Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Growth proves to be key for Vancouver Whitecaps in win over LA Galaxy

The Vancouver Whitecaps played a game this weekend, as they downed the LA Galaxy in a surprise road victory. In our 2nd edition of Second ‘Caps thoughts, our new day-after column, we look at what we can take away from the match, with the morale-boosting victory providing no shortage of talking points. 

Well, it appears that the sky hasn’t quite fallen, yet.

Such is life at the beginning of a long season, with each victory and loss producing a different reaction, especially for a team such as the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are yet to distinguish themselves as either a basement dweller or contender in the Western Conference. 

That has been reflected early on in this young MLS season, with the Whitecaps looking very much the former against Sporting Kansas City on opening day, before showing a lot more of the latter this past weekend against the LA Galaxy. 

So what exactly are they? It’s way too early to tell, but what we can so far see is that they’re already better than they were last year, both stylistically and results-wise, with the team looking a lot better value for their money through preseason and in this victory, SKC loss aside. 

There are some weaker points in the squad, no doubt, but the alarm bells haven’t really been required as of yet, with help still on the way. We saw the start of that in this match, with debutants Janio Bikel and Leonard Owusu faring very well despite limited training action, so with Ranko Veselinovic and Erik Godoy nearly ready to bolster the backline, along with the continued integration of Bikel and Owusu in the midfield (and maybe at right back, for Bikel), things can only go up from here. 

It’ll create some tough lineup decisions in the coming weeks, which may leave some good players on the bench, but that’s often a sacrifice teams have to make to be successful. Especially in a league like MLS, where depth is at a premium due to the limited roster construction rules, it can make a huge difference, with tough travel, congested schedules and sub-optimal playing surfaces putting a strain on squads.

Had the Whitecaps not gotten strong performances from their depth this past weekend, with Tosaint Ricketts, Andy Rose and Janio Bikel all putting in strong performances after not starting on opening day, they might not have got 3 points down in LA, so it’s something they’re already reaping the benefits of. 

The Jingles and Bikel show gets going in Hollywood

It wouldn’t be fair to look back at the game and not speak of the debutants, Bikel and Owusu, who did not look out of place on Saturday. Despite their late arrivals to the team, with both players landing in Vancouver the week ahead of opening kick, they worked hard during their first week of training, paving the way for their earlier-than-expected introductions against the Galaxy. 

For Bikel, it was a trial by fire, as he was surprisingly thrown into the soup as a starter, with the former CSKA Sofia man forced to slot in at right back due to a surprise injury to Jake Nerwinski. Even though he hadn’t trained much at the position over the course of the week, as he mostly got reps in his preferred #6 spot in the midfield, he was forced to line up against LA’s Cristian Pavon, the 23-year-old Argentine winger who played in the 2018 World Cup, in a matchup that had many worried ahead of kick-off.

And boy, did Bikel prove everyone wrong. In a performance that probably surprised everyone except probably only himself, he mostly kept Pavon in his back pocket, limiting the star winger to only 1 shot on target, 1 key pass and 3 successful dribbles. 

That may seem adequate, with Pavon still getting a few chances to make magic happen, but that was mostly in spite of the work done by Bikel, who had an absurd 7 tackles and 6 clearances on the night, as he was a thorn in the side for Pavon throughout the entirety of the match. 

The Galaxy’s offence runs through Pavon, so the fact that Bikel mostly withstood that assault from a very likely MLS MVP candidate, all while being deployed out of his natural position, certainly bodes well for that expected move back into the midfield. 

After a week where he had to spend most of his time learning the names and faces of his teammates, much less learn the way they naturally play, it was a confident performance, one that should have people excited to see more from him. 

“[Janio] Bikel trained real training sessions with us too. And, he answered in a way that he looked like a player that has been with us for months, so it’s very positive moving forward.” Marc Dos Santos said after the game, as he admitted his surprise by the composure by Bikel. 

He also added: “I think, not only in the intensity of our work and the intensity of how we close down the way we prepared for this game, trying to eliminate Jonathan [Dos Santos] from their build up, being very aware in the box, and being aware of a player like Chicharito [Javier Hernandez], and [Cristian] Pavon in transition, I think [Janiel] Bikel did a great job there.”

Elsewhere, Owusu found the field for the first time in MLS, with his debut coming as a substitute, as was expected for the Ghanian midfielder. Unlike Bikel, who likely would have faced a similar fate if it were not for the surprise injury, it allowed Owusu to continue his eased transition into the squad, as he comes off a lengthier rest period than anyone would have liked, with his visa issues forcing him out of action for a couple of weeks. 

And despite the context of the game, with Dos Santos throwing Owusu in to help defend their 1-0 lead, he fared well, completing his defensive duties without a hitch, while also adding some flashes going forward. 2 tackles, 1 clearance, 1 shot and a tidy 100% pass percentage is never a bad return on 10 minutes of action, especially considering that his last competitive appearance came nearly 2 months ago.  

Now, it’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for him to get up to speed, with his presence certainly lacking in the current midfield set-up. Russell Teibert has been good so far through two games, while the performances of Hwang Inbeom have certainly left a lot to be desired, but there’s no doubt that a fit Owusu gets in over the both of them, with his strong defensive work and accurate passing ability giving him a leg up over the two aforementioned options. 

Along with Bikel, who you’d have to figure slots in at his more natural #6 role once Nerwinski returns, and that gives the ‘Caps two workhorses to add to their midfield. 

With Dos Santos pondering a potential switch to the 4-3-3, one that could open up the possibility of Inbeom, Bikel and Owusu all playing together, the ‘Caps can only get better in the middle of the park, which should help continue their tactical growth

“Yeah, (Leonard) Owusu gives us the possibility of playing in a 4-3-3, also, being the player that sits more, to give more freedom to Inbeom or Russell Teibert,” Dos Santos said. “The most important thing is that we get everyone healthy and ready to go, and this is what a team is about, Owusu came in, and with the minutes he came in it was too close the game, to win the balls in front of the defence, he did a great job.”

As we lamented in this column after last week’s loss, the more midfield support, the better, so it’ll be exciting to see what Dos Santos cobbles together. If there’s anything that this Galaxy game showed versus the Kansas one, it’s that when you don’t cede control of the middle of the pitch, it makes your life a lot easier defensively, while also unlocking more of your offensive players, which is why it’ll be a no-brainer to load up at the position whenever possible. 

The battle of the tactical brothers: score one to the Dos Santos family

Marc Dos Santos in action during preseason (Keveren Guillou)

Almost lost in the hum of victory was the tactical work done by Marc (and his assistant, brother Phil) Dos Santos, who outclassed the other set of coaching brothers on display Saturday, LA’s Guillermo and Gustavo Barros Schelotto, with the ‘Caps coaches doing well in identifying some tactical weaknesses and capitalizing on them.

From planned changes, such as Andy Rose’s introduction to the starting 11, to his unplanned ones, such as choosing Tosaint Ricketts over Fredy Montero when Reyna’s cold came about last week, he hit on a lot of his decisions, a stark contrast to the many strikeouts he faced a week ago. 

Looking back, the introduction of Rose was a gutsy move, but one that may have needed to been made, even despite the reservations of many (myself included). Talent-wise, Derek Cornelius and Jasser Khmiri may be better centre backs than Rose, whose natural position is in the midfield, but the introduction of Rose gave them something they sorely lacked as a pair: organization. 

The value of leadership can often be understated, with some coaches horribly overvaluing players because of ‘experience’, but in this case, the need for Rose’s leadership was actually quite well assessed by Dos Santos. For as talented as Cornelius and Khmiri are, for whatever reason, there has been no natural leader to emerge between the pair. Instead of having one, or even both, lead the way in terms of organization, both seemed to instead sit back and hope the other would take charge when they played together, which is a dangerous game to play. 

By bringing in Rose, who could probably do a play-by-play broadcast while playing (I.E, he is very vocal), it gave their back 4 a boost, certainly playing a big role in the improved defensive cohesion. 

“We felt it’s not Andy (Rose) for Derek (Cornelius) just because Derek has not done well, or something like that,” Dos Santos said. “it’s just more that when you analyze the team in some positions, in some lines, we felt that we needed a little bit of experience, a voice, some leadership, and we felt that Andy could bring that. I think he did a very good job, him and Jasser, eliminating Chicharito from the game.”

All of this to say, it’s not that Cornelius and Khmiri were bad as a pair (I thought they fared quite well against SKC), but it shows the importance of having a general back there, which is why the absence of Godoy has proved to be so key. Cornelius and Khmiri should develop that part of their game as times goes, with Cornelius already showing flashes of it for the Canadian National team, while Khmiri is certainly not one who can be accused of shyness, but as a partnership, it has yet to come about, hence the insertion of Rose. 

Elsewhere, some other Dos Santos moves proved to be key, especially the introduction of Tosaint Ricketts, who we chose as our man of the match on Saturday. Despite having Fredy Montero as an option, which could have given the team a dangerous 1-2 punch up front with Lucas Cavallini, Dos Santos opted to instead go with Ricketts, the energetic Canadian forward.

And it paid dividends for him. Ricketts may not be as technically sound as Montero, who on his day is certainly among the most skilled and technical players at the club, but he has a strong defensive work rate, which against the Galaxy, proved to be key. 

By having Ricketts and Cavallini paired together, it gave the ‘Caps a strong defensive presence up front, which helped nullify a weak Galaxy backline. They made it hard for them to play the ball forward, forcing them into a lot of long balls, much to the benefit of the ‘Caps, who had the height of Rose and Khmiri at the back, which helped keep things tidy throughout the 90 minutes. 

Thanks to that pressing, it allowed the ‘Caps to control the game, even despite them only having 45% possession, as they forced the Galaxy to control the ball in areas that they’re less confident in, which sometimes led to giveaways and long balls. 

Just take a look at the offensive heatmap of both teams, as an example. 

By pressing, the ‘Caps were able to mostly cut off the Galaxy’s chain into the middle of the park, at least offensively, which in turn starved Javier Hernandez up top. By doing that, while also flooding numbers into the wide areas when they did win back the ball, it allowed them to overwhelm and get behind the Galaxy’s weaker full backs, as we can see through the heatmap.

The ‘Caps might not have controlled the midfield as much as hoped, but they were more than confident in playing through it, and with help on the way, that should be less of a worry. They knew that the Galaxy’s weaknesses are at the back and defensively in the middle, so they took advantage when possible, ruthlessly punishing the Galaxy in what was overall a pretty clinical performance.

“It was what we worked on since day one,” Dos Santos said. “If you come to big games like this and you don’t set the tone, big teams like the LA Galaxy are going to slowly impose their game, and you have to make it uncomfortable for them. That’s what we weren’t able to do against Sporting, but we did today, and if we do that, we’ll always have a chance to win.”

So while the framework might not work against every team, the flexibility that they showed is huge, especially considering their improving squad depth. 

With the many versatile pieces that they do have, there is hope that they can become a team that is both rigid in its philosophies and flexible in its execution, which in MLS, could give them a leg up on their opponents.

“The way we worked, our principles from preseason, and how we applied it was the way we have to be,” Dos Santos said. “And we didn’t see that against Sporting, but we had an incredible reaction today. I think, you know, not only in the intensity of our work and the intensity of how we close down the way we prepared for this game, trying to eliminate Jonathan [Dos Santos] from their build up, being very aware in the box, and being aware of a player like Chicharito [Javier Hernandez], and [Cristian] Pavon in transition, I think [Janiel] Bikel did a great job there.”

“Our center backs did good work on Chicharito, and we knew the first 15 minutes would have a big hype and we tried to control that the best way possible by not backing off.”

Can the ‘Caps…actually generate chances?

The ‘Caps have been good at generating chances so far, even despite a slow start to 2020 from Inbeom (Keveren Guillou)

Despite there being a common belief that the ‘Caps would struggle to generate chances this season, they’ve surprisingly been quite good at it so far, which has been a far cry from their 2019 offensive form. 

Against the Galaxy, they generated 14 shots, with 4 of them reaching the target, which along with their 1.41 Expected Goals, showed that this team can so far get the balls to the net without much of a problem. 

It’s been a welcome surprise, with the team so far on pace to generate upwards of 55 expected goals, which would be an improvement of over 20 goals over last year’s totals. It’s obviously a bit early to say if they will sustain this start over the course of the season, but it’s been a positive development early on here, one that certainly shouldn’t be ignored. 

While it’s a bit doubtful that they consistently generate 2.16 XG on 9 shots as they did against SKC, if they continue to get upwards of 14 shots a game, imagining them continuing, or even improving, on this pace of 1.71 XG a game isn’t that unrealistic. 

With the midfield set to get a boost with the insertion of Bikel and Owusu, two players that should free up other pieces such as Inbeom, who’s looked uninspired offensively so far (even despite having an impressive 5 key passes through the first 2 games), which will only help the service stay at a good level.

Through 2 games, the biggest offensive concern has been a lack of finish from Lucas Cavallini, which considering his pedigree as a consistent finisher, should correct itself over time. He does typically underperform his XG, so this is not terribly out of the ordinary, but the way he missed chances he usually would smash home is, which is something you figure he’ll correct sooner than later. 

When the preseason prognostic was that you’d struggle to feed your DP striker chances, to have the main worry be a lack of finish from him through 2 games is actually positive, provided that they continue to show off this newfound ability to generate shots and XG. 

Looking Forward

It’s going to be a busy week at training for the ‘Caps, as they get set to take on the undefeated Colorado Rapids on Saturday, in what should be an entertaining Western Conference clash. With Ranko Veselinovic supposedly arriving in Vancouver this past weekend, along with the continued integration of Erik Godoy into first-team training, that’ll only improve the quality of their sessions, which should set themselves up nicely for Saturday. 

After the win over the weekend, they’ll be motivated to do the same in front of the fans this time, helping erase the sting of the opener. As we saw down in LA, they have some spark in them, they just need to unlock it and nurture it, something that they didn’t really do against SKC. 

Can they do the same against Colorado? It’ll be interesting to see, but if this weekend has taught us anything, it’s that there is some potential in this team, with the only question being how to best unlock that. 

Will that be in a 4-3-3 or in a 4-4-2? We’ll see, especially over the course of the next couple of weeks, but having that flexibility will be key, at least if last year was to teach us anything, where a lack of it proved to restrict them in games. 

So far, that doesn’t appear to be the case, which now shifts the attention to Dos Santos, who can shift his focus from bringing in players to how to best deploy them, which is something he surely prefers doing.

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Colorado Rapids, Saturday, March 14th, 2020, 16:00 PST (BC Place, Vancouver)

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