Photo courtesy of Vancouver Whitecaps
Author’s note: Normally, PSP runs a tactical preview before each match. But without much video to watch, the 2017 Vancouver Whitecaps are a bit of a mystery to anybody that hasn’t been paying close attention. Luckily, PSP was able to speak to reporter Patrick Johnston of the Vancouver Sun, who has been paying very close attention to the ‘Caps.
In 2015, Vancouver Whitecaps earned 53 points and finished second in the Western Conference behind the stellar play of one of the league’s best defenses. Meanwhile, Philadelphia Union finished well below the playoff line with the lowest scoring attack in the Eastern Conference.
Last year, the Whitecaps defense fell apart, and they dropped out of the playoff race. Philadelphia Union’s offense quite suddenly became one of the best in the conference, and they made their first postseason appearance since 2011.
Now both teams are hoping to find a balance between attack and defense that can carry them into November. The Union’s preparations for the upcoming season have been well-documented on PSP. What has Vancouver been up to?
In and out
The Whitecaps started the offseason by declining to extend designated player Pedro Morales’ contract and sending right back Fraser Aird back to his parent club, Glasgow Rangers. They kept striker Erik Hurtado, traded for former Union right back Sheanon Williams, split with Masato Kudo, brought in Peruvian international midfielder Yordy Reyna from Red Bull Salzburg (now out with a knee injury), and drafted right back Jake Nerwinski out of UConn. That’s a lot of minor changes on a team that seemed to regress defensively in 2016 without progressing in attack.
And then they signed Fredy Montero. The Fredy Montero with 47 goals in 119 matches for Seattle Sounders over four seasons.
“Montero, without a doubt, is the most rounded striker the ‘Caps have ever had,” Vancouver Sun reporter Patrick Johnston told PSP. “With the exception, perhaps, of Kenny Miller — who I think played very well and wasn’t a superstar but played very well — they haven’t really had a guy that you looked at and said, ‘Yeah, man, that guy does everything.’
He didn’t really have a proper preseason in China. The club there told him they were going to find another place for him to play, so he’s been involved here the past couple weeks but wasn’t fit enough to take part last week. [Head coach Carl] Robinson said he’s going to have him involved on this Thursday, and you assume on Sunday as well.”
Rebuilt (though not quite healthy) attack
Montero will be the centerpiece of a front line that could become one of the best in the league. Kekuta Manneh is healthy again and Alphonso Davies is growing in both talent and size.
“I was looking at him the other day and I think the kid has grown 2-3 inches since last year. He’s a fantastic young talent and is just going to get better,” Johnston said.
“Davies is a guy who… you want him to just do stuff. There was a ball that Manneh put into him last Thursday [in the CONCACAF Champions League match against NY Red Bulls] that went right on his foot and you think, ‘I kinda want him to go for a volley on that,’ which is a ballsy thing to do, but that’s what it called for. He took an extra touch and New York was able to scramble back and take away the scoring opportunity. He’s a kid that attacks with the ball, though, he goes right at you, and I think as he gets more comfortable with the other players in the lineup, it is going to become a real thing that’ll work. It’s hard to imagine players this talented not figuring it out.”
“Manneh might be playing as more of a striker this year than as a winger,” Johnston said. “They’ve certainly been using him quite a bit as a number ten in preseason, partly because they didn’t have Montero yet and they didn’t know how things were going to work out. Yordy Reyna, who I think was going to be a great addition, is now dealing with foot surgery and is out until the summer.
“Christian Bolanos is still rehabbing from a knee injury and we’re not quite sure when he’ll be available, but he’s training at the same time as the team again but not fully involved in practice. He was a nice pickup for them on the wing [last season]. Cristian Techera, who showed up out of shape and not ready to play last year and never really caught up and, I think, was a disappointment to the fans and the coaches, he looks more engaged, ready to go. Erik Hurtado works very hard, he’s a hustling kid and you appreciate the attitude, but he struggled to finish as well. And I think that, as well, is part of the story of the ‘Caps. They couldn’t sustain anything in the attack, and as a result they had to play a lot more defense.”
Bounce back in back?
A lot went wrong in defense for Vancouver last season, yet they are likely to feature four of the same five names on the lineup card to start 2017. David Ousted will, of course, remain in net. And in front of him everything but the right back position looks to remain the same.
“Here’s the thing,” Johnston said. “They didn’t score a ton, but they didn’t score a ton the year before. It was simply that they gave up too many goals.
“Kendall Waston, Tim Parker — who I think struggled last year finding his feet with a lot more put on him — and, of course, the veteran Jordan Harvey on the left,
“One of the things we were talking about on The Whitecaps Weekly podcast is that this is the story for Kendall Waston as well. He did not have a great year — some of that probably has to do with the problems they had on the right side — a lot of guys just weren’t in the spots that you really wanted them to be in. For me, that’s the thing to watch for: Can the ‘Caps keep their defensive structure the way they did in 2015?
“One of the things that was clear looking back at least year was that there were a couple holes created in their lineup — they lost Steven Beitashour because of the [salary] cap, they had to let him go, he moved over to Toronto. They replaced him with a young Canadian named Fraser Aird and Jordan Smith. Neither of them proved up to the task at right back. They both had some fun attacking tendencies, but in the big picture, not good enough defensively. So they have a lot of trouble on that side.
“The other one that I think has been understated is the loss of Gershon Koffie, who of course moved to New England and now he’s moved on to Sweden,” Johnston continued. “But he had been a really key up-the-field, harasser of key players, which made things easier downfield.
“Last year the Whitecaps blocked or intercepted ten fewer passes from the opposition compared to 2015, when they were probably the league’s most dominant defensive team. So I think we’re seeing them try to re-establish that defensive structure.
“They brought in Sheanon Williams, but interestingly enough he didn’t start last week against the Red Bulls [in the CONCACAF Champions league]. He gave way to Jake Nerwinski, who they drafted this year from UConn. He’s an interesting prospect, I think he still has work to do, but certainly they seem happy with what he’s done so far. Williams, of course, is just a solid veteran player, knows how to keep things tight.
“They weren’t terrible defensively on set pieces, we weren’t screaming, ‘oh my god, what are they doing?’ They just gave up too many opportunities from good places to shoot from. There were more shots taken from inside the eighteen yard box than the year before. If you’re going to give up a lot of good chances, as good as David Ousted is, that’s putting a lot of pressure on the guy.
“Another thing to keep in mind is that in 2015 they did play that Leicester City style, looking for quick counterattacks, trying to grab goals that way. I think maybe we’ll see a bit more of that this year. Certainly, the addition of Brek Shea suggests that they’re trying to get back to that quick, attacking pace, trying to find those gaps and catch the other side napping, perhaps.”
Vancouver just traded Giles Barnes, who they acquired last season, to Orlando City for enigmatic winger-fullback Break Shea. Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson will play Shea as an attacker, not as a fullback. And the ‘Caps hope the US international can jumpstart their transition offense.
“The addition of Brek Shea, which was a surprise,” Johnston said. “We knew Giles Barnes was probably going to end up somewhere else, but to bring a guy like that back, who struggled a bit the last couple years, but certainly when he was on form, he was such a threat. When he had the ball at his feet, you just knew something was going to happen. And he’s still 26, so he’s still in the prime of his career. So it’s just about people settling in and finding routines.”
Return of the Laba
Since he arrived in Vancouver from Toronto, Matias Laba had maintained such consistently strong form that he could claim a place among the best holding midfielders in MLS. Last season, however, after the Whitecaps traded away his longtime partner Gershon Koffie.
“Last year he did not play well. Was it him personally, that maybe had something to do with it. The challenges that they had with the system was certainly an issue. But he’s definitely a player to watch this year because you assume he will return to the form he had.”
The Whitecaps play the second leg of their CCL matchup with New York Red Bulls this Thursday before welcoming the Union on Sunday. Johnston said that while the proximity of the matches might affect a few lineup choices, Carl Robinson will field a strong side for both games.
“The lineup he put out last week, in terms of who was available, was a first choice team. I think it’s definitely going to be a challenge, and there will be some guys who play on Sunday who also played on Thursday. I would expect Kendall Waston plays both games, David Ousted plays both games, Jordan Harvey plays both games. Whether you see Sheanon Williams? Probably in one of the two. Tim Parker probably plays in one of the two. You could see a guy like Cole Siler, a young center back, or Christian Dean who they still have high hopes for. Jacobson will be in the mix, Teibert will be in the mix. Laba you figure will play both games. Montero maybe comes off the bench Thursday and starts Sunday. Hurtado will be involved on Sunday, Techera will be involved on Sunday, Davies.
“And it’s not necessarily a game-changer, but the ‘Caps brought back Mauro Rosales, who I don’t think will play a whole ton this season, but he’s a possibility in there as well. Partially because Christian Bolanos isn’t quite ready. Nicolas Mezquida has been a solid warrior for them the last two seasons and should play a role again this year. I think it’ll be a strong team on Thursday and a strong team on Sunday as well.”
Philly has vacillated between a safer midfield featuring Derrick Jones alongside Haris Medunjanin and a riskier setup with Ale Bedoya in a deeper role that leaves Medunjanin as the deepest protection for the back line. Given that they open the season on the road against a team that will look to break quickly, the Union are likely to go with Jones — or perhaps Warren Creavalle if healthy — on Sunday evening. That could mean Fabian Herbers slides to the bench to make room for Bedoya in an advanced role between Chris Pontius and Ilsinho.
Up top, Jim Curtin said Wednesday that Jay Simpson and CJ Sapong are still competing for the starting role. The only other position with any question marks is left back, but it has become Fabinho’s spot to lose as Gilliano Wijnaldum takes time to learn the league and round into shape.
Regardless of lineup, the Union alternated between frustrating and exciting all preseason, and their success on Sunday likely boils down to whether the eleven guys on the pitch can find their defensive shape quickly following turnovers in Vancouver’s half.
“In the end,” Johnston concluded, “On the road they were poor, and at home they were poor. It was just a bad year. Pretty simple.
“The structure Carl Robinson likes playing with is pretty clear. He likes having two defensive midfielders, he likes having a guy at the top, he likes three attacking midfielders behind him and four at the back.”
That’s what Philadelphia Union can expect on Sunday when they open the season. A team with a lot of talent and a lot to prove, but one that could prove beatable 0n their home turf. Does Philly have what it takes to start the season better than they did last year in Dallas?