Second ‘Caps Thoughts: What can the Vancouver Whitecaps learn from loss to Toronto FC ahead of rematch?

Welcome back to Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column about the Vancouver Whitecaps. In this one, we look back at the ‘Caps 3-0 loss to Toronto FC Tuesday, and look at what they should focus on improving ahead of their rematch with TFC on Friday. 

There’s no tip-toeing around it: the Vancouver Whitecaps put up a stinker on Tuesday. 

After building up some goodwill with their resilient play while shorthanded at MLS is Back last month, the ‘Caps came out flat against Toronto FC to kick off phase 1 of their MLS return this week, as they allowed TFC to walk all over them at BMO Field on Tuesday night, even despite having most of their roster available. 

For whatever reason, they just couldn’t put a foot right against their rivals in this one, and that was reflected in the scoreline, which if we’re looking at how the game actually went, probably flattered Vancouver, if anything. 

On the plus side, however, this may be as close to a rock-bottom performance as we’ll see from these Whitecaps, so you’d hope that they can find a way to go up from here, especially after doing so well to build up some positive vibes with a strong finish to MLS is Back. 

They owe it to those who suffered through a tough 2019 season, as they’ll now need to show that this game was but a mere flashback of those times, not a return to them, as some may feel is happening with this sort of performance. 

But at the same time, the sky is not falling, at least not yet. 

Yes, the ‘Caps have had both bad and good performances this year, and this is definitely the worst of the bad that ones that they’ve had, but given that we saw the return of some familiar faces ahead of this one, there is hope that things can trend upwards from here.

On top of that, they’ve got the easiest chance for revenge that’ll ever be given to them in this sport, maybe ever, as they get a chance to take on this same Toronto FC side, in the same stadium, in three days time, all part of this unique Canadian MLS and Voyageurs Cup dual-competition. 

How often does a team ever get a chance to basically play the same game again a few days after the first one? Not a lot of them, surely. 

So ahead of that game, here are some things that they’ll want to look at and work towards fixing, as they look to hit the restart button on a pretty forgettable night at BMO Field. 

A slow and rusty start:

No doubt, the ‘Caps, at least the ones not named Lucas Cavallini, who tried to take his best friend Jonathan Osorio with a hard tackle inside 4 minutes, started out tentatively on Tuesday. 

Certainly forgetting what it was like to play again after a 3-week break from game-action, they were quiet to start the match, unable to impose themselves on proceedings.

To start, that wasn’t a problem, as Toronto shook off some uneasiness and rust of their own, but as the game wore on, TFC grew out of that, whereas Vancouver felt stuck in it. 

For whatever reason, the ‘Caps came out flat, and it stayed that way, with no better example than Toronto’s opening goal in the first half. 

While the record will show that Pablo Piatti opened his goalscoring account with a strike worthy of a DP player, the goal would’ve never happened if Leonard Owusu, Cristian Gutierrez and/or Russell Teibert found a way to disrupt him or close down his space, forcing him to ignore the shot. 

Instead, Owusu and Gutierrez missed him on the fly-by, and Teibert sat back and watched him let rip, allowing him to score an absolute Golazo that Thomas Hasal would’ve struggled to save even if Piatti warned him where he was going to shoot beforehand. 

There’s nothing wrong with conceding a goal of that calibre to a player like Piatti had you done everything in your power to stop him, but there is certainly cause for concern if you gift a player of that quality an opportunity like that, which is where you can see the ‘Caps effort was an issue. 

On a ‘Caps squad where they’ve constantly talked about being a hard-working team, something they demonstrated quite well at MLS is Back, you’d like to see more there, and head coach Marc Dos Santos admitted as much after the match. 

“We have to get the group prepared because we weren’t prepared today,” Dos Santos told reporters bluntly after the game. “TFC was better than us in every aspect of the game. We have to find out also why and analyze the trip yesterday, I don’t know.”

“But our level of intensity or the amount of balls that we lost, the battles that we lost, we have to give credit to TFC that today was much better than us. So we have a lot of work to do in the next three days to make sure we’re better on Friday.”

So for Friday, the ‘Caps will want to make sure that the effort levels are better, at least more consistently. 

Cavallini brought that up front, and guys certainly had noticeable bursts of energy in spurts, but overall as a team, they just didn’t work hard enough to win, and that was reflected in the scoreline. 

Part of the team’s struggles can be attributed to rustiness, as the team hadn’t played in over 3 weeks, and some starters, namely Cavallini and Andy Rose, hadn’t played in over 5 months, so there is some merit to that claim, but at the same time effort level isn’t something that rustiness affects. 

Against teams like Toronto, if you come out flat, and let them impose themselves on the game, they’ll run you over, and Vancouver learned that painful lesson on Tuesday. 

“It’s one game, you know, and you’re talking about guys that their last game was five months and a half ago,” Dos Santos said of the rustiness of his players. “But we need to get them going. We need to get these guys going playing and that’s the truth.”

“So the reality is that there’s another game Friday and we have to be much better on Friday because there are days like tonight that you just have to admit the superiority of the opponent. And that’s just the reality of it.”

‘Caps dominated in midfield:

But even as the game went along, one thing became clear, Toronto bossed the game via their superiority in midfield. 

Be it Michael Bradley, who was breaking lines as a #6, Marky Delgado, who was as industrial as usual, Jonathan Osorio, who picked up 2 assists and roamed to his hearts desire, or Alejandro Pozuelo, who was, well, Alejandro Pozuelo, TFC was quite dominant in the middle of the park. 

Meanwhile, the ‘Caps struggled with their two-man pivot of Russell Teibert and Leonard Owusu, who got overrun defensively, while also struggling to impose themselves offensively on a game which certainly could’ve used their influence. 

Just look at the pass maps of both teams, as an example (green line is a successful pass, a red one unsuccessful, a yellow one is a key pass, which is a pass leading to a shot attempt).

And that sort of dominance is reflected in other stats. Vancouver only had 26% of possession, and completed a measly 279 passes to Toronto’s 849, which gives an idea of how dominant Toronto truly was offensively on Tuesday. 

To get an idea of how big the gulf was, Teibert and Owusu had 79 combined touches of the ball, which Osorio (121), Bradley (125) and Pozuelo (111) all had more than on their own, with Delgado (76) just coming up short of the Vancouver pair. 

If that doesn’t sound absurd, then just consider that Osorio (95) and Bradley (108) completed more successful passes than Vancouver’s 2 midfielders had combined touches, with Pozuelo (77) coming oh-so-close to joining them, which gives an idea of how impressive Toronto was. 

In a game where your opponent’s key midfielders are dominating like that, its always going to be tough for you to win, much less impose yourself on the game and get chances. 

There’s a reason that Teibert and Owusu didn’t get many touches, and that’s because Toronto denied them of a chance to make them, with the ‘Caps midfield unable to provide an answer for the sea of red shirts that would force them back into their own 3rd, causing a storm of long balls from Vancouver’s defenders. 

So without a doubt, if the ‘Caps are to win on Friday, a big part of that would be figuring out how to disrupt the play of Osorio, Bradley, Delgado, Pozuelo and Piatti, who were devastating as a front 5. 

“They were the superior team on the night,” centre back Andy Rose said after the game. “The pockets of space, they’re able to find with Piatti, Pozuelo, Osorio, Altidore at times dropping into good holes was very difficult for us to deal with. So they constantly keep possession of the ball, it certainly wears you down and the moments when we then won it especially in the first half, I thought we were very poor in keeping off first and second passes.”

“We had good options to play simple and keep the ball oftentimes inside through Leo (Owusu),  Leo can switch out wide to (Cristian) Dájome. We just didn’t see enough of that so obviously that is very frustrating for them.”

Interestingly enough, the man to provide the poignant post-game analysis of what plagued the ‘Caps, midfielder turned centre back Andy Rose, could be a solution at the back. 

While the ‘Caps want to play in a 4-4-2, they’ve played in a 4-3-3 before, which may be an option they’ll want to consider shifting back to, at least against this Toronto team. 

With no Hwang In Beom, who was sold to Rubin Kazan last week, and Janio Bikel, who’s injured, that leaves only Teibert and Owusu as regular midfielders, with the other options being Patrick Metcalfe and Michael Baldisimo, two youngsters Dos Santos has been easing into the lineup. 

Against Toronto, who likes to dominate the game by controlling the midfield, shifting to a 3-man set-up could be a way to destabilize the impact of Bradley, Delgado, Osorio and Pozuelo, who had too much freedom on Tuesday 

And if Dos Santos doesn’t feel like it’s right to throw in Baldisimo or Metcalfe quite yet, why not throw in Rose, who played as a #6 last season? Until they sign a DP midfielder replacement for In Beom, and get Bikel back, it could be an option worth exploring. 

But no matter what they end up doing, be it switch the formation, or the personnel (or both), no doubt that tactically the ‘Caps have to be sharper, especially in how they keep their defensive lines tight and pushed up onto TFC’s players, which Rose noted that they didn’t do enough when asked after the match. 

If they can do that without the ball, allowing them to clog lanes and disrupt TFC’s slick passing game more often, while finding a way to get into more of a rhythm of their own when in possession, that would be a good step forward to build off of for Friday. 

“You have to look at it like keeping the lines really compact,” Rose said. “I don’t think you can just attribute that to the back four. You have to look at the whole package and at times, for us to push up, and make ground and start pushing into the opponent’s half we need to be able to keep possession of the ball, we need to keep the first and second passes. If we’ve worked really hard to win the ball, and then we get it straight back it’s very difficult for the back four to push up and take advantage of Ali (Adnan)’s ability in the final third.”

“We just don’t get him in there enough. It starts with our press and in a 4-4-2, there’s a big emphasis on the front two to really do a good job of making it difficult for the other back four to play out. Tonight that was difficult with Michael Bradley being a very good pivot and his ability to find gaps and that whole midfield’s ability to pop off into the pockets of space. I think there are times between Ranko and myself, could we have stepped a little higher at moments, I’m going to have to look at that for sure.”

Chances at a premium for Cavallini and co.

But while the midfield was a noted problem for the ‘Caps, at least in how they allowed themselves to get run over by TFC, the lack of service that they provided for their forwards was also a concern. 

To be fair to Vancouver, they only conceded 1.16 Expected Goals to Toronto, which considering that they gave up 74% possession, is actually kind of impressive. 

The big problem, however, is that they only generated 0.19 xG worth of chances, which to put it simply, just isn’t going to win you games. 

Yes, Ali Adnan and Lucas Cavallini had chances that they easily could’ve scored, while Piatti scored a remarkable screamer, which are some scenarios could’ve changed the balance of the game, but Piatti’s strike was aided by poor defending, while the ‘Caps chances came despite some staunch TFC defending, which kept Vancouver at bay for most of the night. 

While Vancouver could’ve easily scored those chances, making this game a lot more interesting than you would’ve thought possible (Cavallini’s came when down 1-0, while Adnan’s was down 2-0), that they were the only real chances that they seemed to have is the main concern. 

Only generating 4 shots, including only 1 on target, is not a recipe for success, but there’s a reason why Vancouver has essentially not scored in 360 minutes of play (bar a 10-minute spurt against Chicago) and that’s because they don’t generate enough chances. 

When you don’t see the ball much, as they did on Tuesday, you need to be efficient with it, and if you can’t be efficient with it, you need the ball more. 

For the ‘Caps, figuring out what they should do is like the question of the egg and the chicken; figuring out what came first, but considering that their woes in the last 4 games have been while starved of the ball (they’ve averaged 38% possession over that timespan), holding the ball more would be a start. 

“Yeah, we need the ball more, the ball allows you to move on the field,” Dos Santos said Tuesday. “The ball allows you to create chances, to get shots. And that’s something we have to address, we have to look at, we have to see how we could shape up to allow us to have the ball better. But at the same time, also Toronto played a lot between our lines and the midfield, then we’re able to bring numbers and connect numbers between our lines so that’s something that we also have to look at.”

“So we have to look at the shape of the team, have the ability to have the right, I would say the right players in the moment to allow us to have the ball, because that’s the major problem tonight. The major problem is, every time we had the ball we gave it away so easily. So then we, we weren’t able to connect, but we didn’t look dynamic. We didn’t look with the energy that we usually do or we thought throughout the week, so I have to analyze with my performance group, with everyone what went wrong today.”

To do that, it’ll mean that they’ll have to start reducing the number of long balls that are sent forward from the back, find a way to string more passes along from defenders on up, before finding a way to get possession and movement going in the final third. 

But to do that, it’ll require a mix of personnel and tactical changes, at least from what we saw against TFC. 

The ‘Caps showed us what they can be about in preseason, so these aren’t new ideas to them, but they just need to find a way to execute it in these competitive games, something they’ve struggled with for most of the 7 competitive games they played since preseason. 

All isn’t doom-and-gloom offensively, however, as having Lucas Cavallini back has provided an offensive boost. Despite being starved of the ball (35 touches, most coming well away from the box), he still had the ‘Caps best chance, as he nearly turned a hopeful long ball into a 1-1 equalizer in the second half. 

Back in the first two MLS games all the way back in February and March, he also had similar success, which is why he leads the team in xG per game by a country mile. 

Considering that, and his preseason triumphs, in which he scored 4 goals in the last 4 games of action, the ‘Caps have a legit goalscorer on their hands. 

If he can generate chances in a game like this, where the ‘Caps are completely snuffed out, it’ll be very interesting to see what he can do when they can get him the ball further up the pitch with more regularity. 

They’ll have to find a set-up in which the ‘Caps don’t get overrun defensively in midfield, while also being able to transition the ball forward, but if they can do that, there’s lots to like in Cavallini’s game as a #9 for Vancouver. 

Along with the play of Theo Bair and Ryan Raposo, who were both lively off of the bench, and the pair of David Milinkovic and Cristian Dajome, who have been mostly pretty good on the wing this season, there are options, but they just need to find a way to deploy and supply them.

To do that, that’ll take some strong midfield play, as well as some improved play from out of the back, of which the ‘Caps have only shown flashes of so far this season.

Looking Forward:

So all-in-all, it was mostly one to forget for Vancouver, who were overrun by Toronto for most of the game, but that doesn’t mean it’s not one to learn from, especially with Toronto awaiting them once again on Friday. 

They’ve got the unique chance to take what they learned in this one, game plan towards fixing their mistakes and finding a way to nullify TFC, and go execute that plan on the same pitch a few days later. 

After seeing their worst in this game, we’ll have a chance to see what they’re made of in the rematch, be it good or bad. 

At the very least, you’d expect the effort levels to not be a problem, as they’ve been mostly fine in that department, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can sort out some of the other problems that plagued them over the course of this game. 

Yes, some issues will be fixed with reinforcements, such as a return of injured players, or the arrival of an In Beom replacement, but there are still some fixes that can come from within, especially in the defensive and chance creation department, which would be aided by a strong midfield performance on Friday. 

If they can learn from their mistakes in this one, and use this to vault forwards towards a successful rest-of phase 1 campaign against their Canadian foes, then this loss can be stomached. 

But if they can’t, this loss will sting even more for them, especially after building up so much positive energy with their play at MLS is Back. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Toronto FC, Friday, August 21st, 2020, 17:00 PST/20:00 EST (BMO Field, Toronto)

Cover photo via: Jared Martinez and Devin L’Amoreaux/MLS

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