Fighting the Fire: Vancouver Whitecaps trying to balance ‘risks’ in quest to put out the Fire on Thursday (MiB Preview #3)

The Vancouver Whitecaps are getting set to take on the Chicago Fire in a pivotal early game Thursday morning, with both teams MLS is Back lives on the line. Here is our preview ahead of that one. 

There’s a fire, and the Vancouver Whitecaps have a chance to put it out. 

While in this case, this metaphor could extend to segments of the ‘Caps play so far at MLS is Back, it also applies to their last opponent, the Chicago Fire, who Vancouver can eliminate with a victory by 2 goals or more. 

Despite losing both of their matches so far at MLS is Back, the Whitecaps still have a glorious opportunity to pick up 3 valuable MLS regular-season points and advance in one big swoop, quickly rescuing what has been a rough start to this Orlando tournament. 

It’s hard to see Vancouver winning by 2 goals, especially considering the fact that they’ve conceded 7 goals in 2 games already, but they did go up 2-0 against San Jose in their first game, before falling by a score of 4-3, so clearly there is some magic there. 

For coach Marc Dos Santos, who’s looking to lead his team in their quest to pull off the unlikely, it’ll be about conjuring up more of that magic, while also closing down shop at the back, much like they did in a 1-0 victory over the LA Galaxy back in March, the only time in 4 MLS games this year they’ve conceded less than 3 goals. 

“So the first thing, when you need to win by two goals, the first thing is we believe that we can concede, because then as soon as you concede, now you need three goals and it becomes even harder,” Dos Santos told reporters on Tuesday. “So we need to defend much better than we defended in the last two games, then we need to score the first goal at any moment of the game.”

“What I told the players is, first, we need to be winning the game one zero. If then it’s one zero at minute 80, minute 85, then we could go with everything and take all of the risks possible, because at the end of the day, we end up losing winning the game one zero, and we tried to go to that for the two zero and it didn’t happen, okay, we bring back three points for the regular (season) standings.”

As simple as it sounds, it won’t be so easy, however, as the team is quite shorthanded at the moment. They were already missing 5 players at the start of the tournament, and have the uncertain statuses of defensive midfielder Janio Bikel and centre back Erik Godoy to worry about, as they continue to work back from injuries sustained in training. 

And if things couldn’t have gotten any worse, they did against the Seattle Sounders this past Sunday, as star goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau joined that lengthy absence list, as he fractured his thumb in a coming together with Handwalla Bwana in the second half of that game, which should now see him out for at least a month of action. 

So up comes 21-year-old Whitecaps Academy graduate Thomas Hasal, who is next up on the list in the ‘Caps goal. With Crepeau out injured, and veteran backup Bryan Meredith also absent as he mourns the unfortunate passing of his mother, Hasal is set to get the first start of his MLS career on Thursday morning. 

After coming in and keeping a clean sheet for 40 minutes in Crepeau’s absence on Sunday, there is hope that he can hold the fort against the Fire on Thursday, as he’s a highly-regarded goalkeeping prospect for Vancouver, but at the same time, he is still a young keeper making his debut in a high-stakes match. 

With no backup behind him, the ‘Caps are hoping that they can ride with him and chase the results they need, because if anything happens to them, they may be forced to get creative with a backup solution. 

“The backup goalkeeper for Thomas is no one,” Dos Santos shared on Tuesday. “It’s going to be a situation with an (outfield) player if we have to go in full emergency mode. Hopefully, that won’t be the case, but because of the transfer window situation and testing and so many things around, (we won’t be) having a (backup) goalkeeper, unfortunately.”

“We were incredibly unfortunate, within the space of two weeks with what happened to Bryan (Meredith) and what happened to Max (Crepeau), and now we’re down to the third option, so we hope that Thomas will be fine to do the full game, if not, we’re going to have an emergency situation inside the team.”

So Dos Santos will be keeping his fingers crossed, and be confident in his young charge, who he’s been impressed by so far. 

“Thomas has looked like he’s always looked in every training session since he’s been with us,” Dos Santos continued. “In preseason in San Diego, even last season, he already grew in the hands of (goalkeeper coach) Youssef (Dahha) and we feel that it’s his moment right now, and he’s gonna take it.”

“So I hope that everything goes well for him, and that our team is going to do our best to protect him as much as we can. The level of confidence of the teams is good, because it’s a realistic moment for us, we know everything that happened until know to get here, and around the team and we feel we can only give our best. So that’s what we’re doing. We want to give our best for everybody, and it’s the only thing we can control.”

But no doubt, this is definitely one of the more interesting challenges of Dos Santos’s career. For a man who has coached in some of the most unique situations in North American soccer throughout his decorated USL, NASL and MLS career, this is certainly up there in terms of what he’s faced, as he gets set to face the Fire with a depleted lineup. 

Despite that, he’s relishing the opportunity and is excited to chase 3 points. 

Who knows what will happen in MLS after this, with a potential restart posing many theoretical logistical questions that are far from being answered, so Dos Santos just wants to live in the moment, and use this opportunity as one to grow. 

“No, I just see it in totally different eyes,” Dos Santos said. “If this was a real environment, and what I mean by a real environment, is all of us playing in a fair equal ground? I would say yes, it would be a big challenge because of everything. But right now, no, I think that we’ve been facing a lot of types of adversity, and different ones, right. So this is just an opportunity for me, I’m telling you this from the bottom of my heart, a huge opportunity for me to show what type of leader I could be about and I’m very thankful for everything that happened here because it gives you an opportunity.”

“Some guys would maybe throw the towel and say, whatever happens, let’s just play and then pack the bags and leave, guys we’re trying to beat (Chicago), and strategically we’re working on something, to put ourselves in a position to beat (Chicago), nobody’s throwing their towels. Nobody’s thinking about going home, we’re all thinking about going and fighting and trying to survive again and passing the group stage. So now it’s a huge opportunity for all of us to show our real colours and keep going and keep fighting.”

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Thomas Hasal

Hasal is going to have to be a big piece of the puzzle vs the Fire on Thursday (Matthew Stith/MLS)

While Vancouver’s quiet offence is going to have to come up huge in order to dream of getting the 2 goal margin of victory the team requires, having a steady defensive performance will also be very crucial, which is where Hasal comes in. 

On Sunday, he quickly showed that he isn’t shy to use his voice and come off his line, which while Crepeau is not shy of hiding from the former, his shyness to do the latter did create a bit of a mix-up on Seattle’s second goal. 

If Hasal can balance his aggressive style with a composed performance, it’ll go a long way towards helping Vancouver’s hopes, which will mostly hinge on how well they fare defensively on Thursday. 

Storylines:

Protect the House: For whatever reason, Vancouver has been leaking chances, shots and XG all year, as they’ve been far from an exemplary defensive unit for other teams to model themselves after. 

But with Hasal in goal, it’ll be interesting to see if they step up their game in order to make things as easy as possible for their young charge in goal. That’s not to say he can’t handle himself if they don’t, but it would say a lot about the state of the team if they did leave him out to dry in his first start. 

So watch for some extra motivated Vancouver defenders, who will know that the spotlight will shine extra bright on them if they let the Fire play through them, much like they let the San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders did. 

Attack the Fire defence: While the Fire have looked a lot better at defending this MLS is Back tournament, there’s no doubt that their weakness is in their defence, which is why they’ll sit back and try to use numbers to mask their deficiencies at the back. 

For Vancouver, who has only generated 4 shots on target this tournament, they’ll want to test Chicago’s defenders and goalkeeper early and often on Thursday, as there is no doubt that they can crack Kenneth Kronholm if they can ramp up the pressure on the veteran goalkeeper. 

Considering that he’s allowed 3 goals on only 4 shots on target so far, Vancouver will want to turn up the heat on him early, making it a long morning for him in the Fire’s goal. 

Where’s Yordy? To attack that Fire defence, there may be no piece more important in doing that for Vancouver than Yordy Reyna, who has been very quiet so far this tournament. 

Deployed as a false nine for both ‘Caps games, he has been unable to truly influence a match in the way only he can, as he’s often been snuffed out by opposing defences. 

If Vancouver is to put pressure on that Chicago defence, they’re going to need Reyna to lead the way, by finding holes in between lines, dribbling at defenders and taking shots when the opportunities come up. 

Stats Splurge:

Surprisingly, after starting the year with an MLS-worse 5.31 XG against through 2 games, the Fire only have allowed 1.49 XG, as their defence-first low block has helped nullify the talent deficiencies they appeared to have at the start of the year. 

Against a ‘Caps team that has an XG for of only 0.94, they’ll feel very confident in their chances of advancing, which will be the case as long as Vancouver doesn’t win by 2 or more goals. 

Interestingly enough, the Fire, who are supposed to be a front-heavy team, have an XG of only 0.74 through 2 games, which is 3rd worst in the whole tournament. For a ‘Caps team that has allowed a tournament-worst 3.44 XG, this may be just what the doctor ordered, especially if Chicago sits back and defends. 

While Vancouver needs to score at least two goals, Chicago’s choices tactically this year have either been to sit back and have low XG for/against matches, or open up and have high XG for/against matches. 

Either way, that benefits Vancouver. 

Projected Lineups:

Vancouver Whitecaps:

Head Coach: Marc Dos Santos

MiB Record: 0W-2L-0D

Chicago Fire:

Head Coach: Raphael Wicky

MiB Record: 1W-1L-0D

2019 Matchup:

Chicago Fire 1-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Looking Forward:

So either way, it looks to be an interesting matchup, for a multitude of reasons. 

There’s the obvious interest, which is that this is a huge game for MLS is Back purposes, but statistically and stylistically, there’s a lot to watch for, as well. 

For Vancouver, it’ll be a good chance to show that they can make something happen even when their backs are up against the wall, which is very much the case here. 

No one’s expecting much of them, especially after a rough start, so this is a good chance for Dos Santos and his charges to show fans what they’re really made of, and play some nice soccer in pursuit of that 2-goal-victory. 

If they fail while doing that, at least they can say that they tried, and promise that when they have their full roster at their disposal, there can be the hope of attractive football one day coming to BC Place, pandemic permitting. 

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Chicago Fire FC, Thursday, July 23rd, 6:00AM

Cover Photo: Matthew Stith/MLS

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