Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Home-cooking helps Vancouver Whitecaps find offence in gutsy win over TFC

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps, we look back at the ‘Caps victory over Toronto FC on the weekend, and see what paved the way for a memorable win at home over their eastern foes. 

Maybe some home-cooking was exactly what the doctor ordered. 

Be it a return to their home stadium, the recent time off, a return to more of an attacking formation, or a combination of all of the above, the Vancouver Whitecaps came out strong this past weekend, doing well to grab all 3 points in a big victory over Toronto FC. 

After going through a 3 game road trip that was not kind to them at all, as they were outscored 6-0 and only generated 4 shots on target, one of those being a saved penalty, there was a lot of talk about the ‘Caps offence in the lead-up to this game, and to give them credit, they silenced that talk with 3 huge goals. 

A mere 17 minutes into the game, they broke their scoreless drought, which at that point had run nearly 400 minutes (nearly 4 and a half games for those keeping track), and then didn’t look back from there, adding 2 more in what turned out to be a huge 3-2 win over their rivals. 

All of a sudden, after looking dead in the water a week ago, they find themselves still clinging on in the Canadian Championship, depending on what Toronto and Montreal do in their 3rd game this week, and they’re not far off in the MLS’s Western Conference playoff race, as most teams around them have seemed to have been hit with a case of the ‘draw-itis’ in recent games. 

Obviously, the progress they made in this game could be erased if they come out flat next week in their first of 2 back-to-back home games against Montreal, but after seeing what they’re capable of in this win over TFC, a top 3 team in the Eastern Conference, they’ll be confident in their ability to grow off of what they showed this game. 

Despite looking a lot better than they had in a while, Marc Dos Santos was actually rather subdued in his praise for his team after the game, as for him, he only feels like his team his scratching the surface in terms of what they’re capable of as a group, so it feels like the best is still yet to come for these ‘Caps.

So in this, our day (day, day?) after column, we look at what helped them grab that result on Saturday, as well as what they’ll want to keep improving on in games to come to work towards that, starting with their upcoming games against the Montreal Impact at BC Place. 

The long-awaited offensive breakthrough:

As it slowly grew, it was becoming harder and harder to find words to describe the ‘Caps offensive slump, which as mentioned earlier, spanned over 4 and a half games worth of minutes. 

That’s a long time, so no doubt that the ‘Caps were looking to turn that around on Saturday, but against a TFC defence that had only allowed 1 goal through 4 games of phase 1 MLS play, it wasn’t going to be easy. 

Or so you thought. 

A mere 17 minutes into the game, the ‘Caps decided that they’d had enough of the slump, so they passed the ball around a bunch of times, just over 25 to be exact, in a 90 second plus passing move, one that culminated with Ali Adnan crossing the ball right onto Lucas Cavallini’s head to open the score. 

And in a sense, it was a perfect way to break the slump. 

Obviously, there’s the link between Cavallini, the ‘Caps most expensive signing ever, and the Vancouver drought, as the Canadian forward was also looking to bust a lengthy slump of his own. 

Through 5 games in MLS, he had yet to tickle twine despite having 2 penalties and a plethora of other chances, so to see him finally break free with a goal was a huge plus, for both him and the team. 

“It felt great,” Cavallini said after the game. “It’s something I’ve wanted for a while. I finally got it deservingly. Got it. There’s one in the books for now and now we focus on the next game against Montreal. We have a lot of work to do and with goals comes confidence so I’m hoping we keep going on this track.”

And while Cavallini’s opening goal was a feel-good moment, the ‘Caps 2nd and 3rd goals were also quite special. 

First, there was Michael Baldisimo’s first MLS goal, which not to spill too much ink about, is about good as a first goal as you’re going to see someone score, unless you’re Theo Bair.  

After, it was Jake Nerwinski, who showed instincts in the box more akin to a striker than a right back, as he helped the ‘Caps grab their 3rd and final lead of the game after TFC had clawed back after each of the first Vancouver goals. 

To see the ‘Caps break the slump in style, with 3 nice goals, it was positive, especially after going through such a rough patch offensively, one that you could tell wore on the players a bit. 

No doubt, while you don’t want to talk about how a slump can affect you, breaking it was on the ‘Caps minds, and Dos Santos said as much after the game. 

“I know we have goals in us, I saw it in preseason, I saw it not only when we were in San Diego, but also in Portland,” Dos Santos said. “We scored at home against Sporting Kansas City, we scored in LA, we even missed a penalty shot, we could’ve easily had 4 goals in our first 2 games, and then the drought really came about during Orlando, we weren’t able to find ourselves.”

“Look, it’s a positive thing that we scored today, 3 goals, it’s a positive thing that we were able to get out of this with 3 points, but it could’ve been 4 goals, if we had more of the ball, Cava had a great chance in a set play to score another goal, but look, I’m happy with the 3 points, but maybe I’m too hard, but we could still improve so much as a club.”

A glimpse of the future:

But while that first goal was good to get Cavallini off the mark, as well as the ‘Caps, we have to talk about how it came about. 

After constantly talking about keeping possession and emulating teams such as Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool on the offensive end of things since last season, the ‘Caps attack had looked a lot more like Norwich City, than say, Liverpool, in the 1.5 years since Dos Santos had taken charge. 

They’d shown flashes last season, as well as in preseason and the first 2 games of the season before COVID hit this year, but ever since they returned this summer, aside from a clinical counter-attacking game against San Jose, as well as a 10-minute burst against Chicago, even those flashes had disappeared. 

That changed on the first goal, in which the ‘Caps scored their best team goal that they’ve scored in a while. 

And while the end product was nothing to write home about, as it was a pretty routine cross by Adnan that was met by a pretty routine header from Cavallini, the build-up was nothing but pure footballing magic from the ‘Caps. 

Forced to start in their own end after dispossessing Toronto in their box, they then strung together 3 passes, including one to Cavallini that forced Laurent Ciman to foul him a little higher up the pitch, giving the ‘Caps a chance to restart. 

From there, they took advantage of that, stringing together a 25+ pass move, one that saw them go up and down the pitch several times in look of an opening, one that they eventually found via the clever feet of Baldisimo, who did well to progress the ball to Adnan with an intricate switch. 

So while it might not grab the headlines as much as Baldisimo’s long-ranged effort did, or be as vital to the victory as Nerwinski’s quick thinking in the box was, it was a goal that was important for another big reason: it showed people that the ‘Caps can play nice football. 

“That’s actually one of the clips we showed at half time, when we spoke about the need of having more of the ball, and the need of having more possession,” Dos Santos said after the game when asked about the goal. “I’m a firm believer that the more you have the ball, the more that you control the games, the less opportunities you give to your opponent, the more numbers you can have in the opponent’s midfield, so of course, I thought our first goal was very well worked.”

“It was all that I think we can be about, we need those actions to happen more, but that’s something that we’re going to highlight this week.”

And while the goal was nice, his last phrase is exactly what you want to hear from him, as you’d absolutely want to see a lot more of this going forward. 

They haven’t shown much of that at all as of late, and on the game Saturday, there was maybe only a few other moments of possession that were as promising as that one, but if they can grow on it, then maybe the idea of the ‘Caps playing fun football at BC Place one day isn’t as far-off as people think. 

It’s not an easy way to play, but if they can keep working on putting together long spells of possession like that, while avoiding giving the ball away cheaply, it’s definitely an achievable goal for them. 

“We have a lot to improve on,” Cavallini said after the game. “I think we need to keep the ball more, it’s something we lack, we give the ball away too easily, we lose the ball easily, and it’s something we need to train on towards these next two games remaining.”

Baldisimo continues to shine:

But while the goal itself was impressive from a team perspective, the work that Baldisimo did to progress the ball forward 3 times, including on the final switch, was vital for the ‘Caps, as he showed the sort of dynamic nature not often seen in the Vancouver midfield these past few years. 

In only his 2nd MLS game, he looked like a player 10 years his senior, as he was calm, composed, and just overall played like the sort of midfield lynchpin that many have called for the ‘Caps to sign these past few years. 

Often, we see most youngsters dip their toes into the water when thrust into professional action, but instead, Baldisimo has dived in and swam without fear, with his strong mentality arguably being the biggest surprise about him so far. 

Since his days in the academy, he was always touted as someone with a strong passing range, good technical ability, and a good shot, but you never know how someone will show those skills when they jump up a level, especially when they’re young. 

Not with Baldisimo, however, who has arguably been the ‘Caps most confident player these past 2 games, despite also being the youngest ‘Caps player to see the pitch in those 2 matches.

He demands the ball, he loves to play it forward, and he’s not shy to get stuck in, all things you don’t often see from youngsters in their first MLS minutes. 

The stats back up that claim, as he made things happen on both sides of the ball, especially the offensive one, playing a big role in the first 2 goals, while also helping the ‘Caps keep things relatively tidy at the back. 

So in a sense, maybe it shouldn’t have been all that surprising to see him score an absolute rocket on his debut, as his confidence and technical ability came together to provide a pretty memorable moment. 

(Yes, this is the 2nd time this goal has popped up in this piece, but it’s that good, so may as well put it up again.)

But while his first 2 games were extremely promising, and he is certainly looking like a long-term midfield saviour for a team in need of them, we do also have to pump the brakes a little bit when talking about him. 

Yes, he seems to have the confidence required to be an impact player, but he’s only 20, and we’re only 2 games into his career, which is to say that there will also be rough moments at some point in the future. 

As long as he keeps growing game-by-game, which Dos Santos made sure to stress that he is, those moments shouldn’t be that bad, provided he fights through them, which as we’ve seen with his steely resolve, you wouldn’t expect to be a problem. 

“I thought again, bit by bit, he grows, but there’s things that in the one-v-one defending when he closes down that I think we could help him.” Dos Santos said. “The defensive side of his game, he could grow. On the offensive side of his game, we need to find him more in possession, he needs to show himself more. We could work with him a lot on angles to receive in dangerous parts because he has quality technically, switches the play well, he finds players in forward lines and then he has a good delivery on set play. I’m happy for him because it’s been a lot of work, a lot of frustration for him.”

“Fighting injuries, fighting cramps, fighting to get a chance one day, and we were fair with him. He fought for it, he worked for it, we were fair, he got his chance and I’m very happy he got this goal also.”

And while his play has been the huge storyline, it’s also nice to have another homegrown kid from the Academy, one from Burnaby, as well, to talk about, so overall it’s just been a great story that Baldisimo has written so far, and from what we’ve seen, he’s far from finishing writing it, either. 

Godoy’s back?

In another bit of good news, Erik Godoy made his return to the lineup on Saturday, as he finally got a chance to get his legs under him in a professional environment for the first time in nearly a year. 

As he’s struggled through injuries all 2020, with setback-after-setback derailing his chance at making his debut, just to see him go 45 minutes without too much trouble was a huge plus, especially considering that he didn’t look that out of place against a good TFC side. 

He’s still got a long way to go before he can be the rock that he was for the ‘Caps last year, but Vancouver has depth around him, so they won’t be shy in taking him along slow. 

With the 5 substitute rule now in place, it gives Dos Santos a chance to ease someone like Godoy back in without too much worry, as it doesn’t really take away from his ability to make changes. 

Speaking of Dos Santos, he had a pretty blunt assessment of his high-priced Argentine defender, whom he feels is still far away from his best, but is on a good track towards returning there. 

Considering that he’s had to hit the ground running here with a lack of preseason, it’s not that harsh for Dos Santos to say that he feels like Godoy is working his way towards his top form.  

“He was okay,” Dos Santos said honestly of Godoy. “I think he had trouble pressing and reading if he has to press in front of him and stay, sometimes a little bit casual, but not casual because he’s casual, but casual because things come a little bit faster for him, you’re talking about a guy his last game was 10 months ago. It’s a player that has quality, it’s a player that we have to find and help him get a rhythm, so for him, at the end of the day, to get these 45 minutes it’s a good wake-up call to say this is the rhythm, this is the level, I’ve been 10 months out, how fast can I reintegrate with everything.”

“Erik didn’t play any exhibition games, Erik didn’t play any preseason or any preparations, it’s straight in against Toronto who has players in wide positions like Pozuelo that gets there, like Piatti that creates problems, even Osorio that finds himself in those pockets, so at the end of the day I think it was okay, but it shows for him that he has still a lot of work to do to get to 100%.”

Home sweet home: 

Lastly, it was good to see Vancouver return to BC Place, even if it was without fans, for the first time in 189 days. 

Just being in the stadium certainly seemed to give them a lift, and it’s something that Dos Santos talked about after the game, as the ‘Caps seemed freed up from the wear and tear that playing away from home so long can have on you. 

“I think it helps,” Dos Santos said. “ I think it helps a lot because recovery is different, mentality is different. The fact that you’re able to be home, you’re able to be with your family, you’re able to come to training with a good mindset, and just feel that you’re able to be in a position that you always feel like 100 per cent physically.”

“When you’re on the road, it’s not always the case. It’s not that easy and I think that for sure that helped us today.”

It hasn’t been an easy season for Vancouver, who has had to travel a lot already, and based on what we’ve heard for a potential phase 2, will likely have lots more travel still to do, so just to have these 3 home games in a row is huge. 

And if they can find a way to win these next 2 games, as well, then it can give hope that when the ‘Caps are able to play in front of fans at home again, BC Place can maybe return to being the fortress it once was a few years ago. 

Looking Forward:

All-in-all, it was a good game for the ‘Caps, who looked a lot more alive on Saturday than they had in recent weeks. 

Obviously, this result doesn’t mean anything if they don’t back it up with improved performances on the upcoming back-to-back with the Impact, but at least they showed us that they’re not dead in the water quite yet, so that’s a start. 

With a week to keep on working on what they’ve been working on since returning from out east, along with the time to rehab tired bodies, it’s hoped that they can come out strong next week and give the Impact payback for a 2-0 win from 2 weeks ago. 

After losing the next match after each of their 2 victories so far this season, this will be a good chance to build momentum, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the Impact. 

In a season filled with stops and starts, just to get some flow back would be huge, so hopefully the ‘Caps can find another 3 points, but more importantly, find some consistency in their game, using this result as a springboard. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Montreal Impact, Sunday, September 13th, 18h30 PST/21H30 EST (BC Place, Vancouver)

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