I don’t consider myself a cynic when it comes to the Caps and the MLS in general but I am a critical consumer. I’ve been to more Whitecaps games this season than the past two combined and that’s mainly because I like what I’ve seen (and my son keeps asking me to take him to every game they play with my daughter now getting on the bandwagon as well). So with a critical eye, I see their evolution as follows:
First season: wide-eyed but ambitious newcomers who could score but had no idea how to protect a lead and gave away far too many preventable goals. Teitur paid the price for that.
Second season: once Rennie took over, immediate attention was paid to the defending and it showed. However, it showed as a decline in goals shipped but also as an increase in dour, clueless attacking which got worse as the season went on. There were few watchable games last year despite the fact they made the playoffs.
Third season: It’s been a split season so far. Some early season wobbles cast doubt on Rennie’s future but a home win against the Galaxy though has ensured he will see out the season as the team gains strength and confidence from every game now. They have never had this run of form below and they look composed, confident and capable of dealing with whatever pops up on the field in front of them.
To the point….
So what happened this season, particularly after the Galaxy win ended a mini-slide that saw them go winless in seven? Many things.
The re-vamped role and form of Kenny Miller. Rennie, to his credit, has the team playing a fairly fluid 4-3-3 that encourages the front three to rotate and provide depth from different parts of the field. Early on, Kenny Miller seemed to be given a free role that let him go wherever he wanted. Perhaps this was to unsettle opponents who wanted to man-mark him or perhaps this was to see if he could provide influence in different parts of the field. It did not work and that role has most definitely been changed so that Miller’s movements are more lateral and higher up in the attacking third as much as possible. He is on form, scoring goals and drawing enough attention from defenders that Camilo is finding space to score more goals from open play like today (although the majority of his goals are still from set pieces). Worth noting that Miller’s goals per minute played stat, particularly when you deduct goals scored by others on penalty kicks (Miller has no goals form PK’s) is among the very best in the league.
Russell Teibert. Diehards, like Benjamin Massey, had been singing his praises for some time now but few would have thought he would not only keep his spot in the starting eleven but truly be the attacking catalyst from wide positions that was badly needed. He is a sliver away from the top players in the league in terms of assists per minute with a work rate that is bettered only by his confidence on the ball. While most likely thought Erik Hurtado or Kekuta Manneh would be the break out wide player to play this role, Teibert has made it his and his form made him an automatic selection for the men’s national team for the Gold Cup.
Brad Knighton’s evolution into a top MLS keeper. The competition for the starting spot pushed him to be good enough to nudge Joe Cannon aside. The team is 6-1-2 when he starts. As he’s acknowledged though, when the team signed Danish keeper, David Ousted, it forced him to re-calibrate, accept the new challenge to his starting position and make it very difficult for Rennie to replace him with the new signing. The past two games he has been flawless and while he had considerably less to do against the poor Chicago Fire, he stole the points for the Caps against the Sounders last week. At that time, I tweeted that sustained form of that calibre would, for me, make him US Men’s National Team selection material. Good goalkeepers keep you in games. Great goalkeepers steal games for you every now and then and inspire better outfield play from back to front.
The ability of the midfield to control the tempo of play and limit opponents attacking a makeshift back four. I’ve never really been a fan of Demerit as the cornerstone of the back four. Erratic play with too many lunging, all or nothing tackles that mask average positional play and aerial ability. So when he went down and O’Brien took over leadership of the back four I actually saw that as a gain. O’Brien had Rusin listening to him and had a competent but raw centre back playing to the best of his abilities. Then O’Brien went down in the game in Seattle, so along with Alain Rochat being traded the back four started to look very different. Despite the rocks being thrown at him as fans lamented the loss of Rochat (who I thought looked disinterested far too often), Jordan Harvey has not been the achilles heel that many thought he would be. Witness today against Chicago. Watching Chicago in the first half it seemed clear to me they were more interested in trying to create 1v1’s against YP Lee than against Harvey.
So with somewhat inexperienced Harvey at left back, Spanish-speaking newcomer Johnny Leveron at centre back next to aforementioned Brad Rusin and an ageing YP Lee at right back, you’d think they’d be back to conceding unearned goals. But they’re not. While the competence of Harvey and the obvious decision to reel in Lee’s attacking role have helped the fledgling partnership of Leveron and Rusin get by (despite the fact both are glaringly one-footed), the real credit goes to the abilities of Davidson, Koffie and Reo-Coker and their cool, calculating running of the midfield. Koffie emerged last season as a solid contributor despite the fact there was resistance to playing him as a holding mid. Reo-Coker demands accountability from everyone on the pitch and has been a fantastic addition despite the odd game where he seems to be gassed by the 60th minute. The key though has been the much improved play of Davidson. I doubted his ability the first few times I saw him play and felt that he didn’t quite have the engine and ball-wining ability of a Yaya Toure holding mid nor the distribution of a Xabi Alonso. I didn’t see where he fit in and thought the Caps would be better with Koffie as the holding mid and Reo-Coker and Daigo Kobayashi in front of him. To their credit though they have formed a fantastic understanding of how to play with each other, how to nullify opponents threats in midfield and Davidson’s work rate seems much higher as he picks the right moments to drop back to support both centre backs and outside backs. Their ball-winning efforts as a group, their cohesion positionally and ability to transition the ball to forwards simply but quickly has been excellent. Reo-Coker, in particular, sets the bar high in terms of tenacity in 50-50 challenges. He is becoming one of the players other MLS players don’t enjoy playing against while bringing out the best in his own teammates.
It’s very, very difficult to know how and why a team’s form can turn so quickly. The Caps were perhaps two more losses away from finding themselves with a new coach. That would have meant a lot of player moves over the summer and that, with 20-20 hindsight, would have clearly been the wrong decision. While Toronto FC are in the unenviable position, again, of having a new coach and another poor start lead them down the path of cycling players in and out in the pursuit of both changing the results and the losing culture deep within that club, the Whitecaps have weathered an early season storm and are now able to benefit from a stable roster and, more recently, a stable starting eleven. Yes, their recent unbeaten run has primarily been against the weaker teams in the league, but the performances have been thoroughly and increasingly professional. They have persisted patiently until breakthroughs came and they have held their nerve in games with slender leads. Those are attributes of teams that teams need if they are to win league titles and cups. While I’ve seen a couple of clunker games this season they’ve been far outweighed by determined, entertaining tilts that have left me feeling like returning. That was far from the case last season.