So, Vancouver Whitecaps’ slide in the second half of the season was all because head coach Martin Rennie traded away attacking talent like Eric Hassli, Sebastien Le Toux and Davide Chiumiento and replaced them with a pair of overpaid, under-performing Scottish duds, right?
It’s a cute, simplistic theory. It’s also misleading. Far from dismantling a successful side, Vancouver’s coaching staff has been brave enough to endure some short-term turbulence as new players bed into the team’s style of play for the benefit of long-term gains.
Le Toux’s capture from Philadelphia Union at the end of January sparked much excitement that Rennie could transform the Whitecaps – the worst team in Major League Soccer in its inaugural campaign in 2011 – into an offensive juggernaut. The first-year leader also had Camilo Sanvezzo, Omar Salgado, Lee Nguyen, Long Tan and rookie Darren Mattocks to call upon.
The goal avalanche didn’t arrive. Nguyen was trimmed from the Whitecaps’ final roster before the season started, Long Tan left for D.C. United in June having made four brief appearances off the bench, and Chiumiento returned to his native Switzerland without finding the net in 16 games.
Then came the real shockers. Frenchman Le Toux was traded to New York Red Bulls on July 13 with diminutive winger Dane Richards arriving to see out the remaining months of his Major League Soccer contract. Fan favorite Hassli was shipped to Toronto F.C. on July 21, and one of the poster boys for the team’s recent ailing form made his debut as a substitute in a 2-1 win over San Jose Earthquakes the following day – $1.2 million-a-year designated player Kenny Miller.
Current Scottish international Miller’s strike rate hasn’t been great. He’s bagged two goals in 13 games, five of which he began on the sidelines, and is averaging a goal every 358 minutes. Two goals is the amount scored by Thierry Henry in 2010 after his summer arrival in New York for more than quadruple the Scotsman’s wages. The surly French superstar frequently cited the difficulties of adapting to MLS after enduring a long, competitive European season. That pass hasn’t been extended to former Rangers and Celtic striker Miller.
Yet Miller’s goals-per-minute ratio is still faster in a Vancouver jersey than Le Toux (412 minutes), Hassli (449 minutes) and Chiumiento (1,276 and counting when he left for F.C. Zurich).
“I think we’ve had criticism because we’ve raised expectation levels,” Whitecaps assistant coach Paul Ritchie told The Soccer Observer in a telephone interview prior to the team’s departure for Southern California for tonight’s Western Conference wildcard game at Los Angeles Galaxy.
“In the first 14 games of the season we put together a very, very good record,” said Ritchie, a former center-back for the Scottish national team. Vancouver sat third in the West in mid-June with a 7-3-4 record, two points behind eventual Supporters’ Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes.
“In saying that, we still only scored about 1.2 goals per game,” Ritchie said. “We know we have to score more goals in order to win games. We haven’t been creative enough at times.”
Coaching the coordinated runs of attacking players to free themselves from marking and create goalscoring opportunities is a far tougher job than coaching a defense to keep its shape, remain compact, and thwart the opposition. Sporting Kansas City provides a perfect example of this in MLS. It took almost two years from Peter Vermes’ appointment as head coach in August 2009 before the club perfected the right system for the right players. Nowadays, Sporting’s three forwards, two side midfielders and two full-backs criss-cross and overlap with confidence that their teammates can both find them and cover for them. It’s clear that Vancouver is still actively searching for the right blend that works for them.
Rennie began the season against Montreal Impact on March 10 with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Hassli led the attack with Chiumiento, Le Toux and Camilo supporting from deeper positions. South Korean right-back Lee Young-Pyo also provided width down the right wing when Camilo drifted inside. The lack of offensive productivity from such an attacking system married with a vulnerability to counter-attacks has led Rennie toward a 4-3-1-2 in recent weeks. Scottish playmaker Barry Robson has typically lined up in the hole between midfield and attack with the task of threading through balls to the forwards.
Robson has pitched in with three goals and two assists since making his debut in a 1-0 win at Colorado Rapids on July 4. The former Celtic and Middlesbrough player showed his exceptional skill with a world-class set-up for Miller to put the Whitecaps 2-1 up against the Rapids in the return game on Sept. 23. Yet Robson’s numbers haven’t been prolific either and he too has incurred criticism from Vancouver’s fans and sections of the sports media.
It’s difficult to single out individual attacking players for failing to perform, as the Whitecaps’ lackluster 1-0 home loss to Portland Timbers on Oct. 21 highlighted. Miller received the ball to his feet inside the penalty area just once during the entire game, and there was only one occasion when Vancouver worked the ball to Robson in a central position close to Portland’s penalty box. Coordinated attacking movements practiced in training take time to produce results.
“We’re definitely looking for improvement,” Ritchie said. “But what we’ve done is build a foundation in order for us to go forward and make the franchise one of the biggest and best in MLS.”
A spot in the play-offs after finishing bottom of the heap last time around isn’t to be sniffed at.
Oct. 22, 2012 — Uninspired Whitecaps Stumble Into MLS Play-Offs
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