Thanks to a surprise tactical decision, 5 minutes of magic and some VAR, the Vancouver Whitecaps narrowly pushed their way to the MLS is Back knockout stage with a 2-0 victory over the Chicago Fire on Thursday. In our day-after column, we look at what paved the way towards that unlikely result, as we analyze what went right for the ‘Caps in that match.
Sometimes in a sport like heavyweight boxing, there are different paths to success.
You can try to be someone like Tyson Fury, whose technical ability often makes him a threat over the entirety of 12 rounds, as he often elects to slowly beat someone down over the course of the fight en route to a one-sided decision.
Or you can look at someone like Deontay Wilder, the American heavyweight who prefers to rely on his knockout power, and watch him fall behind on the scorecard through 6 rounds, and just when it looks like he’ll lose on a decision, he’ll send his opponent to the canvas with one big blow.
On Thursday, in an all-important clash with the Chicago Fire, we saw the Vancouver Whitecaps use an approach akin to what the ‘Bronze Bomber’ Wilder uses in his fights, as they sat back for 60 minutes, delivered 2 devastating blows in the form of 2 goals during a 5-minute span, and rode that momentum to victory.
It wasn’t the most complex strategy, nor was it the prettiest, but considering the circumstances that they found themselves in, it was the perfect plan, and they executed it to a tee on Thursday against the Fire.
With an absentee list that will soon be able to field a pretty darn good team at the rate that it’s picking up names, most people expected the ‘Caps to push but come up just short against the Fire in their last group match at MLS is Back, before heading home to lick their wounds and regroup.
Against all odds, however, they somehow not only got the victory that they wanted in order to boost their morale, but they also got the 2-goal margin of victory that was required in order to leapfrog the Fire into 3rd in Group E, sending them to the Round of 16 at MLS is Back.
As one of the 4 best 3rd place teams, they’d somehow done the improbable, even despite a nightmare start to the tournament, one that saw them drop 6 points in 2 very different yet similarly disappointing outcomes.
Now, they can once again dream of lifting the MLS is Back crown, taking home the cash prize and CONCACAF Champions League spot that comes with it, as they get set to take on the knockout round, which will be all single-game elimination from here on in.
Considering how unpredictable any tournament that involves MLS teams in a single-team bracket can be, they’ll now believe that they can make a surprise run at MLS is Back, as group stage records get thrown to the wayside and everyone starts fresh.
But before we look too far ahead, let’s take a step back, and look at how the ‘Caps got here, by looking at what went right for them against the Fire on Thursday.
The second half time plays a big role:
In this sport, there can often be nothing more important than half time, which can allow a team to sit back and assess their first 45 minutes of performance, while also giving them time to prepare to take on the last 45 minutes of play.
That’s why you often hear sayings such as “don’t concede before the half”, “I wonder what the coach said at halftime” or “you can tell that team needed the break”. The break may only be 15 minutes, but it gives coaches and players plenty of time to regroup, both physically and mentally, before getting set to get back in the thick of the fire for the rest of the game.
For the Whitecaps, the half time against the Fire did little for them on Thursday, as Chicago came out as the much better team after the break, making it seem like only a matter of time until the ‘Caps would concede, all but sinking their hopes at MLS is Back.
They had done what they needed to do, which was to stay in the game, as head coach Marc Dos Santos promised his side would aim to do in the leadup to the match, but it felt like trouble was brewing.
“First, when we came after the 60 minutes we were in the game plan,” Dos Santos said after the game Thursday. “We were on the route of what we wanted to do. First we had to defend very well, we conceded the seven goals in the two games here so we had to make sure that we stopped that bleeding because if Chicago would have scored first then it becomes much heavier mentally for us.”
But then, magic hit. Call it destiny, dumb luck, or whatever else you want, but right at the 63rd-minute mark, the referee had to call a halt to the game, as some ominous looking storm clouds rolled over the pitch at ESPN Wide World of Sports down in Orlando.
As a result of that, both teams had to head back to their locker room, forced to wait out the passing storm.
Technically, considering the match had passed the 60-minute mark, the referee could call off the game had the wait stretched on too long, but with what was at stake for both the 2 teams that were playing, without mentioning the 3 or so interested teams that could see their fates affected by this match, you’d figure that they would wait as long as they needed in order for the match to resume.
And to be fair, they had time on their side. As the early 9h00 EST matchup, there was no game to worry about until 19h30 EST, giving them more than 9 hours before having to worry about messing up the schedule.
Luckily, it didn’t get anywhere close to going that far, but it was still a 90-minute delay, which pretty much just gave both teams a chance to start fresh in the last 30 minutes once play resumed.
For coaches, that can either be a nightmare or a curse, but considering the ‘Caps lack of depth, any sort of fresh start was welcome, especially as they chased the 2 goals that they so desperately needed.
So for Dos Santos, he let his players take a mental and physical break, and then when it was time to get back onto the field, he treated it like a brand new game.
“When we got to the 62-minute mark and there was the weather delay, it lasted for an hour and 20 minutes, so the first thing we did is, we let the players breathe, we let the players recover, leave them alone, put some music in the locker room, let them stay away from the game and that’s what we did,” Dos Santos explained.
“Then we went into the board, and we addressed things that we had to do in the last 30 minutes to give us a chance, number one, to win the game. And then number two, to advance. And when that happened first we went through that, but the message was very clear in the sense that we were still alive, with two losses in a row, with 60 minutes played, we were still alive, we were not knocked out yet, and we still had a chance. And this is when people are tested, this is when your limits are tested as a human being.”
With that extra wind in their sails, it gave his team a noticeable energy boost, and it made a big difference right away.
Less than 3 minutes after the restart, Yordy Reyna opened the scoring in the 65th minute, and Cristian Dajome doubled the ‘Caps tally less than 5 minutes later, giving the ‘Caps the 2 goals they needed, paving the way towards a nervy yet exciting finish.
Bringing in the ringers:
Had you watched the first 2 ‘Caps games and missed the 3rd one, you wouldn’t have thought anything special of Reyna and Dajome scoring, especially considering they directly were involved in 2 of their 3 goals against the San Jose Earthquakes.
But after a strong start against San Jose, they looked a bit off against Seattle, as they failed to muster up much action in the final 3rd during a 3-0 loss to their rivals.
Reyna, who was supposed to be the ‘Caps main option at the #9 with Lucas Cavallini, Fredy Montero and Tosaint Ricketts all back home, was disengaged for most of the match against Seattle, which played a big role in the ‘Caps offensive struggles.
Dajome looked a lot better, but he and fellow winger David Milinkovic definitely looked like they could use a rest, hence the exit of Milinkovic at the 55th minute against Seattle.
Despite that, you expected them to play a role against the Fire as starters once again, even despite the strong play of youngsters Ryan Raposo and Theo Bair, who did well to push their way into starting contention with some strong play off of the bench in both matches.
But, surprisingly, Dos Santos elected to start the trio of Reyna, Dajome and Milinkovic on the bench, as he started with Bair and Raposo up front in a 5-3-2, with Derek Cornelius slotting in at the back in place of that 3rd forward.
On one hand, it was good to see Dos Santos reward Bair and Raposo for their play, but on the other hand, it seemed weird to see him bench 3 of his best offensive players, especially in a game where they needed to win by 2.
Fear not, however, as it was all part of a plan, as he brought them all on by the 62nd minute.
First, it was Dajome, who replaced the ailing Jasser Khmiri at the back, shifting the ‘Caps into a 4-3-3, and then it was Reyna, who came in for Raposo at the 57th minute.
Lastly, Milinkovic came in for Bair right before the lightning break at the 62nd minute, putting their original front 3 on the pitch, or at least the one they started the tournament with.
“We knew that then going into halftime we would make changes and the players that were on the bench, there was a reason also for that, and they came in to bring explosiveness to get in behind, and that’s what they did,” Dos Santos said on Thursday.
He later added: “It worked guys, it worked, and I say that with a lot of humility. That was the plan. The plan was that we knew that the explosiveness of Yordy and Cristian when it’s 9 a.m. could bring a lot to the team. Because the players get tired, they get sloppy, it’s humid. And the important thing was to keep the 0-0 first, and the plan was first – you have to go by parts, if you if you need to win a game 2-0, and you only think about the 2-0, you forget the process and the process was first we have to defend very well.”
“And once we get that right, and we tire Chicago, we knew we had weapons on the bench to win. Now you also need to make the guys on the bench understand why they’re on the bench, and they need to have the right mindset to understand that to come in and make a difference. And we had that today. Today, it worked, and it doesn’t mean it’s going work everyday, but today it did.”
While the break did play a big role, at least in terms of giving the players already on the pitch a rest, the plan was always to let his forwards run rampant off of the bench, giving fits to tired Chicago defenders.
And boy did they ever do that. Right away after the restart, Dajome, Milinkovic and Reyna proved to be a handful for Chicago’s defence, who had faced nary a threat from the ‘Caps before their entrance.
Earlier in the game, Raposo and Bair were solid but quiet up front, as the 5-3-2 made it hard for them to get service, but once the big 3 came on, allowing the ‘Caps to switch first to that 4-3-3 and then later to a 4-4-2, the game opened right up.
But while Reyna and Dajome played a big role in both goals, their contributions wouldn’t have been possible without Ali Adnan, who directly assisted Reyna on the first goal, before contributing a secondary assist on Dajome’s tally.
We’re used to seeing Adnan make an offensive difference from left back, as there is a reason he was tied for the team lead in assists in 2019, and already had 2 assists in 4 games this year before the Fire clash, but his impact against Chicago was helped by one big change by Dos Santos, who saved his biggest play for last.
Thanks to the new substitution rule, which gives managers 2 extra substitutions, as long as they’re made over 3 periods (or half time), Dos Santos elected to bring on left back Cristian Gutierrez at the same time as Milinkovic, freing up Adnan to play left midfield in the 4-4-2.
Typically, it’s rare you see a full back subbed on or off, especially under your typical 3 substitution rule, but considering how good Adnan can be going forward, and that Dos Santos had the extra changes at his disposal, throwing on Gutierrez may have been his best move that he made all game.
Gutierrez showed the defensive sharpness that Adnan sometimes lacks at the end of the games, while Adnan was freed up to do what he does best, which is to attack, giving the ‘Caps solidity in both areas on the left-hand side.
It’s not a new concept, playing Adnan further forward, as many have suggested it since his arrival last year, but having seen it in action, we may come to see more of it going forward now.
“Yeah, the idea is that Ali was able to play higher on the field and contribute to what he could bring offensively, because we all know what he could bring offensively,” Dos Santos said after the game. “Gutierrez had so much legs in him, energy in him, that we knew with Ali there, and with Guti on the left we would create a lot of two v ones in those areas and that was the objective.”
“Ali played the first ball to the [first] goal, then Ali also won the header that led to the second goal, so it worked. It worked. And it’s another option we have, and it’s good that in the roster you have a lot of options that can help the team.”
For Dos Santos, who seemed to get outwitted by his counterparts Matias Almeyda and Brian Schmetzer, vs San Jose and Seattle, respectively, it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due from a strategic standpoint, and tip a hat to him for getting his tactics spot on against the Fire.
Defence looks better:
But for the ‘Caps to successfully bring in their ringers, the game needed to stay tight, especially at the back, as the last thing that Vancouver needed was to go down a goal, all but extinguishing their hopes at advancing in the process.
And boy, did they ever do that. Despite losing star goalkeeper Max Crepeau to a hand injury against Seattle, in came 21-year-old rookie Thomas Hasal, who did not miss a beat in 40 minutes against the Sounders or in his first start against the Fire, keeping a clean sheet on both occasions.
While the defence as a whole was much better on Thursday, as they looked a far different side than the one that shipped chances and goals against both Seattle and San Jose, Hasal was good in his own right as well, making some big saves to keep the ‘Caps in the game.
A look at the XG map gives you an idea of how Hasal and the back 4 fared, as he and his defence held strong and kept a clean sheet despite the Fire generating 2.14 XG, including some good chances right in the box.
Now, Hasal has an impressive -1.01 G-xG, as he has saved the ‘Caps an equivalent of 1 goal due to his work in the sticks.
At the same time, it’s important to highlight the work done by the defenders around him, as it wouldn’t be fair to only praise Hasal for the clean sheet.
Derek Cornelius was immense in his return to the starting 11, as always found himself in the right place at the right time to clear the ball, which he did a team-leading 12 times on Thursday. It maybe wasn’t the most spectacular performance, but from a centre back, you don’t always want that, and Cornelius showed why on Thursday.
Combined with the play of Veselinovic, who was a rock alongside Cornelius, adding 2 tackles, 6 clearances, 7/7 ground duels won and 6/7 aerial duels won, and Khmiri, who had 2 interceptions, 3 clearances and 2/2 aeriel duels won in an improved performance before coming off, it gave Vancouver a solid defensive spine.
Along with Jake Nerwinski, who made some fantastic tackles in the late stages of the game, and Gutierrez, whose late insertion was vital for a multitude of reasons, and the ‘Caps had a lot to be happy about when it came to their work defensively.
And it wasn’t just at the back, either. In midfield, In Beom Hwang made some big tackles late on, while also adding 2 interceptions and 2 clearances, which along with the play of Russell Teibert, who made 4 clearances, helped Vancouver defend well as a unit.
After looking disjointed in their first 2 games, they found the way to be more cohesive on Thursday, at least defensively.
There is still lots of work to do offensively, mostly in terms of consistent chance creation, but if they can defend like that, you feel like this team has a chance to win going forward, as they have done on the two occasions they’ve kept a clean sheet in 2020.
It might be unrealistic to expect them to keep clean sheets every game, but considering they’ve scored in 4 out of 5 of their games so far in 2020, you’d fancy their chances to win if they keep their goals against to no more than 2 a game more consistently.
“First is the pride, you know the pride of keeping that clean sheet, it was clear in everybody that we needed first not to concede to make sure that we got confident in that side,” Dos Santos said of his teams effort in the clean sheet. “We’re missing guys that help us there, Janio Bikel, Erik Godoy, Andy Rose, and the players that are here needed to step up a notch. The other thing was to start with three centre backs to make sure that we kept that clean sheet going. And yes we were much more defensive in the first half, but it was part of receiving a couple of punches to allow the game to open.”
“And we did a good job there. I think Derek [Cornelius] had a solid game, Ranko [Veselinovic] had a solid game. Jake [Nerwinski] fought with everything he had. Like you said Guti [Cristian Gutierrez] came on. But when I talk about defence, I’m not able to talk about just one line, the goalkeeper, the back four. We all defend together, even if you look at the last 20 minutes or 15 minutes of the game, you see a commitment from our forwards, from our wingers, from our midfielders, from our backline, and that commitment is needed if you want to win games.”
So now, with Sporting Kansas City awaiting them in the Round of 16, they’ll need to keep a similar defensive blueprint if they’re to win.
SKC has scored 6 goals in 3 games so far at MLS is Back, and 13 in 5 total if you include the regular season, so they’ve got offensive firepower, and they’ve only conceded 4 goals in 3 games at MLS is Back, and 5 in 5 games total, so the margins will be very fine if the ‘Caps are to beat them.
As Vancouver learned on opening day, where they fell to SKC by a 3-1 score, if you start slow against SKC, and let them take an early lead, they mostly know how to suffocate a game, as they did quite well against the ‘Caps in February.
If the ‘Caps are to have a chance against their fellow western foes, they need to be more defensively engaged from front-to-back right from the get-go, like they were against the Fire, and then be ruthless with their chances.
Considering that 3 of the 4 goals that SKC have conceded at MLS is Back have come after the 84th minute, they’ve shown surprising cracks at the end of games, even when they’re leading, as was the case for 2 of the 3 goals.
For the ‘Caps to stay in the game, they’ll lean on another strong start from Hasal, who will be their guy in goal for the rest of this tournament, along with some repeat defensive performances from the full complement of defenders and midfielders, who stepped up on Thursday.
It won’t be easy, especially for Hasal, who’ll be playing in a knockout match for the first time as a professional, but according to Dos Santos, he’s not too worried, especially not of Hasal, as he says his young charge has quickly shown a coldness beyond his years.
“Thomas has this very cold type of attitude towards things, not that he doesn’t care about it., not that he doesn’t have a big heart, because he does, but he’s so tuned in and so focused,” Dos Santos said. “And if he’s the number three goalkeeper, the number two, the number one, we saw signs in him since preseason and going into San Diego, when we were in preseason and he played Dallas and he played Columbus, some minutes there. It was always like that. And this is a very good tool to have as a goalkeeper. Sometimes there were moments that were a little bit shaky where decision making wasn’t good, but there’s a lot of good things that he did today, and I’m happy for him.”
“I didn’t get to speak too much with him yet, but I’m sure it’s a dream start when you get your opportunity and you could tell everyone that his first game in MLS that he plays 90 minutes is a huge day for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Now guys, again, I said that in the radio, we all have to do a good job to develop this kid. Me, the staff, Raegyn [Hall] has done a great job in our academy, to help push up Thomas, Youssef [Dahha] has done a great job with him to continue the work that Raegyn did.”
He added: “But we all need to do, media, journalists, radio, coaches, a good job on understanding that he still has a lot of work to do. He’s still young, he still needs to put be put in situations. He’s going to do mistakes also, and we have to understand that.”
A rare VAR victory:
In a rare moment during Dos Santos’s MLS career, the Vancouver Whitecaps got a VAR decision to go in their favour, and boy did it ever come at a good time.
Up 2-0 late, CJ Sapong appeared to score the 2-1 goal that would’ve seen Vancouver get sent packing early, as he seemed to head a rebound off the crossbar into an empty goal.
But then, VAR came to the rescue. It was determined that Sapong used his hand to bring down the ball before thrusting the ball in with his hip, which is a clear violation of the rules.
While many commentators seemed to forget the fact that if an attacker uses his hand in any sort of the way in the box it’s a foul against, a contrast to the idea that defenders can get away with some handballs if their hands are in a natural position, it was the right decision, and came at a perfect time for the ‘Caps.
While it felt quite clear that the goal should and would be called off, knowing the ‘Caps luck with the technology, you just felt that something bad was going to happen, and luckily, they avoided having that happen on Thursday.
The ‘Caps get back in action on Sunday, as they don’t get much turnaround after their victory Thursday, which they’ll surely be still tired from.
It won’t be easy for the team against SKC as a result, with stamina already looking like a big issue due to their depleted roster, but as they showed against the Fire, they can work through that.
No doubt, the weather break played a role, and they won’t have that to count on this time, but if they can smartly use their bench and tactics to their advantage again, who knows what can happen.
They’ve got nothing to lose, which is the most dangerous thing a team can have at their disposal in a tournament, as they’ll be free to play without a lot of the pressure that some teams may face in a knockout situation like this.
So it’ll be interesting to see what the ‘Caps throw at SKC on Sunday. After throwing out some surprise curveballs on Thursday, Dos Santos will be confident, especially heading into a tactical clash with someone he knows very well, Peter Vermes, who he worked with at Kansas a couple of years back.
Dos Santos won’t have many aces up his sleeve, mostly due to his depleted roster, but if he can use what he does have to his advantage, at this point, who knows what can happen.
In MLS, the league where knockout tournaments truly bring out the chaos, you wouldn’t put anything past anyone at this point, which the ‘Caps will certainly hope to be true on Sunday.
Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Sporting Kansas City, Sunday, July 26th, 20h00 PST
Cover Photo via: Matthew Stith/MLS