Second ‘Caps Thoughts: A few old problems come back to haunt Vancouver Whitecaps against SKC, but changes are on the horizon

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps, we reflect on a tough ‘Caps loss to Sporting Kansas City from Sunday. Here’s some of what stood out to us. 

It was one heck of a way to be brought back to reality. 

Riding the wave of a strong start to the 2021 MLS season, the Vancouver Whitecaps were brought back down to earth on Sunday, as Sporting Kansas City put on a clinic versus their fellow MLS Western Conference foes in a 3-0 drubbing at Children’s Mercy Park. 

After a tough midweek loss to Minnesota United, one where they actually played pretty well but just didn’t find a breakthrough, this game was more of a fair representation of what happened over the course of 90 minutes, as the ‘Caps were just second-best for most of this game, and the scoreline reflected that. 

And if anything, the 3-0 scoreline might have been a bit flattering to the ‘Caps, who were lucky not to be down by more in the first half, allowing them to rescue a bit of pride in the second half. 

Now, after starting the year with 7 points from the first 4 games, this result now leaves the ‘Caps with 7 points from 6 games, as these back-to-back losses have seen Vancouver take a step back closer to where they were in years prior. 

On the other hand, this is far from disastrous for the ‘Caps, as it’s still early in the season, but the timing of these losses does certainly have to hurt. 

With only 1 game left before a month-long pause due to a combination of a weirdly timed bye week and an international break, Vancouver will have to wait over a month until they can try to string a few positive results together and put the sting of these losses behind them. 

They can still finish off this first 7-game portion on a positive note, as they’ll take on the Houston Dynamo this Saturday, but even if they win, they’ll still have to wait a month to capitalize on the good feeling a win like that would provide. 

That goes both ways, to be fair, so if they lose this break could be at the perfect time for them, giving them the opposite effect, but either way, a break like this never really comes at a great time for any team. 

But chatter of the break aside, that shouldn’t deter from Sunday’s result, which as forgettable as a game like that could be, is going to have to be a valuable learning lesson for this team to study. 

“Overall, we played a team that was better than us tonight and the team that deserves the three points,” ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos said on Sunday. “And now we have to react and get out of this game, learn from this game and not throw away everything we did until this game, and try to see what we could do now to get to a next step in games like that.”

Building off of Dos Santos’s comments, here’s some of what stood out for his team on Sunday. 

Another slow start plagues ‘Caps:

Once again, the ‘Caps started out a game slowly, and once again, it cost them, as their first-half woes continued to plague them in this game. 

Through 6 games, they’ve been outscored 4-0 in the first half, which has been a big source of trouble for this team. 

In the second half, they’ve been a lot more respectable, having outscored opponents 5-3, but due to their slower starts, it makes it a lot harder for them to win games as they’re often having to chase games in the second half. 

They’ve found a way to win a few games despite that, but there’s no coincidence that their pair of wins at this point of the year were 1-0 and 2-0 results, as they’ve only won off of the back of perfect defensive performances where they’ve kept their opponents at bay in the first stanza. 

Against a good Sporting KC side, that was always going to be tough to do, and unfortunately, they learned that in the first half, as a baby blue wave quickly engulfed them and left them gasping for air, as they fell down 2-0 inside 35 minutes. 

“Today was our hardest day this season as a team,” Dos Santos said. “We looked overwhelmed in the first 25 minutes. We struggled, they came out at us in waves, and it made it very difficult for us. And when we won the ball, we weren’t able to get out of pressure.”

To be fair to the ‘Caps, it was a tough game for them to have to come in and start strong, as they had to play in front of a raucous crowd of Kansas City fans, so you could understand being a bit shell-shocked to start the game. 

With a starting 11 that had no player over the age of 28, and an average age of 24.27 years old, including a young backline, it was something to watch out for heading into the game, and it quickly became a factor inside that first half. 

But on the other hand, that still doesn’t make it something to put blame on, either. 

Pandemic or not, everyone in that starting 11 has played in front of raucous fans at some point in their careers, so it shouldn’t have been that much of an issue, at least not one that dogged them for much longer than 5 minutes. 

As a result, it’s something that baffled Dos Santos, and it’s something he’s looking to find the answers for heading into their next game, that clash with Houston where there will be more hostile fans cheering against the ‘Caps. 

“When you play (with) such a young team, you need a couple of guys that have that maturity to deal with the beginning of the game, and I don’t know what to tell you,” Dos Santos admitted. “I don’t know. Regarding the trip, I felt that we travelled well, I felt that the day went well, if it’s overwhelming to get used to a crowd with a lot of fans, an environment that pushes for the opponent, I don’t know what to answer you.”

“I just think that for sure, we need to do a better job. There can be a mix of everything, could be a mix of leadership, experience, stadium, fans, all of that together.” 

Road woes continue:

But while there could be a multitude of factors contributing to the slow start, there’s also another one worth pointing out – the ‘Caps just aren’t the same team away from home that they are at home. 

Obviously, they don’t have a home right now, so it feels strange to differentiate games that are ‘away’ versus games that are ‘home’, but still, it’s worth pointing out how tough it has been for the ‘Caps to travel as of late. 

In games where they’ve been designated as the ‘road’ team, they’ve only picked up points in 2 of their last 12 games, only winning once over that span. 

That’s a tough number to look at. 

And, if anything, it’s quite surprising, as one would’ve expected the ‘Caps to adjust to playing games ‘home’ or ‘away’ the same way, given that they’re pretty much the same thing for them right now. 

It’s not easy to play away in MLS right now, due to the travel restrictions brought about by COVID, but even then, one would’ve thought they could’ve found a way to pick up a few more points along the way. 

To go the other way with this stat, though, it’s worth noting that the ‘Caps have picked up points in 8 out of their last 12 ‘home games’, all of those wins, so at least they’re making up for their road woes with some strong play at home. 

So now, the goal has to be to find a way to solve those road woes, because with that home record, they could easily be a playoff team if they started snatching a few more results when away from home, wherever that happens to be at the moment. 

Old defensive problems return to the surface: 

Elsewhere, the defence fell back down to earth on Sunday, conceding 3 goals for the first time in 2021. 

After a strong start to the season defensively, only conceding 4 goals inside the first 5 games, it was a tough gut punch for the ‘Caps, as they just couldn’t find a way to keep SKC off of the board in this one. 

And it wasn’t just that they conceded those goals, but there was also the fact that they were giving up way too many five-alarm chances, as well. If anything, SKC only scoring 3 goals felt generous for the ‘Caps, as they probably should’ve gone down by more based on some of the looks they were giving up to their opponents. 

For whatever reason, the ‘Caps fell back to their 2019 and 2020 ways on Sunday, and it cost them. 

So what changed, one might ask?

First, the absence of Andy Rose via an adductor injury, as his strong start had played a big role behind the ‘Caps strong defensive record to kick off 2021. 

Secondly, there was the return of Derek Cornelius and Ranko Veselinovic as a centre back pairing, which has just unfortunately proven to be a duo that hasn’t worked as well as some of the other combos the ‘Caps have tried out in the past. 

In the 7 games that they started together last year, they had a record of 3W-4L-0D (9 PTS), which isn’t actually that bad, but they also conceded 13 goals in those games, which is far from ideal, defensively. 

Obviously, those numbers aren’t helped by the fact that they conceded 6 goals against LAFC in a 6-0 drubbing, but much like in this Kansas game, that was caused by them sitting too deep and inviting pressure, which are problems that have continued to plague them. 

Unfortunately, at the moment, when both players are on the field, there just isn’t that same cohesion that both of them have shown when they play alongside Rose and Erik Godoy, who are the two leaders of this ‘Caps centre back core at the moment. 

Until they find a way to change that, it’s going to be hard to get both of them on the field at the same time, especially with Rose and Godoy both coming back soon. 

It’s something that Dos Santos acknowledges, as well, so hopefully they can get better at it, because they’re both talented centre backs, but until then, they’ll be left to ponder what went wrong in this Kansas City game. 

“The next step for Derek and for Ranko is to grow in that area of their game, the leadership and communication aspect,” Dos Santos said. “When you play two young centre backs, you feel you miss a little bit of that, if you ask me that question is because you also feel that a guy like Andy Rose can help in those moments. I always said the more you have stability with pairings of centre backs in a backline, the more opportunity you have to succeed.”

“Unfortunately, we had to do two changes from the last game due to injuries in a back 4, and that hurts a little bit, and it puts ourselves in a tough position, but these guys are going to come back soon, Erik (Godoy) already came back today, and I think there’s other options in some areas of the field that are important for us to look at.”

SKC celebrates after scoring vs the ‘Caps Sunday (Sporting KC/Twitter)

The 4-3-3 makes a surprise appearance: 

At the other end of the pitch, though, the ‘Caps have a lot more questions than answers, especially compared to their defensive line. 

Unlike their defence, their offence doesn’t’ really have a certain standard of play to strive to get back to, as they’ve struggled to score goals all year, and it continues to become a bigger and bigger worry with each passing game. 

Through 6 games this year, the ‘Caps are still without an open play goal, and with only 5 goals over that time span, all of them via set plays (2 of them penalties), it’s something that the ‘Caps have to fix, pronto. 

“For sure, we need to find a way to start scoring from open play,” Veselinovic admitted. “Last game, we had a lot of chances to score a goal. Today, we didn’t have so many chances, but that’s definitely a problem we need to work at.”

And it’s that lack of created chances that continues to cause the biggest worry right now. 

After this SKC game, the ‘Caps remain second-last in MLS in terms of Expected Goals (xG) for per game in open play with 0.44, which gives an idea of where the problems lie. 

It’s great that the ‘Caps have continued to create chances off of set pieces, as they remain 4th in xG for per game via set-pieces with 0.61, but the problem with set-pieces is that there is so much volatility in the rate at which they’re scored at. 

In open play, the more you create, the more goals you tend to score, but via set pieces, there can be weeks where you just don’t score despite not changing much in terms of your process due to that volatility. 

So for the ‘Caps, considering that they’re not generating much from open play, they need to start tinkering with their process, especially considering that they’ve stuck with the 4-4-2 since the start of the year, not making many changes to the players in that formation, and it just hasn’t worked. 

The good news, though? 

There was finally a change versus SKC, and while it didn’t come right away, it was nice to see the ‘Caps go to a 4-3-3 after 35 minutes of play, as they immediately looked like a better team after that switch. 

By bringing on Michael Baldisimo to play alongside Janio Bikel and Caio Alexandre in a midfield trio, they were able to find Cristian Dajome, Deiber Caicedo and Lucas Cavallini in transition more, giving them a bit more tooth in attack. 

“We need to create more opportunities, it’s an area of the game that we’re struggling with, and we have to find solutions inside the roster,” Dos Santos explained after the game. “That’s why we brought Baldi to see how it could look with two number eights, going higher on the field.”

Elsewhere, they also experimented with trying out Kamron Habiubllah as a #10, showing that Dos Santos is actively looking to try and fix that open play problem in some way or another.. 

“We also at some point brought Kam [Habibullah] to play between lines,” he continued. “But let’s not forget, Kam is still very young and still in development, he is not going to be right away our solution. He needs time to develop and grow.”

“And that’s what we tried to do, but look, this week, that’s the question we need to answer, see what can we do right now to create more, to generate more.”

All of that is fantastic news, as it could be the best way for this ‘Caps roster to finally get their team ticking at their full ability. 

With all of their roster nearly back at full health and training in the squad, it seems like a 4-3-3 will be the best way to get the most out of their most important players, especially in the middle of the park. 

So might that be something for Dos Santos to continue experimenting with going forward?

“Of course, it’s something that we could (try),” he admitted. “When you try to originate goalscoring opportunities, and you’re trying to find the balance between attacking and defending well, and you think the players in the team that can keep you more on the ball can allow you to find more goalscoring opportunities, when you’re in a situation like that, you have to consider going towards that.”

“But of course, we need to analyze things very well. Right now, this was our most difficult game this year, and we have to analyze what happened in the first 5 games that we liked, and what happened in the 6th game that we didn’t like, how did the 6th game go to put us in this situation? But I think we found the ball in better pockets in the last 15 minutes of the first half, more movement, more mobility.”

That’s not to say all of this will necessarily solve their offensive woes, completely, but it’s certainly something worth continuing, especially seeing how much having that extra body in midfield helped the ‘Caps find their feet on Sunday. 

A needed run for a few players: 

Lastly, it’s important to extend a shout-out to a few that made cameos off of the bench in the 2nd half (sorry, Michael Baldisimo) on Sunday, as hopefully we can see more of what they had to offer going forward. 

First, there was Javain Brown, who made his MLS debut off of the bench at right back, and looked no worse for wear, showing that he can hang at this level for periods of the game. 

With 2 players ahead of him in the pecking order, it won’t be easy for him to get regular minutes, but if he keeps playing like this, good things will happen for him. 

Secondly, there was Erik Godoy, who made his long-awaited return to the lineup after a few muscle injuries, and he quickly looked like his old self, making a few good stops and jumpstarting a couple of attacks from centre back. 

The ‘Caps have done relatively well without him, which is a credit to them, but based on how good he’s been when healthy these past few years, having him return to the lineup would give a big boost to this squad. 

Thirdly, we had Kamron Habibullah, who made his 2nd appearance for the ‘Caps, and looked quite comfortable despite playing in that aforementioned #10 role as seen earlier. 

At only 17 years of age, he doesn’t need to come in and earn starts right away, but if he’s going to continue to impress in these short cameos, Dos Santos has to give him more of a run in games going forward. 

Lastly, we had Theo Bair, who also made his first appearance of the year for Vancouver, coming off of the bench for 10 minutes in the 2nd half. 

In that short span, he made a decent impact, as well, winning an aerial duel, putting up a key pass and interacting nicely with his teammates, showing that he is a veritable option up top for the ‘Caps. 

As Dos Santos’s strange handling of strikers not named Lucas Cavallini continues, it’ll be hard for Bair to fight for minutes, but if he continues to play as he did in his short time on the pitch, that should quickly change going forward. 

But while those 4 substitutes all will feel good about their performances, it’s also worth highlighting someone who might not feel the same, but someone who should keep their head up regardless, and that’s Ryan Raposo, who found himself yanked after the 35th minute as Dos Santos elected to make a tactical change. 

It was unfortunate for Raposo, who looked quite good in his short time in the field, but he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up being the victim of the ‘Caps bad start. 

Despite that, he should keep his head up, as it was not his fault that his team fell down early, and hopefully he can continue to get minutes despite that, as he is due for a good run of playing time, instead of having to deal with unfortunate scenarios such as the one that he had to deal with on Sunday. 

Looking Forward:

And maybe those minutes for Raposo and the rest of those names might come as soon as this Saturday, when the ‘Caps will take on the Dynamo down in Houston. 

It’s going to be a tough atmosphere, no doubt, especially when you factor in the muggy Texas evening heat, but having dealt with two tough stadiums in Minnesota and Kansas this past week, the ‘Caps will feel like they have what it takes in order to handle what Houston has to offer. 

With there being no midweek game this time, either, that’ll also allow the ‘Caps to continue and work at some of the issues we highlighted above, while also building off of some of the good that they also showed. 

Heading into the last game for a long break, this game will be a good chance for them to set the tone ahead of June, where they’ll look to make a good push forward, backed by the continued return (and possible new arrival) of some fresh faces to the lineup. 

This SKC result will continue to sting, no doubt, but it will only leave long-lasting pain if the ‘Caps choose to let it do that, so it’s up to them to decide what their course of action is in that area. 

They’ve got a chance to decide their fate starting this Saturday, so hopefully they choose to move forward, instead of getting caught peeking at the rearview mirror. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Houston Dynamo, Saturday, May 22nd, 2021, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston)

Cover Photo via: Sporting KC/Twitter

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