Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie reaped the rewards from a series of surprising moves over the past few weeks in a 2-1 victory over San Jose on Sunday night.
Vancouver has displayed its ambition time and again during its two years in MLS, but this recent flurry of unexpected and somewhat unnecessary personnel moves showed exactly how far the Whitecaps will go to field one of the best sides in the league.
Instead of coasting to the club's first postseason berth with a solid defense and a sputtering group of attacking players, the Whitecaps decided to retool on the fly and ship out several accomplished performers in an attempt to improve the chances of an extended playoff run.
Few doubts exist about the quality of Davide Chiumiento (sold to FC Zürich), Eric Hassli (traded to Toronto FC to perhaps avoid or sidestep that pesky third Designated Player levy of $250,000 on a reserve forward) and Sébastien Le Toux (traded to New York for Dane Richards and allocation money in a swap of players with significant contractual questions at the end of the campaign) at the MLS level. All three players would slot comfortably into the starting XI for most sides around the league. They just didn't represent a part of the solution for the Whitecaps.
The attacking problems stemmed from a dearth of chemistry, not a lack of talent. Vancouver boss Martin Rennie knew his group should score more often than it did with the players in place (21 goals in 19 matches before the Chiumiento sale and the Le Toux-Richards trade) and worked his contacts to alter his options heading into the second half of the season.
If Vancouver's performance in Sunday's 2-1 victory over San Jose offers any indication for the future, then the Whitecaps will ultimately emerge from this controversial series of transactions with a stronger and more suitable attacking unit for the second half of the season.
Perhaps the most important reason for this shift away from those proven faces came when Rennie persuaded Barry Robson to join on a free transfer from Middlesbrough earlier this year. The Scotland international arrived during the summer transfer window and immediately supplied an incisive and industrious attacking fulcrum in the center of the park. He fits better within the streamlined approach through midfield than Chiumiento did, but the Whitecaps did sacrifice some creativity in the exchange. His increasing influence on matches as he works his way toward full match fitness and sharpness underscores his potential importance to the side over final third of the season.
With the more direct Robson orchestrating the attacking forays, the Whitecaps acquired Richards from the Red Bulls to diversify the right-sided options. The Jamaican international supplies more natural width for a side that lacked a bit of it with natural playmaker Chiumiento and natural forwards Le Toux, Omar Salgado (used on the left before suffering a right foot fracture) and Camilo Sanvezzo (deployed in any number of roles) all taking turns on the flanks. Richards possesses more pace than all four of those players and uses it to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically to create space for his teammates. His end product isn't always sharp, but he provides a different and more appropriate dimension for the Whitecaps.
Richards' performance in Sunday's 2-1 victory over San Jose displayed the type of influence he exerts when he is in form. He exploited Earthquakes All-Star left back Justin Morrow (one of the fastest defenders in the league) frequently down the right flank and scored the opener with a fine diagonal run and a well struck shot to the far post. Most importantly, his presence allowed Young-Pyo Lee to pick his spot on the overlap and ensure the Whitecaps retained their defensive shape for much of the night.
The introduction of Kenny Miller in the lone forward role over the next few weeks should bolster that defensive group further and strengthen the direct approach preferred through midfield. Miller isn't a prolific striker, but he holds the ball up well to retain possession, offers plenty of mobility and works tirelessly to create opportunities for his teammates. His contributions in front of goal should surpass Hassli's intermittent production (two goals in 18 appearances) while offering more suitable work in possession than Darren Mattocks.
Mattocks looks like the odd man out at this juncture despite scoring six goals in 12 appearances. While his athletic gifts are there for all to see, the rookie striker constitutes a work in progress on the ball. He has the strength to obtain and retain possession with his back to goal, but he presently lacks the polish to distribute effectively on a regular basis and tends to places his team in peril when he sprays the ball into inopportune areas. His instincts and his pace should provide Rennie with the perfect game-changing option off the bench once Miller is fit enough to start on a regular basis.
Despite the promising signs of the victory over San Jose and the midweek draw against Los Angeles, the Whitecaps could certainly see this sequence of moves turn against them along the way. If Miller doesn't score often enough (and he squandered a decent chance created by Jay DeMerit just seconds into his debut), then Rennie will face pressure to play Mattocks at the expense of his team's overall work in possession. Camilo and Richards often struggle to find the necessary consistency from week-to-week and the side looks a bit narrow (or a bit exposed if Lee and Alain Rochat push forward too far from their fullback spots to compensate) without their influence. To cap it all off, the tenuous defensive display in the late stages under severe Earthquakes pressure highlights the narrow margins for a team built firmly on conservative principles.
Rennie and the Whitecaps made this series of moves to provide some latitude for the solid rearguard during the playoff push. The early signs suggest the chopping and changing will yield a more cohesive unit capable of providing the goals required to satisfy that objective. It may not work out as planned, but the Whitecaps displayed their ambition by risking a solid foundation in an attempt to build a potential MLS Cup-winning side.
Five Points – Week 18
1. Two goals make all of the difference for Kenny Cooper: The previously prolific New York forward exhibited all of the characteristics of a man lacking a bit of form at the sharp end in the early stages of the Red Bulls' 2-0 win over Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon. Cooper approached his opportunities too tentatively inside the penalty area – an extra touch here, a hesitant pause there – in opening stages of the affair.
Everything changed when he headed home from Connor Lade's inch-perfect cross two minutes before halftime. The goal ended his drought at more than 600 minutes and inspired him to unleash the type of guttural reaction associated with a drastic sense of his relief. His sharp performance after the interval – including a 58th minute header to double his haul and provide the final margin of victory – suggests his return to the score sheet may not prove fleeting.
2. Lack of dynamic alternatives leaves Sporting Kansas City searching for goals yet again: For the third consecutive match at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, Sporting failed to find a way through defiant opposition in Saturday night's 0-0 draw with New England. It isn't a matter of possession or purpose at this stage. Instead, the problems stem from a lack of diversity in the attacking options behind Graham Zusi's scheming through midfield and his usually potent set-piece delivery. If Zusi isn't particularly incisive on the night or the opposition restricts his paths to goal, Sporting tends to find itself bogged down in the opposing banks of four and five it tends to see at home. The problem likely won't dissipate any time soon (the potentially helpful Roger Espinoza is away with Honduras on Olympic duty and the issue predated his departure, anyways) unless Sporting receives a variety of tempting service from the flanks or signs another creative midfielder to shoulder some of the load from the influential Zusi.
3. Credit FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman for sticking to his guns: The veteran boss certainly could have pointed to his dearth of attacking options and selected Brek Shea for his squad ahead of Portland's visit on Saturday night. Instead of bowing to that selection-based pressure (a point discussed in Friday's Musings), he opted to leave out the dissenting midfielder and reaped the benefits of an overall team performance in the resounding 5-0 victory over the Timbers.
From the front (Scott Sealy with an active display as the lone forward and a first goal since returning to MLS in 2010) to the back (yet another shutout for Kevin Hartman, though with some help from the post on an early effort by Mike Fucito), FCD played like a team trying to justify Hyndman's decision. David Ferreira's return from injury gave FCD some hope for a second-half revival, but this particular night could prove just as important if the club continues its recovery and makes an unexpected run toward a postseason berth.
4. It sure looks like Portland is back to square one: Every aspect of the Timbers' performance in Frisco fell well short of the required standards. Interim coach and general manager Gavin Wilkinson opted for the wrong tactical approach (a diamond 4-4-2 setup at the end of a hectic stretch in 90 degree weather against a side known for keeping the ball well with Ferreira in the lineup?) and the players on the field relented far too easily at the first hint of adversity. FCD color analyst Dante Washington astutely noted inside the first half-hour that the Timbers looked like they might ship several goals on the evening after conceding two poor goals in short order. They ultimately conceded five in a performance that ranks among the worst offered by any MLS side this season.
Former Timbers coach John Spencer assumed the brunt of the blame for this dire situation on his way out the door (and merited plenty of it), but Wilkinson deserves his fair share of criticism for cobbling together a squad that isn't committed enough (particularly in terms of defensive shape and defensive tracking) or talented enough (particularly in central midfield and in defense) to meet the expectations set forth by investor/operator Merritt Paulson.
Wilkinson didn't shy away from calling out his players for their performance on the night and used harsh words to share his displeasure about the performance.
“What is [there] to say? [I am] [h]umiliated,” Wilkinson told reporters after the match. “I think we quit tonight. Yes, the conditions are difficult, but we said no excuses. Merritt put me in the position to find out more about the players and to actually get to the bottom of a few things. Right now, we're trying to fix a few broken things and it showed tonight.”
5. Real Salt Lake returns to form against tattered Colorado: RSL may not have hit top form in its 2-0 home victory against the Rapids, but Jason Kreis' side assumed control of the game when the visitors floundered in their distribution out of the back after a half-hour and never let the match slip out of their grasp. The effective and efficient outing provided the perfect response for a group that suffered a stunning 5-0 thrashing at San Jose last weekend and secured a sixth straight Rocky Mountain Cup.
“This is just a really satisfying win for us, after we gave up five goals on the road to San Jose,” RSL defender Nat Borchers told reporters after the game. “We really put a premium tonight on defending well. This is the time of the season to stay healthy and hungry.”
BONUS. Another example to show why MLS officiating drives coaches, fans and players crazy: Jair Marrufo worked himself into the right position a few yards away from Sam Cronin's challenge on Camilo Sanvezzo in Vancouver's 2-1 victory over San Jose. He assessed the situation and shrugged off the appeals for a penalty on a call that probably could have gone either way. And then he looked to his assistant referee located half a field away and pointed to the spot on his advice. That choice – and Marrufo's decision to shirk his responsibility to make a call located right in front of him – led to Barry Robson's match-winning penalty and sparked a series of vociferous protests from the Earthquakes players. Given the circumstances and Marrufo's desire to abdicate his primary responsibility at the most critical point in the game, it is hard to blame them.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.