Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Vancouver Whitecaps weather slow start vs RSL to keep rolling with 3rd win in 4 games

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps, we take a look back at their win over Real Salt Lake on Saturday, as they weathered a slow start to find a victory thanks to some Fredy Montero and Lucas Cavallini magic. 

Suddenly, they’ve found a bit of a groove here. 

After finding themselves with a record of 2W-6L-0D heading into game 9 of their MLS regular season 2 weeks ago, all of a sudden the Vancouver Whitecaps have started to claw things back here, as they’ve now got a record of 5W-7L-0D after 12 games, putting them back in the MLS’s Western Conference playoff picture, after a slow start saw them on the outside looking in. 

All of a sudden, despite their struggles this season, they’re tied for the 7th most victories in MLS with 5 (7th out of 26 teams), as this run of 3 wins in the 4 last games has helped them push into 7th place in the West, thanks to their direct rivals for the playoffs struggling with ‘draw-itis’ in their recent games. 

And while they’re not winning by purely dominating opponents, they’re showing growth when they win, as they have found a way to be resilient in key moments. 

It’s not the prettiest football right now from an overall standpoint, but there have been some really good flashes as of late, and they’ve found a way to turn those flashes into results. 

So heading into a key stretch of games, where they face some stiff tests in terms of opponents and how compressed the schedule is, it’ll be paramount that they continue to grow off of those flashes, and find a way to elongate them and turn them into victories. 

But before we look ahead too far, we’ll look back at the night that was at Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake, as the ‘Caps did well to snatch a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake on Saturday. 

A slow start and slow second half reaction nearly causes implosion:

It was a great victory, no doubt, but had you watched the first half, you would have not expected them to come out with it, as Vancouver came out of the gates looking very sluggish and sloppy. 

From being tentative in possession, to looking disconnected in the midfield, the ‘Caps did not look good going forward, forcing them to defend more than they would’ve, causing some worry. 

To give the ‘Caps defenders and goalkeeper Thomas Hasal credit, they held strong for the most part, keeping Vancouver in the game, but for the team as a whole, overworking their defenders always feels like a strategy that is one bad moment from causing an implosion. 

“I felt that in the first half we were a little bit disconnected in the midfield,” Marc Dos Santos said after the game. “What I mean by that is our wide players didn’t connect overall well with the midfielders. And when [Albert] Rusnak and [Damir] Kreilach were coming in pockets they were creating problems for us, and we left a little bit too much in those moments Rusty [Teibert] and [Janio] Bikel alone dealing with numbers there.”

“We were able to get out of the first half with the 0-0, we had two good half-chances, especially the one with where it’s a great block from their defender.”

Thankfully for them, and everyone else watching the game, they woke up at half time, as they looked a lot better in the last 45 minutes, putting them right back in the game. 

They scored 8 minutes into the half, and by putting the RSL defence and midfielders under more stress, Kyle Beckerman seemed to react negatively to having to work more, as he lashed out and pick up a red card, giving Vancouver an advantage. 

“I felt we came on in the second half better,” Dos Santos said. “We scored the first goal in a great play, and then when the red card comes it’s so tricky. In soccer, a red card doesn’t mean that everything is under control. You then have a team that has nothing to lose.”

“You have a team that is home and came from a 5-0 home loss, so they have absolutely nothing to lose. They want to go at everything and we felt a little bit of fatigue in some moments. But we were able to react well.”

But then, the ‘Caps fell asleep up a man with the 1-goal lead, as RSL started to grow back into the game, much as the Montreal Impact were able to do when down a man on Wednesday. 

And much like in that Impact game, the ‘Caps conceded up a man, but unlike in that game, they did not have a 2 goal cushion to fall back on, so all of a sudden, with the game being 1-1 in the 81st minute, there was some cause for worry. 

RSL looked much the better team despite having fewer players, so you did worry heading into the last 10 minutes, as the ‘Caps looked to avoid the sort of implosion that fans have been more than accustomed to in the past two years. 

Thankfully for Vancouver, they’d wake up after the goal, scoring less than 3 minutes later thanks to some individual magic from Michael Baldisimo, Fredy Montero and Lucas Cavallini, rescuing the win, but boy did the game get closer than it should’ve. 

Credit to the ‘Caps, however, as they bounced back in a situation where they may have typically folded before, so for Dos Santos, he’s happy with the fight his team showed after a slow start, with his charges doing well to show that they don’t want to be counted out until the game is over. 

“Salt Lake when they did the 1-1 dropped a little bit, gave us a little bit more [of] the possession,” Dos Santos said. “We were able in a very good play again to score the 2-1. And then what I have to say is, did I like the moment that we have to suffer to get the three points? No. But did I like the fact that after three games in eight days, and travel, and recovering so fast coming, and see a group of players that fought so much to stay with the three points and give everything they had.”

“The attitude to keep the win was very good. We suffered to get it, but it was very good the attitude, and that’s what I told the team. I said it’s not going to be nice our run of being on the road for two months, playing 12 games on the road, because our home games are not home games. The most important thing is how can we get results, and the personality and attitude of the players were very good.”

Finding that midfield balance: 

But while the fightback after the slow start was good, Dos Santos brought up some good points about how stretched out the midfield was in the first half. 

After Vancouver’s double pivot of Russell Teibert and Janio Bikel looked really good in midweek, they struggled at times on Saturday, as they were often too stretched out defensively, and unable to make much happen in possession. 

While the fact that Russell Teibert had played all but 9 minutes before this game certainly played a role, as well as the fact that Janio Bikel is still easing his way back into game shape after a lengthy absence due to injury, the midfield woes did pose some questions. 

Should the ‘Caps throw in an extra body and play more of a 4-3-3? Or should they stick with the 4-2-3-1, knowing that their midfield may get stretched out at times?

The answer should be to stick with the 4-2-3-1, no doubt, as they’ve looked the most balanced both offensively and defensively in that formation, but the midfield question is one to ponder. 

When asked about after the game, Dos Santos said that it was something that he was thinking about, but he also acknowledges that he’s only really started to work with his full team in recent games, so he’ll just look to find more balance in midfield by continuing to grow into the 4-2-3-1. 

“It’s a good point. You also have to take a little bit of risk,” Dos Santos said of having an extra forward instead of a midfielder. “In soccer if you take away something, you lose in another side. Look in the end [in the last four games], we scored three (vs TFC), plus two (vs MTL), plus three again (vs MTL), plus two again (vs RSL). But it’s something that definitely needs to be addressed, let me give you a clear example.”

“Imagine that their right back has the ball, [Aaron] Herrera has the ball on the right side, and Ali [Adnan] puts pressure there. We have to work out the opposite midfielder being [Cristian] Dájome, comes across to help Bikel and Rusty, and the two forwards not staying in the same line to bring more numbers there. It’s going to be a balance. But I don’t want to take away what the team believes in also.”

And while the midfield did look stretched, the ‘Caps do still have guys like Leonard Owusu and Michael Baldisimo on the bench, who may not have the work rate of someone like Russell Teibert, but can provide more in terms of possession and defensive coverage. 

Plus, after looking a lot more balanced defensively midweek, the ‘Caps didn’t get the same defensive contributions from their wingers and attackers, so if they can get them more involved defensively again, that will also make a big difference going forward. 

“We have pieces that can be dangerous, exciting, and we have to find the balance and we have to work on it,” Dos Santos said. “Because I think that we could still defend much better with the attacking pieces we have. I don’t want to be in a position that we have to take one of these attacking players out just because we’re scared of other areas. I prefer that we try to solve the game with goals when we can, and then like we did at the end if we have to bring a third centre back or another midfielder to try to close the game we do that.”

“But it’s a great point, it’s really a balance. If you add another midfielder then you lose support to our number nine. Look, right now it’s the first time after MLS is Back that we have all the group working together, all the players together and we could slowly work on what we want to be about. It’s better to do that with wins than to do that with losses.”

To give credit to the defence:

Derek Cornelius and the rest of the ‘Caps defence have stepped up as of late (Keveren Guillou)

And while the defence did fall asleep on RSL’s goal, the ‘Caps back 4 actually did well as a whole on Saturday, only limiting RSL to 1.9 Expected Goals (xG) on 25 shots and 64% possesion, which considering that they gave up 3.4 xG on 18 shots and 53% possesion in their most recent loss, 2 games ago to the Impact, is actually pretty impressive.

To give the defenders credit, they’ve cleaned things up massively in the 2 games since that loss, only allowing 1.18 and 1.9 xG, which considering that they had conceded a league worse xG of over 2 a game before those 2 most recent games, has been good to see.

Yes, having the team defend better as a whole has helped, especially in the Montreal win in which they only allowed 1.18 xG, but even in this game, where they defend worse as a team, to only allow 1.9 xG despite all of those shots and possesion given up is a very good sign. 

When this ‘Caps team is committed defensively, they can be a force, but it’s also good to see that when the attackers are struggling to get inolved defensively, this back 4 of Jake Nerwinski, Ranko Veselinovic, Derek Cornelius and Cristian Gutierrez can take care of business if needed, better so than any other back 4 the ‘Caps have played this season have seemed to do. 

Cavallini and Montero pair up:

On Wednesday, the big story was the play of Fredy Montero, David Milinkovic and Cristian Dajome as a trio, as Montero scored 2 goals and had a secondary assist, while Milinkovic had a primary assist, and Dajome the winning goal, as they looked lively all game long.

But with Lucas Cavallini, the ‘Caps record-signing, suspended for that one, you did wonder what they’d do on Saturday, as he returned to the squad after serving his one-game ban. Some did wonder if he and Montero would get a chance to play together, as they both seem to have complementary attributes as strikers, potentially making for a dangerous partnership.

Surprisingly, Dos Santos left Cavallini on the bench, however, letting Montero, Dajome and Milinkovic build off of what they did on Wednesday. 

And to give Dos Santos, it was 2 moves that paid off in spades. 

After a decent start from MIlinkovic, Dajome and Montero, who looked like the best ‘Caps aside from Hasal and the defenders in the first half, they’d combine on the first goal, as Montero set up Dajome, who’d play in Milinkovic, giving the Frenchman his first MLS goal. 

Later, with Cavallini on the pitch as a substitute, he’d then find the winning goal, as Montero set him up beautifully with a low cross, giving the ‘Caps the victory and all 3 points.

So now, seeing what we have these past 2 games, is it time for a Milinkovic, Montero, Dajome and Cavallini front 4?

If you’re the ‘Caps, it definitely seems like it, and while Dos Santos didn’t mention that quartet in his post-game presser, he was complimentary of what he saw from Montero and Cavallini as a pairing during the second half. 

“The answer from Cava was good because when you get a red card and you let your team down in one game, then you come and you help the team get the three points,” Dos Santos said. “ I had a lot of questions about Fredy. Fredy had a period that after the game against the LA Galaxy in March, and not going into MLS is Back for personal reasons, and then being available again in August. Those are a lot of months. So in that period, we felt that maybe Fredy wasn’t ready for the first trip out to the east. But I also said in another interview, maybe it was badly evaluated. Maybe there was a mistake there in the evaluation, and I admit it. But when we came back from the east, Fredy was always training well, always training well until the moment that we said, ‘Yes, now it’s the time to get back.’”

“But if you would look at our calendar It was because of pockets of you play here, then you’re two months without playing and you play here and then quarantine and you’re back. It’s been tough to find the right motor and path to go. But when you add everybody together, training together all the time, you’re able to read the things in a much better way. And these are players that have a lot of experience. These are players that want to win, and want to help the team. It showed today again, not only the quality they have but also the workload they had in the game. And yes, of course, they can play together. 100 per cent. They did.”

With the partnership between Montero and Cavallini seeming strong off of the pitch, the ‘Caps would be smart to build on it going forward, with this game being a good example of why. 

They were quick to heap praise on each other after the game, so if you’re Vancouver, and you have the chance to play them together, it seems like a no-brainer at this point. 

“It’s an honour to play with such a quality player,” Cavallini said after the game. “To me he’s the most talented on the team, you could say that. A lot of experience, obviously playing in Europe. Being a goalscorer, it’s great to play alongside him.”

“Obviously our relationship off the field is good, but on the field we know each other well and today we did a lot of interesting stuff together. It’s good to work with Fredy.”

Montero later added: “Cava, he’s a great guy, we created that connection outside of the field. And I see myself in him when I was that age – hungry to get some goals and show what he’s capable of. And of course he had the talent to play in another league in Europe. He’s looking forward to it.”

“We just need to help him. I’ve been in his shoes. When you don’t get service, when you don’t get the ball. But now, I’m in a different role in this team, and I am happy to help him to get his high level, because if he’s good, the team’s gonna be good as well. So I’m happy for him.”

Finding that best XI a challenge:

So for Dos Santos, seeing the Cavallini and Montero partnership blossom, while also having to answer questions about his midfield, it makes for some tough decisions going forward, as he tries to figure out his best eleven. 

Obviously, with the fixture congestion being as it is, he won’t have the choice of leaning on his best eleven every night, but it’s definitely something he’s thinking about, as he looks for a way to get the most out of the players he has. 

But if there is one thing that this ‘Caps team has, it’s depth (even despite trading Yordy Reyna ahead of the game Saturday, but we’ll have more on that later this week), so while they might not have as much to-end talent as other teams, they tend to lose less of a beat when rotating. 

For the ‘Caps, that’s important to note going forward, as they try to collect as many points as possible from this tough period of games that awaits them. 

“First, you have to make sure that you can play everyone the 90 minutes,” Dos Santos said. “You know how much it hurts me in the game that I felt like Janio in the second half was giving important things in the midfield and then at minute 60 we have to take him out because of minutes and accumulation and to follow the process. First, I have to make sure that who’s available all the time to play 90 minutes. When that question is answered and it’s almost there, I think I’m very close to the answers that I needed.”

“Now, I’m a team guy. Everybody is important. Everybody plays a role. Look at the last game. Fredy had an importance for the team. And then this game, Cava comes in and scores the goal. David scores. It’s never about individuals, it’s always about the team so I could have in my head a very close idea of what can be our best XI. But then in my head it’s also, ‘what does it mean if you play Wednesday and Saturday? Can you play my best XI Wednesday, Saturday, and then Wednesday again?’ And that’s not the easy part. For me, the focus is that everybody understands that they’re important for this team.”

Red Card magnets:

Lucas Cavallini receiving a red card against the Montreal Impact (Keveren Guillou)

Not much to build off of in this section, but it just felt important to note that after only seeing 1 red card shown through their first 9 games of the season, the ‘Caps have seen 4 red cards shown in the last 3 games, as they’ve been part of some intense games as of late. 

Credit to the ‘Caps for being disciplined, as well, because of those 5 red cards they’ve seen this year, 4 of them have been to opponents, as they’ve done well to wind up opponents without going over that edge themselves. 

Quote of the night:

Lastly, Dos Santos gave his quote of the night when asked by Gemma Kartens-Smith of the Canadian Press about what he was thinking during a staggering 9 minutes of extra time, up a goal. 

“I was thinking I’m 43 and I’m going to be 61 after this game,” he said with a laugh. “That’s what I was thinking, very honestly. There was a moment where I looked at my watch and in my head I go four minutes still, it looked an eternity. But again, these are the wins that feel good when he whistles at the end, because the guys are very proud of their effort in the locker room. They’re proud of what they give, and they should be, because we’re going to have to stretch ourselves to the limits.”

Lately, after looking quite worn down for a good chunk of the summer, Dos Santos has loosened up, and his team has looked similiarily loose on the pitch, so if you’re the ‘Caps, you hope that continues going forward, as they seem to be a team that does better when they’re in this sort of mood. 

Looking Forward:

Now, it’s a tough test for the ‘Caps, as they head down to face LAFC at the Banc of California stadium on Wednesday. 

For anyone following LAFC this season, you’d expect it to be a close game, as LAFC have really struggled defensively this year, but they still pack a punch offensively, despite missing 2019 MLS MVP Carlos Vela. 

After the ‘Caps lost 7-1 in that stadium last year, they’ll want to avoid similar embarassment this time around, and with the ‘Caps and LAFC both being tied with 15 points after 12 games, this is a huge game for the both of them, so look for Vancouver to be fired up because of that. 

With back-to-back wins under their belt for the first time in over 16 months, they’ll want to build off of that and do what they’re yet to do under Marc Dos Santos, which is win 3 games in a row. 

So stay tuned Wednesday, as the ‘Caps look to build off of a big victory away from home, even if the way they won wasn’t quite the way they planned it out on Saturday. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs LAFC, Wednesday, September 23, 19:30 PST (Banc of California Stadium, Los Angeles)

All Expected Goals data taken from American Soccer Analysis.

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