Martin MacMahon: More Whitecaps' goals? Don't count on it

While Vancouver Whitecaps' head coach Martin Rennie initially suggested he'd focus on defence before sorting out the attack, now he's trying to sell the idea of 1-0 victories.

The language is changing.

After four clean sheets in the first four matches for the Vancouver Whitecaps to start 2012, with only three goals scored from two wins during that period, head coach Martin Rennie told reporters his priority was to settle things at the back first.

The logic followed that once things had been solidified defensively, the team could then focus on getting things done in the final third.

But then came matches five and six, where the Whitecaps opened up and got burned – big time – against the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City, conceding six goals over back-to-back defeats.

Now, this week, after Saturday’s 1-0 win over FC Dallas, the talk isn’t about eventually becoming more offensive – it’s about becoming a winning team, regardless of the scoreline.

“You’ve got to remember that some of the best teams in the world win 1-0,” Rennie told after a training session on Wednesday at Burnaby Lake field. “So I don’t know if you’re expecting us to win by five or six, but realistically if we win 1-0 I’m pretty happy with that.

“Obviously you want to be creating more chances and scoring more goals, but there’s a lot more to the game than that. I think we were a little naïve against San Jose and even against Kansas City, attacking like crazy, and we don’t need to do that. If we’re winning 1-0 we need to stay tight and make sure we’re hard to play against.”

It’s a subtle change in language, but the implication is clear – playing open soccer given the players available hasn’t worked, while playing tight, conservative and opportunistic soccer has.

Even keeping the ball isn’t necessarily on the menu tactically.

“You always want to see [the team keep possession],” captain Jay DeMerit told earlier in the week. “But ultimately it’s about managing the game. Sometimes when it is slowing down a bit and you do have the lead, there is no hurry. So, you try to do what’s necessary to win the game and sometimes when you try to play the ball too much sometimes it turns into unwanted turnovers.

“You just have to be smart – ultimately you do always want the ball more, because that means the other team can’t score, so we’ll continue to work on our possession and hopefully get better at that, too.”

Is it possible that Rennie is actually okay with opposing teams dictating play? Many teams happy to concede possession on a regular basis to technically superior opponents have been successful – look no further than Chelsea’s mind-boggling aggregate win over Barcelona in the Champions League semifinal second leg on Tuesday, where the Londoners emerged victorious despite only keeping 17.5 percent possession.


That’s an extreme example, but there are more relevant Major League Soccer examples as well. The L.A. Galaxy under Bruce Arena have had a reputation at times for sitting back and attacking on the break – they won the 2011 MLS Cup using that strategy, only claiming 47 percent possession against the Houston Dynamo in the final.

The idea for teams which adopt that philosophy is to allow their opponents to control the ball in peripheral areas, while clogging the danger zones with bodies – this matches Vancouver’s modus operandi at this early juncture, where the much-advertised 4-3-3 often appears more like a 4-5-1.

But is the concession of possession a tactic or is it just happening?

“I’m sure it’s just happening – I don’t think it’s a tactic,” DeMerit said. “But if you get a lot of guys behind the ball and they play in front of you, they’re not going to hurt you. So it’s not a bad tactic, especially if you’re winning.”

So it’s not deliberate, but if it is on purpose it’s not a bad tactic?

The language is changing, but what exactly that means for the Vancouver offense – well – we’ll find out.

Martin MacMahon covers the Vancouver Whitecaps for Canada.