bikel and Owusu both travelling down to Los Angeles, making an off-the-bench cameo a likely possibility for at least one of them, if not both. 

But fresh faces aside, Vancouver’s got their own issues to sort out within the group that will start, with the only confirmed fresh face in the 11 to face the Galaxy being Andy Rose. That means a lot of the same guys that had to hang their heads in defeat a week ago will be counted upon to raise them high this time out, with the team looking to avoid similar performances in back-to-back weeks.

That will mean a return to the identity that they set out in preseason. With many of those same guys getting a bulk of the minutes in exhibition play, the ‘Caps pressed, looked composed on the ball and just overall looked like a different team than the one we saw last week. 

So at the very least, expect some more bite in the team this weekend. 

“What I want us to be is to make sure that the pressure that we saw in preseason,” head coach Marc Dos Santos said earlier this week. “And what we’re working, every day it grows, because when that grows, it allows you to recover balls in the 2nd part of the field, or in the final third, and in those moments, you don’t need to be so possession-oriented, because you’re closer to goal, you need to be vertical to goal.”

“Now, if you’re deeper in your half, you have to improve your possession so you get into the opponent half, so everything is related, and we do want to make sure we’re a more aggressive team without the ball then we were in the last game.”

Hwang In Beom on the ball against SKC (Keveren Guillou)

As for the actual tactical changes to the game, Dos Santos was a little more mum on the matter. A return to his more favoured 4-3-3 is not yet in the cards, with the squad appearing to settle with the 4-4-2 for another week, but a lot more needs to happen within that two midfielder set-up if that is the case.

From more dynamic counter-attacking runs, to better passing into the central pockets, the ‘Caps need to be better in every aspect of their game against the Galaxy, who have a front 3 that can amplify defensive mistakes in a hurry. 

Even though some of his shiny new additions aren’t yet to play full 90s, the guys who have been here can show a lot more than what they showed last week, which is a change he’s banking on happening this time out.

“We need to make sure we find (it),” Dos Santos said honestly earlier in the week. “Look, one of the things we found didn’t work, and even though we were close to 500 passes in the game, every time the full back gets the ball, there’s a lack of options still inside. We don’t have that #6 or that #8 showing in these pockets to continue our possession, and sometimes it becomes way too vertical, and way too many balls that we’re trying over the top, and you need to vary that, and we hope that we can address that better. 

“Sporting Kansas City is a good team, they did a good job blocking us on that side, and we trouble to come out, we need to make sure that we improve that. Positionally, I think that depending on that if we’re in a 4-3-3 or in a 4-4-2, it changes the dynamic of the possession.”

He added: “The 4-4-2 gives you better options in counter-attack situations, if you find a guy like Yordy Reyna in between pockets. The 4-3-3 gives you more balance, more options in possession, but maybe less weapons in transition. These are all things that we are evaluating, but at the end of the day, we have to figure out, and we have a good idea, of what’s going to fit us the best when everyone is here.”

It won’t be an easy outing in LA, no doubt, but if everything goes their way, a positive result isn’t out of question. They pulled one out last year, with their team finding itself in a lot more dire of a state than now, so don’t count out any road heroics quite yet. 

To achieve those, however, a framework will have to be set. It’ll start up front, with the Whitecaps aiming to press more aggressively, which will hopefully resound throughout the team, with the other lines responding to the levels set by the frontmen. 

If that happens, we won’t see as much sitting back, which as seen by the goals they conceded last week, really hurt them. LA wingers Cristian Pavon and Aleksandar Katai, along with Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, can hurt teams who sit back and absorb pressure, with Pavon’s dribbling ability proving to be rather effective against static defenders in the past.

You throw in Chicharito’s lethal finishing, and Katai’s two-way work, and Vancouver will be made to work defensively, especially if they sit back. One way to help them do less of that? Press high up the field, keeping the ball there when they do generate turnovers, wearing out LA’s less than stellar backline as a result. 

They failed to do that against SKC, which hurt them, but they showed that they have the capacity of making it happen during the preseason, which for Dos Santos, is why he’s expecting his team to return to form against the Galaxy.

“One thing we addressed is the disappointment we had in our pressure,” he said Friday. “If you look at us in preseason, it was one of our trademarks, and the people who followed us in preseason really saw how aggressive in the mentality, in closing down, in stepping forward, and winning battles, and then it didn’t come out in this game, so we reminded them of what we could be, and what we’re about.”

“We showed them clips, what went right, what went wrong, then we evaluated things in our build-up, there are things that when we’re home that we have to be more conscious of.”

(If you haven’t already, check out our preview ahead of the match here!)

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Sporting Kansas City, March 7th, 2020, 19h00 PST (Dignity Health Sports Park, Carson)

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