Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Vancouver Whitecaps bust some slumps, defy some stats in big win over RSL

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps, we take a look back at a big ‘Caps win on Saturday, as they took down RSL at ‘home’ in Portland. 

It’s been a while, or at least it felt like it has been. 

While there were only 3 weeks between Vancouver Whitecaps wins, which in a typical season, is a time span over which we’d likely only see 2 or 3 games, in what was their 5th game since they last won, the ‘Caps snapped a 4-game losing streak with a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake.

It wasn’t a particularly dominant victory, but it wasn’t lucky, either, as it finally felt like the ‘Caps took control of a match and did what they needed to in order to win. 

They held around 50% of possession for most of the game, defended solidly aside from one glaring error, before finding 2 clutch goals at just the right time to snatch a big victory. 

Now, all of a sudden, with 6 games to go in the regular season, the ‘Caps find themselves in a decent spot. With 5 of those matches being played in Portland, their only travel for the rest of the season will consist of a jaunt down to Los Angeles a week from now, which considering how many air miles they’ve already logged this year, must feel nice.

After enduring a stretch of 5 games in which they played 4 times on the road, with their lone ‘home’ game being a game in Portland against the usual hosts, the Timbers, the ‘Caps finally have some time to settle down and try and focus on making Portland a fortress of their own. 

On Saturday, they took a step towards doing that, doing well to take down RSL thanks to a memorable comeback, in which the ‘Caps scored twice in a 5-minute span in the second half to overturn a 1-0 first-half deficit.  

Heading into a crucial matchup with LAFC, a team they only sit 3 points behind as of writing (LA does have a game to play later on Sunday), they’ll know that they can put themselves in prime position when it comes to their playoff position with a victory. 

But before looking too far ahead, here is some of what stood out from Saturday, as the ‘Caps broke a couple of slumps with their victory. 

Goals finally come: 

For the first time in nearly 500 minutes, the ‘Caps scored an open play goal on Saturday, as Lucas Cavallini’s second-half winner was the first open play goal scored by Vancouver since… a Lucas Cavallini second-half winner against Real Salt Lake 5 games ago. 

Maybe playing against RSL is a good luck charm for Vancouver, because, for whatever reason, they’ve been clinical against them, scoring 4 times on the 6 shots on target they’ve gotten against them this year. 

And while it’s a bit concerning to see that the ‘Caps only had 3 shots on target, they did have 8 shots total, and even more importantly, they had as many shots as the opposition, which has been a rare sight these past 2 seasons. 

Yes, the latter stat comes down to the ‘Caps being a lot better defensively, but it’s also no coincidence than in a game where they had more of the ball, they defended better. Marc Dos Santos has been calling for his team to do this more for a while now, and while playing RSL helps that, as they’re not exactly the sort of possession juggernaut that say, LAFC, is, it’s still encouraging. 

It feels like if they can start to consistently create more chances, they can be a strong team offensively, as they have the pieces up front, but to do that, they need to hold the ball more and create more through the middle, two things they’ve struggled with all season. 

“Yeah, I saw that, to be honest, we didn’t create a lot of clear chances.” Dos Santos admitted after the game. “But we shot more than them, more corner kicks, we were more in their half. That’s the beginning of creating more. The chances we had, we finish them and that was important because there’s other games where we created clearer chances.”

“I’ll give you an example, I feel the game against Portland here, our chances were clearer and although we weren’t able to score them then, here today we were able to score them. But again, what I want to highlight is the mentality of everybody that kept fighting, kept going, kept believing and that’s important to build and to continue our stretch here.”

Now about the defence: 

But while the ‘Caps broke an offensive drought on Saturday, their defensive woes continued, or at least their inability to avoid individual errors in big moments did, as they conceded a tough goal at a tough time once again. 

Having done well to keep the game quiet through the first 35 minutes, it had to have hurt to see RSL’s first shot on target go in at the 37th minute, as one costly defensive lapse put the ‘Caps behind the 8 ball. 

This time, it came via Ranko Veselinovic, who was slow to react to an overload from RSL, who doubled Jake Nerwinski at the back post, opening up space for a quick switch and subsequent cross, where Veselinovic lost Damir Kreilach in the six-yard box.

To give credit to Veselinovic, he bounced back and had a solid game, but you did wonder what that goal would do to the ‘Caps, especially considering their current losing streak, in which they conceded the first goal each time. 

While a good team doesn’t usually worry if they concede first, knowing that they’ll score at least 1 or 2 later on, for a ‘Caps team that has struggled to score goals from open play as of late, you did wonder how the mistake would impact their confidence. 

Considering that their record when conceding first heading into this game was 0W-9L-0D, you did worry that they were on a collision course with another loss, but in this one, they finally found that missing spark when they went down 1.

“I thought at halftime, when we came back to the locker room, I was thinking it cannot happen again,” Dos Santos said of the frustration having conceded first. “I felt that we were the best team in the first half. Overall, we came out with a good attitude, we didn’t have clear chances but we were the best team. We were the closest team in the last third. Then they get that goal, man we showed these moments with Justin Meram and (Damir) Kreilach like so many times that right now sometimes we’re afraid in our scouting report if we talk too much about a situation that the opponent does it looks like it happens.”

“But then what I said at halftime is: ‘It’s now, it’s now the opportunity to show how much we want to be in the top eight. We always have a choice; we have the choice to decide to use the excuse of it’s such a hard year and blah blah blah. Or the choice of saying, no let’s prove everybody wrong’.”

Without a doubt, this ‘Caps team can be really good defensively, as they’ve shown in flashes, but for whatever reason, they have a penchant for individual mistakes at costly moments, as well as a tendency to fall apart when they concede first. 

That’s why of the 9 losses they have when conceding first, they’ve lost by 2 or more goals 7 times, as when it rains, it tends to pour for them. 

So that’s why this win is so key. First, there’s the added bonus of it being the first victory over 11 men in 8 games, but there’s also the boost of keeping things tight defensively despite giving up the first tally, as they only allowed 1.07 Expected Goals (xG), one of the lowest tallies they allowed all season.

Aside from that one big mistake, they kept RSL out of dangerous areas, as reflected by the xG numbers, making for a balanced performance.

They just need to chop down on those individual mistakes, while also finding a way to avoid dropping their heads if they do concede first, and they’ll be on a good path. 

“Outside of that one instance where they scored the goal, I thought the defenders did very well tonight,” veteran goalkeeper Evan Bush said after the game. “I thought Erik (Godoy) was great, I thought Ranko (Veselinovic) was very good to step in as a young guy, to step into that position, I thought he did very well, by and large. And then having Derek (Cornelius) come in to fill out the third centre back and then our outside backs did very well too.”

“So, overall I think it was quite a good effort in terms of the defensive structure of our team tonight. Sometimes, you lose guys in the box and you try obviously not to make that happen, but we’ll look at it, we’ll see what we can do and it’s not always the defenders or tracking guys in the box either. It’s also pressure on the ball from outside and stuff like that. There’s a number of things you can look at. But at the end of the day, it’s much better to look at those things after you get three points.”

Baldi’s magic prompts tough questions:

Once again, Michael Baldisimo proved that he can play in MLS on Saturday, as he was very heavily involved in both ‘Caps goals, despite only entering the game in the 66th minute. 

While him not starting was actually a prudent move, as there are some concerns to be had about his body considering his injury history, to see him make such an impact off of the bench brings up questions. 

Can the ‘Caps afford to keep Baldisimo out of the lineup? There’s no coincidence that since making his first start 10 games ago, Baldisimo has played a big role in all 4 victories the ‘Caps have picked up since, scoring or assisting a goal in each of those games. 

(He technically didn’t get an assist in this one, as Douglas Martinez’s own goal cannot be assisted, but he did play the ball into the box that Martinez jumped up to and headed into his own goal.)

If he can continue to play as he has, it’ll be hard to keep him out, because there’s no doubt that with his passing ability, he can control the game, which considering how much the ‘Caps consistently struggle to do that, is an ability they need to take advantage of. 

“Everybody has to play their role in this team.” Dos Santos said after the game. “Leo (Owusu) played a very good role until he came off. What we felt is RSL, once they had the lead, they dropped a lot.”

“And we needed to bring a midfielder in that would be able to switch the point of attack and find the spaces through his pass. It was a game that required less pressure because the opponent was lower on the field and we had to find a way to stretch them. Baldi (Michael Baldisimo) has this tool in his game, with his right and left footed he has the ability to switch the play. The sub worked and he came in and he helped the team win the game also.”

But if you’re Dos Santos, a big question looms. 

How do you set up your lineup with Baldisimo? He can play in a double-pivot, but there’s no doubt that he’s in his best in a 3-man midfield, at least when starting, as he doesn’t have the physical attributes to cover the ground required against most MLS teams. 

It feels like a midfield trio of Baldisimo, Leonard Owusu and Janio Bikel is long overdue, especially considering that Bikel had one of his better games on Saturday, as well as when we consider how much better Owusu looks when played higher up the pitch. 

Ultimately, that would likely leave one of Lucas Cavallini, Fredy Montero, David Milinkovic and Cristian Dajome out, though, creating different lineup conundrums. 

At the same time, you have to maximize your best players to win, and right now, Baldisimo appears to be one of the ‘Caps best players, and to get the best out of him, he needs to play in a three-man midfield. 

Luckily for the ‘Caps, they play LAFC, a midfield heavy team, next, so if there’s a game where it feels like they have to play 3 in midfield, it’s that one, so hopefully we get a glimpse of Baldisimo alongside Owusu and Bikel in the middle on Wednesday. 

Leonard Owusu goes in for the ball on Saturday (Craig Mitchelldyer/Vancouver Whitecaps)

It’s not the same, but there does appear to be a bit of a home-field advantage:

Lastly, it does feel important to point out that the ‘Caps have actually done pretty well at Providence Park this season. 

If you count preseason, that was the 5th game the ‘Caps played there this year, and in games against opposition not called the Portland Timbers, they’ve now got 3 wins and no losses. 

While that stat is going to get a big test against LAFC on Wednesday, it does feel like the ‘Caps have adjusted well to play in Portland this year, which considering that 5 of their last 6 games are there, does bode well for Vancouver. 

With the reduced travel, they’ll also be able to train more, as well, so these next few weeks could prove to be crucial for them in the stretch run of the campaign here. 

Looking Forward:

So now, the ‘Caps get set to take on LAFC on Wednesday, knowing that they won’t have to travel in on game day, either. 

It’s a huge game for them, as a win over LA would shake up the playoff picture, especially considering how tight things are between 5th and 12th. 

Considering how much they’ve struggled against LA these past 2 years, this could be a big-time for a statement victory, one that could revitalize their 2020 campaign. 

They set a solid framework in this victory, now they’ve just got to build off of it, using it to springboard into a clash with an LA team that has been all over the map this season. 

If not, it’ll make this victory feel like a flash in the pan, instead of a start of something greater, as many hope it’ll be. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs LAFC, Wednesday, October 14th, 2020, 19:00 PST (Providence Park, Portland)

Cover Photo via: Craig Mitchelldyer/Vancouver Whitecaps

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