Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Vancouver Whitecaps continue to build identity in 1-0 win over Portland Timbers

In our return of Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column where we break down storylines surrounding the Vancouver Whitecaps, we look back at what stood out in their opening day win over the Portland Timbers to kick off their MLS season on Sunday. 

It’d be hard to imagine them drawing up a better start beforehand. 

A clutch goal from their DP #9. A big clean sheet. A 1-0 win over one of their biggest rivals. 

The Vancouver Whitecaps got their 2021 MLS season off to a roaring start on Sunday, as they took out the Portland Timbers 1-0 in the first Cascadian clash of the season, picking up a valuable 3 points along the way. 

And while a lot of the focus will be put on the manner of how the ‘Caps snatched this result, and rightfully so, the fact that the win was over a long-time rival only made it sweeter, further adding to their evident joy after the game. 

“I really want this win for the Vancouver fans and everybody that is home and not being able to be at a stadium, not being able to be with us,” head coach Marc Dos Santos said after the game. “When you play Portland and you win, you can only remember all the fans in Vancouver, so that one is for them.”

For a Whitecaps team looking to take a step forward in year 3 under Dos Santos as a head coach, it was always going to be important to get off the mark early this season, so mission accomplished there. 

More importantly, they managed to not skip a beat in terms of their quest to build off of what they started in the second half of the 2020 season, where they really started to find some balance and cohesion in terms of their tactics after some early-season tinkering. 

We saw that in spades against the Timbers, as the ‘Caps were a compact, solid and committed unit, which isn’t something that was often said about them last year, especially not at the start of that campaign.

According to them, that’s only a sign of the year-over-year consistency that the team finally found this offseason, one where they brought back over 20 regulars, 10 of whom who started in this match, which was a far cry from the past 2 seasons, where opening day would be filled with chaos after heavy roster movement in the offseason.

This time, however, having so many familiar faces seemed to create a strong sense of togetherness, of which was on full display on Sunday, and it’s one that the ‘Caps hope to continue in games going forward. 

“The group is really tight,” goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau said in his post-game media availability. “We know the reality of this group, this organization, and everyone is committed to work hard, to commit, to show up every day and put the hours, put the effort. Then it shows up on the weekend.”

“Talking with the media (before the season), I said we’re going to be a team that is difficult to beat because we commit, we commit to work together. And even if whatever happens on the field, if there’s moments that we don’t have the ball, whatever happens, we’re tight, we’re together. And so that’s the result of it tonight.”

Now, the ‘Caps just need to harness that feeling and bottle it up for future games, starting with their next clash, a battle with Toronto FC this Saturday. With some new arrivals continuing to work their way into the fold, as well as the continued return of some other regulars, this team still has a lot more to give on the field, and they’ll hope to show that next weekend.

As they’ll look to prove that this opening day win was no fluke, they can only double down on the effort that they showed so far, and try to channel it into more consistency, both in results and how they achieve them. 

Returning to the win itself, however, here’s some of what stood out from that game Sunday, as the ‘Caps rode some timely finishing and a solid defensive performance to an important win, one they won’t soon forget. 

Set-piece magic gives Cavallini crucial goal:

And starting with the goal itself, it’s worth noting both its importance for the match itself, as well as the context of the tally as part of an interesting trend this team has shown as of late. 

In terms of the importance of the match, there’s no doubting how valuable the goal was, for many reasons. 

First, there’s the timing of the goal, as it came right at the beginning of the second half at the 49th minute, allowing the ‘Caps to set the tone for the rest of that stanza. After a strong end to the first half from Portland, it felt like Vancouver was starting to shrink heading into the break, and this goal certainly put the wind right back in their sails. 

Secondly, there’s the importance of the goal for the man who put it away, Lucas Cavallini, who continued his hot run as of late, scoring his 7th goal in his last 4 games, which includes this regular-season game, 2 preseason games and a World Cup qualifier for the Canadian National Team. 

Last year, his first in MLS, he had a similar hot streak heading into the start of the campaign, having scored 4 goals over a span of 4 consecutive matches to end off preseason, but he failed to get off of the mark in MLS right away, with his first goal coming in his 6th game of the season. 

He eventually finished with 6 goals in 18 games, which considering his nightmarish start, and his solid underlying numbers, isn’t all that bad, especially when we remember that he scored 5 of those goals in his last 11 games of the season. 

On the other hand, there’s no coincidence that the ‘Caps only won 2 of their first 8 games as their striker struggled to find his mark (it’s worth noting that Cavallini did miss 3 of those 8 games due to his absence from MLS is Back for personal reasons), as they dug a hole they just struggled to get out of for the rest of the year. 

So for Cavallini to get off of the mark so early on in the season is a huge positive, and the ‘Caps will hope that this is a sign of what’s to come, as their DP #9 looks to live up to his billing as the most expensive signing in club history in 2021. 

But returning to the goal itself, it’s worth looking at its importance in the grand scheme of things, as it was scored off of a set piece. For a ‘Caps team that scored only 3 of their 27 goals via that avenue in 2020, after scoring 8 of their 37 goals in 2019 that way, they showed their growth in that department with this Cavallini tally. 

It’s only one goal, but after scoring 4 of their 6 goals in preseason via set-pieces, 2 of them coming off of wide set pieces (corners or wide free kicks), it shows the work that they’ve done on that part of their game this offseason. 

When you consider that they also hit a post and had a goal disallowed off of wide set pieces, and it shows how profitable those situations were for the ‘Caps on Sunday, which will be something they’ll look to build off of going forward. 

Dos Santos made sure to highlight that when asked about the goal itself, pointing out the work that his staff have done in that department recently, which will be all the more fascinating to follow going forward. 

“The highlight of the goal for me is our staff,” Dos Santos said. “When I mean our staff, our analysts – Luke [Summers], Drew [Foster], Phil [Dos Santos]. All the guys that work hours and hours on set play situations.”

“They’re very dedicated on those moments and they spend a lot of time, so that goal was very well worked, and it was trained, and it was a good play. So it’s important for the team. It’s important for our work every day, and it’s important for Cava(llini).”

The ‘Caps go up for an offensive set-piece against the Timbers on Sunday (Vancouver Whitecaps/Twitter)

Small tweak gives boost to ‘Caps offence: 

And continuing on the theme of the work done by the head coaches, it’s interesting to look at what the ‘Caps did tactically on Sunday, as they found a way to limit Portland’s strengths, while maximizing a few strong points of their own. 

One such tactic came offensively, as Dos Santos dropped Michael Baldisimo back in between the ‘Caps centre backs in possession, allowing him to spray passes around the field, while also freeing up full backs Cristian Gutierrez and Jake Nerwinski to fly down the flanks. 

Seeing that Baldisimo was able to complete 48 out of 55 of his passes (87%), including 7 of his 8 long passes, it was a move that helped the young ‘Caps midfielder control the tempo of the game, but considering how active Gutierrez and Nerwinski were, as well, it was a tactic that also really benefited them. 

Just to get an idea of how active the Whitecaps’ full backs were against the Timbers, here are their combined heat maps, as well as how many total touches they had between them. 

Map via WhoScored

Seeing that Gutierrez was also named as our BTSVancity Man of the Match, and considering that Nerwinski quietly put up some really good numbers, there is no doubt that they certainly contributed to the ‘Caps victory. 

As for the tactic itself, it was a slight tweak from their usual offensive tactics that we’ve recently seen from Vancouver, but it was certainly one that Dos Santos was happy to tinker with against a Portland team that can be dangerous with their press, and it paid off for him.  

“It was clear that we wanted to use (Michael) Baldi(simo) in between the centre backs, so we pushed Jake (Nerwinski) and (Cristian) Guti(errez) higher on the field, we wanted to do that,” Dos Santos said after the game. “So Baldi(simo) is one of the most comfortable players that we have in that role with the ability to switch play, and we knew that Portland would press with two, normally they do it with (Felipe) Mora and (Diego) Valeri, and that’s why we wanted to come out with three.”

That doesn’t mean everything was completely perfect, as it took some time for Dos Santos’s side to adjust to the tactic, as the ‘Caps had a lot of possession in the first half (55%), but didn’t really turn much of it into chances, something they started to rectify as the game grew. 

They didn’t finish as strongly as they would’ve liked, but it was overall positive to see the ‘Caps utilize Baldisimo’s potential as an offensive lynchpin, which will be something for them to consider keeping up as the team progresses.

“I think in the first half, there was a lot of good moments in possession, but there was not enough verticality,” Dos Santos continued. “So we were able to play from side to side and open the play, but not enough in between, not enough in behind.”

“In the second half, what I didn’t like is we became a little bit too anxious, especially after scoring the goal. We became anxious, we were thinking already about the three points, and sometimes there were long balls that we didn’t need to play. And it’s something to review, it was a good win, it was a good mentality, but man, we could progress so much more in the future, so that’s exciting.”

And while the adjustment period was a bit slower than they would’ve hoped, that’s not the end of the world considering that this was their first competitive game, as the players had to get used to some of the patterns of play that were expected of them offensively. 

Seeing what they showed after the goal, as well, it shows that they also needed to grow into the game a little, instead of rushing each possession in search of a quick opener. 

“It took us a while to find our shape. At one point in the first half, it was frustrating for us,” Cavallini said after the game. “We were all frustrated, we just couldn’t get our timing properly.”

“After the goal, it was completely different. We ended up getting our adrenaline. This is a team we need to see. Hopefully this week, we work on a lot of things, a lot of errors we had. So, hopefully next game we will get better.”

There is a lot of talk about what this ‘Caps team could do this season, but there may be no more important area of their tactics to hone in on than their offensive game, which has often sputtered in the Dos Santos era. 

They’ve shown plenty of flashes in the past, something which didn’t change in this Portland game, but with the added boost of confidence that a win like this provides, they’ll believe that they can only improve on what they showed here, building off of what they started to put in place during preseason.  

“Today, there were two different games – before the goal, and after the goal,” Cavallini continued. “The way we’ve been playing during the preseason was similar to after the goal. The linkups, the confidence, the possession – that’s the identity for this season. With this win, that could translate to the next game.”

Defensive identity starting to shine through: 

Moving onto the defensive side of things, however, is where we saw a pretty darn good performance from Vancouver, all things considered. 

They kept the clean sheet, which was priority #1, but they limited Portland’s chances, as well, only allowing just around 1.2 Expected Goals (xG) as per InfoGol. 

Accounting for score effects, as some of Portland’s chances came while they chased the game when down 1-0, and it’s safe to say that the ‘Caps did pretty well for themselves defensively. 

Just to get an idea of how well they did, it’s worth noting that if they maintained this pace over the course of a full season, that would’ve made them a top 10 defensive xG team in 2020. 

For a ‘Caps team that finished dead-last in xG against per game last year, that’s good to see, and you hope that it’s the start of a trend, instead of a statistical anomaly. 

They’ve long wanted to be a dynamic team that is both defensively solid and fluid in attack, and while there is work to be done to become the latter, it seems like the former is really starting to take centre stage when you look at the continued evolution of their identity on the pitch. 

“That’s what I’m very pleased with. Regardless of who’s on the field, we have to have an identity and have to have a way to go about things,” Dos Santos said. “I don’t think that defensively we struggled until more or less the 60th minute. There were normal plays there, but after the 60th minute, there’s plays where we were a little bit stretched. Portland was able to play in between our lines.”

“Our lines from the back four to the forward started to get stretched and our block wasn’t as compact as we needed to be, but I have to evaluate tomorrow how we felt physically also. With the first real game, I have to evaluate why at the minute 60-65 we started to struggle.”

And as for one defensive tactic that particularly stood out, it’s worth noting that the ‘Caps slightly shifted how they pressed Portland on Sunday, which was quite interesting to see. 

After spending most of preseason and the end of last year playing in a strict 4-4-2, it was a rare bit of change on the defensive end of things, but it was an important one, as they sometimes shifted into a sort of 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, depending on how you look at it, during moments where they found themselves without the ball. 

With Portland offering most of their threat through the middle of the park, led by their midfield triangle of Diego Chara, Eryk Williamson and Diego Valeri, the slight shift was done to stifle the creativity of those three from deeper areas, where they tend to do their most damage.

Seeing that they only had 154 touches between them, and that Valeri and Williamson only completed 23 and 27 passes, respectively, consider that a job well done from Dos Santos’s charges. Valeri is good enough of a player that he still managed 2 key passes despite the limited service, but for the most part, he was starved of the sort of space he likes to operate in, and the ‘Caps have their midfielders, Baldisimo, Janio Bikel and Russell Teibert, to thank for that. 

“It’s true. We defend in a 4-4-2, and it goes into a little bit of a 4-2-3-1,” Dos Santos admitted after the game. “Cristian Dajome and Cava(llini) were very aware of how they build with three and how sometimes they look for that ball in between to Williamson. So I think both of them did a good job sharing that spot.”

“Our midfield needed to stay very close to each other, because Portland really likes to play centrally with the movement of Valeri or Mora, and I think they did a good job there. But yeah, that’s the way we’re working, that’s the way we want to defend, depending on the opponent it might look much more like a 4-4-2 defensively, but sometimes it’s gonna look like a 4-2-3-1, it depends on the dynamics of the opponent.”

If the ‘Caps can manage to strike a balance defensively going forward, one that varies slightly depending on the opponent, it all of a sudden makes them a much dangerous team, one that is able to snatch these sorts of results on the regular. 

Too often last year, they were both porous defensively, and unable to generate much in terms of chances, and while they still need to figure out the offensive side of their game this year, it’s imperative they continue to hold down the fort at the back if they want to grab points in the meantime. 

Mission accomplished in game one, now it’s just up to them to continue that going forward. 

Subs plan too cautious?

Shifting away from tactics, it’s important to highlight one slight negative from the game, as it was a bit unfortunate to see Vancouver only use two of their 5 substitutes on Sunday, both coming after the 92nd minute, where Ryan Raposo and Patrick Metcalfe came in for late cameos. 

With it being the first game of the year, and seeing the tired legs that were starting to crop up in the second half, it would’ve been nice to see Dos Santos turn to his bench early and often against the Timbers. 

He did have a very young bench at his disposal, one that probably just barely creased an average age of 20, so you do understand why he might have been a bit reluctant to turn to it, but at the same time, that didn’t mean that his bench lacked experience. Raposo, Metcalfe and Bair have all played at least a half-dozen MLS games under Dos Santos, while Gianfranco Facchineri also picked up a handful of pro appearances in the Canadian Premier League last year, showing that there were some players not unfamiliar with sharing the field with professionals. 

Seeing how congested that this squad is going to become as some missing bodies start to pour in, this was a good opportunity to test some of those younger players, of which who will be looking to prove to Dos Santos that they can be difference-makers for this club. 

To be fair, a lot of them will probably head out on loan, such as the pair of 18-year-olds, Facchineri and Damiano Pecile, but for someone like the 21-year-old Bair, who didn’t even see the field against Portland, you do wonder what might happen to him going forward, especially as one of the team’s regulars in 2019 and 2020. 

He’s good enough to play in MLS, as he’s shown across 34 appearances for the ‘Caps, but if he’s not going to get the minutes he needs as a developing forward, might it be time to consider a loan?

Not playing in this game could light a fire under Bair, vaulting him back into the starting conversation, but at the moment, you have to be a tad bit worried about what the 2021 season may offer for him at the ‘Caps, at least if early signs are to be any indication. 

As for Dos Santos’s thoughts on the lack of substitutes as a whole, he did note that it could’ve been something he misread in hindsight, but he did confirm it was a mix of him not completely trusting his bench while also wanting to give his starters a good run in the team. 

“It’s a good question, we were thinking about it,” Dos Santos said on the lack of substitutes. “We didn’t feel that the concerns we had were physical, maybe we didn’t read that moment well. We felt it was a lot in the decision-making. And we didn’t have a lot of exhibition games, and we wanted to keep a group that played a lot of the minutes together in Chicago (versus the Fire), played a lot of the minutes against the (Real) Monarchs, so it delayed our substitutions because we felt that Deiber (Caicedo) was showing flashes that could have been dangerous, we didn’t feel that Baldi(simo) or Bikel were bad in the game, but then we started to see a little bit of tiredness and that’s when we decided to make the subs.”

“We made late subs, but it’s something to review, and again we’re limited a little bit right now with the availability of players, and that’s why we took the decision on going that direction today.”

Considering that they won, all will be forgotten, but it’ll be something to keep an eye on going forward, as you’d like to see Dos Santos trust his substitutes in games, especially knowing how much of a boost they can provide in these sorts of tight matches. 

Gutierrez earns praise from MDS, MLS:

Lastly, to end on a positive note, it’s important to highlight the play of Gutierrez at left back, as he rightfully earned the BTSVancity Man of the Match award, and that praise extended to the rest of MLS on Monday, as he was also named in the league’s Team of the Week. 

At a left back position where he has to compete for minutes with the most expensive left back in MLS history, Ali Adnan, who has been one of the top players at his position since arriving in the league in 2019, it hasn’t been easy for Gutierrez to claw his way into the squad, but he’s continued to give his best shot without much complaint. 

As a result, he’s now worked his way into the starting picture, as Dos Santos can sometimes just push Adnan up the field, knowing that Gutierrez will provide good cover at left back. 

When he’s on, as he was on Sunday, he can be a very good player, and for Dos Santos, he was happy to see that, saying that the plaudits were well-earned for one of his hardest-working players. 

“Guti(errez) is an intelligent kid,” Dos Santos said of his left back. “He is very good in the locker room. He has a very good energy to learn and to grow as a player. It’s a player that if he plays, he’s there to help, if he’s asked to go on the bench, he keeps the same attitude, and those dynamics help a team.”

With Adnan likely out for a few weeks as he deals with a visa issue, Gutierrez is going to be counted on heavily going forward, and from what we saw Sunday, he seems up to the task. 

And that could be huge for him going forward. Canadian head coach John Herdman was confident enough in Gutierrez to call him to his squad for their World Cup qualifiers last month, and while he didn’t play in any of their games, he appeared to leave a pretty good impression on Canada’s boss. 

Heading into some crucial World Cup qualifiers in June, this could be a great chance for him to not only stay on Herdman’s radar, but cement himself in his squad, so from that perspective, you can only be happy with what Gutierrez had to offer against Portland on Sunday, while also being excited for what lies ahead.

Looking Forward: 

Now, the ‘Caps will have to get back to work rather quickly here, as they get set to play Toronto FC Saturday afternoon in Orlando, in what we’ll be a very tough match against a solid team in some pretty brutal weather conditions, to boot. 

From what we saw against the Timbers, they’ll have to feel more confident in their chances of winning against TFC than they did a few days ago, especially after seeing Toronto fall to CF Montreal 4-2 in their opener, but teams in MLS tend to have a short memory, making it important to not get carried away in the ebbs and flows of momentum after opening weekend. 

With it being a long season, the ‘Caps just need to continue to grow one match at a time, so for now, their mission has to be to build off of what they showed against Portland. 

That’s something Dos Santos made sure to highlight on Sunday, as he noted that he feels like the best days are still yet to come for his side. 

“Not enough, not enough,” he said of his team’s overall play against Portland. “I felt that we were able to build up well in (first) phase and the second phase, but then when we got into the last third, they were missing the key pass, the key run, we could have done better there.”

“But again, there’s still a lot of margin for us to progress as a team.”

There’s a reason why a season gets described as a marathon, not a sprint, and while the ‘Caps are sitting pretty after the first leg of the race, they’ve still got 33 other legs to deal with, starting with Toronto. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Toronto FC, Saturday, April 24th, 12:00 PDT, 15:00 EDT. (Exploria Stadium, Orlando)

Cover photo via: Vancouver Whitecaps/Twitter

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