Delayed Debut: Whitecaps eager and ‘excited’ to finally take on Earthquakes Wednesday (MiB Preview #1)

The Vancouver Whitecaps take on the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday, officially kicking off their MLS is Back tournament. Here is our comprehensive match preview ahead of that clash. 

Are you ready to rumble? 

The Vancouver Whitecaps sure are, as they get set to take the field to kick off their MLS is Back tournament in thunderstorm-riddled Florida on Wednesday evening, when they’ll take on the aptly-named San Jose Earthquakes, in what will be their first game in over 130 days. 

After the tremor that was COVID-19 more than disrupted their 2020 MLS regular season plans, the ‘Caps are ready to steer their ship back on path, as they look to go back to where they left off before this surprise break set in. 

While their roster will look a bit different from when they took on the LA Galaxy all the way back on March 7th, due to some key absences throughout their lineup, it’s hoped that Vancouver can conjure up some of the magic that they showed in a shocking 1-0 victory away from home that day.

With a young roster this tournament, it’s yet unclear how the ‘Caps will perform in Group B action, which kicks off with the aforementioned clash with the Earthquakes.

But much like any young kid does when they show up in a new environment, they’ll want to show some swagger, confidence and abrasiveness, and at the very least, show that they can hang with the older guys. 

“Yeah, I mean it’s a big opportunity,” ‘Caps youngster, Ryan Raposo, said on Tuesday. “Obviously, it’s unfortunate that we can’t have all of the guys here with us, but with us being young, we just have to be ready for the opportunity when it comes. And that’s what it’s all about, whether the team needs us to start, or come off the bench, or train extra hard to get the guys prepared, that’s what it’s about.”

At the same time, despite the concerns about the absences in the Whitecaps lineup, there seem to be some built-in advantages. Thanks to the skewed schedule, Vancouver is the last team in MLS to have played a game in Orlando, which will allow them to truly control the fate of the group. 

Along with the extended rest that they’ve had, they will be hoping to take advantage of some tired opposition legs, who will certainly be readjusting to the idea of playing multiple games over a tight timespan. 

On the flip side, however, those advantages could also turn into disadvantages. Rust has been a big theme so far this tournament, which gives an edge to any team that has played a game yet, and it’s been too early for fatigue to set in. 

So according to Raposo, he feels that it will be a pretty even start to the Earthquakes clash, and if anything, score an early edge to San Jose. 

“No, I wouldn’t say that we have an advantage,” Raposo said bluntly. “Personally, I know the guys would have rather gotten the tournament going earlier and started to get our match fitness back. Obviously, San Jose already has a game under their belt, and they know exactly the tempo and the conditions and everything and it’ll be our first match, so the first bit of the game will be really important to adapt quickly.”

As for the matchup itself, this fixture presents a tantalizing stylistic conundrum, one that will be interesting to see answered. Last year, the ‘Caps suffered two tough losses at the hand of the Earthquakes, who’s aggressive, high-octane man-marking system frankly just suffocated Vancouver in a pair of mid-summer victories. 

In those games, the Whitecaps decided that their best course of action would be to sit back, let San Jose have the ball, and try to counter. Clearly, that didn’t work, as they suffered a pair of embarrassing 3-1 defeats, including one on the road that famously saw goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau set an MLS save record, as he faced a heavy onslaught of chances throughout the 90 minutes. 

This year, however, things do appear different for the ‘Caps. They’ve got some new personnel, who should slot in on the wings, in the midfield and at the back, giving head coach Marc Dos Santos some players that should better-suit his high-pressing system. 

If that is indeed the case, we should see more of a tit-for-tat matchup on Wednesday, one that is hoped leads to fireworks, as the ‘Caps attempt to hang with the aggressive Earthquakes. To do that, they’ll need to be aggressive in the right areas, control the middle of the park, and keep things tidy at the back. 

Speaking of that, as well, there is one name that is going to have to play a big role in making that happen, and that’s their newest centre back, Ranko Veselinovic, who arrived in Serbia just after the Galaxy game happened and the MLS lockdown hit. 

Given that he’s advertised as a snarly ball-playing centre back, having his presence at the back should also help Vancouver, who will be missing a key defensive piece in Erik Godoy to start this tournament. 

And if you don’t believe the description of Veselinovic, hear it from the mouth of the man himself, who spoke to media on Tuesday. 

“I like it when my team has the ball in their possession,” Veselinovic explained. “And I like to play (with the ball), I like to not just defend. But also when it comes to defence, I like to be aggressive, to win the ball as soon as possible. So I like to play good defence behind the ball, to make defence even when we have the ball, we react quickly, so we can win it as soon as possible and then we can play again.”

But either way, it promises to be a good fixture, both due to the characters involved, such as Veselinovic, and the clash of styles at hand. 

With the ‘Caps looking to make a good run in this tournament, how they perform against San Jose will set the tone for their Orlando experience, especially considering the volatile nature of such a short competition. 

They start with a win, and they can start Disney dreaming. If they start with a loss, and their experience can be more akin to wearing your lunch after a bad trip down Space Mountain. 

Vancouver is hoping it’s a lot more of the former, than the latter, and based on what they’ve seen in their training sessions so far, they believe that they’re on the right track. 

“I expect the quality to be there, for sure,” Raposo said. “I mean, ever since the first training session back, we’re all surprised at everyone’s fitness level and willingness to work. Everyone came back motivated and excited, and we got through all the hard work and the fitness aspect, and now we’re just ready to get back to games, really.”

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Leonard Owusu

Owusu in training with the ‘Caps in Orlando (Sheldon Rogers/Whitecaps FC)

In order to find success against San Jose, controlling the midfield areas will be key, as last year showed. 

So for the ‘Caps, the presence of Owusu will be very important, as the Ghanian will be relied on to help Hwang In Beom dictate the tempo of play, while also being relied on to help the team keep a defensive presence in the middle. 

With Janio Bikel looking a likely candidate to play out at right back, having Owusu bring his A-game in the middle along with In Beom and Russell Teibert will be key in making Bikel’s position switch work.

From what we saw against the Galaxy in March, where we got to see 10 or so minutes of Owusu in the middle and Bikel at right back, there’s some potential there, but we’ll need to see that sort of composed play from Owusu over the course of 70 to 90 minutes. 

To counteract the threat of Magnus Eriksson, Cristian Espinoza and Jackson Yueill in the San Jose midfield, Owusu is going to need to spearhead things in order to keep the ‘Caps in the midfield battle. 

Storylines

Who will tire first? This should be an interesting question to see answered, as it sounds like both Matias Almeyda and Marc Dos Santos will both want their teams to run until they cannot run anymore, which in this heavy Orlando heat, is certainly a bold strategy to try. 

It’s not like these systems are new to both of them, as they want their teams to be aggressive in how they play, but what will be interesting to see is how the conditions affect their plan, as it’ll surely become a matter of who blinks first if things get sluggish. 

Make it about who’s there, and not about who’s not: This one’s more for the ‘Caps, who travelled without Lucas Cavallini (personal), Fredy Montero (personal), Andy Rose (personal), Tosaint Ricketts (health concern) and Georges Mukumbilwa (visa issues), and seem unlikely to start the tournament with Erik Godoy (lower-body injury). 

As a result, there’s going to be a lot of talk about who’s not there in the blue and white, and rightfully so, at least to start. It’s going to be important for the players, along with Dos Santos, to shift that narrative, so that they can make the conversation more about who they are, instead of who they’re not. 

To do that, it’s going to take some inspired team play, starting against the Earthquakes, right from the first minute. 

Scoring goals is still a ‘Caps concern, though: Despite that, there is a concern up front for the ‘Caps, who are missing their 3 first-choice strikers. For a team that struggled to score last year, if they come out of the gates slowly offensively, there’s no doubt that narrative will take over, as it slowly has started to already online. 

Considering that they have most of the rest of their team there, the framework should be there to generate chances, which was more of their problem last year, anyways, and then hopefully they can find a way to finish them, because if not, storyline #2 will really start to rear its head. 

Stats Splurge

Considering that the ‘Caps haven’t played since March, we don’t really have any of their stats to put here for now, but the Earthquakes have played a game, making our lives easier. 

And in the opener, a few things stood out. First of all, despite their new defensive core, the Sounders were able to hold the Earthquakes to only 0.77 XG, thanks to some strong midfield play. 

Despite conceding 52% possession, and 8 shots on target, the Sounders kept the ‘Quakes to non-threatening opportunities. The Sounders did a little better at generating chances, as they had 1.11 XG on less shots than San Jose, but overall, it was a pretty even game. 

For the ‘Caps, that’s pertinent, because they struggled to limit the ‘Quakes chances last season. If they can do that, and funnel the ball up the pitch, there’s a recipe for success there. It won’t be easy against the San Jose system, who you often need to be perfect against to have success, but it gives you why ensuring that you control the middle of the park is so essential against them. 

Since the Sounders played similarly to how the ‘Caps will want to play, there’s a blueprint that’s set out, they’ll just need to fine-tune it and apply it to perfection. 

Projected Lineups:

Vancouver Whitecaps: 

Head Coach: Marc Dos Santos

MiB Record: 0W-0L-0D

San Jose Earthquakes:

Head Coach: Matias Almeyda

MiB Record: 0W-0L-0D

2019 Matchups:

Vancouver Whitecaps 1-3 San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose Earthquakes 3-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Looking Forward:

So all-in-all, there’s a lot on the table for both teams in this one. The ‘Caps will be looking to get their MLS is Back tournament off to a strong start, while the Earthquakes will want to avoid seeing their tournament on life support before it really got going. 

As a result, they’ll be a lot of emotions on the field Wednesday, which for 2 teams that play intense football, should mean for a game filled with tackles, yellow cards and passion. 

Who knows, thanks to that, maybe this famous Vancouver vs San Jose rivalry that we always hear about will finally manifest itself, with this game becoming the catalyst for that. 

But at the very least, it should be an entertaining game, which for ‘Caps fans looking to watch their team after a lengthy absence, should be a good way to get back into watching this team play. 

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs San Jose Earthquakes, Wednesday, July 15th, 2020, 18:00 PST/21:00 EST 

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