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Carl Robinson had previously told us that he wouldn’t add just for the sake of adding right now and in the short term. He has some pieces lined up to add in January already. He also indicated that just adding squad players wasn’t of interest to him and that anyone he brought in would have to be a difference maker. That makes it interesting to see that the ‘Caps have added Costa Rican right back Jordan Smith on loan from Kendall Waston’s old club Deportivo Saprissa. The deal is until the end of the season and is clearly to have a look at the 24-year-old. If he impresses, the trigger will be pulled on a full transfer. What this will mean for the future of Steven Beitashour at the club will be the interesting aspect of all this. The veteran is on big money but not producing the performances to merit it. His deal will be up at the end of the season and his reputation would see him in demand from elsewhere in MLS. Smith has been brought in for right-back cover right now of course. Tim Parker can play and do well there, but you have to feel Robbo could see Parker as a starter in the centre back role by the end of the year. Of course there already is a back-up for Beitashour’s position in Ethen Sampson. The South African has failed to impress this season and has been playing left back in USL in recent games. We’ve been told that Robinson is trying to secure a loan deal to take him off the ‘Caps roster numbers and free up an international spot. I’d be surprised to see him back on the MLS roster this time next year. Wednesday night’s Champions League game against Seattle was last chance saloon for Sampson as far as I’m concerned. He didn’t excel and looks set to mosey on off into the sunset. The first of many depth players to move on? Make that the second, as it’s already started. The Whitecaps also confirmed this morning that Erik Hurtado has been loaned to Norwegian side Mjøndalen IF till the end of 2015. Robinson says that he is still very much part of the club’s plans, but I don’t think we’ll have too many people pining for him now that he is in the fjords. Erik the Viking’s move has been on the cards for a while. Robinson and Greg Anderson were seen in deep discussion with him after the game on Wednesday, with a “keep the chin up son” feel to it all. He needs to play, but not for the ‘Caps in MLS. So a great move for both parties. Hurtado and Sampson are great examples of how shallow the Whitecaps depth actually is. Wednesday night was a frightening example that the 12 to 22 spots on the roster may not be as deep as we thought. At the very least, they can’t play together as a team. The first warning signs were there with the performances of many of the players with the USL team. WFC2 play considerably better when the likes of Hurtado (not that he went down much!), Sampson and Rodriguez and their peers are not down there playing with them. There’s been a couple of times this season where there’s been nearly a full USL starting eleven of the ‘Caps MLS depth guys. They haven’t done well together there. The last time was a 4-2 defeat at Portland last month where there was little fight, spirit and competency shown outside of Robert Earnshaw, Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese. So it was no surprise to see that again and a lack of any cohesion and team chemistry midweek. Put some of these players (Parker, Dean, Froese for example) into the first team with the majority of MLS starters and they thrive. Make too many changes and chuck them all into together and it ends up looking like they met for the first time in the car park. One of Robinson’s most interesting postgame comments on Wednesday was, ”It gave me a few answers to questions I had in my mind with some players, which was good”. Good for him, not for the players in question you have to imagine. Cold fact is that some of the fringe guys are simply not MLS starting quality. Some will maybe do for one game at a push, but if they have to cover for a long time, there could be issues. That’s why Smith has come in. That’s why Hurtado has, temporarily for now, moved on. You have to think that Diego Rodriguez’s days are also numbered. I had high hopes for the Uruguayan but with, first, his injuries, and then a loss of confidence, he’s not going to be here too much longer. Factor in some poor performances in USL, the form of Parker and Dean, and Wednesday’s nightmare marking job that led to Seattle’s goal, his confidence must be close to shot just now. Shame. Nice guy and does have talent. With Hurtado gone, it’s hard not to see another attacker being added in to the mix pretty soon. Might already have been filled and still to be announced or a free agent from elsewhere. What is certain is that Smith’s addition and Hurtado’s departure should be the final warning to many of the ‘Caps current depth of shape up or you’ll most certainly be shipped out and replaced.
Last year, the Whitecaps, on the whole, were pretty solid at the back. There were some horror games where they gave up three goals against both Portland and Philadelphia in consecutive weeks, although they did take four points from those matches. David Ousted led the league with 13 clean sheets and the 'Caps defence were stingy. Three of the back four that finished the last regular season with four straight clean sheets started against Toronto. They were all at sea at times, especially the full backs. Did Andy O'Brien really make all that difference to the defence? This week will be a better test of those four's credentials going forward, if indeed Robinson doesn't decide to freshen things up. They're not going to be getting ripped apart by international players like Altidore and Giovinco every week. Chicago are more at the level of much of MLS. It's fair to say, and maybe even being a little too fair, that Beitashour and Harvey had a bit of a mare out there last weekend and Kah wasn't too far behind. All three were getting burned with runs and runners in that second half in particular. Horrible marking in the box was one of the things that blighted the Vancouver defence last year and it doesn't really seem to have improved. Fingers can be pointed at both Harvey and Kah for allowing Robbie Findley to run in for what proved to be the crucial go ahead goal for TFC. The whole back four have to tighten up, but a concern I have is that they looked flat footed. You could even say they looked old out there. Vancouver have a young team, but a veteran defence. I'd like to see more of a veteran presence in attack and more of a younger, faster element at the back. Sam Adekugbe anyone? He's breathing right down Harvey's neck right now for a start and it wouldn't be outwith the realms of possibility that he gets one in Chicago. And Beitashour just didn't impress me at all last season and is a player I would happily move on if we had better depth there. In the centre of defence, I've loved what Kah has brought preseason, both on and off the pitch. He can be a beast in both boxes, as two goals down in the Portland tournament showed. But he can also be a liability at the back, as that clumsy tackle on Altidore for the last penalty demonstrated. We haven't seen enough of Diego Rodriguez to know just what he can offer to the 'Caps in MLS, but his youth and quicker footwork may see him get the nod sooner rather than later. Moving quickly to the other end, and this is something I wrote about over on MLSSoccer.com earlier this week, aside from the continuing concern about not taking the multitude of chances presented to them, there seems to be a tactical deficiency when it comes to changing the gameplan and moving to a Plan B or even a Plan C. We saw that last year as well, although it hasn't been as bad as when Martin Rennie was in charge. Vancouver's gameplan is pretty much guaranteed. The team will line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the reliance on some speedy play on the wings and the hope that Pedro Morales is on his game. But what happens when that all goes tits up? When the speedsters can't get past their man and a resolute defence or when Pedro has an off day, which happens a lot on the road and he was way off with some of his deliveries against TFC. The back up plan seems to be to replace one fast guy with another and keep Pedro on in the hope that one of his majestic balls pops out. Yes, Octavio Rivero is a different kind of striker to the rest of the bunch. He's taller, bulkier and looks like he can finish chances (and miss sitters as well!). But... there is no getting away from the fact that the rest of the attack is far too samey. Manneh, Mattocks and Hurtado put their heads down and run, often showing little control or attacking awareness in the process. Vancouver need to have different options coming off the bench. Do those actually exist in the squad right now? Well, yes they do, as Robinson was keen to point out to me this week, but therein lies another issues. The substitutions against Toronto were what I expected for the first two, but at the same time, the wrong choices in terms of the way the game was going. If Manneh can't unlock the TFC defence, was Mattocks really going to? Koffie added some physicality to the middle of the park, kicked a few players, but offered very little else. Then there's poor Nicolas Mezquida, who finished the preseason as perhaps the strongest Whitecaps attacking player and couldn't even get off the bench, despite showing that he and Rivero have developed a very early and productive understanding. Robinson was outcoached against Toronto. He'll know that. He'll know the mistake he made. But he needs to correct them against Chicago. Robbo pointed out that he does have different kind of players than speedsters to change a game. He highlighted Mezquida and Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese. Neither came on against TFC and the latter two weren't even on the bench. I see Robbo mixing it up a little this week and Mezquida must surely get the start. It could be for Manneh on the left or it could be for resting Rosales on the right and keeping the veteran as a sub for later. We may even see Morales dropping a little deeper to allow Mezquida to slot in to the number 10 role. All that said, you don't want to over react. That first half performance from the Caps was one of the best and most electric we've seen, perhaps in the whole MLS era. Those glimpses of grandeur are certainly worth persevering with and giving up on it after one game against a team many tip to go all the way, would be foolish. Keep those eleven together, let them gel, click and run riot. That I would gladly take. They just need to tighten up at the back, take a couple more chances and have a better take on Plan B if things are working and they need to change things up. Get that right and Chicago could be on the end of a hiding. Get it wrong and a dreary 0-0 draw could play out. What will it be? Well, we'll soon find out.
Rennie used that April radio interview to blow his own trumpet for his achievements with the Whitecaps and to clearly have a not-so-veiled dig at what Robinson would have to achieve to be classed as what he felt was a successful replacement. "I kind of feel fine about how it ended," Rennie told Matt Sekeres in the interview. "I think that as a coach, you always think that given more time you could do more with it. The team I inherited was the worst team in MLS. It improved quite a lot in the first year and it improved again in the second year. "I felt that when I started we were probably about 40 points from being first in MLS and when I finished there we were nine points from being first and that's a massive, massive improvement. I'm a pretty harsh critic of myself and there's things that I'm sure I could have done better and I know that I could of, but I also think that generally there was a lot of success there and there was a solid platform now to build a good club. "So as long as they go on now and continue to develop, I think it was 11 wins then 13 wins, so they need to go 15, 16 wins to show that development and then you've got a solid MLS team. In Major League Soccer, it's a very, very tight league. You're not going to win every game and you're probably, even if you have a great season, lose 10 or 11 games a season, so I feel good about it." So let's just review what Rennie's achievements actually were and how Robinson actually stacks up with them. He took the worst team in MLS in 2011 and got them to the playoffs a year later. An excellent accomplishment, even though some felt that they eventually backed in. At the time, we said we held no sway with that. They didn't back in, they got in due to their early season form and the points they put up on the board. Rennie achieved the playoffs in his first season, so has Robinson after basically rebuilding the team. If you look at the starters for the Caps against Colorado, three were brought in by Rennie and six by Robinson (two players, Jordan Harvey and Russell Teibert, predated both). In 2012 under Rennie, Vancouver had an 11-13-10 record and 43 points. They made the playoffs with four points to spare, scoring 35 goals and conceding 41 along the way. They got their first MLS away win in Rennie's first road game in charge and got three for the whole season. The Caps kept 12 clean sheets over the season and eventually finished 5th in the West, 23 points behind the Supporters Shield winning San Jose Earthquakes, and were 11th overall in the MLS combined points standings. They failed to win a match against their Cascadian rivals, with three draws and three defeats, obviously failing to lift the Cascadia Cup. They also failed to lift the Voyageurs Cup and clinch a spot in the Champions League. A year later in 2013, Rennie guided the Whitecaps to their then highest ever MLS points total of 48 and their most ever number of wins, 13, but it still wasn't enough to get Vancouver into the playoffs and they fell three points short. Their overall record was 13-12-9 as they finished 7th in the West and dropped to the 13th best record overall in the MLS combined points standings. They scored their most ever goals in MLS with 53 but conceded their second highest total so far with 45, keeping seven clean sheets. They got their first ever win over a Cascadian rival and actually managed two that season, both over Seattle, including their first Cascadian away win. Still no joy in the Voyageurs Cup, blowing their opportunity to wrap it up at BC Place. So now we move to Carl Robinson's first year in charge. He's finished his rookie regular season with a 12-8-14 record and 50 points. That the highest points total so far, not just by the Whitecaps in MLS, but any Canadian club. Those 12 wins included three on the road and three against their Cascadian rivals (two of those being away victories). Rennie said in that radio interview that there would have to be 15 or 16 wins to show a continued improvement, which was of course just nonsense. Yes, the number dropped by one from last season to, which means nothing when you look at the fact that Vancouver still produced their highest ever MLS points total to finish 5th in the West and produced their highest ever finish in the Supporters' Shield standings of 9th. To finish the ninth best team in MLS, unbeaten against all Eastern Conference opposition and only losing three matches to those teams above them in the West (two to LA and one to Dallas), is one hell of an achievement for Robinson in his first year as a head coach. And, as we keep saying, all without an actual striker for more than half the year! Rennie said that even in a "great" season you'd lose 10 or 11 games. This season the Caps lost 8. The second best record in all of MLS. Still no Voyageurs Cup, but there is a CONCACAF Champions League spot to look forward to next year for the first time. And back to back Cascadia Cup in the bag. But the improvements to the Whitecaps under Robinson are measured in more than just stats, so let's move away from the numbers. Robinson promised to make the team younger and to develop youth. Now to many, including us, we took that to mean homegrown Residency talent of current and recent years. That was how it was looking preseason and you did feel it was going to be a major developmental year if that's how things panned out. They didn't and Robinson made shrewd signings to go with what was already there. Of the 28 players currently on the Caps MLS roster, 18 are 24-years-old or younger. That's one hell of a building block for future seasons and eight of those are 'homegrowns', including the latest additions of Kianz Froese and Marco Bustos. These players have all gained invaluable experience this season. Some will move on to pastures new in a few weeks time, but they'll be replaced by others (the likes of Mitch Piraux and Ben McKendry are waiting in the wings). Rennie talked a good game about young players but there was very little evidence of his development of them. There's also the harmony in the dressing room. It's certainly the best I've ever seen since covering the Caps from 2008. When you have experience players like Andy O'Brien and Pedro Morales describing it as "special", and a new addition like Mauro Rosales saying it's the best dressing room he's been a part of, the management need to get a lot of credit for building that with the addition of the right personnel. Back on the pitch, Robinson has brought a refreshing attacking mindset on the road, in general. Still not perfect and maybe still a bit one dimensional and easily read at times, but a major improvement in the entertainment factor. And it's brought results too. Things are by no means perfect. Robbo has perhaps been too loyal to some of his players this year, giving them too many chances that they simply haven't taken. He's shielded them from the flak that they perhaps needed to be hit with. Then there's the whole inability to land a striker, which still may ultimately cost them in the postseason, and the team has been a bit too predictable in their style of play on occasion and easily countered. But a rookie manager will make such mistakes and he will learn, and Robinson has done that as the season progressed. Martin Rennie and his team (of which Robinson was obviously a part) do deserve major kudos for turning the Whitecaps around from the worst team in MLS in a disastrous inaugural season in the league. Sometimes I don't think people gave them the proper credit or fully understood just what a big achievement that was. MLS parity rules help to some extent but the players and management still then have to get the job done. But give me Robinson's Whitecaps any day of the week. The players are more talented and exciting. The attitude throughout the squad is so much better. There is a real buzz at training and a real team spirit and that has transferred onto results on the pitch. There's been actual youth development. There's still a lot of work to do and the Western Conference is only going to get even tougher next year with the likely additions of Sporting KC and Houston at the expense of the clusterfuck that was Chivas USA. Robinson still has that difficult second album phase ahead of him that signalled the end of his predecessor. He's set the bar high with this rookie season and it's not over yet. Following it up next year is a big ask of any manager and Robinson will know that. Once you achieve success, there's no looking back and limited allowance for future failure. Having never won in Dallas, the Caps could realistically go one and out again in the playoffs. It would feel like such a major anti-climax after the intensity of the last five games, but whatever happens, how the Caps move on is the key now. And under Robinson, you can only have hopes for the future. Now the pressure really begins.
That first week of training saw a very young and inexperienced Caps squad running drills and scrimmages up at UBC. Having lost their Golden Boot winning Camilo and with a first time head coach in charge, it was looking like it could be a long season ahead. But slowly, Carl Robinson put together a squad devoid of flashy signings, but players who work well as a team (maybe Omar Salgado aside). The results have been excellent, and yes, it could still all go very badly tits up, but the foundations he has set for future seasons have been laid and if they can get both the playoffs and a Champions League place, then that likely far exceeds most people's expectations before the season began and can only be viewed as major season of success for the Whitecaps, and Robinson personally. Even getting one of them looked unlikely just three weeks ago after the 3-0 thumping down in Portland. The signing strategy between the Caps and TFC this season has been diverse. Maybe not all through personal choice. Toronto spent heavily on the salaries of three big name Designated Players, $13,855,000 guaranteed compensation to be exact, and one of them clearly wants away and nearly got his wish. You can add in any transfer fee money paid on top of that. There is no way that talent should have been assembled and that amount of money spent and they fail to make the playoffs, or at the very, very least, win the Voyageurs Cup. That's not for us to debate too much just now, and they could still pull off a great escape of massive proportions, whilst the Whitecaps implode. For me, it's just reeks of Bob Bradley now coming in to "save" them in the offseason and keep his son (willingly) there. Not that he's exactly set the heather alight with Stabæk (midtable Norwegian mediocrity) and is yesterday's man in MLS as far as I'm concerned. It's a young coaches league now. Anyhoo... The Caps on the other hand benefitted from one of Toronto's biggest mistakes when they picked up Matias Laba (for only $300,000), along with the wonderful addition of Pedro Morales ($1.41 million). Both will hopefully be around for some time. They also freed up a lot of money with the departure of Kenny Miller, not to mention Jay DeMerit's salary, and they've still got most of Camilo's allocation money to spend, as they didn't receive that until July. Kendall Waston has come in (at $201,242) and been dominant. He was a beast against Seattle, mopping up every ball that came his way in the air, and has formed a strong partnership alongside O'Brien. Of the 28 players on the Caps' current MLS roster (including Marco Bustos who will be eligible to play from January), half of them are returning players and 18 players are aged 24 or under, including 8 homegrown players. That's a settled squad that will be together for a long time (hopefully and in theory). That seems to be a key factor in MLS for the most successful teams like Real Salt Lake. None of the constant changing of personnel that Toronto have and are likely to go through again the in offseason. Sure would have loved for the Caps to have splashed the cash and brought in a big name striker (he will be coming in January) and yes, that might ultimately cost us a deep run in the playoffs, but what business model is looking best right now between Vancouver and Toronto? The Whitecaps got a bargain in Mati Laba, and for all the flak we direct at the Caps front office, whoever did the negotiating to ensure that it was a permanent transfer and not a loan deal deserves plaudits. The Caps will use allocation money to keep him here for a few years and ironically that could be coming from the extra money they get for reaching the Champions League, a lot of which is thanks to Laba and at Toronto's expense. Laba has been fantastic this season and might just nick my 'Player of the Year' vote away from Morales due to being consistently solid in his play. The Argentine was immense on Friday in Seattle and the play of him and Russell Teibert completely shut down Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins in the middle of the park and snuffed out the Sounders. So it's all positive at the Whitecaps right now. But we're also very aware, as are the players and management, that it could all come off the rails very quickly. If Portland win on Friday night, they're back above the red line. The Caps then have to go and face a struggling San Jose side who will be out to finish their home season with a bang and say farewell to Buck Shaw Stadium with a win. Players are playing for contracts too. It's not going to be an easy ride. I can't see Portland getting two wins, so it's all very much in the Caps hands and there is still the big possibility that RSL will go into to Portland on Friday and come away with the three points they need to keep them in third place in the West and avoid a first round playoff game against the Caps (as much as I'd rather we face them than Dallas). It's a cracking end to the regular season all round. For us though, what's the most positive aspect of all, and what we give most thanks for, is the work that Carl Robinson has done this season to lay the foundations for years to come at the Caps. Players will move on at the end of the season. Some may be less surprising than others. New players will come in to add to the already blooded core of young talent. Making the playoffs this season is the cherry on the top of it all right now, and with the way the Whitecaps have played against the top sides in MLS this season, the rest of the cake is very much there for the eating. Or maybe we should make that pumpkin pie to tie it all in nicely.