Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Emotional fireworks overshadow Vancouver Whitecaps defensive woes in 4-2 loss to Impact

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps, we look back at the most recent Vancouver loss, a 4-2 result to the Montreal Impact on Sunday, and look at what ailed the ‘Caps, including some defensive lapses, disciplinary woes and more, before finishing with some positive points worth highlighting from the game.

With smoke hanging over the pitch all game, it almost felt like they pre-empted all of the fireworks that would be to follow. 

In only their third home match of the season, the Vancouver Whitecaps hosted the Montreal Impact in a big match for both teams, as the ‘Caps looked to leapfrog their way into an MLS playoff spot with a victory, while the Impact looked to get the first of 2 wins required to qualify for the Canadian Championship final. 

And while the ‘Caps, who were coming off a big victory over Toronto FC at home a week prior, came out strong, scoring the first goal, it would be all Montreal from that point on, as they scored 4 unanswered goals after the opener, en route to a commanding 4-2 victory. 

But even though the ‘Caps defensive collapse was a big story, there were all sorts of other fireworks on the pitch Sunday, as both sides saw themselves go down to 10 men in the second half, with both teams seeming to reignite the once-famed derby between these two teams from back in the 2000s. 

For Vancouver, it was not the way that they wanted to see the second of 3 consecutive home games go, as they failed to build off of the momentum they seemed to gain after beating TFC, with Montreal doing well to control nearly every aspect of the game in this one. 

Now, they head into a rematch with this same Montreal side, 2 days later on Wednesday, wondering if they’ll be able to match up with an Impact side that ruthlessly punished their mistakes on Sunday. 

You know the ‘Caps will be out for revenge, having been embarrassed on their own pitch, especially considering that they’ll be able to eliminate the Impact from the Canadian Championship with a win or a draw, but after seeing this one, you almost feel like an Impact win is a foregone conclusion. 

To be fair, that goes against the cardinal sin of MLS, which is to never predict a result based on the prior match, with the league’s teams being quite good at having a short memory and moving on, but at the same time, it did seem like Montreal was in Vancouver’s heads at times during this game. 

Despite that, there were some positives to extract for Vancouver, even though they were thoroughly outclassed for a good chunk of the match. 

Their kids continue to put in work, they had some flashes offensively in the first 15 minutes and once down to 10 men, and they didn’t quit on the game, which does partly outweigh some of the negatives, such as the play of their highest-paid players, their defensive breakdowns and the 15 minute second half calamity that saw them fall apart. 

In this one, as we usually do, we’ll pick out some of what stood out, both good and bad, from what was an overall entertaining game between both teams, even though the ‘fun’ factor definitely swayed more in the favour of the Impact. 

Deja vu with the lineup?

To start things off, the ‘Caps came out with a bit of a surprising lineup, maybe not in terms of the formation nor the players, but because for the first time in 2020, they didn’t make any changes from the week prior. 

Electing to stick with their 4-3-1-2 that had success against Toronto a week ago, the ‘Caps were hoping for some offensive magic similar to what they showed against TFC, and to give them credit, they got a bit of that, at least if two goals that they scored is to be any indication. 

While the defence left a lot to be desired, it is nice to see Vancouver finally get some continuity in its offensive game after a topsy-turvy summer filled with changes and unpredictability, so hopefully they can build off of that in their games going forward. 

Defensive woes a worry:

And when it is said that the defensive game left a lot to be desired, it really did leave a lot to be desired, as the ‘Caps were far from their best defensively once again on Sunday. 

For the 5th time in 10 regular-season games this year, they allowed 3+ goals, as for whatever reason, they have a habit of snowballing in games, leading to multiple-goal efforts. 

That 3 goal threshold is huge, as well, because in games they’ve allowed 3+ goals, they’re 0-5, but in games where they allowed 2 or less, they’re 3-2, with the two losses being a pair of games where they were shut out 1-0 and 2-0, respectively. 

Offensively, they seem to be a team that aside from that 400+ minute stretch last month where they failed to score a goal, can get you 1 or 2 a night (they’ve scored a goal in 6 out of 10 games, and have scored more than two goals 4 times, with the 4 games where they didn’t score all coming as part of that futility streak). 

But as easily as they can get you 1 or 2, they can also tend to give up 2 or 3, which is certainly a huge problem for a team that despite the numbers just stated, struggles to generate chances. 

There’s a reason why they were bottom 5 in MLS in Expected Goals heading into this one, and that’s because they struggle to consistently get the ball forward, but for whatever reason, when they do get it up, they’re ridiculously clinical. 

On the flip side, their defence is also bottom 5 in MLS, as they sat near the bottom in Expected Goals against, as they consistently give up high-danger shots, and they only added to that in this one, giving up 3.4 xG to Montreal. 

And from a visual standpoint, the goals that they concede are not fun to watch, as they usually arise from a comedy of errors. 

As an example, on the first Impact goal, Leonard Owusu gave away the ball, with his full backs caught high up the pitch. Montreal then pounces, playing Romell Quioto into the space where the left back would’ve been, and he gets a good shot off, which then bounces to Orji Okwonkwo, who is in the space where the right back should’ve been, allowing him to score.

On the third Impact goal, Okwonkwo cuts in too easily, sucking in defenders, before playing in Saphir Taider in behind where the ‘Caps right back should’ve been, and he plays a low ball across, which Samuel Piette reacts first to, while the defenders watch, allowing him to score. 

Then on the 4th goal, the midfielders are too slow to close down Piette at the top of the box, he plays one behind the defence, who are sleeping, allowing Quioto to roll the ball into a gaping cage. 

Those are 3 tough goals to give up, especially considering how preventable they all could’ve been. 

“I don’t want to go through the details because I didn’t watch the goals yet,” ‘Caps head coach, Marc Dos Santos, said after the game. “But from the bench, it looked very passive, so very disappointing and I have to watch the plays again to give you more details of what I think. But it looks, it looked easy from the bench.”

Going forward, you do wonder what the ‘Caps have to do to change things, because something clearly is bothering them defensively right now. 

For whatever reason, despite having good pieces at the back, their puzzle is not coming together, and it’s hampering their ability to win games. 

Right now, they’re going to need to have to start working on little details, such as having a cohesive defensive line, attacking the ball, closing down midfielders and limiting crosses. 

No matter who Dos Santos puts out on the pitch, they’ve got to start working at those fundamentals of the game, making the ‘Caps a lot harder to play against in their own third, because if not, it’s hard to see them winning many games going forward. 

“Yes, it’s frustrating, but we have to find the right solution as soon as possible because games are going to be coming very fast and we won’t have time to rest or train,” Dos Santos said. “We have to find the right combinations and we need everybody because the amount of games that are coming towards us are going make us stretch and make sure we find the right combinations.”

“But that right combination cannot play every night because of the way the schedule is going to be. So what we need is just that everybody that’s called in being ready to go, he needs to bring his best game.”

As said by Andy Rose, the ‘Caps know that they’ve got to limit crosses into the box, they know that they’ve got to limit the space they give, and just overall by more cohesive in defensive moments, they’ve just got to find a way to execute right now. 

“Look there’s a lot of factors, we don’t want to suddenly become a group that makes excuses.” Rose said. “Without a doubt, you’re right. We’ve conceded too many goals. I think it’s all connected in how we play and obviously, it actually really starts with how well we’re able to keep possession of the ball, because the amount of crosses that we have to deal with is too many.”

“At times we don’t get enough pressure on the ball, and a lot of that comes from turnovers, from just our ability to play simple football, to keep the ball I think in moments, especially last week against Toronto and probably in the second half today we showed a real ability to do that, and obviously that’s the best way to defend is when you have possession of the ball. And so far, you know that that’s a real area we need to continue to grow and grow quickly.”

Cavallini and Adnan’s tough exits:

But while the ‘Caps defensive woes were certainly the big point of worry from a tactical perspective, the play of Ali Adnan and Lucas Cavallini, the ‘Caps two highest-paid players, was also a big cause for concern. 

It’s not that they didn’t play at their best, which isn’t the end of the word, because those games can happen to everyone, but it’s how they reacted to their frustrating evenings, which was less than exemplary. 

First looking at Adnan, let’s not shy away from saying it: he didn’t have a good game matched up against Zachary Brault-Guillard, who was exposing him defensively, while also putting in one heck of a shift defensively. 

After being the ‘Caps man of the match last time out against TFC, at least aside from Michael Baldisimo, it was a tough performance for Adnan, who looked a bit off the pace. 

And you know what? That’s not the end of the world. Yes, as a DP full back, you have higher expectations of him, but sometimes things don’t go your way, and good on Dos Santos for recognizing that and taking him off for Cristian Gutierrez in the 55th minute, who is a really good left back and deserves more minutes. 

But for Adnan to sulk off the pitch, go straight to the showers and then return fully dressed 5 minutes later is not the reaction you want to see after getting taken off. 

Yes, Adnan is a competitive player, and he’s surely kicking himself for not playing well, but as a leader on the team, you’ve got to take your bib, sit on the bench, and encourage your teammates. 

Take David Milinkovic, as an example. Like Adnan, when he was taken off in the 73rd minute, he wasn’t very happy about it, and you could hear him voice his displeasure inside of BC Place. 

Instead of sulking, however, he went straight to the bench, put on a bib and was one of the most vocal players, doing a good job at pushing his teammates forward from the bench. 

To be fair, Milinkovic came off a lot later, and he was arguably the ‘Caps best player on the night, two things which could’ve had him feeling more positive, but you certainly have to applaud him for setting a good example on the bench. 

Then when we look at Cavallini, it was not a great night for the Canadian, who looked frustrated, despite scoring his first MLS goal a week prior against Toronto. He picked up a silly yellow card in the first half after misplaying a pass, as he put Luis Binks in a headlock, giving the referee an easy chance to book him. 

Those things happen, so it’s not the end of the world, but as a veteran player, he has to know that on a yellow, he has to be careful. 

And to give him credit, there was one moment in the second half where he was in a position to make a tackle he usually would’ve made, but sensing that Victor Wanyama was about to make a quick pass, making it hard for him to time his tackle, he eased up, keeping himself out of the book. 

But then to run into Clement Diop a bit after is reckless, especially on a yellow. It was tough for him to chase down the ball, as the pass from Fredy Montero was a bit off, but he also could’ve done better at avoiding catching Diop in the head with his boot. 

The yellow card isn’t the problem, however, as those things happen. You hate to see someone sent off like that, but it is a yellow, and unfortunately Cavallini was going to have to pay the price with a sending off and a 1-game suspension for picking up a red card. 

What he doesn’t need to do is fail to exit the field after his expulsion, before getting into it with 19-year-old Luis Binks and Diop, causing a brouhaha. 

Now, all of a sudden what looked like a simple 1-game suspension could easily be 3-5 games, as getting into it with someone after being sent off is not a good look, especially for a player of Cavallini’s calibre. 

Obviously, it’s a tough time for him, as he wants to score goals and get opportunities to do so, both things that aren’t falling for him right now, but losing his cool like that is not going to help him change that, especially considering that he’ll probably be out for a few games now. 

“We’re going to talk because he wasn’t able to take his foot out on Diop. So, is it a yellow card? Yes. So it’s a second yellow card. It’s right from the ref that had a very hard night like us, we had a hard night, the ref too, had a very hard night,” Dos Santos said of Cavallini’s card after the game. “But that decision of the second yellow on Cava is the right one, because he wasn’t able to take his foot off. But then we would expect Cava to be better in the reaction after, because what Cava needs to understand it’s, it’s not this game.”

“It’s the other games and right now with the reaction after, we have to see what could happen unfortunately because he has to be able to control those moments because sometimes things don’t go your way, and sometimes it’s hard nights, and sometimes we need to know how to control our frustrations and hopefully it’s going to be a huge learning process for him.”

These games happen, and as the youngest team in MLS, you’d excuse the ‘Caps for being a bit frustrated, but at the same time, you’d expect that sort of negative reaction from the kids, not two of the ‘Caps highest-paid players, which is the most frustrating part from their perspective. 

At the same time, as Dos Santos said, it’s a good opportunity to learn from, and hopefully they can improve that going forward, because on a young team looking to grow, it’s the last thing you want to see from some of your leaders. 

Revenge is best served with 3 points, not fisticuffs:

Speaking along those lines, despite seeing two red cards, including an unnecessarily dangerous one from Emmanuel Maciel for the Impact, especially considering that they were up 4-2, don’t expect Vancouver to get caught up into settling scores in the rematch on Wednesday. 

“Revenge doesn’t win soccer games, to say battle, we battled, battles don’t win soccer games,” Dos Santos said after the game. “To win soccer games, it’s the quality you have in your team, the decision making you take in key moments, so our talk has to be about that”

And he’s bang-on with that assessment. 

This isn’t hockey, where you may settle a score the next game by dropping the gloves, leaving the two combatants to sit off for 5 minutes before rejoining the play. 

Any fisticuffs will end badly for both teams, or just for the ‘Caps, so they definitely won’t look for them, and there’s no reason for them to go after other players with unnecessarily malicious tackles, especially as they look to win games. 

As this rivalry reignites, you’d like to just see more passion from the ‘Caps in how they defend, their intent to want to go into challenges and their desire to score, but they should be looking to one-up Montreal with their passion, not try to settle any scores. 

Nothing wrong with a little passion, but when it’s misguided, as we saw on Sunday, it can hurt your team, so the ‘Caps will want to be careful. 

Release the Bair:

Bair reacts shortly after scoring his first goal of the MLS season on Sunday (Keveren Guillou)

To finish off on more of a positive note, it’s worth highlighting Theo Bair’s play on Saturday, as he was dangerous throughout 55 minutes for the ‘Caps up front. 

As we said after MLS is Back, he was due for more minutes, and he’s gotten them, playing in 4 of the 5 ‘Caps games since returning from MLS is Back, starting in two of them. 

And what’s been impressive is how complete his game is becoming as a striker for the ‘Caps, as his growth has been huge since last year. 

Going into preseason in 2019, he was still a physical presence, but his touch was heavy, his movement was tentative, and he was lacking in confidence, making him a non-factor in those early preseason games. 

But now, as he’s gotten minutes last year and this year, he’s become very confident, and there’s no better example than that first goal, which was a world-class finish from him. 

To make that run, take a few touches, look up and hit that hard and low into the far corner is not an easy skill for a striker, and considering that Bair was doing that at full speed, it gives you an idea of how far he’s come. 

Aside from the finish, his game is a lot more complete now than it was a year ago, as he’s really grown into his role as a striker. He drops back defensively, he knows how to get the ball in between lines and open up space for his teammates, he’s not scared of dribbling into space, and just overall he does the little things that make good strikers great. 

It’s great to see, as he already posed a matchup problem for defenders due to his physical tools, which are his height and speed, but he now also causes them problems with his intelligent hold-up play, clever runs and passes. 

For a striker that’s key, because they’re not going to be able to score every game, but if they can help your team out even when struggling, it makes it easier for a coach to keep throwing them back in. 

While he was a man of few words after the game, understandably so given the loss, you could tell that getting a goal for all of his troubles was a nice reward, so hopefully he can build off getting his first of the season. 

“It felt great.” Bair said. “I’ve been wanting to play a lot and to finally get one felt amazing.”

And with Cavallini gone for at least one game, if not more, look for Bair to get a few more starts here, allowing him to build off of what has been a really solid sophomore campaign for him. 

Shoutouts to Nerwinski, Milinkovic:

Lastly, it felt important to shout out the play of Jake Nerwinski and David Milinkovic, who have quietly been two of the ‘Caps best players of the season. 

While maybe it’s a little less quiet in the case of Milinkovic, who’s 3 primary assists are tied for the team lead with Ali Adnan, certainly Nerwinski has put up a good case for unsung player of the year, as he’s quietly been really impressive since in MLS is Back, in particular. 

For Milinkovic, he’s definitely put up a good case for the ‘Caps to make his loan a permanent signing, as he’s been a bright spot offensively for Vancouver, be it as a winger, or a number #10. 

Take Sunday, as an example. Playing as the #10, he led the team with 4 key passes, had 1 primary assist, 1 shot on target and completed 95% of his passes, while also getting stuck in defensively with a team-leading 3 tackles. 

His energy offensively is contagious at times, as his ability to press and run and defenders is key, but he’s also good at picking out his teammates, as his passing numbers show. 

And then in the case of Nerwinski, he’s just been really solid defensively, which on a team that has been all over the place, has been a much-needed asset. 

He might not have the flashiest stats, as he only averages 0.7 tackles, 0.2 blocks and 0.7 interceptions a game defensively, and he is yet to register a key pass, but he also has 2 goals and some of the most memorable tackles and blocks of any player this season. 

As Dos Santos has tried experimenting with trying natural centre back Erik Godoy at right back, as well as midfielder Janio Bikel, Nerwinski has quietly ignored that and put up consistent performances, which considering how volatile Adnan can be on the left, is a big asset for the ‘Caps. 

With the ‘Caps struggling defensively, look for Nerwinski to slot back in soon, possibly allowing Godoy to go back to centre back to pair with Derek Cornelius, which would be good news considering the pair had good chemistry last season. 

But all-in-all, during a year in which the kids have so far stolen the show, it’s important to highlight the play of some of the veterans, which in this case are Nerwinski and Milinkovic, who have quietly been putting together a good run of games as of late. 

Looking Forward:

Now, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens to the ‘Caps on Wednesday. 

Yes, for the third time this season, they failed to win back-to-back games, but they still have a chance to avoid what they did in the other two attempts, and that was to lose at least two games after winning 1. 

With the chance to deny the Impact a chance to play in the Canadian Championship final also on the line, without mentioning the opportunity to push back up towards a playoff spot, there’s no shortage of incentives for Dos Santos and his team to get back on track. 

While they’ve got some things to sort out before then, especially defensively, they’ll have 180 minutes worth of tape from their 2 games against the Impact to judge, so they’ll know what they have to do to disrupt Thierry Henry’s side. 

It won’t be easy, but they know what they have to do, now it’s just up to them to try and execute that. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Montreal Impact, Wednesday, September 16th, 2020, 18h30 PST, 21h30 EST (BC Place, Vancouver)

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