Looking back at how the 2016 MLS season went for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
In Part I of this season review, we looked at the key moments for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2016. Now, we take a more in-depth look at what went wrong for the Whitecaps…and how to fix it for next season.
Many things went wrong this year, including players not performing, transfer shenanigans, mistakes, and even just plain bad luck. However, the issues at the forefront in 2016 can be classified into four main areas: lack of discipline, lack of goalscoring, inconsistency at the right back position, and an inability to nail down the team’s best formation.
Lack of Discipline
What was the issue?
If you’d asked me at the end of last season what Carl Robinson’s priority should be, I would have immediately said “keep the back six together”. Goalkeeper David Ousted, centerbacks Kendall Waston and Tim Parker, fullbacks Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour, and defensive midfielder Matías Laba functioned as one defensive unit last year, and were a huge part of the Caps’ success. Vancouver finished the regular season in second place in the Western Conference in 2015. Their 36 goals conceded in 34 matches was tied with Seattle for the best defensive record in the league.
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In the end, Robinson kept five of the six together. Beitashour left for Toronto FC (more about that later). Otherwise, defense didn’t seem to be a priority. A year later, defense is a huge priority. The Whitecaps conceded 52 goals in 2016, many of them the result of defensive indiscipline or rookie mistakes. It all started in the opening game of the season, with a miscommunication between Ousted and Waston. Three and a half months later, Ousted and Waston collided in the final seconds of the Canadian Championship Final against Toronto FC. Will Johnson took advantage, and the Canadian Championship was gone.
Defensive mistakes cost the Whitecaps on several occasions. Opposing teams worked out that, while Waston dominated in the air, he was a lot more vulnerable if you just ran at him with the ball. Tim Parker struggled to replicate his rookie year form. The right flank was exposed regardless of who played right back. Even Ousted started to look human.
Another kind of discipline was also lacking. The Whitecaps led the league in red cards with eight, as well as collecting nine retroactive suspensions. In far too many games, the ‘Caps played out the final minutes as a backs-to-the-wall performance hanging on a man down. The consistent suspensions also meant frequent re-jigs to the lineup to cover for missing players. It didn’t help that Pedro Morales, the team captain who should have been a leader on the field, was red-carded twice for petulant behavior. Waston alone picked up eight yellow cards, three reds, and two retroactive suspensions. He will miss the first match of the 2017 season.
The avalanche of reds cards at the start of the season was a league-wide issue. So was the inconsistent application of retroactive suspensions. The end result was that players whose tackling had been just within the rules last season were suddenly getting suspended. The situation seemed to play with Laba and Waston’s heads in particular, two players who were suddenly afraid to play their regular game.
The constant cards also fostered a sense of injustice among the Whitecaps players, which made for a toxic environment for referees, particularly during home games. As soon as decisions started to go against the Whitecaps, the fans would start booing the referee, and the players would lose focus and start arguing. It’s likely that none of this helped their cause when it was time for the Disciplinary Committee to review the week’s highlights. A lack of focus and leadership, both on and off the field—Robinson is as bad as his players when it comes to mouthing off at the referee—often combined with conceding early goals, meant the Whitecaps were perpetually fighting an uphill battle to put points on the board.
How can it be fixed?
This is a difficult issue to fix, because it requires wholesale changes to the club culture. The signing of David Edgar as a rotational option helped steady things towards the end of the year, and communication between Ousted and his centerbacks also improved after the disaster in the Canadian Championship. Laba too recovered much of his confidence as the season continued.
Waston is a conundrum. On his day, he can win every aerial ball, launch counterattacks with his head, and provide a goalscoring threat on set plays. But he needs a pacy partner who can cover for his lack of mobility, and he has to calm his aggression. Launching dangerous tackles after the final whistle (as against Portland), or punching opposing strikers in the gut (as against…also Portland) makes him a liability. Much depends on Christian Dean putting together an injury-free
season, Edgar continuing to impress, and Parker recovering his first-season form.
One change that does have to happen, however, is the captaincy needs to change hands, and it looks like just that going to happen. Pedro Morales has many talents, but leadership is not one of them. With Morales seemingly on his way out, the new captain will be vital as a leader. Carl Robinson also needs to put some thought into his own actions, such as his behavior on the touchline. There’s nothing wrong with a passionate coach, but it often felt as if players were taking their cue from Robinson when it came to disciplinary problems.
Ideally, too, there would be more consistency and clarity from the MLS and the Professional Referee Organization on how incidents are dealt with. I think every team can agree with that one.
What was the issue?
Astoundingly, the Whitecaps scoring record doesn’t look so bad on paper. They were fourth in the Western Conference in goals scored with 45, more than Colorado, Seattle, Sporting KC, and Real Salt Lake, who all made the playoffs. But the absolute number doesn’t tell the full story. For a start, Vancouver scored eight goals in their last four games, once they were pretty much eliminated from the playoffs.
Other stats show a more concerning picture. Vancouver’s top scorer, Morales, was a midfielder who takes penalties. The highest scoring forward on the list is Kekuta Manneh, with five goals, and he missed half the season with injury. Blas Pérez, Masato Kudo, and Giles Barnes, three attacking players signed this year, scored six goals between them. Erik Hurtado played 1230 minutes, many of them as lone striker. In that time, Hurtado managed 34 shots, of which eight were on goal. He scored two, tied for the season with Andrew Jacobson (a defensive midfielder) and Jordan Harvey (a left back).
The season was litany of disaster in the opposing penalty area for the Whitecaps. Chances were created, but not scored. Manneh and Kudo both went down with serious injuries for long stretches of the season. Octavio Rivero scored two goals in 12 appearances and then left for Chile. Pérez seemed more interested in antagonizing opposing defenses than in scoring goals. Fabián Espíndola was signed from DC United, refused to report to Vancouver, and ended up moving to Mexico a week later. Erik Hurtado ended up playing week in and week out in a position that he was wholly unsuited to.
How can it be fixed?
Signing a striker would seem to be the obvious solution. But even spending big on a DP forward is unlikely to be an instant solution. Players take time to settle in new teams, more so if it’s a new league. And realistically, the Whitecaps ownership have made it clear they don’t plan on spending Giovinco money.
As well as a new signing, there are other steps that can be taken to make the best use of the current personnel. There is no one in the current squad who excels as a lone striker, but there are plenty of mobile, attacking players who like to run at defenders with the ball at their feet. We saw an example in the final game of the season, when Barnes, Mezquida, Hurtado, and Bolaños were practically deployed as a front four, with great success. Bolaños, Mezquida/Kudo, New Striker, and Manneh could line up similarly.
Another option is to make better use of Bolaños. He’s one of the most talented and experienced players in the squad, so use him. Bolaños has had great success with Costa Rica playing as an inverted winger on the left, allowing him to cut inside and shoot at goal. Too often this season, he was stuck on the right wing, forced outside—with no real target to cross the ball to—and having to track back and defend constantly to cover for whoever was playing right back. Which brings us to…
The Right Back Debacle
What was the issue?
It may seem a little unfair to target one position, but this was a big one because of the effect that one small decision made. Following the 2015 season, Carl Robinson targeted the forward position as a priority for new signings. With this in mind, he picked up Blas Pérez and Masato Kudo to score goals, as well as Christian Bolaños to deliver goals and assists from the wing. However, these three players were not cheap. Right back Steven Beitashour was out of contract, and as a money-saving move, Vancouver traded him to Toronto FC. Right winger Fraser Aird was picked up on loan from Scottish side Rangers, at about a quarter of Beitashour’s salary. The plan was for Aird to learn the right back position and compete with Jordan Smith.
It didn’t exactly work out. Despite a promising preseason, Aird had a terrible debut in the season opener against Montreal Impact. The Whitecaps were cut open time and time again down his wing. Smith got the nod to start in the second game of the season against Sporting Kansas City, but only lasted 45 minutes before getting a straight red card. Aird came on for the second half started 10 of the next 11 games. He seemed to have won the starting spot, but while he improved from his horrific debut performance, the Whitecaps continued to leak goals.
In the end, Aird played 18 MLS matches, starting 16 of them, while Smith started 15 games and also made two substitute appearances. Neither player was able to nail down the starting spot, although Aird struggled with an injury. Robinson even experimented with Tim Parker and Cole Seiler at right back in a few matches.
In theory, it was just one position, but in practice, it destabilized the entire backline. The lack of defensive awareness shown by both players also put pressure on the wide midfielders and forwards. Christian Bolaños and Alphonso Davies both found themselves having to cover defensively on the right, and Bolaños’ offensive output suffered as a result.
How can it be fixed?
Sign a right back. No, really. This one is easy. It looks like both Smith and Aird are gone, so at least one signing at that position is critical. Make it someone who is actually comfortable with the defensive duties of playing at right back.
The path forward does depend on the formation Robinson plans to use next season. If he sticks with a back four, then an experienced right back, preferably someone with some pace to cover for the centerbacks when they get caught out, has to be near the top of the shopping list. On the other hand, if Robinson is thinking of switching to a back three, then a player with similar skills to Aird would be needed as a wingback. Which is a smooth segue into…
What is the Best Formation?
What was the issue?
After the Whitecaps’ first win of the season, in Seattle, Robinson said “I don’t get caught up in formations” when discussing his switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. He may have regretted those words, as the season went on and he struggled to find a formation that worked with the players he had. Far too often, Hurtado was tasked with leading the line as a lone striker. Morales was played at #10 while Mezquida, the best #10 in the squad, sat on the bench. As for midseason signing Barnes, Robinson seemed to have no idea where to deploy him.
The biggest challenge with setting up the Whitecaps team was that while Morales was arguably the most talented player in the squad, he was not the best option in any position. His best contributions were playing alongside a more defensive-minded player in a two-man midfield. However, he was not an ideal partner for Matías Laba. Laba is an aggressive, tackling defensive midfielder who is frequently drawn out of position, and needs a partner who is willing to cover for him and put in far more defensive work than Morales was usually willing to do. If Laba misses a tackle, someone needs to cover for him, or else there is a huge space in front of the centerbacks for opponents to exploit.
This defensive issue meant that Morales was frequently played out of position in away matches, either as an attacking midfielder behind the striker (a #10), or even on the left wing. The rationale was presumably that, as a dead ball specialist, Robinson wanted Morales on the field even if he wasn’t the best option. The result was that the Whitecaps’ offense suffered, particularly when counter-attacking.
How can it be fixed?
Robinson needs to find a formation that plays to the strengths of his personnel. A key part of that is likely going to be letting Morales go, and the first step in that direction has already been taken. We’re now entering the realm of speculation, as much depends on how the two available DP spots are filled.
If Robinson wants to keep using his 4-2-3-1, he’s going to need to sign a striker who can play on his own, as well as ideally someone to play behind the striker. Those two signings would be a sizable signal of intent. Mezquida could fill the #10 role, with Marco Bustos to back him up. Given how often Mezquida started this season on the bench, however, it’s doubtful Robinson is willing to give him that responsibility.
Alternatively, the non-striker spot could go towards a wide midfielder/forward. With Bolaños, Barnes if he sticks around, Manneh, Mezquida, Techera if he recovers his form, a couple of new attacking players, Kudo and Pérez if they’re both still around, Alphonso Davies, and even Hurtado, there would be a lot of attacking talent and speed to set up as a 4-4-2. Switching Bolaños to the left wing would make a difference too.
There is another option, one that is suddenly in vogue in Europe, and that is switching to a back three. If Aird stays (looking unlikely at the moment) or is replaced by a similar player on the right, and with Marcel de Jong and Brett Levis on the left (although Levis will be out until the summer with a ACL injury), Robinson has the wingbacks he needs. This formation allows Parker, Edgar, and Waston to all get on the field at the same time—either a bonus to defensive stability, or an issue if Waston continues to be suspended all the time. Laba would be free to roam in front of the back three, and with Manneh and Bolaños overlapping with the wingers, there would be width to spare.
There are plenty of options. Robinson needs to identify the formation that works with his personnel—including whoever he turns up on his South American scouting trip. The 2017 season kicks off early with a CONCACAF Champions League date with the New York Red Bulls, only three months away. Carl Robinson has his work cut out to address the Whitecaps‘ key issues in time.