Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Fatigue, midfield struggles big factors for Whitecaps in loss to Earthquakes

In our latest edition of Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking back at the Vancouver Whitecaps game that was, we take a look at what stood out for us in the ‘Caps 4-3 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes to open up their MLS is Back tournament. 

At the very least, you can’t fault them for not being entertaining. 

Entertainment is probably the last thing on your mind after a 4-3 loss, but after the spectacle that was the Vancouver Whitecaps opening match loss against the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday, you can’t help but sit back and revel in the absolute chaos that it was. 

The game pretty much had it all. There were some nice goals, some calamitous defending, an own goal, VAR controversy, shocking giveaways and a late winner, complete with a makeshift pyro party, as the ‘Caps and ‘Quakes truly brought the chaos. 

But despite the fun, it won’t be an easy match for the ‘Caps faithful to stomach, especially after they had appeared to all but secured the 3 points when they went up 3-1 in the middle of the second half. No strikers, no problem, they said, as they improbably went up by 2 goals, but then in an equally as surprising turn, they threw it all away. 

In a short tournament, this loss could prove to be massive, as a loss in the ‘Caps next game, a clash with the 2019 MLS Cup champions, Seattle Sounders, could see Vancouver all but eliminated with one game to go. 

At the same time, for a Whitecaps team who lost 5 players before the tournament even started, without mentioning the 2 they’ve seemingly added to that total already, falling short wouldn’t be an unjust outcome. 

On the flip side, it does feel like the absences excuse isn’t a fair one, either, as Vancouver showed last night. Considering that San Jose has looked like one of the best teams of the tournament so far, hanging with them shows that the Whitecaps aren’t a bad team, but for whatever reason, they just lacked that killer instinct against their Californian foes. 

It’s hard to judge this team, as they’ve only played 3 official games in 2020, and have been missing key regulars for each of them, but from what we’ve seen so far, inconsistency, both within games and from match-to-match, has been a big theme. 

Early days here still, so that’s not a bad thing, at least not yet, but usually those sorts of things work themselves out over time, so here’s to seeing if that ends up being the case for this curious ‘Caps squad. 

So without further ado, let’s jump into what stood out from the game itself, as there was no shortage of things to analyze. 

The substitutes a big talking point

It’s not often that the players that aren’t playing become a focal point, but alas, the substitutions made by Marc Dos Santos, or the lack thereof, quickly became a talking point as the ‘Caps lead evaporated. 

When it was announced that the ‘Caps were going to have to go with a 9 player, all-Canadian bench, where the oldest player was Cristian Gutierrez at a crisp 23, it was hoped that Vancouver could really go all-in on the ‘Play Your Kids’ movement at some point in the game.

Alas, that would not end up being the case, as the tight nature of the game led Dos Santos to not make a substitution for over 65 minutes, much to the chagrin of fans. He ended up making 3 changes, but only 2 were really by choice, as he brought on already established youngsters Ryan Raposo and Theo Bair, before being forced into bringing on Patrick Metcalfe for his debut as Leonard Owusu suffered a late injury woe. 

Had this game been played under regular circumstances, where the maximum of 3 substitutions was still in effect, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but with the new rule change to allow 5 subs, made over 3 periods (not including half time), it felt strange not to see all of them used. 

For a team that hadn’t played in over 130 days, to ask them to play over 100 minutes of football in the sweltering Orlando heat against a San Jose team that seems collectively able to run a marathon without much complaint, was certainly a curious proposition. 

When you consider the fact that San Jose quickly made use of all of their 5 subs, and you see how much of a boost doing that gave them, and you do start to ponder. 

Yes, the ‘Caps had a young bench, due to the absences of Lucas Cavallini (personal), Tosaint Ricketts (health concern) and Fredy Montero (personal), along with midfielder Andy Rose (personal) and Georges Mukumbilwa (visa issues) from before the tournament, without mentioning the injury woes of Janio Bikel and Erik Godoy, who are in Orlando but are unfit to play, but you would have thought that the youngsters could have helped give the ‘Caps some needed legs. 

Seeing how badly Vancouver faded towards the end there, you do have to wonder what those 2 sets of fresh legs could have brought to the table. 

“Look, we’re talking Janio Bikel, Erik Godoy, Fredy Montero, Tos Ricketts, Andy Rose, Lucas Cavallini, it’s a lot of players,” Dos Santos said when asked of his teams depth. “And then they had everybody, they made those subs at the end, those four subs that was a lot of fresh legs that brought a lot more intensity and more volume. We have a little bit more of a difficult time right now with our depth, that it’s normal.”

“And I think that, you know, until the 75th minute we were able to be in the game to be ahead to even create and be dangerous in some actions. But unfortunately, then at the end we weren’t able to close the game. It is really hard right now, the players are not ready to play 90 minutes, they’re not ready to play 100 minutes with the injury time. It gets very difficult and then it’s hard to keep the composure until the end and we felt it during the game.”

At this point, though, we may end up seeing some of the kids, anyway, as some of the ‘Caps players did really seem to burn out at the end of the game. With no Janio Bikel for the rest of the tournament (more on that in a bit), Vancouver only will have 3 midfield regulars now, and that’s only dependent on the health of Owusu, who could easily be gone as well if his injury is serious. 

It does make sense that Dos Santos wanted to protect his youngsters, as that sort of match would have been one heck of an environment to debut in, but considering the circumstances, as a consequence of being cautious with the kids, he may have worn out some key players, who had to go 105+ minutes in their first game in over 130 days. 

At that point, knowing that A) the kids could have helped stem the shifting tide of Earthquakes momentum in the second half and B) helped some key starters avoid fatigue, overuse and injury, it certainly does make you wonder. 

If you’re going to have youngsters on a first-team contract, you’ve got to be prepared to throw them in if needed, and be ready to watch them sink or swim. 

I mean, just look at how well it’s worked for the New York Red Bulls, or FC Dallas, the ‘Play Your Kids’ gold standard, as an example of trusting your youth development system. 

“If we want to give an opportunity to a young player, they need to be put in an environment that they’re able to succeed,” Dos Santos said of his decision to only make 3 subs. “And the game was very chaotic and requires a lot of experience and we felt that the subs were the right ones. Like I said before, we have eight guys not with the roster, you know we don’t even have 23 to fill the full game roster.”

“So our depth is not easy right now and we felt that we used the right solutions today. A player came in called Patrick Metcalfe, that was his first few minutes in MLS, so even there you know we’re not able to give the first full minutes, the first few minutes to every player. And we thought we did the most we could.”

Midfield woes

A big factor in the ‘Caps struggles against San Jose on Wednesday? 

Surprisingly quiet performances in the midfield from Russell Teibert and Hwang In Beom, who seemed to get overrun at times in the middle by the ‘Quakes, giving them free rein of the most important part of the pitch. 

The XG map paints an idea of what ailed the ‘Caps, who struggled to consistently displace the ‘Quakes, on both sides of the ball. 

Despite an excellent first start from Leonard Owusu, who did a lot of good work in that #6 role, In Beom and Teibert were unable to take advantage of the space that Owusu freed up for them. 

It’s not easy to play against the Earthquakes, who endlessly send wave-after-wave of pressure right back at you, but you would have hoped that In Beom and Teibert could have put up more of a push to try and help stem that tide. 

After doing so well against the LA Galaxy together back in March, we were hoping that they could have repeated some of that magic, but for whatever reason, they couldn’t conjure much up over 90 minutes. 

Frustratingly enough, despite his relatively anonymous performance, In Beom still put up 2 key passes and an assist, so clearly there’s something there, but he just didn’t turn those little moments into much else than that, unfortunately. 

Considering that the ‘Caps touch to successful pass ratio of around 2 to 1 (448 touches, 258 passes), compared to San Jose’s ratio of around 1.5 to 1 (706 touches, 503 passes), there was just too much dawdling on the ball, and it cost them. 

For a team that wants to build out of the back, having those stats, along with this sort of heat map, doesn’t reflect too kindly on the midfield, as they didn’t find a way to efficiently play through the ‘Quakes centrally. 

To be fair to In Beom and Teibert, that direct play made it hard for them to see the ball (they only had 50 and 23 touches, respectively), as the ‘Caps elected to play through wide channels in the rare moments of 32% possession that they did have, but defensively is where their biggest woes came about. 

When you look at the lack of midfield pressure on the 2nd and 4th goals specifically, without mentioning the countless shots that the ‘Quakes were able to launch from the edge of the box, you can see where they struggled in pressuring the San Jose midfield.  

Looking at that shot map, you can really feel the absence of someone like Bikel, who could have been an important piece to have in midfield, especially in a game like this. But now, due to an adductor injury sustained in training down in Orlando, he’s out for the tournament, which is a big blow for Vancouver

Dos Santos echoed that sentiment post-match, when asked if he felt that Bikel could have given the team a boost in the midfield, as he admitted losing him for the tournament is a tough blow. 

“Yeah of course that a guy like Janio provides more depth even in that position,” Dos Santos said. “But again I think that the play from Owusu in the majority of the game was very positive for us and, and for the future and what we’re building here. I think he did a lot of good things.”

“Of course, that injury of Janio was hard for us. And he’s a player that could definitely provide that depth also there. So yes, look, we can only talk about the guys that are here right now. For Janio we don’t know yet the time frame, but for sure he’s not going play in the tournament here.”

But if we’re going to speak of the midfield, it feels unfair to not speak of Owusu, who was excellent in his first start, despite not having gone anything close to 90 minutes in more than half of a year. 

Deployed as a #6, he had 1 key pass, an 85% pass percentage and 3 dribbles offensively, as well as 3 tackles and 1 interception on the defensive end of things, showing what he can do as a #6. While his best role for the ‘Caps may be alongside In Beom as an #8, with someone like Bikel underneath them, Owusu showed that he can be a swiss army knife, and more than do a job as that deeper midfielder.

If he can keep this sort of play up, it’s going to be huge for someone like In Beom, who will have more space to make magic on the ball. It’ll be curious to see what he can do against someone like Seattle, or Chicago, both teams that seem to better suit his style of play, especially with Owusu freeing him up to make magic offensively. 

As well as Teibert, who was uncharacteristically quiet last night, you feel like Owusu can bring more out of his teammates when he does play, as his work on both sides of the ball can make a big difference.

“Leo is a great guy,” Teibert said of his teammate after the game. “He takes all information onboard. He’s open to learning, he’s not afraid to make mistakes, and he’s confident. He showed that tonight. He’s a quality player. He plays a tremendous role on our team offensively and defensively, and he puts his stamp on the match. For a young player, he’s very exciting for us and our future. He’s definitely going to be one to watch.”

So here’s hoping that he’s not seriously injured, and that he continues to make a difference for the ‘Caps going forward. 

Press to success

At the same time, it wouldn’t be fair to only point out what the ‘Caps did bad on Wednesday and not talk about what they did well, and one of those things was pressing effectively from the front. 

Despite being stuck behind the ball for most of the game, when Vancouver did get a chance to unleash their vaunted high-press, it worked wonders, in the form of 2 goals. 

On their 2nd goal of the game, Cristian Dajome, who had dropped deep, caught the San Jose last man napping after a short corner, unleashing the counter-attack that eventually led to the Judson own goal. 

Yes, this play is an absolute comedy of errors, as the ‘Caps having a 70-foot breakaway is nothing short of bonkers, but hey, the ‘Caps did technically press the last line of ‘Quakes defence, which for some reason was deep in their half, and look what it did for them. 

You look at their third goal, as well, and you can see that pressing pay off, as well. Cristian Dajome, David Milinkovic and In Beom did well to push San Jose into a difficult position, and it led to Milinkovic picking off a bad pass from goalkeeper Daniel Vega and playing an easy ball over to Dajome for the tap-in. 

It reflects well on Milinkovic and Dajome, who were 2 of the ‘Caps standout players over the course of the game, thanks to their work at both ends. They’re not scared to track back and help out defensively, but they also like to push forward and take defenders 1v1, making them key two-way pieces. 

If the ‘Caps want to press high, be aggressive defensively all over the pitch, but also be composed in their build-up play from the back, having that sort of play from Milinkovic and Dajome on a consistent basis will be huge for them. 

They’re going to need more from their midfield, on both sides of the ball, to push towards being that team, as well as deploy a higher defensive line, but at least we can see the difference that being aggressive in the final 3rd can make. 

Ranko shines under the Disney Lights

Speaking of the defensive line, Ranko Veselinovic made his debut for the ‘Caps last night at centre back, and boy was he ever fun to watch. 

It’s hard to speak positively of the defence in a game where you concede 4 goals, but considering that most of the defensive struggles came down to the fact that Jhesser Khmiri just ran out of gas in the 2nd half, hampering his concentration and leading to shocking errors on the last 3 goals, Veselinovic fared pretty well. 

In his first game in MLS, the 21-year-old defender did not look out of place, as he quickly helped marshall things at the back for Vancouver. Pressed into a deep line, he made 1 interception, 6 blocks and 6 clearances, as he was quick and decisive when balls came towards him. 

He didn’t get a chance to launch the balls forward that he’s supposedly known for, as San Jose pressed him into a 74% pass percentage, with most of his passes being forced and hurried ones from deep, but aside from that, he was as advertised for Vancouver. 

With Erik Godoy’s health a mystery at this point, the ‘Caps are going to need Veselinovic to step up and marshall the defence. Khmiri hasn’t shown to be someone who can lead the line, and Derek Cornelius usually plays a lot better with a natural leader alongside him, which is why we should see those 2 fight for a spot alongside Veselinovic in these next 2 games here. 

For goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who had to face a heavy onslaught thanks to the 30 shots and 22 corners sent his way, to have Veselinovic’s help in limiting those chances to only 7 shots on target was huge for him, as it made his night all that much easier. 

“He adapted really quick,” Crepeau said of his newest centre back after the game. “While the game was developing, he realized to step into the space in front of him was something that we needed to expose and he did it well. Defensively he was solid as well where he was on the right spot.”

“And he’s attacking what’s in front of him, a few good clearances, and so he’s someone that has been with the group now for a few months but he adapted, you know, just really quick, in our system and proved it a lot as well tonight.”

Against the likes of the Sounders and the Fire, both top-heavy teams that can attack ferociously, the ‘Caps are going to need him to remain at a level close to this one, as they look to push towards advancing out of Group B, despite the tough start. 

Looking Forward

Heading into their next game, against those aforementioned Sounders, it will be curious to see how Dos Santos adjusts. 

Seattle is coming off a tough start to their tournament, with 1 draw and 1 loss, so the ‘Caps do have the chance of eliminating them, which would certainly be a sweet moment for a lot of those players. 

There are lineup concerns for Vancouver, especially with the uncertain status of Owusu and possibly even Godoy, who hasn’t been ruled in or out of this tournament quite yet, at least not like Bikel was yesterday. 

If Owusu is ruled out, though, it’ll be time for the youngsters to step up, but if he does remain healthy, he and his teammates will know what they have to better at as a team in order to find success. 

The Sounders should be a better match up stylistically for Vancouver, who will be able to control more of the ball than they did against the Earthquakes, so if they can do that, and get their midfield more involved in the game at both ends, freeing up the defenders and forwards, there’s hope for a cleaner performance. 

But at the very least, this game against the ‘Quakes can be used as a learning experience. It was far from the result that was hoped, but if they can make some adjustments as a result of what they learned, then it can be viewed as a necessary moment. 

So starting Sunday, we’ll start to see if that ends up being the case, as they continue on with the rest of their MLS is Back tournament. 

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Seattle Sounders FC, Sunday, July 19th, 2020, 19h30 PST

Cover Photo: Matthew Stith and Jared Martinez/MLS

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