The Vancouver Whitecaps closed out their preseason slate with a pair of games versus the Chicago Fire and Indy Eleven on Saturday. Here’s what stood out from that doubleheader, with the Fire game proving to be more of a regular-season tuneup, while the Indy game ended up being more of an audition for a few youngsters.
Results aside, it was just good to see them back out on the field again.
With the start of their 2021 MLS season just around the corner, the Vancouver Whitecaps rounded off preseason with a doubleheader on Saturday, as they took on the Chicago Fire and Indy Eleven in back-to-back games.
They came out strong versus the Fire, winning 3-2 thanks to a Lucas Cavallini brace, before falling 2-0 against Indy Eleven, making for a mixed day on the results front.
But results aside, it proved to be a good day from the Whitecaps on the process front, at least for the most part.
In the Chicago game, which was a regulation 90-minute game, the ‘Caps went with more of a first-team lineup, and they showed plenty of positive signs in their 3-2 victory.
“At the beginning of the day, we wanted to make sure that our mentality was the right one,” Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos said of the Chicago result post-game. “Our way of going about things was the right one, our professionalism was the right one and we played like if three points were on the line.”
As for the second game, they went with a much younger lineup, with the game itself only lasting 60 minutes, making it more of an audition for some players than anything. Even despite the result, several of the youngsters looked good, as well, making it a valuable viewing experience for Dos Santos and his staff to partake in.
“I think today, we overall (achieved) what we wanted to achieve,” Dos Santos added, speaking about the Indy game.
Heading into the start of the season versus the Portland Timbers, the ‘Caps will have to feel confident about their play, even despite a few hiccups. Considering this was only really their second dress rehearsal before then, they did pretty well, in that sense, so they’ll hope that they can hit the ground running come April 18th.
Before looking forward to then, however, here’s what stood out from this doubleheader, which also happened to be the first live Whitecaps games in nearly 6 months.
High press makes an early impact:
After speaking about the high press for big chunks of last year, it didn’t always materialize the way people expected it to on the pitch, leading many to question its existence.
Cristian Dajome tried his best to change that on Saturday, however, opening the scoring inside 5 minutes after a beautiful high press, forcing a Chicago turnover before running in on goal and finishing his chance.
Later, he continued to cause headaches for defenders, causing another turnover high up the pitch, before winning a foul right outside the box. Lucas Cavallini then stepped up to the plate and buried the opportunity, giving the ‘Caps their 3rd of the game.
“We want to be a team that recognizes very well the moments of pressure and we’re aggressive doing it,” Dos Santos said. “And I think in a lot of moments we were able to do a good job with that.’
And what was interesting wasn’t that the ‘Caps were pressing, but instead how they pressed, as they elected to sit in their two banks of 4, with only 2 forwards running around up top, which in this case were Lucas Cavallini and Cristian Dajome.
It wasn’t the most eventful press, but it proved to be an effective one, as there were several occasions where Chicago struggled to play through the middle 4, which often consisted of Deiber Caicedo, Janio Bikel, Leonard and Russell Teibert.
While the staggered 4-4-2/4-3-3 didn’t offer as much in possession as one would’ve hoped, you could see the defensive solidity that it gave as a counter to that, giving an idea of what Dos Santos is honing in on to start the season.
By letting someone like Fredy Montero go in the offseason, it was a signal of intent from the ‘Caps that they did want to press more, because for how talented Montero was at scoring goals, he wasn’t always the most active defender when his team didn’t have the ball.
That Dajome has been picked to replace Montero in Dos Santos’s system shows what the head coach wants to do pressing-wise, and seeing the sort of effort he was putting in versus the Fire, so far it seems to be a good swap.
Asked about Dajome after the game, he confirmed it’s a role he’s long seen him fitting in, even before he was a Whitecap, so it might be a position to get used to him playing in going forward.
“When I first started to look at Cristian Dajome when he was at Independiente Del Valle in Ecuador, I saw him play the majority of the time as a right winger but I also saw him play as a second striker for them,” Dos Santos said. “And even when he was in Colombia, there’s games where he even played alone up top for his club, depending on the game. Cristian is a player that’s very comfortable playing any place in the attack, but he has a very good mindset for the team, he’s not selfish, when it’s time to press he presses, he participates a lot, and it’s a very good player to have in our roster, for sure.”
Elsewhere on the park, you do wonder where someone like Michael Baldisimo and Caio Alexandre fit into this system, as the staggered 4-4-2 certainly benefits someone like Russell Teibert more, but you’d also imagine that Dos Santos will find a way to integrate them into this system, either by making a straight swap, or by tinkering the tactics a bit.
Otherwise, if they can keep pressing the way that they did, it won’t really matter where they’re deployed, but considering the ‘Caps struggles at playing in possession in this one, you do wonder if slotting them in will fix that, while also still allowing them to press.
Lucas Cavallini is in the building:
But speaking of Cavallini, he was a menace for defenders to have to deal with in this game, scoring 2 deserved goals in the process.
His first tally was more of a prototypical Cavallini finish, as he rose highest at the near post after a great Leonard Owusu corner, nodding home the ball with ease.
The second, however, was magical, as he stepped up and curled a free-kick right into the top corner, giving the ‘Caps what proved to be the winner in this game.
Heading into the season, there are a lot of expectations on Cavallini’s shoulders, as he’s going to be heavily leaned on as the Whitecaps’ most expensive and important player.
After a tough start to his camp with the Canadian National team, however, having missed a handful of good chances in a start against Bermuda, doubts started to come in from certain corners about Cavallini’s form, with some asking if he can truly lead the ‘Caps forward.
Those concerns were very premature, without a doubt, but to see him responding to that criticism by scoring a hat trick off of the bench against the Cayman Islands, before adding a goal versus the Real Monarchs on Tuesday, and a brace against the Fire in this one, and it’s safe to say that he’s in-form heading into the start of the season.
That’s not to say it’s time to proclaim him completely ready to hit the ground running quite yet, as he did have a similar heater last year in preseason, scoring 4 goals in 4 games to close out the 2020 exhibition slate before struggling out of the gates, but he also wasn’t helped by the fact that the 2020 season was postponed after 2 games, denying him of an opportunity to build up momentum.
For a ‘Caps team that’ll want their ‘tank’ to be rolling heading into the start of the season, however, his performance in this game can only be seen as good news, so hopefully for their sake, he can keep it up now, especially seeing that the games are going to count from here on in.
Playing out of the back needs work:
Elsewhere, the ‘Caps looked a bit shaky playing out of the back, playing themselves into trouble a few times, as a result.
That was most evident on the first Chicago goal, as Max Crepeau turned the ball over, and Janio Bikel ended up taking down Luka Stojanovic for a penalty, one which Robert Beric made no mistake in converting.
That wasn’t the only iffy moment the ‘Caps had when playing out of the back, but it was one that actually cost them, giving an idea of what they need to work on heading into the start of the season.
On one hand, you can also consider the fact that the ‘Caps were missing 3 (arguably even 4) of what would be described as their best back 4 on paper, which certainly didn’t help, but considering their depth defensively, that shouldn’t have been too much of an issue.
Rust certainly looked like it was a factor, so that’s also something that they’ll want to work through as the season gets underway, but either way, if the ‘Caps are going to keep trying to build up their play this way, they’ve got some work to do in that department.
“Yeah, of course, there was a little bit of rust and there was the tying goal against Chicago was a play that comes from us playing out of the back,” Dos Santos said. “We need to vary that part of our game. We don’t have to always play out of the back, we have to recognize when there’s pressure or not, we have to recognize when the opponent is very high on the field or when the opponent backs off.”
“But again, it’s good that these things happen in an exhibition game, so we can really be clear about them, and address them during the week.”
It’s good that they scored two goals that can be directly linked to the high-press, but it’d be good if they can start to turn some possession into goals, something that they’ll probably continue to hammer home heading into the start of the campaign.
If they can figure out both parts of their game at once, though, watch out, but for now, we’ll be left to watch them try and figure out that precarious balance.
Low defensive line a late worry:
While the ‘Caps started out strongly versus the Fire, storming out to a 3-1 lead inside 60 minutes, they didn’t close out the match with the same conviction, barely hanging on in the last half hour.
Fitness was a big concern, no doubt, and that was reflected in their defensive struggles at the end, but with there being a week until they play their first MLS game, you would’ve hoped that it wouldn’t be a worry.
And it wasn’t the fact that they were fatigued, but how they reacted when their legs started to go, as they dropped right onto their own six-yard box, inviting wave-after-wave of Chicago pressure.
They finally broke in the 79th minute, as Francisco Calvo nodded home a great Mauricio Pineda cross at the back post, punishing the ‘Caps for their low defensive line.
Too often in 2019 and 2020, the ‘Caps would retreat back to their six-yard box in games, inviting pressure, and they’d often break in the face of that intensity, throwing away leads by doing so.
To give credit to them, they didn’t completely break in this game, but that was also due to Chicago’s lackadaisical finishing, something that a team in-season probably would’ve done a better job at overcoming.
The ‘Caps have long wanted to be a team that doesn’t just sit at the edge of their six-yard box, instead being a more aggressive one, so it’ll be interesting now to see if the end of the game was just a blip on the radar, or the start of a concerning trend.
Again, with it still being preseason, we’ll note it down as a blip for now, but it’ll be something to keep an eye on as the games progress here.
The kids get a stiff test:
Lastly, the ‘Caps closed out the day with their second exhibition match, a clash with Indy Eleven.
It was a strange game, as they only ended up playing 60 minutes, but it was a fascinating one nonetheless, as the ‘Caps elected to go with a much younger lineup than the one that played versus the Fire.
Understandably, a veteran Indy side capitalized on that, as former TFC striker Jordan Hamilton scored a brace with goals in either half to give Indy a 2-0 win, but result aside, it was a good showing from several of the youngsters.
Defensively, Keishean Francois looked good on both sides of the ball at full back, while 16-year-old Matteo Campagna did not look out of place among some players twice his senior at centre back.
Gianfranco Facchineri also was good despite being played out of position at right back, making some lively bursts forward, rounding off the ‘Caps backline.
In the midfield, there were expected performances from Patrick Metcalfe and Michael Baldisimo, who were 2 of the 7 players on first team contracts who played in this game, and they showed off their experience in the 60 minutes. Just in front of them, Damiano Pecile was excellent at the #10 position, and Theo Bair and Kamron Habiullah had good bursts at striker and on the wing, respectively, as well.
And while there were several standouts from an individual standpoint, they also showed good flashes of team play, as well. They actually looked a lot more comfortable than the first team at building out of the back, and although they sometimes struggled to get into the final third at times, that allowed them to retain possession rather comfortably.
Otherwise, they also were good on the press, showing the trickle-down effect of the ‘Caps wanting to be better in that area, even creating a good chance via their intense pressure in the first half.
It always was going to be a tough game for these youngsters, without a doubt, but it was good to see them respond to that adversity and put up good accounts of themselves in front of the coaching staff.
With the ‘Caps looking likely to sign 1 or 2 academy kids to a first-team contract soon, the 5 that played minutes versus Indy (and Chicago, in the case of Amir Batyrev) should be happy with how they performed on this big stage.
Now, the ‘Caps will head into their last week of training hoping to build off of what they showed in these games, allowing them to start the season strong.
They’re still missing a few regulars, which is a bit of a concern, but they showed that they should still be able to compete regardless, making the absences slightly less concerning.
Plus, it seems like they’ll have pretty much their entire roster together, starting next week, so even though not all of those players will be able to play next week versus the Timbers, just having them together is a positive.
As for these matches, it was just good to see the Whitecaps out on the field once again, playing live soccer, which was almost a forgotten sight of sorts. It’s going to become a familiar one again soon, with 34+ games now awaiting them, but it was good to get an appetizer of what’s to come in this ‘summer soccer buffet’ that lies ahead.
So even though the games weren’t perfect, there was a lot to extract in terms of positives, which you’d hopefully expect them to build off of heading into next week.
The dress rehearsals are never perfect, though, so with the big dance waiting around the corner, they’ll be looking to grow based on what they learned, hopefully allowing them to put on a good show when the proceedings get underway for real 8 days from now.
Season Opener: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Portland Timbers, Sunday, April 18th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Utah)
Cover Photo via: Vancouver Whitecaps/Twitter