Vancouver Dominates Central Midfield To Overcome Houston

Written by Ian Thomson
Whitecaps forward Darren Mattocks works on his movement with Assistant Coach Carl Robinson in pre-season (Photo: Ian Thomson)

Vancouver Whitecaps’ season to date has been bedeviled by inconsistency. Sunday’s 3-1 win over Houston Dynamo at B.C. Place provided further evidence that first-year Head Coach Martin Rennie’s new system and tactics are slowly being mastered by his players, though a lack of ruthlessness almost allowed the visitors back into the game.

Two season-opening wins for Vancouver and a record-breaking 427-minute stretch without conceding a goal were sullied when San Jose Earthquakes breached their defense three times in 10 minutes to spark back-to-back defeats at Buck Shaw Stadium and at home against Sporting Kansas City. The second-year franchise has rebounded with four wins and two ties in their last seven games to solidify their standing as genuine play-off contenders.

Rookie Darren Mattocks inspired the win in his second professional start. The 21-year-old striker netted after four minutes and doubled Vancouver’s lead midway through the second half. Substitute Jordan Harvey sealed the points with two minutes remaining after Macoumba Kandji gave the Dynamo a sliver of hope.

Line-Ups

Chiumiento and Le Toux supported Mattocks in attack while Lee roamed down the right side

Rennie made one change to the Vancouver team that tied 1-1 at Portland Timbers in their last outing on May 26. Mattocks came off the substitutes’ bench to score a late equalizer in that game – his first MLS goal. He was rewarded with a starting slot in place of Brazilian forward Camilo Sanvezzo.

The Whitecaps have alternated between the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 systems this season. Rennie opted for the former on this occasion. Jun Marques Davidson and John Thorrington anchored his midfield with Gershon Koffie providing numerical supremacy against the Dynamo’s trademark 4-4-2.

Houston's back four was weakened due to international call-ups for Hainault and Taylor

Houston’s line-up contained two enforced changes from their 2-1 win over Los Angeles Galaxy on May 26. Jamaicans Jermaine Taylor and Je-Vaughn Watson and Canadian Andre Hainault, who nodded the winner against Bruce Arena’s side, were unavailable due to international call-ups. Geoff Cameron remained unavailable due to his involvement with the United States national team.

Head Coach Dominic Kinnear chose Nathan Sturgis as the center-back partner for Bobby Boswell, and 21-year-old rookie Warren Creavalle made his debut at right-back. Brazilian Luiz Camargo returned to the center of midfield alongside Adam Moffat, a member of Rennie’s Cleveland City Stars team in 2007.

Majestic Movement Puts Whitecaps Ahead

Vancouver spend a lot of time on the training field practicing their passing moves: give-and-gos, give-and-follows, crossover runs, moves with a “third-man” running. Mattocks’ early opener capped off a splendid flowing attack that illustrated the Vancouver players’ awareness of each others’ positioning.

Defender Martin Bonjour won the ball from Brian Ching as Houston advanced from a throw-in on the left side. Thorrington picked up the loose ball just inside Houston’s half and rolled it into Sebastien Le Toux’s feet as the Frenchman dropped deep, dragging Corey Ashe out of the Dynamo’s back four to track him. That created space for the alert Lee Young-Pyo to fill.

Thorrington guided Le Toux’s lay-off into the path of the galloping South Korean full-back as Mattocks staggered his run into the penalty box to shake off Boswell’s marking. Lee’s perfectly timed cross found the young Jamaican free at the near post to volley past Tally Hall from six yards.

Brad Davis, for all his wondrous play-making qualities from Houston’s left side, isn’t the strongest at tracking runs. Lee kept exploiting this in the opening minutes. Koffie found the former Tottenham Hotspur defender in space with a cross-field switch on eight minutes that allowed Lee to carry the ball forward unopposed for 50 yards. This time his cross for Mattocks was fractionally too high for the rookie to connect with.

Lone Striker Occupies Houston’s Defense

The Dynamo’s efforts to build possession and connect with their twin towers, Ching and Will Bruin, were being repelled by the Whitecaps’ superior numbers. Houston typically pushed forward with six players against a nine-man rearguard with Davide Chiumiento and Le Toux supplementing the three central midfielders in front of the defense.

Vancouver posed problems on the counter attack, even when they couldn’t get support forward in numbers, as Mattocks used his power and pace to unsettle Boswell and Sturgis via the direct approach. Jay DeMerit tackled Ching just outside Vancouver’s penalty box on 21 minutes and Thorrington again directed the loose ball to Le Toux. The former Philadelphia Union star drove a precise 50-yard pass over Boswell into the galloping Mattocks’ path. The youngster took a touch before firing wildly over with his weaker left foot.

Houston’s major threat came from set pieces and defensive errors. Sturgis stooped to head Davis’ outswinging corner toward goal, but Calen Carr couldn’t redirect the ball beyond Joe Cannon. The Caps’ goalkeeper presented Ching with a gift on 29 minutes when his misguided kick went straight to the Dynamo captain’s feet. Ching’s instant lob sailed high and wide rather than into the gaping net.

Cannon redeemed himself with a great stop to deny Boswell’s back-post volley on 41 minutes as the visitors put together their first sustained spell of pressure.

Whitecaps Sit Waiting To Counter

Bruin had been completely shut out during the first half. Houston’s top scorer this season with five goals created a couple of chances for himself early in the second half, firstly turning Davidson in midfield to engineer a shooting chance and then bursting onto Carr’s through ball between Bonjour and DeMerit. Neither opening resulted in a shot on target.

Vancouver almost doubled their lead with another quick break on 57 minutes when DeMerit strode forward and found Thorrington with space to turn in midfield. The former Manchester United trainee attacked Houston’s retreating back line before lofting the ball left to Chiumiento. The Swiss playmaker beat Creavalle on the outside with a stepover before dragging his shot wide of Hall’s far post.

The hosts’ ability to change the pace and point of their attack finally saw them go 2-0 ahead on 66 minutes. Le Toux dropped short to feed Davidson on the halfway line from Lee’s pass up the right side. The Tokyo-born midfielder slid the ball into Koffie who had found space between Houston’s defensive and midfield lines – a function of Vancouver’s 3-vs-2 advantage in central midfield. Boswell stepped up to confront the Ghanaian, but neither of his fellow defenders followed. Mattocks sprinted toward the box behind Creavalle and finished Koffie’s through ball with a first-time shot low into Hall’s left corner.

Rennie Consolidates As Kinnear Gambles

Kinnear replaced the ineffectual Ching and Camargo with Kandji and Colin Clark after 71 minutes and brought on 21-year-old midfielder Brian Ownby for Sturgis seven minutes later as he looked for a way back into the game. Rennie replaced Chiumiento with Harvey to solidify his midfield.

Kandji offered Houston a lifeline on 83 minutes when he swiveled to half-volley Ownby’s cross beyond Cannon after a brief spell of Dynamo pressure.

The comeback was short-lived. Boswell’s toilsome evening continued when he tried to shepherd the ball out of play for a throw-in on 88 minutes. Koffie nipped in to steal possession and advance unchallenged down the right wing before crossing to the back post. Ownby didn’t deal with the bouncing ball on his 6-yard line and Harvey pounced to drill a shot past Hall.

Conclusion

This game presented a microcosm of the Whitecaps’ season to date. Rennie’s team seized the advantage early on with their eye-catching passing and moving, yet surrendered the initiative through imprecise finishing and a tendency to sit back.

Houston created chances during the two brief periods where they were able to retain possession in the final third. Their attacks were one-dimensional – advancing down the flanks before delivering crosses into a crowded penalty area. Camargo failed to have any impact on the game centrally as Koffie, Thorrington and Davidson commanded the midfield.

New signing Oscar Boniek Garcia is expected to expand Kinnear’s attacking options with his pace and dribbling ability.