Never put money on Major League Soccer. Just weeks after falling 3-0 unceremoniously to the Earthquakes in San Jose, the Vancouver Whitecaps captured a critical three points on “home” turf, against the same team.
A superb free-kick, a rebound finish and just like that, the Whitecaps kept pace in the weird MLS Playoff race. Saturday night’s nailbiting 2-1 victory was the first time in four games the Whitecaps have beaten San Jose and the first time of their three contests this season.
The starting lineup debate
Before the match, many supporters predicted and hoped that Russell Teibert would provide some defensive stability on the wing. However, Marc Dos Santos had other thinking, playing fellow Canadian Tosaint Ricketts and Christian Dajome on the wings. While this was met with criticism online, by night’s end, it had paid off.
Another factor in the lineup was the absence of Michael Baldisimo, who recently has shown offensive instincts, something the Whitecaps midfield often lacks. He is one of the few players who regularly play more forward passes than backward or linear, AKA; he’s the opposite of Janio Bikel. Although he is young and has had his fair share of injuries in the past, resting him ahead of a short break is a thought Dos Santos likely had.
With the Whitecaps using a near “A” side today, it will be intriguing to see what Dos Santos and co. roll out Tuesday night in the next match, VS Seattle.
The lineup decisions, especially the front two of Lucas Cavallini and Fredy Montero, proved fruitful early. Both forwards began the match with a very high press, forcing the San Jose backline to make some risky passes. While the press did figure in the first goal conceded by the Whitecaps, the energy that both forwards and the wingers provided was unparalleled to any other match in 2020.
Defensive failures of the opening goal
As usual, the Whitecaps conceded the match’s first goal, which was pretty brutal this time. We’ll get to Jake Nerwinski in a second. However, the breakdown began with Ali Adnan, who was initially out of position, pinching up the field too much before being outrun by Christian Espinoza. While that was an issue and Adnan could have positioned himself better, the glaring worry came on the finish. Nerwinski was nowhere to be found when Carlos Fierro gracefully volleyed a shot past Whitecaps goalkeeper Evan Bush.
Nerwinski did well to keep tabs on the man in the middle of the park. However, this should have been Vesilinovic’s mark, while Nerwinski should have been out wide on Fierro, who scored. It took a great cross and a better finish to get the goal, but it was preventable with a better defensive structure.
The problem is two-fold: Nerwinski had to account for the defensive positioning of the centre backs, but the Caps’ zonal marking system also left the right-back confused as to where he should be.
Zonal marking is excellent in theory; the idea of shutting down the critical parts of the field makes sense. However, if the essential players are not in the vital areas, the whole thing falls apart, and that is what happened with the San Jose goal.
The defensive systems were a problem for the Whitecaps all night, but San Jose could only capitalize once.
Second Half: The most important 45 minutes of the season
Trailing by a goal at half-time, the second half was touted as the season’s most important 45 minutes. For Vancouver, winning 1/10 times after conceding the first goal was a stat that did not help the cause, but San Jose’s 14-match winless streak at Providence Park may have balanced the scales.
All it took was six minutes for the Whitecaps to find their way back into the game, and it came from Designated Player, Ali Adnan, who summoned the power of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to his foot, blasting a free kick in from 32 yards out. Adnan has become known for his confidence from long-range, although this free-kick was at another level; take a look below.
Much like the first half, the Whitecaps defense was very hectic. Many times did a San Jose chance end up with the ball bouncing around the Whitecaps area, but somehow, someway, it never ended up in the back of the net for a second time.
The second and eventual winning goal was not exceptional, but it was an example of reliable communication between attackers. Cavallini allowed Christian Dajome to attack the goal from a sharp angle, which led to the rebound eventually scored by Ricketts. It was far from pretty, but after a quick offside review, it counted.
As the second half drew to its final moments, the already porous Whitecaps defence looked as though it would be conceded late, similar to last week against the L.A. Galaxy. However, a few late substitutes, along with crafty timewasting, sealed the win for Vancouver.
BTS Man of the Match
Often, this is a reasonably simple award to give out. However, that was not the case this time around. Returning from a suspension in the last match, Janio Bikel earned the honours on Saturday night. Although his first-half performance was nothing special, his effort to track back in the second 45 was a massive reason why the Whitecaps came away with three points. He acts as a valuable linchpin in the midfield to transition the ball alongside a more attacking player such as Owusu, and with that, it makes up for his lack of key offensive passes. He is no Matias Laba in the midfield for those who have followed the Whitecaps for a while, but he is no Aly Ghazal either. Tonight he was right, not great, but critical to Vancouver’s victory.
With the win, the Whitecaps now sit in seventh place in the Western Conference, one spot on Earthquakes. Salt Lake City and Houston, the two teams below the Earthquakes both drew their matches on Saturday, giving the whitecaps a leg up heading into the home-stretch.
However, a major wild card in the west is the Colorado Rapids, who were forced away from the pitch for nearly a month due to COVID-19. Colorado lost 4-0 in their return match against Kansas City, but their amount of games in hand could flip the conference on its head if they go on a run.
The Whitecaps are in a playoff spot now, but nothing is sure with three matches to go.
The Whitecaps may have been lucky with the win against the Earthquakes, but it is crucial that they got it, seeing as it was the “A” team on the pitch for most of the night. The side will have a very short rest before taking on one of the league’s strongest teams in Seattle on Tuesday, where Dos Santos may be forced to play a worn out or inexperienced XI.
Fortunately for the Whitecaps, they do not have to travel away from their “home” in Portland for the rest of the season as they welcome the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and L.A. Galaxy to round out regular-season action.
GIF of the Game
After every match BTS Vancity asks our followers for their thoughts on the match in a GIF, and here is the winner for the latest victory. Well, I like puns too.
Cover Photo: Whitecaps FC Twitter