Vancouver Whitecaps finally score from the field, but problems persist

The Vancouver Whitecaps managed a goal from open play for the first time this season, but the underlying issues are still there — and will be until a solution is found externally.

After scoring against the Houston Dynamo, Vancouver Whitecaps FC forward Deiber Caicedo holds up three fingers to denote the score as he tries to encourage his team to keep fighting during Saturday night’s game at at BBVA Stadium in Houston. Photo by Troy Taormina /USA TODAY Sports

It developed exactly the way the Vancouver Whitecaps had envisioned when formulating their aggressive, high-pressing style of play: a forced turnover, lightning-quick transition, and a goal.

The sequence began when Ryan Raposo took advantage of a poor back-pass by Houston Dynamo midfielder Matías Vera, then an equally poor first touch by centre back Boniek García, and pried the ball loose for Lucas Cavallini.

Cavallini fed it to Déiber Caicedo on the left, and the Colombian winger sidestepped an onrushing Marko Maric, only to find himself facing a wall of orange between him and his first Major League Soccer goal.

Even then, just five yards from net, it looked like the Caps’ season-long run of no goals from open play would continue. But Caicedo gave it the full laces, and his shot deflected off both García and Derrick Jones before hitting pay dirt.

It was the first non-penalty or non-free-kick goal the Whitecaps have scored this year, but it was far from enough as Vancouver (2-4-1) dropped a 2-1 decision to the Dynamo at BBVA Stadium in Houston on Saturday.

It marked only the fifth time in the last 35 halves that Vancouver has scored from open play. If you don’t count the team’s 3-0 win over the L.A. Galaxy at the end of last season — when the team was already eliminated from playoff contention — it drops to just just three goals in 33 halves.

The Whitecaps are second-last in total shots per 90 minutes (8.50) and are better only than lowly FC Cincinnati at completed live-ball passes that lead to a shot attempt. While some pundits point to the defence as the team’s main Achilles Heel, the Caps’ bend-but-don’t-break philosophy hasn’t been the biggest problem. The team may lead the league in shot-creation actions against, but are solidly mid-pack in goal-creating actions per 90 minutes. Translated from “Sportuguese,” that means they give up shots, but don’t necessarily give up a ton of goals.

And the offensive problems have dogged this team for years, although it’s been particularly acute the past three seasons, when players have been shoehorned into roles that haven’t suited them. Fredy Montero and Cavallini, a poacher and a powerful finisher, respectively, have been called into action as playmakers or False Nines the past two years.

Looking at where Cavallini has been getting the ball this season is the antithesis of how he should be used. But looking at the roster, it’s the hand coach Marc Dos Santos has to play.

When it comes to breaking down a lower-sitting opponent with numbers behind the ball, the Whitecaps can’t crack the code.

And now with the team not playing again until June 18, the big job ahead for the coach is to figure out how to — you’ve probably heard this before — maximize the players he has on the roster. The primary transfer window closes June 1, and the secondary window opens July 7.

“We struggled to break down opponents. We’re trying a lot of things, we’re trying to have many guys in different spots on the field to originate with the guys situations of goal,” said Dos Santos. “There’s not enough clarity in that last pass, last play around the the 18-yard box or in the last third, so it’s disappointing. And we need to grow in that 100 per cent. We need to grow as a team in that area.

“Let me be clear: Axel and I talk every day about where we need to improve the team, and we’re (thinking) the same way — we’re desperate with some areas that we want to improve, and we’re working on that.”

One of the issues from last year was a lack of stability in their structure, but they seemed to have found a balance in the 4-4-2 the Caps adopted late last season and stuck with through the first part of this year. But Dos Santos appears willing to try to switch to a 4-3-3.

“We have to make sure that the next three weeks, we could really assess our best way of playing, review the system to make sure that we go into against Salt Lake, the most ready possible,” he said. “Off the field, but the most important thing for me as a coach is … my assessment during the break (on) what are our best weapons to open up the play and do better in the the opponent’s half, and rethink our structure, tactically.

“If we’re not able to play in a certain way, it’s my job as a coach to try to work with the guys that are here to unlock things. This is my job. To give confidence to the guys, help them unlock things with the guys we have and at the same time we work closely with Axel to try to find solutions off the field.”

May 22, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; Vancouver Whitecaps FC forward Deiber Caicedo (7) scores a goal against the Houston Dynamo FC during the second half at BBVA Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports Photo by Troy Taormina /USA TODAY Sports

The pressure is clearly mounting on Dos Santos to get results, especially as more teams around them are starting to get points. After starting the season winless in five, Minnesota United has won two-straight games and is now just a point back of Vancouver, with a game in hand.

LAFC started Friday at the bottom of the conference, but jumped over Vancouver with a 2-1 win over Colorado. Austin Austin could do the same if they record a point against their expansion older brothers Nashville on Sunday.

Despite all of that, Vancouver is only two points behind seventh-place San Jose, who have lost three-straight games.

“We’re going to the break where, in our division, everything’s very close to each other,” said Dos Santos. “If you look at the standings, the points from the last one to maybe the fourth or the third, everything is very close. So there’s an assessment to be made, work to be done and it’s important this break to assess everything.”


Friday, June 18

Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Real Salt Lake

7 p.m., Rio Tinto Stadium. TV: TSN. Radio: AM 730


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