Familiar Weakness Haunts Whitecaps Against Galaxy

Written by Ian Thomson

Vancouver Whitecaps have shown an occasional tendency this season to allow their opponents back into a game that they’ve controlled.

The Canadians’ lack of ruthlessness almost let Houston Dynamo snatch a point at B.C. Place on June 10 despite the Caps holding a two-goal advantage entering the final 10 minutes. New York Red Bulls did escape with a 1-1 tie through Heath Pearce’s late header in Vancouver’s last home game on June 20.

The Whitecaps returned to B.C. Place for Wednesday’s vital clash with Los Angeles Galaxy after picking up four points from a tough five-game road stretch. Martin Rennie’s side dominated the first hour and took a commanding lead through goals from Gershon Koffie and home debutant Barry Robson.

A couple of personnel shuffles by Galaxy Head Coach Bruce Arena to liven his side’s wide play coupled with Rennie’s creeping defensiveness, a few slices of luck and a stunning strike from teenage substitute Jose Villarreal let the reigning champions salvage a 2-2 tie. The result keeps the Galaxy in fifth spot in the Western Conference, four points behind fourth-placed Vancouver.

Line-Ups

Scottish designated player Barry Robson scored on his home debut from his role at the tip of Vancouver’s midfield trio

Rennie made two changes from Vancouver’s 1-0 loss at Chicago Fire Saturday. Camilo Sanvezzo replaced Michael Nanchoff on the left of his front three. Alain Rochat’s suspension made room for Dane Richards to make his first start for the club since arriving last Friday in the trade that sent Sebastien Le Toux to New York Red Bulls.

Newest signing Kenny Miller was left out having touched down in Vancouver on Sunday following his move from Cardiff CIty.

Arena stayed with the same 4-4-2 line-up from Saturday’s dramatic 5-3 win at Portland Timbers. Mike Magee’s shin injury meant another start on the left for United States U-23 midfielder Michael Stephens.

Donovan partnered Keane up front for L.A. Galaxy, denting their ability to work the flanks until Arena’s second-half adjustments

Landon Donovan continued up front alongside Robbie Keane in Edson Buddle’s absence. Hector Jimenez took Donovan’s regular role on the right of midfield.

Robson Looking At Home In Caps Midfield

There have been rumblings in some sections of the Vancouver media about Rennie’s “Scottish experiment,” with Robson and Miller’s status as designated players being questioned before the pair has even unpacked their furniture.

This was Robson’s fifth MLS appearance and his clearest demonstration yet of the quality he brings to the Whitecaps. The former Celtic and Middlesbrough player looked comfortable in Vancouver’s fluid triangle in front of Koffie and Jun Marques Davidson and effective communication has already been established. The three men never stray too far apart and can interchange whenever necessary. Koffie commonly replaces Robson as the attacking point when the Scotsman drops deep to take the ball from center-backs Jay DeMerit and Martin Bonjour. Robson’s range of passing also allows Vancouver different attacking options – build neatly through the midfield or go long over the top searching for the searing pace of Darren Mattocks and Jamaican winger Richards.

A cagey start from both sides saw little goalmouth action in the opening minutes. Robson’s foul on Donovan at the edge of Vancouver’s penalty area gave David Beckham a free-kick opportunity on 11 minutes from a similar distance to where he scored against Portland at the weekend.

“There’s nothing you can do about that,” said NBC co-commentator Kyle Martino after Beckham curled his kick over Portland’s wall and into goalkeeper Troy Perkins’ right corner. There is. You can put a defender on the goal line to provide additional cover. Lee Young-Pyo sprinted back to the near post as Beckham started his run up. The assistance wasn’t required as Beckham’s kick sailed over the bar.

Beckham Assists, Whitecaps Score

Beckham’s two-goal performance Saturday at Jeld-Wen Field re-energized those who championed his inclusion in Great Britain’s Olympic Games squad. Vancouver’s opening goal on 18 minutes emphatically indicated why he isn’t part of Stuart Pearce’s plans.

Camilo stripped the ball away from the Englishman as he attempted an elaborate dragback on the halfway line, and Beckham’s reluctance to chase back left his defense shorthanded in a 5-vs-4 breakaway. Koffie fastened onto the ball after Camilo stepped inside Marcelo Sarvas. He swiveled past Galaxy defender David Junior Lopes at the edge of the penalty area before slotting his left-foot shot beyond goalkeeper Josh Saunders’ reach.

Beckham’s over-indulgence allowed Camilo (both circled) to strip the ball and create Koffie’s opener for Vancouver

Vancouver’s midfield three were beginning to overrun the Galaxy’s comparatively immobile duo of Beckham and Sarvas. They switched the ball from wing to wing, probing patiently for an opening and preventing Arena’s wide players from addressing the numerical disadvantage in the center. Davidson and Koffie also operated without fear of Donovan sneaking in on their blind side as the U.S.’s all-time leading goalscorer stayed isolated in attack with Keane.

Camilo eliminated Sarvas with a beautiful turn on 26 minutes that left him attacking the visitors’ back line with Mattocks and Richards in support. The tricky Brazilian instead found Koffie, who dragged his 25-yard shot well wide of Saunders’ goal.

Robson doubled Vancouver’s lead two minutes later though with a looping header that beat Saunders inside his near post. Todd Dunivant showed Lee infield after the South Korean came forward for a throw-in on the right wing, but the 31-year-old gave his opponent too much space to pick out an accurate cross with his weaker left foot. Robson, the only target among a group of four defenders, peeled away from Lopes to guide Lee’s cross perfectly over Saunders’ despairing dive. Dunivant’s evening was curtailed on 31 minutes when he limped off to be replaced by Bryan Gaul.

Richards could have sealed the win on 37 minutes. Robson flicked Jordan Harvey’s throw-in to Koffie in a deep midfield position. The 20-year-old Ghanaian sent an early ball over the top of the Galaxy’s defense to set up a race: the explosive Richards against the trio of Lopes, A.J. DeLaGarza and Gaul. There was only going to be one winner. Richards took a couple of touches before sliding his shot past Saunders, but also well wide of the goalkeeper’s far post.

Arena Makes Changes In Wide Areas As Whitecaps Retreat

The visitors barely mounted an attack in the first hour. Stephens and Jimenez had been anonymous, Beckham and Sarvas were being outclassed and outmaneuvered, and the Galaxy’s back line struggled to bring the ball forward into Vancouver’s half as a sea of white jerseys closed in. Any attempts to bypass the midfield quickly died out as Donovan and Keane found themselves suffocated by six or seven opponents.

Mattocks prevents Lopes (both circled) from advancing over the halfway line as four other Whitecaps players apply pressure

Arena needed to establish a presence on the flanks. His first step was to bring on Brazilian midfielder Juninho for Stephens on 57 minutes. Jimenez switched to the left side with Beckham moving out to the right.

The Galaxy’s first prolonged passing combination in Vancouver’s half came on 61 minutes. Sarvas exploited the hosts’ emerging complacency with a quick free-kick that sent Jimenez scampering down the left. Donovan and Juninho worked the ball out to the overlapping Sean Franklin, and his right-wing cross narrowly missed Keane’s head.

DeMerit blocked off Lopes’ path to goal from Keane’s cutback across the six-yard box two minutes later, and Donovan was becoming more involved by dropping off the front to pick up the ball. Neither Davidson nor Koffie were getting close enough to him when this occurred.

Rennie tried to bolster Vancouver’s defensive stoutness on 69 minutes, bringing on Nanchoff for Camilo, as the momentum kept tilting away from his team.

Cannon palmed Lopes’ header onto the top of his crossbar on 70 minutes from Beckham’s cross. The ball skipped along the goal frame, bouncing twice before falling back into play. Koffie attentively conceded a corner. Villarreal replaced Jimenez as Beckham waited to deliver a teasing inswinger. After the pause, Beckham’s cross rattled between a few bodies at Cannon’s near post before again striking the goal frame.

Villarreal’s introduction saw the 18-year-old Inglewood native join Keane up front with Donovan dropping into left midfield. The Galaxy were now finding it easy to carry the ball deep into Vancouver’s half and put Rennie’s defense under strain even if the breakthrough remained elusive.

Robson made a rare second-half foray forward on 80 minutes to set up a shooting chance for Koffie. It was the Whitecaps’ time to be denied by the crossbar as the 20-year-old’s thumping 30-yard drive hit the goal frame via the slightest of brushes from Saunders’ fingertips. That vital touch kept the visitors alive, and good fortune further fueled Los Angeles’ comeback one minute later.

Gaul’s miscued cross rebounded dangerously off a stranded Cannon’s crossbar into Vancouver’s penalty area. Donovan’s sharp control and thinking allowed him to tee up Beckham at the edge of the penalty area, and the former Manchester United star’s side-footed effort beat Cannon with the aid of a wicked deflection off Koffie.

Lopes and Villarreal received cautions from referee Silviu Petrescu for thwarting Richards as he twice tried to set off on counter-attacks, and the Whitecaps were denied a third goal by the woodwork again on 84 minutes when Robson’s inswinging free-kick left Saunders clutching fresh air.

The sucker punch from Los Angeles duly arrived with three minutes remaining. Vancouver again allowed their opponents too much time to carry the ball over the halfway line. Juninho found Franklin advancing on his right and continued his diagonal run onto Beckham’s chipped return pass. The Brazilian produced a sublime first touch to steer the ball into Villarreal’s feet at the right corner of Vancouver’s penalty area. The youngster stepped inside Koffie onto his left foot before curling an exquisite shot into Cannon’s top-right corner.

Still it wasn’t over. Robson seized on a loose ball at the edge of the Galaxy’s penalty area in the second minute of stoppage time to test Saunders with a low drive. The 6’4” goalkeeper got down low to smother that effort, and used every inch of his frame to tip Robson’s thunderous 35-yard free kick over his cross bar in the fourth and final minute of added time.

Conclusion

The possession stats at half-time showed little to separate the teams. Possession stats are often hugely misleading. Much of Vancouver’s play had come in the Galaxy’s half whereas Los Angeles struggled to retain the ball when they neared the halfway line.

Rennie spoke to Canadian broadcaster TSN’s sideline reporter during the interval about his players’ need to keep pressure on the ball. Their efforts dwindled in the last 30 minutes, allowing Arena’s men to establish a foothold to climb back into the game.