A Little Better: Whitecaps improve, but are troubled again in Toronto

For the second time in less than a week, the Vancouver Whitecaps fell to Toronto FC at BMO Field. Friday’s 1-0 loss was an improvement from 3-0, but zero points are still zero points.

It’s an old saying, and nobody really knows who came up with it, but it is ever relevant for sports in 2020. 

“When a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound?”

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, I can imagine they’re hoping it translates to “If a game is played and no supporters are there to see it, did it happen?

If you haven’t caught on yet, the Vancouver Whitecaps have not been playing well since returning from the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, FL. On Friday night, while most Vancouver sports fans were encapsulated by the local hockey team, the Whitecaps erroneously fell to Toronto FC for the second time in less than a week. 

While it was another result that earns them another zero points, Friday night’s match was an improvement from the 3-0 midweek debacle. First off, Vancouver only lost by a goal, that’s the most important stat. The performance really was better, but nowhere near good enough to topple an MLS powerhouse like Toronto. 

The Formation

An hour before kickoff, the Whitecaps made some serious changes. Manager Marc Dos Santos opted for a 5-3-2 lineup, in hopes of dampening the offensive onslaught that TFC showed on Tuesday. The first game did not include some solid defenders, but the Whitecaps threw all the defence they had at their disposal onto the pitch Friday.

Ali Adnan, who has been bouncing around left-back and awing over the last few matches lined up on the left side of defence as a wingback, with Jake Nerwinski the opposite, while Andy Rose, Derek Cornelius and Ranko Veselinović manned the middle of the backline. 

It was better than Tuesday, but still not the solution. The back five suffocated elements of Toronto’s attack but were also picked apart by through balls and deceiving runs, namely those from Toronto superstar Alejandro Pozuelo. 

Prior to the match, Dos Santos stressed that his side could not afford to play with a flat back five against such an astute attack, but despite the ‘Caps best efforts, they fell into that trap a number of times. 

The first indication that it was going to be risk came less than 10 minutes in when Pozuelo threaded a beautiful ball to his forward, but his pass was too heavy and ended up in the arms of ‘Caps netminder, Thomas Hasal. Nothing happened on that chance, but it was a warning sign of the potential downfalls of the largely untested system. 

With the crowded backline, Vancouver was able to hold onto the ball a little bit more than they did on Tuesday, bringing TFC’s possession percentage down to 65% from 75%. While that’s an improvement, it still means that Dos Santos’ men were still rarely on the ball. 

The Lone Goal

Toronto only needed one goal to win Friday’s match, and that’s exactly what they got from former MLS Superdraft pick Richie Laryea in the 15th minute. Despite the Whitecaps seeming to establish a little more confidence in the first quarter-hour, Toronto’s sharp attack found a way to sting early. 

Pablo Piatti, who stunned the ‘Caps with a long-range goal to open the scoring on Tuesday drove at the defence, got tackled and the ball popped up into a little bit of space at the top of the penalty area. As seen in the clip below, Laryea, who is on the near side at the start of the play, escapes his mark (Andy Rose) and hits the ball on the touch past Hasal. 

There really isn’t too much wrong with this play. Maybe Hasal could have done a little better, but when the ball is bouncing around the top of the box, it can be difficult to track. The real improvement could have been on the part of Rose.

I’ve paused the video at the moment where the ball is sent to the top of the box, circled is Rose and Laryea, the “X” is where the shot is taken from.

(MLS on TSN)

Laryea has his eyes on the play and knows exactly what’s coming, he’s preparing for the ball to pop out and to take a shot. Rose, on the other hand, has his focus on where the ball was, and is, but not where it’s going to be. It’s that split-second reading of the play that gets Laryea to the shot and Rose sliding along the ground as the ball nestles into the net. 

It’s only one very small mistake, but for a team that can’t seem to buy a goal, it’s all it takes to lose the match. In the end, this goal was more a lucky bounce for TFC than it was a mistake by Vancouver.

The Shot: Jake Nerwinski

The ‘Caps were not threatening whatsoever over their two matches at BMO Field this week, and on Friday, the only shot came Jake Nerwinski on a bounced volley. I feel sorry for the person cutting highlights to this match because of course, you include the ‘Caps only shot on target, but it really was not much of an attempt. 

(Chance at 3:23)

Man of Match: Thomas Hasal

If the Whitecaps did not have Thomas Hasal, who knows where they would be. Hasal grabbed his opportunity at MLS is Back with both hands, and he hasn’t let it go. Seven saves on Friday night kept the ‘Caps in it, and he has routinely been one of Vancouver’s stronger players. He made a fantastic finger-tip save against Pozuelo just seconds after TFC had opened the scoring. While the stop proved to mean next to nothing, it could have been what was needed to halt a potential TFC onslaught. 

Welcome to MLS, Patrick Metcalfe

An academy grad, WFC2 signee and former UBC Thunderbird, Patrick Metcalfe bleeds Vancouver soccer. He made a pair of appearances as a substitute at the MLS Is Back tournament, but did not make a big impact. With Vancouver’s midfield lacking much of anything, Metcalfe got his first starting chance against Toronto. 

The former Canada West champion completed 88% of his passes, had 38 touches and three tackles. He wasn’t expected to outplay the money in Toronto’s midfield, but he made himself a solid debut in the Whitecaps midfield.

It All Seems the Same

After months of change and another roster overhaul, the Whitecaps seem to be playing with the same tactics, and they’re getting similar results. The only reason Vancouver was any better tonight was because of Toronto easing up, not necessarily Vancouver doing anything better. Subs came in late, they did little. Teibert had a few runs forward, then he passed it back. Nothing has really changed with this team, other than the faces. 

The club is never going to be able to spend to the heights of an Atlanta United or even Toronto FC, but match after match, the fans are becoming more apathetic of the club. This game was not fun to watch, and all you have to do is take a glance at Twitter to get that sense. 

Marc Dos Santos hasn’t had fantastic success with the club yet, but he has not been dealt the best cards. A team struggling, rebuilding twice, a president in and out, oh yeah, we can’t forget about the pandemic-ridden season. He’s won wherever he’s played, and the Whitecaps are the first time he’s led a struggling team. 

The season is still early, but it is already feeling like the Whitecaps have run out of ideas, especially when it comes to scoring. 

The Tweets of the Match

Match Recap in a GIF: 

Looking Ahead to Montreal AND FANS!

2 losses down with no fans, but the Whitecaps are heading up to La Belle Provence to face the Montreal Impact, a match which will be the first Canadian sporting event to re-introduce fans (250 in a 20’000 stadium) since COVID-19 hit the country. 

It is a quick turnaround, as they play on Tuesday and that is not lost on Dos-Santos, who said: “You have to react very fast, again video, prepare, recover, and make sure we go to Montreal to get points so we could go back home with points,” following the TFC match. 

The Whitecaps will travel to Montreal on Saturday.

UP NEXT: Whitecaps FC @ Montreal Impact, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 5:00 PM PST (Stade Saputo)

COVER PHOTO:Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)