Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Vancouver Whitecaps show good resolve after slow start in 2-0 win over CF Montreal

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps, we look back at the Whitecaps game that was from over the weekend. For this edition, that was a scrappy 2-0 win over fellow Canadian rivals, CF Montreal. 

They did the job that they set out to do. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Vancouver Whitecaps were full value for their victory over CF Montreal on Saturday, but they did what they needed to do in order to snatch all 3 points, giving them 7 out of a possible 12 points to start the 2021 campaign. 

For a team that too often failed to go that extra mile required to pick up points in MLS these past two seasons, it was nice to see them find that scrappy victory, one that has allowed them to finish this fourth week of MLS action all the way up in 4th in the Western Conference standings. 

It might be a bit early to start standings watching, but it’s worth noting that the ‘Caps have pretty much never been that high in the standings under head coach Marc Dos Santos at any point in time (not even alphabetically), so it is something to revel in. 

And what’s impressive about that is that it means that they’ve managed to shoot out of the gates without stumbling, which wasn’t really something they excelled at in their prior two years under Dos Santos, where they quickly found themselves in holes that were nearly impossible to dig their way out of. 

Just to get an idea of how drastic the improvement has been, consider this: in 2019, it took the Whitecaps 10 games to pick up 7 points, and in 2020, they weren’t much better, as it took them 9 games to reach that mark.

So for them to have that many points after just 4 games is a huge plus, especially when you realize that they probably should probably have had at least 9, but missed chances to grab points in a week 2 draw with Toronto and a week 3 loss to Colorado. 

From here on in, the important thing now will be to maintain that start, which won’t be easy as teams start to cue into what these ‘Caps are up to, but they’ve put a bit of traction in their tires, which will allow them to drive through the mud that is the middle of the MLS season, instead of hopelessly skidding through it as they mostly have in the past two years. 

Stiffer tests now await, no doubt, and this Vancouver team has some potentially fatal flaws to still sort out, but for now, optimism is high, and for good reason.

But until those tests come, here is a look at some of what stood out from the ‘Caps clash with their Canadian foes, Montreal, a game in which they did something they haven’t done all too often in recent years – grabbed points out of nowhere. 

Slow start sets table for another strong second half: 

And when we speak of grabbing points out of nowhere, it has to do with the poor start to the game that Vancouver had on Saturday, as they struggled massively out of the gates, nearly gifting Montreal the game. 

In the first 45 minutes, there were sloppy giveaways, a lack of intensity on the ball and some pretty uninspiring marking, as the ‘Caps barely looked like a team that wanted to go out and win a soccer game. 

To give them credit, they tried to put some life back in the game, as they made some hard challenges on Montreal’s players, doing their best to show that this was a rivalry game, but that couldn’t mask what was overall just a poor first half from Vancouver. 

“No, it’s something that we have to work on and be better at,” Dos Santos said after the game. “You don’t design getting in flat, and I don’t tell the guys: ‘let’s be flat in the first half and react in the second’.”

And that has to be a worry for Dos Santos, as this has been a trend to start the year. 

Of the 3 goals they’ve conceded now, 2 have been inside the first 30 minutes of the game, and based on some of the chances that they gave up against Montreal at the beginning of the game, that number should’ve probably doubled on Saturday. 

Offensively, they’ve also now failed to score in the first half, meaning that they’ve been outscored 2-0 over 180 minutes of first-half soccer through 4 games, which just isn’t good enough. 

In the second half, they’ve been excellent, outscoring opponents 5-1, but that hasn’t been enough to win games, because in the two matches where they conceded in the first half, against Toronto and Colorado, they dropped points. 

Against Montreal, we saw a repeat of what we saw in the opener against Portland, where they staved off their rivals long enough to get an opening goal, but if that continues to be a trend, it could prove to be quite costly in the long run. 

The positive reaction to the slow start is nice to see, but good teams show up from minute 1, instead of having to be woken up at minute 45, so hopefully the ‘Caps can do more of the former going forward, instead of just relying on the latter. 

“Well, I think we do still a good job reading what happens in the first half and trying to address that,” Dos Santos said. “But look, I think that the important thing is, at the end of the day, I think we deserve the three points. We were the team that deserved it.”

“And it wasn’t a perfect first half, again offensively we have to grow in our ideas, when we’re set in possession, but the second half was a good reaction from our guys, a good attitude and we deserve the three points.”

2019 Crepeau is back: 

But while the ‘Caps certainly do deserve a bit of credit for sticking with it in the second half, it’s important to acknowledge the player who even made their late-game heroics possible – goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who put up a player of the game performance for the second week in a row for Vancouver. 

The week prior, the ‘Caps failed to take advantage of that, falling 1-0 to the Colorado Rapids, but they made sure not to make the same mistake against Montreal, giving Crepeau the run support he needed with two timely second-half goals. 

And what’s been great about Crepeau’s performance hasn’t just been that he’s been making plenty of saves, but it’s the gravity of those stops, as he seems to make one massive save each game. 

That was no exception against Montreal, where he bailed out ‘Caps right back Jake Nerwinski after a turnover in the first half with a phenomenal save while the game was still 0-0, before making a few clutch stops in the second half when his team found the lead. 

For Dos Santos, it has given him a certain level of comfort in goal, knowing that whatever happens, ‘Mad Max’ is there to take care of business, giving his team a bit of a cushion if his team does make a mistake. 

“I speak so much about his performances,” Dos Santos said. “Max is ready, he’s not a surprise to me. Max made one important save that really kept us in the game when it was still 0-0, the save on Johnsen was really important. He’s doing a really good job because of the competition he has. Thomas (Hasal) and Evan (Newton) are really good in training too, that pushes Max to be even better.”

“That’s why Max is here and that’s why we signed him.”

But while Crepeau is playing out of his skin by the eye test, do the numbers back it up, as well?

The answer to that question is a resounding yes, as already through 4 games, Crepeau is second in the league in goals minus Expected Goals (G-xG) with -1.53, which means that he’s already saved the ‘Caps nearly 2 goals compared to what they should have conceded so far statistically. 

With a save percentage of 83%, Crepeau has hardly set a foot wrong in goal for Vancouver, aside from a few rough minutes against Toronto FC in week 2, otherwise looking like the goalkeeper that burst onto the scene in MLS back in 2019. 

After putting up numbers that were among some of the best in MLS back in 2019, he became a forgotten face around MLS last year, as he missed 19 out of 23 games with a thumb injury. 

Seeing that the injury is now behind him, though, it might be time to revisit the conversation that had Crepeau among the top goalkeepers in MLS, because he continues to prove with each game that he’s no one-hit-wonder. 

For a ‘Caps team that only paid CF Montreal $50 000 in TAM and a 3rd round Super Draft pick (one that Montreal passed with), his value continues to remain priceless for them, as he arguably continues to be their best ‘bang for buck’ player on their current roster. 

And speaking of Montreal, however, how sweet was it for Crepeau to pick up that win against his former team on Saturday? 

“I won’t lie to you, it feels really good,” Crepeau admitted after the game. “Feels really good because all my friends, all my family, I’m born and raised in Montreal, I’ve been through this system since I was 15 to 23 years old.”

“I’ve been in this organization and so I know a lot of people, and it feels good just because at some point, this is my roots, and I haven’t gotten the three points against them the last time we were in Montreal, and so now it’s definitely a good feeling to have the three points.”

All-in-all, Crepeau continues to remain a bright spot in this team, and hopefully he can continue this form as the season goes along, because if he does, big things surely await him, such as European interest and a good run of minutes in the Canadian national team set-up later this year. 

Open play woes continue to dominate discussion:

‘Caps midfielder Russell Teibert in action for Vancouver on Saturday (CF Montreal/Twitter)

If Crepeau is going to continue to shine, though, he’s going to need more from those in front of him, especially from those whose jobs are to put the ball in the back of the net, because the ‘Caps continued their struggles in that area of their game on Saturday. 

With only 5 goals in 4 games, none of them coming from open play, it only makes their 7 points seem miraculous, especially when you realize that they’ve been playing some modern MLS version of the famed ‘Stoke City Ball’ that was all the rage at the beginning of the 2010s. 

For a team that wants to be lethal both in possession and in transition, it’s worrying that they’re yet to score a single goal in 2021 via any of those avenues, especially considering some of the names that they have at their disposal. 

Led by a front three of Cristian Dajome, Deiber Caicedo and Lucas Cavallini, a trio that can arguably be one of the best in MLS on their day, the ‘Caps should not be struggling to score in open play, but alas, they’ve had to instead continuously field questions of what’s gone wrong in that department to start the season. 

And what’s worrying is that this trend dates back to last year, as the ‘Caps have now only scored 4 open play goals in their last 9 games, and 3 of those came in a dead rubber game against the LA Galaxy at the end of 2020. 

Returning to this year, though, what’s even further worrying is that they’re not generating all that much in open play, either, as the numbers show. 

According to American Soccer Analysis, the Whitecaps are ranked 2nd-last in xG for per game in open play with 0.35, which is quite shocking, to say the least. 

Considering that the current league leaders, Nashville, are averaging a whopping 1.61 xG open play per game, the ‘Caps may as well be playing a different sport than most teams in MLS right now. 

To give credit where credit is due – they’ve been phenomenal on set pieces. No need to take away from that. 

They lead the league in xG per game off of set pieces with 0.78 per game, which is quite impressive and has made the team one to fear when the referee blows the whistle and hands them the ball. 

On the other hand, they need to figure out how to create from open play, pronto, because if not, teams are going to find a way to counter their set plays, and if that happens, it appears the ‘Caps may implode if that were to happen anytime soon. 

It’s not an easy challenge for Dos Santos, and it’s one he hopes to fix as soon as possible, but he’s going to have his hands full with that task for the next little while, as he looks to find a way to solve his team’s open play woes without taking away other areas of his team’s game that they’ve excelled in. 

“We are. It’s something that we speak about every week, we try to be better, we try to run plays in training, right now some characteristics of our players lead us to be more dangerous in transition moments,” Dos Santos said. “We want to grow in open play, but we work on other areas of our game that are important, the team conceded (only) 3 goals in 4 games, we played 4 teams that all made the playoffs in MLS in 2020, and we got goals.”

“So of course, we want to be better in open play, and add to what we do on set plays, but it’s going to take work and we have to keep pushing and looking to the video to try to improve.”

Alexandre continues to impress: 

That doesn’t mean all of the burden is on Dos Santos to fix the problem, as he does have a few individuals that can step up and fill that hole, and there may be none more important than new arrival Caio Alexandre, who made his second start for the ‘Caps on Saturday. 

Playing a little deeper than he did against Colorado, as he had to fill in for the missing Michael Baldisimo, Alexandre played the role of offensive playmaker for Vancouver against Montreal Saturday, making a team-high 46 passes at an 84% clip, including 4/6 successful long balls. 

He might not have been as involved in the final third, but he did a good job at facilitating the sort of sequences that allowed the ‘Caps to get to that area of the pitch, filling in nicely for the injured Baldisimo, who usually occupies that role. 

For a guy who is still getting used to MLS, Alexandre’s been everything anyone has expected from him, and then some, giving the ‘Caps a profile of player that they’ve needed more of in midfield for a while now. 

His skill level might not be higher than some of the other players in midfield, but his IQ of the game certainly is higher than most, and he just has this intention to push the ball forward that we haven’t often seen from Vancouver players in recent years. 

“He has quality in his pass, he finds little pockets, little spaces,” Dos Santos said. “He needs to get more and more adjusted to MLS but I know what it takes to adapt to another place, another environment, another country. Caio, when he gets more adapted, he’s only going to become an even better player.”

So with Baldisimo likely to get back in the lineup soon, and the continued re-integration of Leonard Owusu in the lineup after an injury, Alexandre will only get more support from here on in, as well, meaning that there is still more to come from him, too. 

Based on what we’ve seen from him so far, that’s an exciting prospect to envision, and hopefully it’s one that becomes a reality sooner rather than later. 

Squad rotation finally on the horizon?

Speaking of a crowded midfield area, though, we could see some fresh faces in that area of the pitch, and in a few others, as the ‘Caps will look to manage a fixture crunch due to the insertion of a midweek game against Minnesota on Wednesday. 

Along with a game against Sporting Kansas City next Sunday, and Dos Santos will have plenty to ponder with his lineup on Wednesday, as he looks to balance rotation and chasing points. 

After only making one change to his lineup since opening day, that means that he’ll likely triple or quadruple that against Minnesota, as a few new faces will be expected to claw into the lineup at Allianz Field. 

With Dos Santos continuously boasting about the much-improved squad depth of this team, this is the first chance for many to see that depth in action, and with there being a continued call for some of that depth to have been rotated in earlier, that should certainly appease a lot of people. 

“Everybody is working very hard in training, and sometimes the starting team has a hard time with the guys who don’t start as much,” Dos Santos explained. “There’s quality in the roster, there’s a lot of competition. They just have to be ready. What I think is important to do in this league is to really go game-by-game. We managed the substitutions thinking about this game, and thinking about how do we get to the points against Montreal.”

“To look too much ahead, in football or in life, I don’t think it’s a good thing, so I think it was important for us to manage the game now, and everybody’s really motivated and in the roster everybody’s ready to go, everybody’s excited to play, and we just have to be ready. “

He continued: “And I think that now we do have two important games coming up Wednesday in Minnesota, Sunday in Kansas City, and of course the guys can’t go and play the three games in a row, so then the other options in the roster are going to be important.”

Looking Forward: 

Now, the ‘Caps will focus their attention on the ‘Loons’ over in Minnesota, who are reeling after dropping 12 points out of 12 to start the season, the lone team in MLS to do so this year. 

And for the first time this season, the ‘Caps will play in front of fans, as Allianz Field in Minnesota allows spectators in for games, meaning that the ‘Caps will have to manage the energy of a crowd that tends to be quite loud for opposing teams. 

So even though Minnesota might be struggling, this game won’t be easy for the ‘Caps, but they’re still relishing the challenge of picking up points in front of a hostile crowd for the first time in a while. 

“All the guys at breakfast and during the week after training, in the gym, we’re all saying hey, we’re going to play with fans soon,” Crepeau admitted. “Even if it’s not our people, we will play with attendance which is amazing. This is a big part of the adrenaline of the game day during the season and so we’re all excited. We are looking forward to it, it might be a factor as well so we’ve got to be smart about managing our energy, and their energy as well.”

Plus, with players starting to battle against fatigue and injury, the ‘Caps will have to also fight through that, further adding to the struggle. 

They can manage that, without a doubt, but it’s going to take their full concentration in order to do so. 

But based on what they’re saying, they feel like they’ll have what it takes, as they look to build off of what they showed in this victory against Montreal. 

I think now is the time when every teammate has to be ready, be prepared to get on the pitch whenever they’re called upon so they can play,” ‘Caps winger Cristian Dajome said via an interpreter on Saturday. “We’re already thinking about the Minnesota game. The game today, it’s in the past now.”

“And now we’re just focused on Minnesota and going there and getting the three points.”

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Minnesota United, Wednesday, May 12th, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (Allianz Field, Minnesota) 

Cover Photo via: Vancouver Whitecaps/Twitter

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