Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Vancouver Whitecaps get unfortunate reality check against Colorado Rapids as open play woes continue

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps, we break down their latest game, a 1-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids from Sunday night. Here’s some of what stood out from that match. 

It was an unfortunate reality check, that’s for sure. 

After a strong start to the 2021 MLS season, the Vancouver Whitecaps suffered their first loss of the year on Sunday, as they narrowly fell 1-0 against the Colorado Rapids at ‘home’ in Utah via a stunning Diego Rubio free-kick.

Coming off of a good first two games of the season, one where they picked up 4 points out of 6, they had a chance to make it 7 out of 9 in this game, but instead, they’ll be left to rue a missed opportunity to continue their strong start to this campaign. 

And what’s even more frustrating for the ‘Caps? 

It’s the fact that they had a chance to make something of this game, even despite not playing all that well, as they missed a few opportunities to snatch back control of the game. 

The good news, however? 

It’s still very early in the season, which both diminishes the sting of this result, while increasing its value as a learning moment in the long term. There’s a lot more soccer on the horizon for these ‘Caps, so if they can use this loss as fuel, it could be the sort of gut-punch they needed to find some consistency in this long campaign. 

“Coach (Marc Dos Santos) always says ‘the league is a marathon”, ‘Caps defender Ranko Veselinovic said after the game. “We have 31 more games to play, from every game, even when we win or we lose, we have to learn, we have to become better in the next game, and I hope next game we will start from the first minute to press opponents, to be compact, to play better in possession and I think it’ll be better.”

And as Veselinovic mentions, the key to getting something out of this result is to learn from what they saw, as there was a lot to derive from this game if you tackle it from Vancouver’s perspective. 

From a slow start, to some struggles in the final third, along with woes in transition on both sides of the ball, the version of the ‘Caps that was on display Sunday looked like a shadow of the side that played so well against the Portland Timbers and Toronto FC in their first two games of the year, and the result reflected that. 

That’s not to say that all of this wasn’t coming, as there were a few cracks from those games that opened right up in this match, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have fixed them beforehand. 

Heading into a big all-Canadian clash with CF Montreal on Saturday, it’ll now leave head coach Marc Dos Santos with plenty to take care of in training this week, as they look to get back on track before the losses start to pile up, as was often the case in past seasons. 

“In the first 20 minutes, we were too open,” Veselinovic continued. “We were stretched, we started to play their game. That was the deciding factor at the end of the game but we have to be stronger going forward.”

Open play woes continue: 

And to start, the big problem that the ‘Caps have to address is in their offence, as it’s quickly become a worry through 3 games this year. 

More specifically, they have to find a way to fix their struggles from open play, as through 3 games, they’ve been yet to score a goal from that phase of play, as all 3 of their tallies have come off of set pieces. 

That problem reared its ugly head against the Rapids, as the ‘Caps struggled to create many shots, let alone goals, from possession, leaving them to rely on dead balls as their best avenue for creating offence. 

There’s nothing wrong with that, as they arguably should’ve had 3 or 4 goals against the Rapids off of set pieces alone, but it’s concerning that they’ve quickly become so reliant on that as their main source of offence to start 2021. 

Dating back to last year, they’ve now only scored 4 open play goals in their last 8 games, and 3 of them came in a 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy in the last game of 2020, in what was a dead-rubber match between both teams. 

That’s not good enough. 

They’ve actually defended pretty well to start the year, only conceding 3 goals through 3 games, which should be enough to pick up points in most matches. They did get a bit lucky against the Rapids, giving up 2 Expected Goals (xG), but they were helped by the fact that goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau put up a player of the game performance in net, keeping them in the match. 

And that’s what’s frustrating about the ‘Caps offensive struggles, as they’ve got such a solid defensive unit, starting with Crepeau in goal, along with the various options they’ve got elsewhere on the backline. 

Considering they’ve been playing with what can be argued to be a second-choice back 4 on paper through their first 3 games, it shows how strong they can be defensively, and why it’s imperative that they fix this offensive problem as soon as possible. 

Returning to those problems, though, it’s important to note what they stem from. Through 3 games now, they’ve actually averaged 52.3% of possession, as they’ve kept the ball a lot better than they did last year, but they only have 23 shots, including only 12 shots on target, meaning that not only do they not shoot the ball enough, they don’t hit the target much when they do pull the trigger. 

So despite now being a top 10 possession team through 3 games, they’re bottom 5 in shots generated and in xG for, showing their struggles at turning possession into concrete chances. 

Seeing that, it makes it easy for teams such as the Rapids to sit back and let the ‘Caps have the ball in these sorts of games, knowing that they’ll struggle to make life tough for defences in possession. 

Even though the Rapids were already a team that naturally likes to sit back anyways, you do wonder if teams start to make this a consistent strategy against the ‘Caps, which based on what we’ve seen, isn’t the worst idea in the world for teams right now. 

That leaves Dos Santos in a position where he has to figure out how to solve that, because based on what he’s seen, he acknowledges that it’s something his team needs to work on right now. 

“They’ve been like this, Colorado, even in the game against Austin, it’s the type of team that they are, and they were like this also last year going towards the playoffs,” Dos Santos said. “It’s a team that knows their strengths, knows when to attack and how to use transition to attack.”

“And us, when we play against defences that are lower, we need to be better at finding solutions, because it was hard for us to find solutions against Portland, and it was hard for us to find more solutions today, so when we play against the lower block or lower backline, we need to find ways to play in front of them, to turn in the pockets, and then find the last pass, that’s important if you want to grow as a team.”

Of course, all of this to say, finally bringing in a #10 would be a pretty good solution for this problem, and that’s something that the ‘Caps recognize and are continuing to try and make happen, but until then, that doesn’t mean they can’t find something that works with the guys that they do have in the fold. 

Seeing how solid defensively they’ve been, along with their proficiency off of set pieces, if they can figure out that part of their game, they can be a pretty hard team to stop, but until then, we may see a few more frustrating games like this Rapids one going forward.  

Deiber Caicedo in action for the ‘Caps against the Rapids on Sunday (Vancouver Whitecaps/Twitter)

Caio Alexandre’s first start: 

But while a lot of the ‘Caps offensive woes are tactics-related, there are a few players within their ranks that can help them fix that problem, and there may be none more important to that than Caio Alexandre, who made his first MLS start on Sunday. 

After missing week 1 in quarantine, before making a short cameo off of the bench in week 2, Alexandre was thrown into the fire in week 3, and he responded well, looking like a player that can do some damage in MLS. 

In just over 89 minutes on the pitch, he completed 46 of 53 passes (86.8%), made the second-most progressive passes on the ‘Caps with 5, which along with the 2 shots he had, made for an overall successful first MLS start. 

Deployed as an advanced midfielder, he did drop deep a lot to receive the ball, which hurt the ‘Caps ability to break into the final third at times, but when he was higher up the pitch, he always made passes with good intentions, putting the ball into good areas.

But with Michael Baldisimo missing out on a start in this one due to an injury, one that restricted him to a 25-minute cameo off of the bench, his re-insertion in the lineup next game should allow Alexandre to stay further forward, as was the case when the two played together for 20 minutes in the second half against Colorado. 

As we saw earlier this week, with Baldisimo’s ability to play line-breaking passes, Alexandre will be allowed to play (and stay) further forward, allowing him to operate as a quasi-#10, which considering their need for that sort of player, could make him a huge part of the solution needed to fix their offensive woes until that #10 comes. 

So look to see more of Alexandre in that role going forward, as the ‘Caps are going to need him to build off of what he showed in this position versus the Rapids, starting this weekend against Montreal.  

“We tried with Caio to get a player in behind the three forwards that would connect with more with them, to connect more with passes in behind and out wide,” Dos Santos said. “Caio had to come too deep to get on the ball and Colorado defended lower. We didn’t get around them enough, our crosses weren’t effective enough, we tried to play through the middle with that last pass, but it wasn’t easy.”

Overall, though, he did all anyone could’ve asked from him on his debut, while showing glimpses of what’s to come from him going forward. 

With the ‘Caps paying their second-highest transfer fee in their history, $4 million, to bring him in, he’s going to need to be a key player for them this season, and he took a good first step towards doing that on Sunday. 

Kamron Habibullah’s short but memorable debut:

Speaking of debuts, it’s important to highlight Kamron Habibullah’s strong debut off of the bench against the Rapids, as he got a 6-minute run to finish the game as the ‘Caps 4th substitute, doing well in that short burst he got to have. 

After signing his homegrown deal earlier in April, he was activated to the first team roster for the first time on Sunday, as the ‘Caps had a roster spot available after loaning out Damiano Pecile to Venezia in Serie B, and they wasted no time in throwing the 17-year-old winger into the fire at the end of the Rapids game. 

And despite that, he responded fantastically to the challenge, looking very comfortable against professionals in a tight 1-0 game. He only got to make 4 touches, but he made the most of them, making 4 passes, adding 1 dribble and 2 progressive passes, which for such a short period of time, is quite impressive. 

Considering that only 4 other ‘Caps had more than 3 progressive passes total, it gave a good glimpse of what he has in the locker, and why so many folks are so high on Habibullah based on his academy days. 

Seeing the ‘Caps offensive struggles, he seems like someone that can play a role in fixing them long-term, so hopefully we continue to see his integration into the squad every week going forward. 

He may still be young, so it’s important that he’s brought up slowly, but based on this short cameo, the talent is there, and should be ready for a 10-15 minute cameo against Montreal next game. 

“What’s important is that we all understand the process of development and how you can slowly grow,” Dos Santos said of Habibullah’s play. “It’s always going to depend on your growth and who plays in front of you. If Kam came in today, it’s because he’s done things in preseason and in training to help the team out. I told Kam the steps of what he has to do to be successful with us.”

“He’s a young player that I’m going to protect. Of course, if he came today it’s because he deserved an opportunity to come in today.”

Where’s Theo Bair?

But while we saw the ‘Caps give minutes to one promising homegrown on Sunday, we also saw the continued absence of another promising youngster, as forward Theo Bair was left out of the squad completely against the Rapids after being an unused substitute in each of the ‘Caps first matches. 

And simply put – this is concerning for Bair, who heading into his third MLS season, needs to be playing regularly at this stage of his career. 

As we explored last week, the stats suggest that he could be a very good MLS forward, and based on what Bair has shown in the minutes he’s gotten in 2019 and 2020, the eye test also backs up those claims. 

He’s highly rated in the ‘Caps ranks, as well, and for good reason. 

“He’s our most skilled player for the last touch scoring on to the goal,” Whitecaps CEO and Sporting Director Axel Schuster told the Province earlier this year. . “If he is in a position to shoot, he has the best finishing.”

So considering all of that, it’s tough to see Bair left to the side like this, as you’d have to imagine that he could be playing a big role for the team right now, especially based on what we’ve seen out of them through 2 weeks. 

Asked about Bair’s absence in the middle of the week, Dos Santos said that he wasn’t satisfied with his forward’s play in training, and clearly, things didn’t get better in his eyes, as suggested by him being left out entirely for this game. 

Followed up with about the matter on Sunday, the ‘Caps head coach certainly didn’t hold back much, either, extending a blunt assessment of where he thinks Bair is at right now in his plans. 

“Theo is not on the bench because you guys are not in training every day,” Dos Santos said. “And you have to watch training, and not just come up with a name and say: ‘we would like to see him on the field’. He has to be better in training, he has to be more competitive, make more things happen in training, he knows that, we had a conversation with him, if he starts showing those signs in training, he will play the same way that I was the coach that gave him this first opportunity, I will give him more opportunities when he deserves it, and he’s not there yet.”

It’s made for a tough situation, because considering no one has seen training, it’s hard to actually comment on the merits of the comments. 

But based on what can be seen, with the ‘Caps continuing to struggle to score goals, especially in open play, you can only wonder if they could use a forward that has scored 2 of his 3 career goals from that phase of play. 

Plus, there are a few ‘Caps that have struggled in games so far this season, yet have continued to get consistent minutes, putting a bit of disconnect between the idea of doing good at training and playing in games. 

Ultimately, it looks like Dos Santos is trying to motivate Bair, as he clearly believes there’s more to come from his young forward, which is fair considering how much growth is still to come from him.

On the other hand, you can motivate a player while still getting him a chance to get minutes and build off of what he’s shown the last two seasons, as the ‘Caps could definitely use his spark either as a starter or off of the bench. 

So hopefully Bair can start to get minutes again going forward, starting with this game against Montreal, as the ‘Caps could certainly use him right now. 

Plus, as he showed last year, he doesn’t mind scoring against Montreal, so that’s also something to consider, too.

Looking Forward: 

Now, the ‘Caps shift their attention back to Canada once again, as they’ll take on their second Canadian team in 4 games, CF Montreal. 

Based on what we’ve seen from Montreal to start this season, they’re a team that defends well and does damage on the counter, as they’ve done well to pick up 5 points out of 9 so far this season thanks to their ability to do those things. 

And considering the ‘Caps struggles against a team in Colorado that also did those things very well, it only makes it more imperative that they fix some of the cracks that really started to open up against the Rapids on Sunday, as they could continue to rear their ugly head next Saturday. 

So even though it’s still early in the season, this game is far from a death knell from the ‘Caps, but they’ll want to show that their loss against the Rapids was just a rough patch on a long journey, instead of a wrong turn that sends them spiralling on their path. 

“It’s a game that we will definitely learn from, that is for sure,” Crepeau said. “The first 15-20 minutes was a little bit too slow, and this is when actually we lose the game, where we can have the lead and we don’t concede the goal. It’s a game that once again, we will learn from, that is for sure, because everyone is disappointed to not get any point out of this one.”

“When I take a step back, we can definitely get some points tonight, and we didn’t, so it’s a game that we need to analyze it and then move forward to Montreal next week.”

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs CF Montreal, Saturday, May 8th, 2021, 12:00 PDT, 15:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy)

Cover Photo via: Vancouver Whitecaps Twitter

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