Whitecaps have struggled to find a suitable playmaker to feed their high-powered attack, and the resulting lack of goals has become a troublesome trend.
For the Vancouver Whitecaps, however, the strikers find themselves feeding off scraps at this early point of the season, and much of this is down to a creativity deficit in the centre of midfield.
Jun Marques Davidson has impressed many with his intelligence and reading of the game on the defensive side, but the Japanese-American offers very little, if anything, going forward.
Having such a one-dimensional player in midfield is perfectly fine – if there’s a suitable partner capable of being just as helpful to Vancouver’s attack as Davidson is to the team’s defense.
The problem at this juncture is there is no obvious choice to play that role. John Thorrington and Gershon Koffie are capable of playing the box-to-box role and contributing offensively, but neither have the requisite guile to dismantle defenses and open up congested midfields.
Matt Watson, who has now played three full matches as Koffie struggled with an ankle ailment, is also in the box-to-box mould, but the jury is still out about whether he’s capable of starting regularly in a winning MLS starting XI.
The Englishman is a physical specimen and doesn’t give the opposition time on the ball, but by his own admission has a lot to work on technically (how much a 27-year-old can improve in that regard is another question entirely).
A decision to play Watson in midfield is a decision to prioritize preventing the opposition from playing rather than looking to control the ball and dictate possession.
Some have suggested using Davide Chiumiento as an attacking midfielder playing behind two strikers, but playing a non-tackling central player generally means playing two more workmanlike players behind him.
In Saturday’s scoreless draw with the Philadelphia Union, head coach Martin Rennie did just that by playing a diamond 4-4-2, or 4-1-2-1-2, in which Chiumiento played behind Sebastien Le Toux and Atiba Harris.
“[Chiumiento] has done well this season,” Rennie told Vancouver radio station TEAM 1410 after the match in Philadelphia. “Over the last three games at least he’s been one of the better performers for us. He’s improving at putting balls in behind and putting players into dangerous spots.”
To make up for Chiumiento’s less than imposing defensive capabilities, Rennie bolstered the centre by playing Thorrington and Watson through the middle, in addition to Davidson who sat in front of the back four.
That narrowed the Whitecaps’ attack and made it quite predictable at times for the Union defense.
As a result, the ‘Caps struggled to look dangerous apart from two isolated breakaway opportunities for Le Toux which he failed to convert. The problem lies in Vancouver’s inability to start play from a deep position, work the ball through midfield, and then find a penetrating pass in the final third.
Chiumiento is capable of hitting the killer final ball – he did that in the 82nd minute to set up Le Toux’s agonizing miss – the problem is the Swiss-Italian wasn’t given the ball often enough, because the deep lying midfielders resorted to conservative passes which were more liable to go sideways or backwards than up to the attacking three of Le Toux, Harris and Chiumiento.
In essence, there’s a missing link. There’s no obvious solution in the squad to link midfield with attack. The guy who can play that role doesn’t arrive until July – Designated Player Barry Robson, who is currently finishing his contract with Middlesbrough.
But July is a long way away. So does Rennie change formation? Does he make a trade or attempt to sign a new player?
Perhaps bypassing the midfield altogether and playing hoof ball to a monstrous pairing of Eric Hassli and Harris is the short-term plan when both are fit.
The coach himself admits the number one priority now after the team approaches a season-opening clean sheet record is to get that offense clicking.
“Continuing to create chances and take chances, and scoring goals – it’s the most important part of the game if you’re doing everything else right,” Rennie said. “We have to keep doing the other things right, but we have to take our chances when they come along.”
Some suggest the stale offense is down to the injuries of Hassli, Camilo, Darren Mattocks and Etienne Barbara, but it really won’t matter who’s up front if they don’t get the ball.