Uninspired Whitecaps Stumble Into MLS Play-Offs

Written by Ian Thomson

Vancouver Whitecaps secured the final Major League Soccer play-off berth Sunday despite squandering their own opportunity to seal their fate.

Martin Rennie’s side produced a worryingly lackluster display at B.C. Place against lowly Portland Timbers that saw Jack Jewsbury’s 30-yard blast earn three points for the visitors. Seattle Sounders’ subsequent 3-1 win over F.C. Dallas left the Texans four points behind Vancouver with one game remaining.

Vancouver became the first Canadian side to reach the MLS post-season in nine combined attempts between the Whitecaps, Toronto F.C. and Montreal Impact. Yet there seems little cause for celebration. The dynamic offensive movement that characterized Rennie’s team during its pre-season preparations has long vanished.

Only two teams – Portland and Chivas USA – have scored fewer goals than the Caps this season. Sunday’s game was another occasion when Vancouver struggled to work the ball to Barry Robson in dangerous final-third areas. Subsequently, they failed to trouble Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.


Vancouver’s starting line-up saw Miller struggle to get on the ball as Camilo drifted deep to the left

Rennie continued with the 4-3-1-2 formation he has adopted in recent weeks with designated player Robson operating between the midfield and front pairing Camilo Sanvezzo and Kenny Miller.

This has curbed Vancouver’s attacking options by removing a forward in favor of a third central midfielder. Camilo’s tendency to drop deep to the left frequently isolates Miller against two center-backs and leaves the Whitecaps short of an aerial threat when the left-footed Robson, as he likes to do, drifts right to bend inswinging crosses into the penalty box.

Vancouver started the season with three attackers (usually Camilo, Sebastien Le Toux and Davide Chiumiento) making criss-crossing runs to get behind the opposition while Eric Hassli occupied the opposing central defenders. Full-backs Alain Rochat and Lee Young-Pyo were also encouraged to support the attack. Rennie has become more conservative as the season has progressed, perhaps in response to his side’s dismal run of form following its 1-0 win at Colorado Rapids on July 4. Vancouver picked up just eight points from 36 before returning to B.C. Place for their recent four-game home stand.

Portland’s solid defensive shape kept the impotent Caps comfortably in front of them for the entire game

Timbers’ interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson opted to pack his defense with captain Jewsbury and Diego Chara protecting Portland’s back four. Darlington Nagbe and Sal Zizzo provided width in midfield. Franck Songo’o tried to link the play with sole striker Bright Dike.

Caps Fashion Couple Of Early Chances

Vancouver didn’t exactly come sprinting out of the blocks, but they created two opportunities in the first 15 minutes that nearly saw them taking the lead. Robson flicked a long free kick to Miller inside Portland’s penalty area on five minutes, and the Scottish striker laid the ball back to his countryman on the right side of the box. Robson delivered an excellent inswinging cross that found Camilo sneaking around the back of Chara. The Brazilian couldn’t generate the power or downward direction to send his effort past Ricketts.

This turned out to be Vancouver’s only shot on target and the only time that Miller received the ball to his feet in the penalty box. Still, Portland’s floundering left-back Steven Smith almost gifted the hosts the opener nine minutes later.

Robson drifted left this time to flick goalkeeper Brad Knighton’s punt inside to Miller. The former Celtic and Middlesbrough midfielder regained possession at the edge of the penalty area before finding Jordan Harvey overlapping on the left wing. Smith inadvertently volleyed Harvey’s cross toward his own net while trying to hook it out for a corner. Ricketts made an instinctive, sprawling save to bail out his blundering teammate.

Nagbe made the most out of a misplaced Smith pass on 27 minutes, feinting past his marker before firing in a shot that was deflected wide. Vancouver countered three minutes later with a move down the right. Miller flicked Matt Watson’s scooped pass into Camilo’s path in the inside-right channel, but the 24-year-old dragged his shot harmlessly across Ricketts’ goal.

Portland’s Sense Of Adventure Peaks

The Timbers looked content to sit back in the opening 30 minutes, keeping Vancouver comfortably in front of them, while looking to hit Dike with long passes on the counter. They possessed little threat. That changed toward half-time when Portland’s midfield began to pick up possession further up the field.

Nagbe drifted off the left touchline for the first time on 35 minutes after the Timbers gathered a Vancouver defensive clearance. The former Akron Zip fed Zizzo on the right flank, and his delivery found Dike near the penalty spot. The burly forward’s header flew too close to Knighton to trouble the goalkeeper.

Dike shot wide moments later after Portland quickly won the ball back, and Jay DeMerit’s dreadful giveaway on 37 minutes gave the visitors a third chance in quick succession. Dike hesitated before selecting the wrong pass at the edge of Vancouver’s box when he had the rare luxury of three supporting players.

Portland were hardly swarming over their opponents, but Vancouver’s defensive pressure in midfield had waned and their lack of hustle cost them a goal on 39 minutes. The detached Dike fed the ball back into the center of midfield after bursting down the right wing onto Kosuke Kimura’s pass. Chara recycled the ball left to Smith, and Songo’o controlled the Scotsman’s cross at the edge of the box before laying it back to Jewsbury 30 yards from goal. The Timbers’ skipper rifled a first-time shot into the helpless Knighton’s top-left corner as Vancouver’s midfield stood motionless around the 18-yard line.

Packed Portland Defense Sees Out Second Half Without Panic

Portland received a setback three minutes into the second half when Hanyer Mosquera landed awkwardly following an aerial challenge with Robson. Eric Brunner entered the game for the injured central defender.

The change in personnel did little to unsettle the visitors as Vancouver struggled to push numbers into advanced positions. Englishman Watson tried to break into the box when Robson drifted wide, but too often Miller or Camilo provided the only option in the penalty box against Portland’s back four. Robson varied the point of attack with a long pass down the middle to Camilo on 59 minutes. The ball landed a yard in front of the outstretched forward and skipped through to Ricketts.

Vancouver badly needed width. Dane Richards finally entered the game on 61 minutes with holding midfielder Rochat making way. The home crowd chanted for Darren Mattocks, and their demands were met on 67 minutes when the rookie striker replaced Camilo. Gershon Koffie now protected the back four in a 4-1-3-2 shape with Robson remaining in his central role, Watson moving left and Richards going up against Portland’s Smith down the right side.

Mattocks couldn’t find the power in his header to trouble Ricketts on 70 minutes, but the home crowd was slowly awakening in an attempt to cajole their team into the play-offs.

Dike almost sealed Portland’s victory on 75 minutes on a rare breakaway after the Timbers picked up a second ball in midfield. Zizzo’s early pass split Vancouver center-backs DeMerit and Andy O’Brien, putting Dike clear in the box at a tight angle. Knighton fisted the striker’s fierce near-post drive behind for a corner.

Omar Salgado saw his first action since suffering a fractured right foot in May when he replaced Watson on 77 minutes. Vancouver’s best chance to draw level arrived two minutes later when Robson took a return pass from Lee in space at the top of the box. It was the first time the Whitecaps had found their playmaker in this zone during the entire game. Robson took a touch before driving his left-shot shot a yard over Ricketts’ crossbar.

Zizzo fired wide on 83 minutes on a 4-vs-2 breakaway after Robson’s ambitious 40-yard free kick thumped against Portland’s defensive wall. The B.C. Place crowd’s roars turned to catcalls thereafter as Portland took every opportunity to milk the slightest collision and let the clock run down.

You’ve Got To Be In It To Win It

Real Salt Lake lifted the 2009 MLS Cup despite finishing in the eighth and final play-off spot with a losing record during the regular season. Colorado Rapids became champions the following year after finishing seventh overall. Vancouver’s chances of a similar surprise this year look bleak. They must overcome Los Angeles Galaxy at Home Depot Center in the Western Conference wildcard game having been soundly beaten twice in that stadium, 3-0 and 2-0, by Bruce Arena’s defending champions in the past four months. Supporters’ Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes lie in wait for the victor.

Vancouver’s first-year head coach Martin Rennie has steered a Canadian team into the MLS play-offs for the first time

Vancouver trailed the Earthquakes by two points after 14 games in mid-June. They held an 11-point advantage over the Galaxy at the same time. Still, Rennie felt the need to make changes to his roster. Hassli left for Toronto after scoring just twice in 18 games. Le Toux’s rapid demotion to the New York Red Bulls’ bench following his mid-season trade suggests that the Frenchman wasn’t meeting the Vancouver coaching staff’s expectations. Chiumiento’s return to Switzerland came after 16 goalless games, and Long Tan was allowed to join D.C. United.

High-earning superstars like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill have found it difficult to adjust to MLS after arriving in the summer following the European season. Vancouver’s Scottish imports, unfairly, don’t seem to be getting such a pass from many observers. Yet a glass-half-full view shows that first-year coach Rennie has taken the league’s bottom team in 2011 into the play-offs.

Whether Rennie’s decision to remodel his squad midway through this season’s campaign was wise is a question best kept for next year.

Related Posts:

July 19, 2012 — Familiar Weakness Haunts Whitecaps Against Galaxy

June 21, 2012 — Late Pearce Header Deflates Whitecaps

June 11, 2012 — Vancouver Dominates Central Midfield To Overcome Houston

May 16, 2012 — Timbers Cancel Out Dynamo In Stalemate