Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Midfield woes, second-half meltdown sink Vancouver Whitecaps versus Sounders

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps, we break down the ‘Caps latest result, a 3-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field on Saturday. 

Another weekend, another tough result against a Cascadian rival. 

A week removed from having lost to the Portland Timbers by a score of 1-0, the Vancouver Whitecaps were hoping to avoid a similar result to their other Cascadian rivals, the Seattle Sounders, on Saturday. 

Unfortunately for them, they would be unable to do that, however, as they fell 3-1, pushing them back to the bottom of the Western Conference, where they now sit tied with the LA Galaxy for last place with 15 points. 

All of a sudden, after things seemed so great 2 weeks ago, as they sat on a 2-game win streak, they’ve lost 3 games in a row, putting them back in a precarious position with only 8 games to go. 

Yes, things remain as tight as ever in the Western Conference, but you do start to wonder if the ‘Caps can stay alive in the race for much longer, with each loss seeming to make their chances of making the playoffs fainter and fainter. 

That could all change with a couple of wins, of course, but considering how much they’ve struggled as of late, it seems hard to imagine them going on a bit of a streak to break this slump. 

In MLS, one of the most unpredictable leagues in the world, you wouldn’t put it past them, but at the same time, given how much they’ve struggled to put together consistent performances, you do start to wonder when their time will run out. 

Against Seattle, the best team in the Western Conference at the moment, the ‘Caps stayed in the game, too, keeping the game scoreless through the first 45 minutes, but that all fell apart in the second half. 3 goals inside the first 15 minutes of that stanza, and then the game was gone, leaving the ‘Caps to rue another missed chance once again. 

But before looking ahead to the ‘Caps next game, a clash with their ‘rivals’, the San Jose Earthquakes, here is some of what stood out from their loss to the Sounders, one that’ll certainly sting for the next few days. 

Middling midfield play hurts ‘Caps:

Surprisingly, Marc Dos Santos came out with a double-pivot of Janio Bikel and Andy Rose to start this game, as he aimed for solidity in the midfield. While Bikel and Rose bring that, it was a bit of a surprise to see Rose, who Dos Santos had turned into a centre back, play back in his natural position. 

To be fair, the first half showed exactly what Dos Santos was aiming for, as the ‘Caps mostly kept Seattle at bay, aside from a few chances that the Sounders might have wanted back. 

But at the same time, there were warts. Due to the pressure they faced, Bikel picked up a reckless yellow card, while Rose struggled to break his teammates free when in transition, which despite the space Seattle was leaving at the back, left the ‘Caps unable to do much on the counter-attack. 

And all of that reared its ugly head in the second half. On the first goal, both Rose and Bikel failed to close down Joao Paulo in space outside of the box, and he hit a peach of a strike, leaving a screened Bryan Meredith unable to react to the shot in time. 

While they weren’t directly at fault on the 2nd or 3rd goal, just conceding that first goal put the ‘Caps behind the 8 ball, as it forced them to open up a game that they didn’t want to open up. 

Right now, the ‘Caps are not getting enough from their midfield, and it’s costing them on both sides of the ball. In possession, they’re unable to break down their opponents, and without it, they sit too deep at times, putting way too much pressure on their defenders. 

They don’t have enough guile and intensity in the midfield, and while there are a few players that show it on an individual level, the 2-man set up just hasn’t seemed to maximize enough of those qualities consistently enough to win. 

“But I think what we need to do is a problem that we have for a while, that is on the ball, we need to make sure that we have enough midfielders with personality to play,” Dos Santos said of his midfield after the game. “We have to find that, we have to make sure that we get midfielders with personality to play and give us the opportunity to have more of the ball and to breathe more in the right moments with the ball, and I think that it’s going to be tough to grow there this season.”

That’s not to say that the double-pivot doesn’t work, as the ‘Caps have had some excellent games with it, but it feels like no coincidence that their last 3 losses have come in games where they’ve played that 2 man unit against 3 of the best midfields in MLS in Portland, Seattle and LAFC. 

It’s tough for Dos Santos, because with the injury to Russell Teibert, it leaves him with a dearth of midfielders, hence the attempt to return Rose to his old position. Along with the knock that Leonard Owusu picked up in the lead up to this one, it left him with Rose, Bikel and Patrick Metcalfe and Michael Baldisimo, as his midfield options, with the latter a pair of youngsters he’s yet to play together aside from spot duty at the end of matches. 

While he could’ve elected for a three-man set-up with Baldisimo, who’s probably been the team’s best midfielder since MLS is Back, against an experienced Seattle midfield, he didn’t want to throw him or Metcalfe to the wolves. 

“We want to put the young players more in a position to succeed, and more in a position to play, with less and less pressure, to develop and help them in the development,” Dos Santos said.  “ (We thought) that maybe this game where you have Joao Paulo, who’s played around 150 or 200 games in Serie A in Brazil, you have (Gustav) Svensson, who’s an international for Sweden, you have (Nico) Lodeiro, who on a normal day, he’s the #10 of Uruguay.”

“We felt that maybe having a bit more experience there could’ve helped the team, but it’s not a secret that right now that’s an area of the field that we definitely need to grow in.”

And while you can’t fault the logic behind the decision, you do start to ponder: when is throwing the kids in not the best option? If they’re going to have to sit back and claw for 45 minutes before losing 3-1, would the experience gained by playing Metcalfe and Baldisimo in midfield not be more valuable? 

With Bikel suspended on Wednesday, and Owusu supposedly injured, you do wonder what the ‘Caps do now in midfield against San Jose. 

Do you go with a 3 man trio of Metcalfe, Baldisimo and Rose, and try and see what it brings? 

Considering that Rose is best-suited for a 3-man setup, that Metcalfe has quietly grown into every game that he’s played and that Baldisimo is arguably the team’s midfielder with the most personality on the ball, it feels like that would make the most sense. 

Ultimately, after a string of losses, and seeing how stretched their depth in an already thin midfield is, why not give it a shot and see what it brings? 

Defence continues to worry:

After looking much-improved defensively against the Timbers, the ‘Caps took a step backwards in this one, as they leaked chances, and that was reflected in the Expected Goals (xG) charts. 

A week removed from holding the Timbers to below 1 xG, in which they were ultimately held back by one big defensive error and a lack of clinical finishing, the Sounders turned that around and generated 3.16 xG in this one. 

And in a sense, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that in a game where the midfield struggled, the defence struggled, too. 

Even more frustrating for the ‘Caps? They kept Seattle at under 0.5 xG through the first 45 minutes, so they were actually really good in the first half, but all of their good work was undone by a catastrophic end to the game. 

Against a Seattle team that does so well in transition, they sat deep and nullified their offensive impact, but due to the one aforementioned mistake on the first goal, it opened the game right up, and it tanked their game plan. 

“Our game plan was to make sure that we defended very well, we were close to each other,” Dos Santos said. “And then when we won the ball, to make sure we exploit the right areas, in moments of transition, to be dangerous against them. I think that in the first half our flashes of transition could have been very dangerous. Fredy came in good pockets to initiate that, there’s one or two balls that were very close to pass to Cava. There’s a very good break that we use Cristian Dajome and then again he got fouled and there was nothing there.”

“And that was the game plan, to make sure that we limit everything they can do and take the space in behind us. Because when you play high against Seattle, they’re extremely dangerous, especially with Jordan Morris to exploit the space in behind. And that’s where we tried to do. Unfortunately, I think what really cut our legs was the first 15 minutes of the second half. It was hard for us to get back. They hit us hard in that moment.”

But at the same time, that’s the risk that you work against when setting up deep. Against a team like Seattle, it can be a smart ploy, but you do have to know that you’ll be under pressure for a good chunk of the game, which increases the chance of mistakes as the game goes along. 

When you play with the ball, you don’t end up being as tired defensively, and while that’s dangerous against this particular Sounders team, who are equally as comfortable with the ball as they are without it, the ‘Caps struggles to keep the ball are not something that just surfaced in this game. 

And while their plan was to sit back, giving up 70% possession is a sign that maybe they sat back a little too much, which showed in their difficulties in breaking free in transition. 

It’s tough, because they did miss a glorious chance to make it 1-0 inside 10 minutes, which would’ve given them a big boost defensively, while also opening the game up for them a bit more offensively, they do need to find a long-term formula that sees them not relying on converting one chance a game. 

Dos Santos admits as much, as he knows it’s up to him and his staff to find that magic balance between defence and offence that is always difficult to strike in this league. 

“When you’re playing teams like Seattle, or even LAFC and you concede that first goal, then you start opening yourself a little bit more up against teams like that, you suffer a lot with their quality,” Dos Santos said. “We have to make sure that we become a team and we become a club that has that edge and that front foot and the ability to make a difference before the opponent does that, and it’s not the case right now.”

“It’s a mindset also, it’s the mentality when we concede the goal to believe that the game is far from being over, and I think it’s the mindset at the same time that it’s also making sure that we have the advantage before them. And the last year and a half, opponents have been stronger, that’s the reality.”

Set-piece woes:

The ‘Caps look on during a set piece against the Sounders at MLS is Back in July (Matthew Stith/MLS)

Even though the game felt like it was over at 2-0, it also must hurt if you’re the ‘Caps to give up a goal off of a corner to make it 3-0, as it was the 4th goal in the past 3 games that the ‘Caps gave up from a set-piece. 

And it’s worth noting that these goals have either come from opponents isolating matchups within the ‘Caps box, or flick-ons that destabilize their defensive structure. 

For a ‘Caps side that defends set-pieces in a zone set up, instead of a man-marking one, it’s certainly a bit of a worry. While the idea behind a zonal set-up is to counter the movement of other teams, when it breaks down, it’s a lot more disastrous than when a man-marking schema does. 

To have a successful zonal set-up, you need your players to be confident with what zone they take, and have the right cues for when to attack the ball, which just isn’t happening right now for the ‘Caps. 

When asked about that after the game, Dos Santos did admit that it’s something him and his staff are looking at, saying that switching things to a hybrid zone is something they’re considering to try and stem this recent run. 

“I think they were so lucky on this one, our players feel comfortable with how we defend set plays and set pieces, they feel confident and comfortable with it,” he said. “It’s again a bounce on the back of someone, and we have to see it to see how we can readjust, but of course we have discussions from that, and we don’t want to totally leave the zone, maybe we could get into a mixed zone, and that’s a discussion we’re going to have, as of tomorrow.” 

To be fair, he’s right in not wanting to change too much, as it’s something they’ve been working on for nearly two years, and for the most part, it hasn’t caused too much worry. 

At the same time, you do have to constantly tinker with those things to find the right formula, which seeing how much the ‘Caps have struggled with it recently, that is definitely something they’ll want to try doing. 

A tip of the hat to Fredy:

A quick ode to Montero, who is now the ‘Caps co-leading goalscorer with 3 goals, as he did well to score a lovely panenka penalty to make it 3-1 versus Seattle. 

While there is debate about if the penalty itself was legit, Montero made no mistake with it, as helping him continue his hot run of form as of late. 

Since coming back into the lineup 5 games ago against the Montreal Impact, Montero has been involved in all 6 of the Whitecaps goals, scoring 3 times and adding 3 assists. 

With that, he now leads the ‘Caps in goal contributions (goals+assists), passing David Milinkovic (1G+4A) and Ali Adnan (1G+4A) with his goal on Saturday. 

For someone who seemed all but out of the squad over a month ago, it’s been a stark turnaround, but good on him for taking his chance and running with it as of late. 

It creates tough lineup questions for Dos Santos, who may have to consider using Cavallini as a bench piece until he finds his game, but given how Montero has played, it might be the right move at the moment. 

At the very least, with Cavallini suspended for the next game due to yellow card accumulation, Dos Santos will get another chance to see what Montero can bring when deployed on his own. 

While he’s typically been at his best with a partner, due to the ‘Caps need for bodies in the midfield, playing him as the lone striker in a 4-3-3 might be the best option for now, as he’s good enough on his own to allow the ‘Caps to throw in the extra body beneath him. 

Let the kids run wild on Wednesday?

Speaking of the next game, the ‘Caps have some interesting lineup questions to answer for that. 

Obviously, there’s the question of fatigue and rotation, but it’s worth noting that Bikel and Cavallini (suspension) are already ruled out, and given that the injuries to Cristian Gutierrez, Owusu and Teibert were serious enough to leave them off of the bench, it’s hard to imagine them making the matchday squad, much less start, on Wednesday. 

If that’s the case, that leaves Andy Rose, Patrick Metcalfe, Michael Baldisimo and Damiano Pecile as the only natural midfield options, and considering that Pecile is 18 and yet to feature in an MLS game, it’s safe to assume that he probably won’t start. 

Of course, Dos Santos could try to play Ranko Veselinovic in midfield, which is a position he has played in Serbia, but that seems unlikely. 

Therefore, it’s possible that the ‘Caps let Metcalfe and Baldisimo start together in midfield, which for the ‘Play the Kids’ crowd, would be a big boost. Add in the fact that Ryan Raposo looked really good off of the bench, and that Theo Bair was also decent in his spot duty, you have to feel that they’re all in contention to start, possibly even all together. 

It’s hard to imagine Dos Santos throwing them all to the sharks together in the next game, but boy, what a message that would send to the squad, as the kids have certainly been lively whenever they’ve played. 

Considering some of the struggles some of the regulars have faced, without mentioning the current injury and suspension situation, it could be something that happens on Wednesday. 

Looking Forward: 

But all-in-all, it will be very interesting to see how the ‘Caps do against a ‘Quakes side that has given them fits over the past 2 seasons, especially with all of the absences they currently have. 

Clearly, throwing out a new strategy may have to be in the cards, and as a result of that, some new players may get a chance to slot in. 

After a tough second half sunk them in this clash versus the Sounders, they’ll want to try and build off of the flashes they showed in the first half, and show that they can put together a strong performance over the course of 90 minutes. 

Ultimately, consistency continues to be an issue for this team, and while that doesn’t make Dos Santos very happy, due to the unique struggles that this ‘Caps side has faced, it would be a deviation from reality to suggest that it has nothing to do with their struggles. 

It clearly doesn’t appear to be something that you can fix with a magic wand, but at the same time, you do feel like the ‘Caps could get more out of their squad than they have, so let’s see if they’re able to find some magic against the ‘Quakes, sending them back on a positive path once again. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs San Jose Earthquakes, Wednesday, October 7th, 2020, 19:30 PST (Avaya Stadium, San Jose) 

Cover Photo: Matthew Stith and Eric Goncalves/MLS

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