Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Vancouver Whitecaps get set to hit reset button during break after 2-1 loss to Houston Dynamo

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after piece looking at all things Vancouver Whitecaps, we look back at the ‘Caps latest result, a tough 2-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo. Here’s some of what stood out from that game. 

After a strong start, it’s time to head back to the drawing board. 

As they get set to take on a month-long break, the Vancouver Whitecaps will have plenty to think about for the next couple of weeks, as they head into the pause on a low note after losing 2-1 to the Houston Dynamo on Saturday. 

Having come out of the gates strongly this year, picking up a solid 7 points from their first 4 games, they head into the break completely out of form, riding a 3 game losing streak to finish the first stretch of the season with a slightly less inspiring 7 points from 7 games. 

So with that in mind, one might think that a break is coming at a perfect time for the ‘Caps, who now have some time off to ponder what went wrong before hopping back in the saddle, but you also have to imagine that they were hoping to head into this pause on a high note, only adding to the sting of defeat. 

Plus, with everyone on the roster pretty much now all available after a rash of early-season injuries and absentees, this would’ve been a good time for them to show what they’re made of, but instead they’re left to wait on the sidelines for a few weeks. 

But it just all depends on how you look at things. 

They can’t change the timing of the break, so all they can do is just embrace it and do what they can with it, and make no mistake, there is plenty they can do over the next 4 weeks. 

From continuing to integrate everyone into the fold, to adjusting a few tactics, and just otherwise resting a few tired legs, these 4 weeks could be big for the ‘Caps if they approach it with the right mindset. 

Heading into what is essentially viewed as preseason 2.0, but with ~630 minutes of data to use as reference, a few big weeks lie ahead for this team if they want to keep their season on the rails. 

Here’s some of what stood out from their latest data point, 90 minutes of fascinating soccer down in Houston, where the ‘Caps showed a lot of good and bad in their clash with the Dynamo. 

Open play drought is finally over:

And if we’re going to start with some of the good, it was quite nice to see the ‘Caps score from open play in this game, as they scored their first goal from that phase of play this season despite the loss. 

Thanks to a nice bit of pressing from Ryan Raposo, combined with a solid pass from Lucas Cavallini and a good finish from Deiber Caicedo, the ‘Caps finally found that famed goal in the 80th minute against the Dynamo.

Having been shut out in back-to-back games, they would’ve taken any sort of tally on Saturday, but for it to be from open play was a big bonus, especially given their lack of proficiency in that area to start the season. 

That doesn’t mean the problem is completely erased, though, as the ‘Caps have now only scored 

8 open play goals in their last 18 games (~1620 minutes) dating back to last season, showing that this is part of a bigger problem, but that they finally broke their 2021 duck was a nice plus. 

There is still a lot of work to be done, especially considering that the ‘Caps are currently generating the 3rd-worst open play Expected Goals (xG) in MLS with 0.59 per game, but getting the monkey off their back is a good start. 

Just don’t tell the ‘Caps that, as they would’ve easily traded that open play goal for 3 points, but despite that, they recognize the need to be better in that area of their game going forward. 

“I would prefer to score two goals on set plays today, and maybe get a point or a win, then (get) one goal on open play,” Dos Santos said after the game. “For me, the most important thing is the goals and not if it’s open play or set plays. Every time we play a team that is lower, like Portland, like Colorado, that are more transition-oriented when they win the ball, we struggle to break down opponents.”

“We’re trying a lot of things, we’re trying to have many guys in different spots on the field.”

Slow start causes worries: 

But while the open play goal was nice to see, another familiar problem stuck around for the ‘Caps on Saturday, and that was their habit of starting games slow, as they once again came out of the gates quite flat versus the Dynamo. 

Through 7 games, they’ve now been outscored 6-0 in the first half, which no matter how you slice it, is poor. 

They’ve managed to find a way to consistently break out of the slow start, outscoring teams 6-3 in the second half, but as seen in the last two games, it doesn’t matter how well you finish if you dig yourself a big hole to start the game. 

For a ‘Caps team that wants to play a ‘in your face’ brand of play, starting slow makes it very hard for them to impose themselves on the game, and that proved to be the case once again versus the Dynamo. 

Having conceded the first goal inside 10 minutes of play, the ‘Caps were left to chase the game against a Dynamo team that has made a habit of sitting deep and bunkering, which as mentioned earlier by Dos Santos, isn’t exactly the ‘Caps most favourable stylistic matchup at the moment.  

And it’s not like the Dynamo pulled out this tactic specifically for Vancouver, either, making it even more frustrating that the ‘Caps put the game right into their hands by handing them that early goal. 

Asked about it after the game, Dos Santos did say it’s something that he’s continued to look into, as he admitted that his team must do more to overcome all of the factors that have continued to contribute to these slow starts. 

“I’ll answer the question in a more general way,” Dos Santos said. “We play in a stadium that has a couple of family members, but very empty stadium, and then we come on the road we play against teams that have fans and people and it makes a huge difference, maybe you don’t understand it on TV, but when you’re at the stadium you feel that when you’re playing Minnesota, Sporting and Houston that we were the away team, and you feel it by the noise when they score.”

“So we need to step everything up even more, because we need more. We need more if we want to make it, we need more if we want to do better, we need much more because mentally it’s not going to be an easy run, and you can see it only with us, you see it with Toronto, you see it with Montreal, it will be hard, so we need to push it even more, so not only attacking in the first half, but being in the right place defensively in the first half also.”

And if anything, as simple as it sounds, somewhere for the ‘Caps to start is finding a way to be locked in and avoiding little mistakes out of the gates. 

From the get-go on Saturday, the ‘Caps had a lot of the ball and seemed ready to push forward, but one set of errors put them behind the 8 ball, and from there, they just couldn’t escape their fate. 

Obviously, no team likes playing from behind, but for a team that can still be a bit fragile at times, it’s something they have to put a bit of extra effort into to avoid doing, or else it will continue to cost them points in games. 

“I thought we came in well in the game,” Dos Santos said. “We had flow to our game, we had good possession. And then in one play that we misread, it’s a transition against us. We don’t read that the ball is not under pressure, and we don’t drop fast enough, the ball gets in behind and then it puts us in trouble.”

“They get the 1-0, and it created a little bit of unsettlement in our team. Unfortunately, we gave up, for the first time, a goal on a set play, we’re very disappointed with it.”

Busy break lies ahead:

So without a doubt, those two issues have to be items 1 and 2 atop Dos Santos’s to-do list for this break, as they are not new problems for this team. 

But otherwise, what might Dos Santos and company get up to during the break? 

With this time off, it sounds like they’ll pore over the data from the first few games, figuring out how they can best address some of the issues that they’ll have identified. 

From there, they’ll be able to create some solutions to those problems, allowing them to progress as a team going forward. 

This team might be missing a few pieces at the moment, both in terms of players that at the club but unable to participate, such as Ali Adnan, or players that are not yet at the club but are needed to push forward, such as a DP #10, but that doesn’t mean that this team should be where it’s at right now. 

They’ve got a solid group of players at nearly every position, they’ve got a heavy group of returnee players and their new guys have adjusted nicely, so there’s no reason that they cannot turn things up another level. 

Step 1 of doing that? 

A possible formation change from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3, which based on what we explored last week, could be the way for them to take that step forward. 

Considering the ‘Caps once again switched to the 4-3-3 partway through the game against Houston and immediately looked better off after doing it, it’s something Dos Santos admits is very much on the table right now, as he and his staff get set to undergo their early-season analysis.

“Yeah, I think that we have an assessment to do on, okay, we played these first seven games, we saw the tendencies of each player, the qualities of each player, how we can best originate chances,” Dos Santos said. “And now we have to figure out what the best way to play with the guys that we have is.”

“An example of it can be a possibility of a 4-3-3, but of course that when you assess the seven games, it’s our job to see now okay where do we fit, what’s the best fit for players with the guys that we have, it’s very important that we focus on the guys that we are there, and not on possible guys that could come in, if a new player comes in, we’ll assess that, but right now we have to focus on the guys that are here.”

From there, the other steps should theoretically fall into place, helping the ‘Caps move forward. 

Or that’s the hope, at least. 

But while Dos Santos and his staff will try to find a way to best extract juice out of this lineup, might he get the introduction of a new fruit in terms of that DP #10, of whom the ‘Caps have been waiting for since last year?

It’s something he certainly hopes for, but he made sure to point out that’s the job of Sporting Director Axel Schuster and the recruitment staff, outlining that his prime focus is on just doing the most that he can with the players that he has available. 

“Me and Axel, we talk every day about where we need to improve the team and we’re the same way, we’re desperate with some areas that we want to improve, and we’re working on that off the field,” Dos Santos explained. “The most important thing for me as a coach is trying to work on that, on the field. Consider what we have and what is right now my assessment during the break is going to be, what are our best weapons to try to open up the play and do better in the opponent’s half. Everything, our structure tactically, if we’re not able to play in a certain way, it’s my job as a coach to try to work on a way with the guys that are here to unlock things.”

“This is my job, give confidence to the guys, help them unlock things with the guys we have and at the same time, we work closely with Axel to try to find solutions off the field and we’re doing that a lot.”

Javain Brown brings the heat in debut:

Javain Brown in action for the ‘Caps on Saturday (Vancouver Whitecaps/Twitter)

And speaking of finding a way of maximizing the individuals at their disposal, Javain Brown is a fantastic example of that, as the ‘Caps 2021 Super Draft pick showed that Vancouver might have found a player in him on Saturday. 

Making his first MLS start, Brown put up a player of the game performance at left back for the ‘Caps, filling in nicely for the injured Cristian Gutierrez. 

It might have not been the ideal result he would’ve liked to pick up on his debut, but other than that, it was a near-flawless first start for the Jamaican international, as he put up a good account of himself in a tough environment. 

“I mean it was a great feeling, but its not the result that I wanted,” Brown said after the match. “At the end of the game, I was disappointed. But I realize it’s better for us to make these mistakes earlier in the season than later in the season. We still have a long way to go, we have a lot of assessments to do. The team is really good, it’s just simple mistakes that we made leading to them scoring.”

Despite being drafted as a right back (!!) who can also play as a centre back, Brown looked like a veteran out on the left, playing with the experience of a 10-year MLS veteran, not a 22-year-old fresh out of college. 

To be fair, he’s not your ordinary college player, as it’s not often that you get a draft pick who has already gotten international caps for a top 6 CONCACAF nation (Jamaica), but despite that, no one expected this from Brown. 

Deployed out of his position, the expectations were quite low for Brown, and he smashed them out of the park, showing what he’s capable of. 

For a player who didn’t even know that he was going to play left back until a few days before the game, meaning that most of his learning about the position came from YouTube tutorials, you can only tip your hat to what he did on Saturday. 

“As a football player wherever the coach wants you to go, you just have to go there and execute it to the best of your ability,” Brown said. “It doesn’t matter where (Dos Santos) puts me, with the instruction that he gives me I’m going to go out there and execute it. I’ve played left back before.”

“When he told me that I was going to play left back I went back home and watched a couple of videos of good left backs, their movement, their defensive transition, body position, to lead into this game.”

And make no mistake, Brown appeared to execute to the best of his ability, as he set out to do. 

Defensively, he took care of business, picking up 3 tackles, 4 interceptions and 1 clearance, putting up a pretty tidy performance. 

But as a defender, that was expected from him. 

Offensively, however, is where he truly surprised, making 44 passes (88.6% passing), while also completing 5/6 long balls, 1 dribble, 2 shots and making 63 touches, completing a nice two-way performance. 

That was reflected in his heat map and in the ‘Caps average position map, showing that Brown did a good job of getting up and down the field, showing no discomfort despite being deployed in the new position. 

For Dos Santos, it was everything he could’ve asked from Brown and then some, as he was happy to see him show up big time on his debut. 

Plus, as Dos Santos made sure to note, he thinks that there is much more to come from Brown, meaning that these sorts of performances could be the norm if he keeps himself grounded. 

“I’ve been very truthful with him from the start, in the sense that I know how he arrived, he didn’t arrive as ready as he could be for a player to play at his level, due to the college year that was affected by COVID, and it was challenging (for him) because of COVID,” Dos Santos explained. “So he arrived to us with not a lot of competitive rhythm and training, but he was able to catch up easily, he was able to listen, understand what we want, a kid that understands what we ask from him and then applies himself to the best of his ability, and I just think that he’s just 60-65% of his full capacity, I think we’re going to stretch him and make him a better player.”

“What he needs to understand is there’s this humility part in him to work hard and do things well, if he doesn’t lose that humility in him, he could do very good things, and this week it’s important that he stays very humble in everything that he does.”

So hopefully he can keep that humility, because if he does, he’s going to be a popular player among fans. 

People online have slowly been hopping on the bandwagon due to his strong play, but he may have won over the hearts of most when he immediately got into the face of former ‘Cap and current Dynamo defender Tim Parker after a clash with a Vancouver forward. 

Brown wasted no time in getting in Parker’s face and letting him know that he didn’t want him to pick on his teammates, showing that he isn’t here to mess around. 

Asked about it after the game, Brown gave up no ground, and hopefully he can continue to have that same mindset on the training ground and on the pitch, because if he does, good things lie ahead for him going forward. 

 “Yeah, I’m going to fight for my team,” Brown said. “I’m a team player. I’m a defender, also, if I’m going to see my strikers get hit, then I’d be soft, so I’m going to go out there and fight, fight for my teammates.”

“I’m not about myself, one player is not enough to build a great team, we got to be there for each other, we got to fight for each other, and I’m happy to bring that to the team.”

Raposo’s Revenge: 

Lastly, it’s important to shout out one last individual from the game Saturday and that’s Ryan Raposo, who had a nice late-game cameo off the bench for the ‘Caps. 

After getting pulled from the ‘Caps last game against Sporting Kansas City in the 35th minute, coming off early after making a surprise start, you had to wonder where his head was at following suffering that embarrassment. 

Credit to him, though, as he appeared to handle it nicely, coming off the bench in the 64th minute and bringing his usual spark. 

In his short time on the pitch, he set up a few teammates with chances, nearly scored one of his own, and played a role in the ‘Caps goal, pressing the Dynamo into the error that directly led to the tally. 

Now, the goal just has to be to continue to do that in all of the opportunities that he receives going forward, be it as a starter or as a substitute. 

He may have suffered a slight setback last week with that early sub, but with it still being early in his career, it doesn’t have to be something that defines him. 

So hopefully he can continue to show that spark he’s brought off the bench going forward, because this ‘Caps team could certainly use more of what he can bring to the table at the moment. 

“Yeah, what I told Ryan, and this is what I’m going to say publicly because Ryan knows because we had this conversation, is that he always brought something positive coming off the bench, (so) the next step for him is what he can do when he starts,” Dos Santos said. “Some players have lived careers off the bench, being special off the bench, and not being as effective when they start, and Ryan is trying to find that balance and trying to find a way that when he gets opportunities to impact a little bit more the game right now.”

“He’s always been a positive spark every time that he comes off the bench, and that’s where he’s at right now. I think it’s important that we have subs that come on and really impact the game in some way and Ryan did this.”

Looking Forward: 

So now, the ‘Caps will look to use this break to recharge and get back at it in a month’s time, when they’ll take on their hosts at their ‘home away from home’, Real Salt Lake, in a big game for both sides. 

As seen at the beginning, the timing of the break might not be the best for the ‘Caps, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t make the most of it, and that starts now. 

This team has a lot of flaws, but there also remains a lot of potential to be unearthed, so this ‘preseason 2.0’ is going to be crucial if they’re to try and tap into some of that, because if not, a busy summer schedule could sink this team. 

They’ve shown to be capable of good things, as the start of the year demonstrated, so it’s not like this is mission impossible. 

But it’s going to require all hands on deck, because if not, a lot of frustration awaits, similar to what they encountered against Dynamo. 

They can change that narrative, though, and this break can play a big role in that, so hopefully they take full advantage of it now. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Real Salt Lake, Friday, June 18th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy)

Cover Photo via: Matthew Stith/MLS

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