Many Major League Soccer writers haven’t given Vancouver Whitecaps a hope of reaching this year’s play-offs. A young coach in his first season in MLS, a lopsided squad with an over-emphasis on forwards and strong Western Conference rivals have been tendered as reasons why The Caps would struggle.
Saturday’s 2-0 win over Canadian rivals Montreal Impact at BC Place showcased why Martin Rennie’s side are solid contenders. Vancouver continued its pre-season form with another shutout and a fluid attacking game that will prove troublesome for MLS defenses.
Sporting Kansas City made great sides in the second half of last season when their midfield and forward triumvirates settled into Head Coach Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3 formation. Vancouver’s front four has already clicked, and their movement will only improve.
“The guys have been very open to what we’re doing and they seem to enjoy learning and are eager to get better,” Rennie told The Soccer Observer after Vancouver’s 3-0 win over Montreal at the Walt Disney Pro Soccer Classic on Feb. 24. “When you win it always helps them buy into it even more.”
A win and a clean sheet on opening day will further boost the confidence of Rennie’s squad.
Rennie’s 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 line-up had two changes from the team that comfortably beat Montreal two weeks earlier. Ghanaian midfielder Gershon Koffie replaced the injured John Thorrington as one of the two holding midfielders alongside Jun Marques Davidson. Frenchman Sebastien Le Toux was handed his Whitecaps debut in place of Atiba Harris.
Le Toux assumed the withdrawn forward role with Davide Chiumiento to his left, Camilo Sanvezzo to his right and Eric Hassli up front.
Montreal’s Head Coach Jesse Marsch made three changes from last month’s game. Justin Mapp replaced Lamar Neagle on the left side of midfield. Justin Braun and Sanna Nyassi started up front in place of Miguel Montano and former Vancouver striker Eduardo Sebrango.
Vancouver’s game plan is for Hassli – a 6-foot-4-inch colossus with great ability on the ground and in the air – to occupy the two center-backs while the other forwards exploit the spaces between the opposing back four. It took little more than three minutes for the Impact’s defense to be breached via a simple direct approach.
Hassli dragged his marker Matteo Ferrari out of Montreal’s back four by dropping deep to meet a long ball from left-back Alain Rochat, isolating Tyson Wahl as the last line of defense. That was the cue for Le Toux to attack the space that his countryman had vacated. The former Philadelphia Union forward’s darting run from behind Wahl’s shoulder saw him latching on to Hassli’s header and racing clear of the flat-footed defender into a one-on-one with Donovan Ricketts.
Le Toux coolly slotted his shot beneath the advancing goalkeeper, though Ricketts made the task easier with his poor starting position.
Vancouver controlled possession in the early stages as Montreal struggled with the movement of Chiumiento, Le Toux and Camilo. It should have been 2-0 on 13 minutes. Hassli drifted left to win a corner after moving on to an inventive backheel by Swiss winger Chiumiento. Defender Martin Bonjour headed Camilo’s cross tamely wide from eight yards with Ricketts stranded.
Montreal’s Offensive Problems
Expansion teams generally find it hard to get goals having been built not to concede. Montreal has attacking weapons in the shape of Braun’s aerial power and Nyassi’s speed and dribbling ability. Their midfield – preoccupied with the runs of Vancouver’s front quartet – couldn’t work the ball beyond Koffie and Davidson to the front pairing.
Patrice Bernier fired a rare shot on target in the 16th minute when the Whitecaps were caught napping at a throw-in. He failed to trouble goalkeeper Joe Cannon.
Hope For The Impact
Vancouver showed a willingness to concede possession in wide areas until Montreal reached the attacking third. Mapp and right-sided midfielder Davy Arnaud, however, couldn’t find an outlet with Vancouver’s defense and shielding midfielders crowding the edge of the penalty area. Mapp’s solution was to drift inside to escape attention.
Mapp popped up in the “D” at the edge of the penalty area on 23 minutes after Vancouver failed to track his run. The former Chicago Fire and Philadelphia Union winger fired in a left-foot shot that narrowly cleared Cannon’s crossbar.
The hard-working Braun won a corner four minutes later after pulling out to the left and testing Bonjour’s tackling ability. Wahl’s downward header needed to be cleared off the goal line by Chiumiento.
Too often Braun’s work led him away from the penalty box when Montreal’s wide players got into advanced positions. Nyassi’s strength isn’t in the air, and the Impact’s midfielders were too deep to compete for cross balls.
Hassli’s Hussle Leads To Second Goal
Hassli’s game isn’t just about being an offensive battering ram. The Frenchman showed his defensive awareness on 43 minutes when tracking back into his own half, deeper than his three supporting forwards, to strip the ball from Arnaud.
Rennie spoke to The Soccer Observer during the pre-season Walt Disney tournament about Hassli’s defensive work and how it serves as a catalyst for his teammates to work hard off the ball. The rewards were demonstrated on 54 minutes when Camilo ended an excellent team move by doubling Vancouver’s advantage.
Hassli won the ball from Mapp deep in his own half before charging forward to join a counter-attack led by Chiumiento and Le Toux. Hassli’s awareness to dummy Le Toux’s square pass allowed Chiumiento the space to slot Camilo through on goal. The Brazilian cut inside Ferrari before slamming his left-foot shot beyond Ricketts.
Marsch made three progressive changes as he sought to get Montreal back into the game, though neither had the desired impact. Mike Fucito replaced Mapp, No. 1 SuperDraft pick Andrew Wenger came on for Braun, and Montano made an appearance in the final 10 minutes in place of midfielder Bernier.
Rennie countered by dropping into a 4-4-2 with Jordan Harvey and Matt Watson replacing Chiumiento and Camilo. The Whitecaps comfortably held on for another clean sheet.
There was much to admire in this Vancouver performance although it should be recognized that they were facing an expansion side playing their first MLS game.
Montreal showed enough to suggest that they won’t be anyone’s pushover. Marsch can point to a couple of moments of slack defending as the difference between the two sides.