Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Early defensive lapse undoes improved Vancouver Whitecaps performance in 1-0 loss to Timbers

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column about the Vancouver Whitecaps, we look back at their most recent game, a tight loss to the Portland Timbers, and look at what stood out in what was a unique game, for a multitude of reasons.

On paper, it isn’t a terrible result. 

Taking on the team tied for first in the Western Conference table, the Portland Timbers, to see the Vancouver Whitecaps only lose 1-0 isn’t all that bad, especially a few days after the tough 6-0 loss they took to LAFC. 

At the same time, it’s still a result that stings, especially as they head into the stretch run of this MLS season, with only 9 games remaining on this unique 2020 schedule. 

Taking on a rotated Portland side, it was hoped that the ‘Caps could surprise and snatch a point or 3, but unfortunately, they were essentially undone by one defensive lapse and a lack of clinical finishing, denying them the chance at taking away any of the spoils. 

In a unique ‘home’ game, in which the Whitecaps hosted the Timbers in Portland’s own stadium, it was a tough way to close out a harsh 8 day spell to open up their phase 2 of MLS play, but alas, they do get a short 6-day break here, which after playing 5 games in 15 days, could be hugely beneficial to this team. 

After winning back-to-back games for the first time in over 16 months last week, as part of a run of 3 wins in 4 games, these 2 most recent losses sting, so this break may be at the perfect time for them, as they get a chance to go back to Vancouver for a few days before diving back into the usual training routine down in the US. 

With the other Western Conference co-leaders, the Seattle Sounders, awaiting them at Century Link Field this upcoming Saturday, it won’t be easy for the ‘Caps, but after showing some growth against the Timbers, they’ll be hoping that they can build off of some of the flashes they showed this past Sunday at Providence Park. 

Before we look too far forward, however, here is some of what stood out from that Timbers clash, as the ‘Caps did show some growth, even though it wasn’t enough to ensure them a victory. 

A dearth of chances:

If there is one word that could describe the Whitecaps offensive play so far this season, it would probably be ‘inconsistent’, and that continued on Sunday. 

Offensively, they struggled to test Steve Clark in the Portland goal, only generating 0.79 Expected Goals (xG), which considering that Portland had the 2nd-worst xG against in MLS heading into this game with 1.90, was surprisingly low. 

With only 3 shots on target, it just wasn’t enough to trouble Clark, who is too good of a goalkeeper to not test more regularly with chances, as he’s shown with his play these past few seasons. 

A look at the Whitecaps heatmap shows the issue, however, as they struggled to get the ball into the middle of the park, making it hard to generate any quality chances from good areas. 

They whipped in some good crosses from wide areas, which was good, but at the same time, if you have 54% of the ball as they did, you need to get into more dangerous spots with it. 

When they needed it most, the decision making just wasn’t there in the final third, making for a frustrating evening offensively. 

“We were in the final third, we pushed, we had numbers but just the last pass, the decision making, we weren’t able to create clear-cut chances,” Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos said after the game. “But then the only thing we had to deal with is making sure that we’re aware of transition and counter attack because that’s the same way they hurt Seattle. And we had to be aware of that.”

At the same time, the ‘Caps did generate some dangerous chances, even if they aren’t reflected in the xG charts. 

From those crossed balls, Andy Rose did hit a post early on, Lucas Cavallini missed some easy looking headers and Fredy Montero had a chance in-tight that was denied by Clark, so there were opportunities. 

But against a stingy Portland team, if that’s all you’re going to create and you don’t finish it, you’re not often going to have any success, and that proved to be the case on Sunday. 

“There’s a number of plays that were in the last third and that last pass that the cross just didn’t get there, but I still think that we have four big chances in the 90 minutes and one of those has to get in,” Dos Santos continued. “Unfortunately, it didn’t. Those chances are big and it’s not easy. You don’t come to Portland and generate 20 chances. Nobody does that in the league, it’s hard. They’re a team that defends lower, they’re a team that is a transition team so they don’t give a lot of chances. These four chances are big chances, and one had to get in and unfortunately it didn’t.”

And ultimately, that’s got to be frustrating for the ‘Caps, who are all of a sudden scoreless in 2 games, which after scoring 2+ goals in their last 4 games, and going scoreless in the 4 before that, makes one feel like another scoreless drought is materializing again. 

Had they scored in this one, those thoughts would have likely dissipated, but heading into Seattle game to play a Sounders team that has only allowed 3 goals in their last 4 games, you do wonder if the offence is headed for another dry spell. 

But at the same time, there were some encouraging signs, especially when you consider that both Montero and Cavallini got some good chances. 

Montero is usually a clinical finisher, and as Cavallini looks to find his feet in MLS, you just feel like he’s a few bounces away from going on a good streak, so if they can build off of what they showed on Sunday, that could lead to an offensive breakthrough next week. 

“Of course, it is frustrating,” Cavallini said Sunday. “There are chances that sometimes you know you regret missing, but it is what it is now. Today’s game is done. We got to take it and start getting better, because in a few days and on Saturday we play again so we have to be ready for whatever and there’s no time to feel sorry and feel bad and put our heads down. Especially myself I have to be better and stay positive.”

‘Caps winger Cristian Dajome gets stuck into a challenge with Portland’s Larrys Mabiala on Sunday (Craig Mitchelldyer/MLS)

Decent defence undone by one moment:

But while the offence was underwhelming, the defence took a step forward as a whole, but they were just undone by one costly lapse, one that proved to be game-changing for both sides. 

Mere minutes into the game, the ‘Caps gave up a harmless-looking wide set-piece, but fell asleep while trying to mark it, as Portland’s Felipe Mora beat his marker, Cristian Gutierrez, to the curled near-post ball, nodding home the opening goal. 

After seeing the ‘Caps concede 2 goals off of set-pieces in their 6-0 loss to LAFC last week, it was tough to see them concede via a dead ball early on in this game, especially considering it would be the only goal they conceded for the rest of the game. 

“It’s disappointing to start the game with that goal conceded on the free kick,” Dos Santos said. “I thought it could have been better defender by all of us. Unfortunately, it went in, but then I think in the moments following that the team reacted well

But on the positive side, they mostly kept Portland out of their box, at least until the end of the game when the Whitecaps pushed more numbers forward, so they defended well, but unfortunately, if you make one mistake, it can undo a lot of the good work you do. 

Considering they only conceded 0.66 xG, a far cry from the 2.10 they’ve conceded on average this season, it makes that one goal they conceded hurt even more, as it ruined what could’ve been a morale-boosting clean sheet. 

“Look, it’s important to say the truth, because I think I’m very honest with you guys, Portland only had big chances in the last 5, 6 minutes when we put so many players in, and (they hit us) in counter-attack situations,” Dos Santos said. “Until then, it was very equal, the difference is that they scored from that set-play, and minutes later we have a set-play and we hit the post, you’re talking about details.”

“But I think that the only time that Portland really looked dangerous was in the last 10 minutes in the counter-attack situations we were taking more risks, and then that’s when they became more dangerous. So I think that the improvement and the compactness of the team, the compactness of the midfield, the focus of the back 4 was a huge step up compared with that night in LA.”

So if you’re looking for some good news, that’s now 3 of their last 4 games in which they’ve looked good defensively, so at least there has been some improvement in that department. 

Could they be better? Yes, but as they figure out their best back 4, and considering that they’re facing a goalkeeping injury carousel unlike any other, it’s a good start. 

“It was a tight game, unfortunately, I think that, is it a step up from what we did in LA? Much more, yes, absolutely, there was a lot of good things. Is it the result we want? No, of course not,” said Dos Santos.

Erik Godoy is back, and that’s good news:

And a big step towards finding their best back 4 was the return of Erik Godoy to his natural position, centre back, for the first time all season as he put in a strong shift for the ‘Caps in Portland on Sunday. 

It feels like no coincidence that on a night where the ‘Caps held the Timbers to the low xG numbers that they did, Godoy was everywhere at the back, getting in front of shots and sticking his legs to block vital passes and dribbles. 

He officially finished with 1 tackle, 2 interceptions and 1 block, but it always felt like he did little things that led to attacks being snuffed out, as he was good at harassing the ball carrier as soon as he got close to the ‘Caps box. 

When asked about his performance, Dos Santos was quite complimentary of his Argentine sentinel, making it likely that we see more of him going forward. 

“Very good, I think he was top tonight,” Dos Santos said. “I think he was very good, he did a lot of very good things, and for me, he was top tonight, that was my opinion.”

While the ‘Caps have been inconsistent defensively all season long, it feels like many have forgotten that Godoy exists, but seeing what he brought to the team against the Timbers, it seem likely that people are going to be reintroduced to him and what he brings to a backline during these next 9 games. 

He’s got a defensive presence about him, which his teammate Jake Nerwinski did a great job of describing when asked about him after the match, saying that having Godoy on the pitch makes all of his teammates breathe a little easier. 

“He brings experience, he brings leadership, and he’s very aggressive,” Nerwinski said. “I think that you can easily see that he doesn’t give an inch to anybody. That is something that we definitely need, because as I said before you know sometimes we get caught backing up into our own box, and that doesn’t happen when Erik’s on the field.”

“I feel more comfortable playing with him because I know that he’s got my back, I know that he’s going to be aggressive. So that’s something good that we had today.”

With Derek Cornelius having taken a big step forward this year, could Godoy and Cornelius be the pairing the ‘Caps run with going forward?

Considering the last time they played together as centre backs was in a 1-0 win over DC United in August of 2019, it’s something worth exploring, at the very least. 

Evan Bush comes in as an emergency solution:

Lastly, the big bit of news to drop during the game was not actually about the match itself, but about a trade, as it was announced that the ‘Caps had brought in longtime MLS veteran, Evan Bush, to augment their goalkeeping depth in lights of what has quickly turned into a mini-GK crisis. 

With the injuries sustained by Maxime Crepeau (hand) and Thomas Hasal (leg and head) likely to keep the two keepers out for the rest of the year now, that left Bryan Meredith and 18-year-old Isaac Boehmer as the lone remaining ‘Caps goalkeepers on the roster, hence the move. 

But while they probably needed a keeper, the decision to trade for Bush to be that guy to help solve the crisis is a curious one, as he appears to have a guaranteed deal through 2021 at what will likely come in at around ~$350 000, which considering that the ‘Caps have 2 quality keepers in Crepeau and Hasal, seems a bit much. 

Getting any sort of goalkeeper in for the rest of season is smart, but on the other hand, you do wonder if loaning in a Canadian Premier League player could’ve been the better ploy. 

Yes, Bush is an experienced keeper, but at that price, and considering that he hasn’t played at all in 2020 after being one of the worst keepers statistically in MLS in 2019, picking up a CPL player like Callum Irving or Triston Henry for a few months could’ve been the safer bet. 

It’s very possible that the ‘Caps have some sort of plan for Bush’s future, be it via trade, buyout or expansion, but if they don’t, and Bush gets stuck on the roster next year, eating up valuable cap money, you will wonder about the move to bring him in. 

If he can help the team out in the short-term, great, but on a young team that will need to make moves this offseason to take a step forward next year, you just hope that this move for Bush doesn’t cost them long-term.

Looking Forward:

Now, a big rest week awaits the Whitecaps, who as mentioned earlier, are heading back to Vancouver to see their families before returning to the US to train and prepare for their clash with the Sounders next Saturday. 

That’ll give them some much-needed time to rest tired legs, before getting a chance to work on the things that they need to work on in training, such as their play in the final third and through midfield, as well as defending set-pieces, allowing them to give the Sounders a good fight on Saturday. 

It won’t be easy, as the Sounders have looked really good so far this season, but as the ‘Caps drag themselves along, still very much in the thick of an unusually tight Western Conference race where only 9 points separate 1st and 12th, they’ll look to find an unlikely victory in a tough venue. 

They did show some signs of growth, which at the very least, gives some hope that they can continue to takes steps in their next game, showing that the loss to LAFC was just a blip, not the start of a trend. 

As a trying year continues on, that’s all that they can try to do, so it’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to execute that against Seattle, which will be a very good test for them to see where they actually stand in the Western Conference hierarchy right now. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Seattle Sounders, Saturday, October 3rd, 2020, 19:00 PST (CenturyLink Field, Seattle)

Cover Photo via: Craig Mitchelldyer/MLS

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