In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at all things Vancouver Whitecaps, we look back at the ‘Caps loss to Minnesota United from Wednesday night. Here’s what stood out to us in that one.
For how close they were to making magic happen, the ending had to hurt.
Having fought hard throughout the first 70 minutes, the Vancouver Whitecaps seemed like they were close to snatching all 3 points away from Minnesota United on Wednesday, as they’d done well to position themselves to grab a late winner at Allianz Field.
And then, Ramon Abila appeared.
Seemingly out of thin air, the on-loan Boca Juniors striker came off the bench and grabbed a 72nd-minute goal that would later prove to be the winner, maneuvering between the two ‘Caps centre backs and nodding home a big winner for a Loons side that was reeling after 4 straight defeats to start the 2021 MLS season.
All of a sudden, the ‘Caps had lost control of a game they had every chance to win, leaving them to lick their wounds and wonder where things went wrong.
“It hurts when we lose like that,” Vancouver winger, Deiber Caicedo, said via an interpreter after the game. “When the team gives a big effort and we lose like that but we need to keep going, We need to stay with the positive things from this game and move on to the next game, and get the things we need to work on right in the upcoming game.”
For a ‘Caps team that has now only picked up points in 2 of their last 11 road games, they had a glorious chance to reverse their recent road fortunes, but instead, they must now continue to search for answers.
But despite the negative feeling of having dropped points, that doesn’t mean this game was a wash – far from it.
To give credit to the ‘Caps, they played a fantastic road game, coming out strongly, battling hard and defending well, making life tough for Minnesota up until their goal.
More importantly, they created chances, as well, with their downfall being their finishing, which is something we’re not all that used to seeing from them.
Considering that the Whitecaps potential downfall this season has mostly been their inability to create chances, that they actually made things happen versus the Loons is a big positive, as the ‘Caps took a big step forward in that department.
So ultimately, even though the result didn’t go their way, they showed plenty of good things to be excited about, giving hope that they can build off of that in their next game, in which they’ll look to return to their winning ways of last week, while playing the sort of exciting soccer that they showed off in flashes on Wednesday.
“It’s a good performance,” midfielder Russell Teibert said post-game. “We’re not satisfied leaving here without a point, at least the point. We had chances tonight. We know we’re a team that can be dangerous in the attacking third, we created good chances tonight and the ball just didn’t bounce our way for one reason or another.”
“But if we keep playing like this we’re going to put ourselves in a good position to win games going forward this season.”
A moral victory:
And even though it might count for naught in the standings, the ‘Caps do have to appreciate the value of this moral victory, all things considered.
Yes, facing a team that hadn’t won a game yet this season, they’ll certainly rue not putting more pressure on the Loons, but at the same time, it’s MLS – teams in this league have some of the shortest-term memories in the world, and wacky results happen every week across this circuit for a reason.
With that in mind, it puts a huge emphasis on a team’s process this early in the season, and while results are important, how you go about getting them can be equally as vital.
Almost ironically, the ‘Caps had a pretty uninspiring performance in their last game out against CF Montreal, yet grabbed a victory, but played much better in this game, and left empty-handed.
That’s MLS for you.
With it being as hard as it is to currently play away from home in MLS, with teams still forced to travel in-and-out on game days, playing well is almost all you can ask for in some of these away games, and they did that on Wednesday.
It doesn’t lessen the blow of this loss, as Vancouver needs to find a way to turn these sorts of performances into points at every opportunity if they want to be a playoff team, but with it still being so early in the season, they’ve got plenty of time to figure that part of their game out.
As long as they find a way to continue building on what they showed in this game, it could make it a valuable moral victory, one that ultimately ends up helping them in the big picture.
At the end of the day, a loss is a loss, but not every loss is created equal, and the ‘Caps have a chance to make this a positive loss in the long run, provided they learn off of what they showed in defeat on Wednesday.
“It sucks for me to speak about so many positive things in a 1-0 loss, but I told the guys they have to have their heads up because there were so many good things,” Dos Santos said. “We played a good away game, it was good for the fans. It was two teams that wanted to win.”
“I thought it could’ve been a game with more goals, because there were chances created. It’s that night where those chances don’t go in.”
Open play woes continue, but solutions are on the horizon:
And an important area in which the ‘Caps made progress on Wednesday was in the open play department, as they looked much more dangerous in that phase of play than they have in any other game up to this point.
They failed to actually score from that sequence of play, which now makes it 5 games without an open play goal, but there were signs of improvement, as they at least made Minnesota sweat a bit when they had the ball in the open field.
After looking rather toothless there against Montreal, the ‘Caps looked like they were on the right track against Minnesota, creating a few chances that were just begging for them to put away.
On another day, maybe those chances end up in the back of the net, and then the worry goes away, but alas, they just didn’t have that finishing touch in this game.
“Obviously, everyone in the team wants to score, wants to help the team, and we all put lots of effort into creating chances,” Caicedo said. “It’s hard in the league to create chances, and it hurts, it obviously hurts when you don’t see those chances go into the back of the net.”
“We just try to focus on putting those chances towards goal, finishing those chances.”
But while there were improvements, that doesn’t mean things were particularly great, either.
The ‘Caps only created 1.14 Expected Goals (xG), which is still a bit low, especially considering the league average is just over 1.35, as they still probably could have created a bit more than they eventually did.
Against a Loons team that had been allowing upwards of 1.7 xG heading into this game, they definitely could’ve put a bit more pressure on them, especially considering that Minnesota barely rotated their lineup heading into this game, making some of their defenders ripe for the picking.
Otherwise, there were a few positive stats, though, offsetting those negative numbers.
The ‘Caps did generate 12 shots, 5 of them on target, which is around league average, as they did keep Tyler Miller busy in the Minnesota goal.
You’d like to see the ‘Caps aim higher than league average, but with their offence often being well below average in recent years, it was a good sign, as they were a lot more trigger-happy than usual.
And even more importantly, they made life tough for Minnesota at the back, which was indicated by the heat maps after the game.
Usually, these aren’t too kind to the ‘Caps, but they actually got the ball into the danger zone in and around the Minnesota box, while keeping the Loons well away from their goal.
Seeing that the Loons actually controlled the balance of possession with 55%, that’s actually quite impressive from the ‘Caps, as on most other days, they’d be expected to win a game like this.
It feels strange to be heaping this sort of praise after a result like this, but that gives an idea of how well the ‘Caps actually did offensively, something which has felt like a bit of a rare sight at times these past few seasons.
“I think sometimes that’s just the way it goes,” Teibert said of the result. “We create chances and you put guys in positions where we have quality players that can take those chances. If we keep playing this way we’re going to put ourselves in a good position to go out and win games this season. We’re disappointed to leave here without at least the point.”
“But Minnesota is a good team and credit to them, they capitalize on a chance that’s still unclear, I need to watch it back again. But we felt that we deserved to get at least a point out of here.”
So for Vancouver, the goal remains obvious – they’ve got to turn these positive flashes into tangible success.
Flashes without success can be just considered a fluke, so until we see this on a more consistent basis, it’s hard to know if this was just a mirage or something real that we’ll be seeing much more of in the future.
The ‘Caps have been playing much better as a whole so far this season, so it’s certainly possible, but they’ve still got a lot of doubters to quell with each and every game that they play, as many remain justifiably unconvinced about this team.
One way to change that?
Picking up wins and actually playing like the team they’ve often talked about being.
They may have only done the latter on Wednesday, but after having done the former to start the season, if they can combine the two going forward, they should be a fun team to watch.
“We’ve been working a lot on creating chances, we’ve been working on analyzing how we could be better offensively and create things, and we did that tonight,” Dos Santos said. “Tonight, we were a vertical team, we were a team that moved the ball into some areas to create. I think it’s just a game where we lose 1-0, and we don’t deserve to lose the game.”
“It’s unfortunate, but there’s games like that, but what I told the guys on the field is this: ‘If the Whitecaps are going to lose games, lose like this’. Lose where you created, you fought, you’re exciting to watch.”
Bruno Gaspar’s bright debut:
Shifting our attention away from the team’s offensive performance, though, it’s important to highlight the role that Bruno Gaspar played in that part of their game, as the ‘Caps on-loan right back certainly did pretty well for himself in his first MLS start on Wednesday.
Be it because he was excited to make his debut, or because his parent club Sporting CP won their first title in 19 years on Tuesday, whatever it was, the ‘Caps will hope he can bottle that up and do more of it going forward for them at right back.
After a cautious first few minutes off of the bench in his first few games, he got his first start in place of Jake Nerwinski on Wednesday, and he didn’t look back, adding a new look to the ‘Caps offence.
On a ‘Caps team that has become so staggered towards the left-hand side ever since the arrival of Ali Adnan, he gave them some much-needed balance against Minnesota, giving them a true offensive threat from right full back.
Just to get an idea of how much he changed things, consider a few things.
First, there’s the average Whitecaps position map, in which Gaspar played quite high up the right-hand side, playing much higher up the field than Cristian Gutierrez, which is something that ‘Caps fans haven’t been used to seeing from the right back position recently.
That played a role in helping mix-up their offence, as they split their attacks nearly evenly down the flanks, instead of sending a grand majority of them down the left side, as usually would be the case.
So in a sense, maybe it’s no surprise that Gaspar’s debut coincided with one of the best ‘Caps offensive performances of the season, as he gave this Vancouver team the sort of width that they’ve long needed from that position.
With 1 shot on target, 1 dribble, 2 successful crosses and 34 passes (70% clip), he made a difference in wide areas for the ‘Caps on Wednesday, helping them overload a struggling Chase Gasper at left back for Minnesota.
And considering this is just a glimpse of what he has to offer, you have to be excited with what’s to come from the Angolan international, who is still working his way up to full match fitness.
Seeing the sort of threat the ‘Caps have developed down the left side with Adnan and Gutierrez, Gaspar could give them similar balance on the right side, while also pushing Nerwinski to push his game up a notch, making his loan a win-win one for the ‘Caps.
“Yes, I want us to grow as a team, and be less and less predictable,” Dos Santos said. “Have guys that can come from different areas, play from different areas, cross from different areas, (get) different players involved. I thought Bruno (Gaspar) especially in the first half helped a lot in those areas, going down the right side, and (on the left side) making (Cristian) Guti(errez) grow and believe even more every day that he could become more vertical.”
“So I think we’re growing as a team, and that’s the good part, as a club, there’s a process, and we’re growing and that’s important.”
It’s still early, of course, but early returns are positive from Gaspar, if Wednesday is anything to go off of.
Burnout a fear?
Lastly, for all of the positives in this game, there was a negative worth pointing out, and that was the continued lack of rotation that the ‘Caps have seen in their squad to start the season.
Through 5 games now, they’ve only made a total of 2 changes to their opening day lineup, pretty much rolling with the same group in every game.
That was fine through the first 4 games, as the ‘Caps were playing every 6-7 days, but for the first time in this one, they had to play on short rest, making many wonder if rotation was going to be on the horizon for Dos Santos and his squad.
Unfortunately, that didn’t end up being the case, however, as they only made 1 change to the lineup that beat Montreal, and it seemed to cost them in the second half.
And there are two moments that stand out, in particular.
First, there’s the goal that they conceded.
There was a cocktail of errors on that tally, starting with the ‘Caps inability to close down the cross and stay in their positions defensively.
The centre backs were too narrow, the wingers were out of position and the full backs were quite spread out, which in a zonal marking system, made it easy for Minnesota to capitalize on that confusion with a lovely ball into a dangerous area for the opener.
Does a rested ‘Caps team make that sort of mistake, which was eerily similar to some of the goals they conceded way too often in 2021? One has to wonder, especially considering Andy Rose, who has been one of the team’s best players so far this year, had been taken off of the field 25 minutes earlier with a muscle injury, showing the strain that this busy schedule is putting on players.
Secondly, there was the chance Lucas Cavallini had a few minutes earlier, as Derek Cornelius played Cavallini through with a wonderful through ball, but despite having a few steps on the Minnesota defenders, Cavallini was caught easily before even making it to the box.
Usually, Cavallini would’ve made it to the box and at least gotten off a shot, but instead, he looked like he had cement in his boots, seeming to feel the effects of having played a full 90 minutes in every game so far this year.
And what’s strange is that the ‘Caps don’t have much of a reason to be running Cavallini into the ground, as strikers Theo Bair, Tosaint Ricketts and David Egbo are all good options to fill in for the Canadian striker, but they’re all yet to play a minute so far in 2021.
The ‘Caps have good options on the bench at many positions, yet have only made an average of 3.4 subs a game through 5 matches (they’re allowed to make 5 a game), most of them coming after the 80th minute, which along with their reluctance to rotate the squad, has some players looking tired.
It might not seem like it, but it’s having an impact, as well.
Just look at the xG plot from this game.
Coincidentally, the ‘Caps hit a rut after the 65th minute, which is right where the Loons found their goal and cruised the rest of the way.
Despite that, though, Dos Santos doesn’t feel like fatigue has been an issue, at least in his eyes.
“No burnout,” he said bluntly. “I know people from the outside, they want to see more players, it’s fun to see new players, but we’re with them every day, and they felt extremely well to play this game. (Earlier), we came out of a flight of almost three hours, a couple of hours later we came straight to the stadium and we were fresh, we were running, we were creating.”
“It burns out if in the lineup there’s never any rotation and we’re in the 20th game, but these guys were four months waiting to play and now we’ve played five league games, it’s the first time we’ve played a midweek game. We never lost this game because of a physical aspect. Now, for sure, we need to evaluate things very well, coming up to this game on Sunday, that’s for sure.”
So now, it’ll be interesting to see what happens rotation-wise going forward.
At a certain point, guys are going to need to be rested, especially if more players pick up muscle injuries as Rose did.
Yes, it’s early in the season, and yes, guys need match fitness, but constantly playing them in full 90s while plenty of fresh legs sit ready to go on the bench probably isn’t the best way to go about things.
Dos Santos has lauded his depth a lot so far this season, and has gotten a fair bit out of players when he has rotated him in, so there’s not much for him to lose there.
He continues to talk about rotation, which is good, but it’s got to come sooner rather than later, especially as the schedule tightens up, especially with the ‘Caps playing their 3rd game in 8 games this coming Sunday.
“I think we have a lot of good options there,” Dos Santos said. “I’ve spoken a lot about how important continuity is, the best teams in the league and the best teams in the world have continuity in their lineup, and that creates habits between players, understanding between players, guys knowing what the teammate likes to do.”
“Slowly we’re starting to see this, but it’s a league where we need depth. That’s important when you have another game coming in on Sunday, then I spoke about the month of July …so everybody’s going to be important.”
But all things considered, it was mostly a good performance from the ‘Caps, despite the sour result.
Their road woes may have continued, but they at least looked capable of snatching all 3 points, which hasn’t been something we’ve been able to often say about them when playing away from home in recent years.
Heading into the busy part of the season, where margins are going to be a lot finer, they’ve still got plenty of fine-tuning to do, but if they’re going to keep playing like this, that quest will be a lot easier.
So all in all, it was a solid performance, but now, the important thing is to build off of it and show that it was no fluke.
Baked on what we’ve seen so far from them this year, they should be able to do that, but they’ve got a chance to actually prove that this weekend, in which they’ll take on a Sporting Kansas City side reeling after a tough midweek loss to the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday.
Away from home, it won’t be easy, but they’ll have the confidence gained from this game giving them wind in their sails, hopefully propelling them onto bigger and better things – including picking up an elusive road win.
Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Sporting Kansas City, Sunday, May, 16th, 11:00 AM PDT, 14:00 EDT (Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas)
Cover Photo via: Minnesota United/Twitter