Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Vancouver Whitecaps offensive woes continue in 2-0 loss to Montreal Impact

In the latest edition of Second ‘Caps Thoughts, the day-after column looking at all things Vancouver Whitecaps, we break down a tough loss to the Montreal Impact to close out a 3-game ‘Caps road trip, in which they got swept aside by their Eastern rivals. 

Let’s not pretend otherwise: it’s not an easy time to be a Vancouver Whitecap right now. 

While it’s certainly not easy to watch them play at the moment, it hasn’t been easy for the players either, who returned from a gruelling month away in Orlando to quarantine before heading out on another road trip, this time out east to Toronto and Montreal. 

All of that travel is certainly starting to take a toll on them, as they fell by a score of 2-0 to the Montreal Impact on Tuesday, giving them their 3rd loss in 3 games on this latest road trip, in which they’ve been outscored 6-0 by their Canadian counterparts. 

And it’s not just the losses that are leaving a dent, but how they’ve gotten them, as well, with the ‘Caps looking rather lifeless in all 3 games, especially offensively, as they’ve only had 4 shots on target in 3 games, one of them being a failed penalty attempt. 

After a strong end to the MLS is Back tournament, where a young ‘Caps team surprised with a resilient effort while short 10 players, they’ve looked lost ever since returning to Canada, and that showed once again versus Montreal on Tuesday. 

As they fielded post-game questions for the 3rd time in 8 days after the loss Tuesday, Derek Cornelius did a pretty good job of describing how frustrating things have been lately. 

“I’m sick of the same conversations over and over again,” Cornelius said bluntly. “We’re just getting the same result every single time so it’s frustrating. We’ll look back on it and maybe we’ll find some positives, but at the end of the day, we have to all take a serious look at ourselves in the mirror and see what we can all be better at, so that we can finally get something to show for it, because this is getting too much.”

Luckily for the ‘Caps, they get a break to sort things out now, with their next match coming in over a week and a half at BC Place, where they’ll take on Toronto FC, who beat them quite handily in a pair of games last week. 

For most teams, the last thing you’d want in a season filled with lengthy breaks between games is yet another short stoppage, but considering how much the ‘Caps have struggled in the 3 games since their return, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to hit the restart button right now. 

Offensive woes continue:

To start, it would maybe give them a chance to figure out their offensive woes, because, without a doubt, it’s been their biggest worry thus far. 

After scoring goals in their first 3 games of the season, the ‘Caps offence has dried up completely, as they’ve only scored 2 goals in the past 6 games, both of which coming in a 10 minute period against the Chicago Fire 5 games ago. 

Essentially, if you take away those 2 goals, the ‘Caps haven’t scored in what is basically over 540 minutes of play, giving them a dry spell that could rival the rain production of most global deserts at this point. 

Most frustrating about that statistic? That the ‘Caps aren’t generating many chances, either, making it hard to know when this drought will end. 

Over that 6-game span, they’ve only had 13 shots on target, which considering that they allowed 11 shots on target in one game against San Jose last month, gives you an idea of how bleak things are right now. 

To give them some credit where credit is due, they did look better against Montreal on Tuesday, as they found a way to get into some dangerous scoring areas, but for whatever reason, they can’t hit the target right now, and as the old saying goes, if you don’t hit the net, you can’t score. 

And even when the chips did fall for them, they couldn’t even make that work, either. 

With the game still only 2-0, Derek Cornelius won a penalty in the 50th minute, giving the ‘Caps the lifeline, or at least so you thought, with DP striker Lucas Cavallini stepping up to the mark. 

But after missing a penalty in March against the LA Galaxy, Cavallini, who has yet to score in MLS action through 5 games, just didn’t get enough on the shot, making it too easy for Clement Diop to save in the Montreal goal. 

Penalty aside, however, they only generated 0.42 Expected Goals, which just isn’t good enough to consistently win games, at least not without perfect defensive performances, that is. 

Their defenders haven’t been bad, but it’s unfair to expect them to have to be perfect to even have a chance at taking home a point, let alone all 3, so the attackers need to find a way to get into opponents’ boxes, now. 

For whatever reason, things aren’t clicking for the Whitecaps, and they acknowledged as much after the game. 

“There’s this period right now with us that it’s just not getting in,” head coach Marc Dos Santos said after the game. “And I feel that it’s a heavy result because the way we came back in the second half we pushed, we pressed, we tried to create. We won a foul that led to a penalty shot, and not even that one we scored.”

“So right now it’s a moment where it’s like that, and we have to reflect, we have to evaluate what we need to become better and go on. We have these three games in Vancouver right now as a huge opportunity for us.”

With Cavallini lacking for service around him, him missing a chance to get off of the mark hurts, but even had he scored the goal, it’s no secret: these ‘Caps need to get better at generating chances. 

Be it through more movement in the final third, better passing from the midfield, better play out of the back, or some combination of all three, the ‘Caps need to be sharper with the ball, because if not, it’ll be hard to imagine them scoring goals, much less win games, going forward. 

“We knew exactly how to come back into this game,” Dos Santos admitted. “We knew if we would score the goal at any moment we would be able to put Montreal under a lot of pressure. But you know I understand, Ali [Adnan] got on the ball and he gave the ball right away to Cava [Lucas Cavallini], and Cava wants to grow in confidence, we want him to grow with confidence, and unfortunately, it’s a rough night for him right now because he wanted this ball to go in and unfortunately it didn’t, and that was a blow for us.”

“We didn’t stop pushing though. We continued going, we continued trying to play in the front foot but unfortunately, we didn’t create enough in the final third, we’re still lacking for some magic, I would call it, in that final third.”

There is a silver lining, however:

While it seems insignificant in the context of the match, the ‘Caps did keep 56% possession, making it only the 2nd time in 2020 that they won the possession battle. 

Along with their 509 passes, a big jump up from the 279 and 363 passes they had in the last 2 matches against Toronto, the ‘Caps did hold onto the ball more. 

As mentioned in the part before, they need to do a lot more in the final third, but it’s important to note that they did show some growth in just keeping the ball and being a little more patient with it than they were in prior games. 

The return of the 4-3-3:

But while it seems hard to imagine the ‘Caps ever scoring again at this rate, they did finally show some signs of life to start the second half, as a pair of halftime changes seemed to wake them up. 

By subbing in Jake Nerwinski and Leonard Owusu for Ranko Veselinovic and Patrick Metcalfe, the ‘Caps shifted from a 5-3-2 to a 4-3-3, and it paid dividends right away, as they immediately seemed reinvigorated as a team. 

It’s no coincidence that they won that penalty in the 50th minute, as their pressure started to wear on the Impact, who you’d like to imagine feel very grateful for Diop’s save, which considering how the momentum was shifting at the time, could’ve indeed have saved them valuable points. 

After looking disjointed in their press last Tuesday in a 4-4-2, and looking passive in their press through 1.5 games against Toronto FC and the Impact with the 5-3-2, the return to the 4-3-3 sparked something that hadn’t been seen from the ‘Caps in a while: cohesive pressing. 

Back in their familiar positions on the wing, David Milinkovic and Cristian Dajome looked really good in the second half for Vancouver, after looking quite out of their depth in their spots as a second striker and wing back to start the game, respectively. 

They pressed well with Cavallini, who looked happy to have defensive support from the front for the first time in a while, and just overall looked a lot livelier on the wing than they had in their earlier positions, begging a question: why did the 4-3-3 only return now?

After going through preseason with the 4-3-3, playing high-pressing and pretty flowy possession football along the way, Dos Santos’s decision to switch things around in the games since has been pretty puzzling, especially considering how disjointed the ‘Caps have looked in the 9 games they’ve played since then. 

While there is certainly some logic in switching to the 4-4-2 and the 5-3-2 to try and maximize his best players, while offsetting the absences of some key starters, seeing the difference that 30 minutes of the 4-3-3 brought versus what we’ve seen with the other formations does open up questions. 

Due to the sporadic training time that they’ve been allowed since March, they’d hadn’t had much of a chance to work with the 5-3-2 or the 4-4-2, making it hard to adapt to either formation, which when you factor in how hard it is to master a 5 at the back formation, in particular, makes sense. 

Considering that they worked with the 4-3-3 throughout the 2 months of preseason, it makes you wonder about why they ever decided to switch.

But while that question will certainly be pondered for weeks to come, when asked about the switch post-game, Dos Santos admits that a return to the 4-3-3 seems to be on the cards going forward. 

“The difficult thing for us right now is to find the best formula because of players that we lost or players that are not in, and that’s difficult for us,” Dos Santos said. “I feel that, yeah, you have answers in the second half that allows you to have an opportunity to grow as a team.  But man when you have so many guys out when we went to Orlando, and then back in and selling In Beom (Hwang) that is the most creative midfielder we had, you ask yourself so many questions and what’s the best formula, how can we go about things and always being on the road also.”

“But (Michael) Baldisimo and even Pat [Metcalfe] I would say with these two games, they’re giving us options also to be in a 4-3-3. Hopefully [Janio] Bikel is going to come in soon, hopefully Erik [Godoy] we could use him soon, but right now we have to do the best right now with the players we have and that are available.”

Baldisimo’s bright debut: 

And while Dos Santos slightly touched upon it at the end there, it’s not to be understated how good Michael Baldisimo, who made his MLS debut against the Impact, was for the ‘Caps on Tuesday. 

Despite never having played at the MLS level, he came in and immediately made an impact for the team, looking like the best player in midfield when he was on. 

For people who had been following him since his academy days, to see him play well was no surprise, as he’d always been a highly-touted prospect, but due to injuries, inconsistent training habits and bad timing, his debut only came this week, over 2 years after signing with the first team. 

For a ‘Caps team sorely lacking options in the midfield with the recent sale of In Beom Hwang, along with the absence of the injured Janio Bikel, Baldisimo’s strong debut was massive. 

He looked very much up to the MLS level on Tuesday, spraying passes around with conviction, tackling guys and overall just looking like the sort of #6/8 they’ve needed all year long, at least with supposed midfield stalwart, Janio Bikel, and his injury woes. 

If Baldisimo is going to keep playing with that sort of guile in midfield going forward, he absolutely needs to get more minutes to end out the season here, especially given the ‘Caps struggles in the middle of the park. 

As Vancouver looks to shift back to the 4-3-3, more strong performances from Baldisimo will only help the ‘Caps get back to winning ways, at least if this game is to be any indication. 

“If you go look at my interviews when I talk about young players, I always say that it has to be done in the right time,” Dos Santos said of Baldisimo’s debut. “They have to prove through training every day with consistency that they want an opportunity to play, and to be in the first and the 18 or 20, and then get a sniff on the field. Baldisimo has done that throughout the last month. He’s been a player that has pushed in training. He’s been consistent. And what I mean by consistency is not getting injured, making sure he stays on the field in training because he had a history of training four times and then being injured two weeks and training two training sessions and being out one week.”

“Now he’s finding consistency in training. And then, you know, some of our players had very tight muscles because of the type of, I would say bad training we had due to the quarantine and not being able to train in the way that we wanted and having to play right away. Jake Nerwinski had tight muscles and didn’t have 90 minutes in him and Leo Owusu also the same thing so when that happened we felt it’s an opportunity right away for Baldi. We made the move right away with confidence and Baldi I think his 60 minutes were very positive for him. It was 60 minutes that he got on the ball, switched a lot of the play. He has to be happy with his 60 minutes.”

Some home-cooking awaits:

For the ‘Caps, the best news out of all of this is that they finally get to head home now, which after 2 weeks away, along with the month they spent in Orlando recently, will be something of which they’ll be very excited to do. 

And more importantly, BC Place awaits them once again, as they’ll play there for the 2nd time all year, and the first time in over 6 months, against Toronto FC on September 5th. 

While it’s no excuse for how much they’ve struggled as of late, some home-cooking wouldn’t do them any harm at this point, for a multitude of reasons. 

“They say home field is an advantage but I don’t want to make any excuses,” Cornelius said on Tuesday. “We need to be better whether you’re home or away. There are things out there we’re just not doing, we’re not playing the way that we know how to play, we’re not getting the results that we need. And we need to be better as a whole. I don’t want to put excuses as we were away for X amount of games, we need to be better.”

Along with the potential return of some injured players, as well as the opportunity to finally train consistently over a 10 day period, allowing them to work on tactics and other technical things they haven’t been able to work on in a while, this little period is going to be crucial for the club. 

They’re still very much alive in the MLS playoff race, and are still alive in the Canadian Championship hunt, but they need to start stringing some wins together here, and no better way to do that than with 3 games in a short time span at home. 

After an extended period of having to quarantine on the road, getting the chance to wake up in your bed and play on the same day in the same city will feel like a luxury for the ‘Caps, who have certainly missed their home cooking as of late. 

“It’s going to affect the guys’ routine – I know and I’m sure – in a positive way,” Dos Santos said. “Because we’ve been locked, we’ve been inside the hotel not allowed to leave the hotel. I feel it’s been harder than Orlando mentally, because in Orlando every team was locked in. Right now teams live in a different world, if you’re Toronto and you’re home you live differently than Vancouver. The same with Montreal.”

“And now hopefully we could go home at BC Place and take advantage out of it. But our concern more than that is again, take the bad things and the good things in the trip, and kind of hope that we could have a sequence with all of our team together. That’s what we hope right now.”

Still alive: 

It does seem early to talk about playoffs, especially when we remember that the ‘Caps have only played 8 regular-season games, but despite their struggle, they’re only 2 points out of the playoffs, as of writing. 

Things change quickly, so expect that gap to change, especially given the lack of games in hand that Vancouver has on their opponents for now, but it does show that it’s still early days.

That doesn’t mean that players will be focused on the chatter of playoff spots just yet, but they know that they can turn things around with a string of results. 

“We can’t worry about playoff spots right now,” Cornelius said honestly after the game. “We need to worry about the next game, and be better next time out. We need to push for desire, we need to come out there hungry, we need to show that we want to, you know, get, get things going the right way. Just be better and push forward.”

But while playoffs seem far away, the Canadian Championship is a lot closer, as the team with the best record from this all-Canadian phase 1 will contest the final against the winner of the CPL’s ‘Island Games’ in P.E.I. later in the year for a chance to hoist the Voyageurs Cup and earn a berth into the CONCACAF Champions League. 

The ‘Caps are off to a 0-3 start, but they can still make it to the final, as long as they win their last 3 games, and get some scoreboard help in the 3 games that Toronto and Montreal still have to play. 

Given their slow start, it’s hard to imagine them making the final at this point, but stranger things have happened, so it’ll be interesting to see how that quest starts to shape up as Toronto and Montreal start to bump out games in the coming weeks. 

Looking Forward:

Now, the ‘Caps get some much-needed time off, before taking on Toronto FC at BC Place on September 5th. 

As we’ve seen so far, it won’t be an easy matchup for Vancouver, but after slowly progressing across the 3 games, along with the prospect of some valuable training time, it’s hoped that they can find a way to push forward in that one. 

Even if their chances of making the Canadian Championship final is off at that point, it’ll be a good chance for them to pick up some valuable MLS points on the race for a playoff spot, while also showcasing some positive growth ahead of the rest of the season. 

This road trip hasn’t been good from many viewpoints, but at least they got a chance to play some youngsters, figured out that the 4-3-3 is the way to go, and tested themselves against 2 teams that they’ll play once more in a week and a half, so at least they’ve got all of that to build off of. 

It’s not much, but after a week of negativity, they’ve got to scratch for some positive linings in what has been a tough month of August, as they get set for a trio of important games at home in September. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Toronto FC, Saturday, September 5th, 2020, 19:00 PST/21:00 EST (BC Place, Vancouver)

Cover Photo via: Montreal Impact

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