Opportunity lost for Whitecaps in draw vs. Minnesota

Minnesota United defender Kevin Venegas, right, and Vancouver Whitecaps forward Alphonso Davies (67) compete for the ball during the second half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, June 24, 2017, in Minneapolis. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP)

Depending on your perspective, the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2-2 draw against Minnesota United on Saturday is a solid road point, or an opportunity lost.

While it is true that it’s incredibly difficult to pick up points on the road in Major League Soccer, when you have a two-goal lead, you simply have to shut the door.

The apologists will point out that captain and star centre back Kendall Waston was injured, and starting right fullback Sheanon Williams was unavailable because he’s suspended by the league following a domestic incident and his subsequent entry into the league’s substance abuse and behavioural health program.

If you take two starting defenders out of any back four, there are going to be problems – it’s not a bankrupt argument.

But ideally, if a team enters the break with a two-goal lead, there should be a clear path to victory.

That didn’t happen, so let’s start with a look at what went wrong.

Marking? What’s that?

When you have two key defenders missing from your lineup, there are always going to be a few plays in a match where attackers get into free positions. Take a look at the replays of both of Minnesota’s goals. There were no Vancouver players near either of the goal scorers.

In both cases, it’s not a direct result of a defender not marking his man – in both cases a midfielder should have been tracking back. That’s a failure on the part of the those individual midfielders, but also a failure on the part of the centre backs for not barking at those players to get back and help out. But given Tim Parker and Andrew Jacobson are not normally partners at centre back, it’s only natural that there would be a few moments where that lack of chemistry and organization would prove dangerous – on this night it cost the team.

Designated for isolation

While Fredy Montero’s record of five goals from 12 starts is nothing to scoff at, it’s clear for anybody who’s been paying attention that the last stretch has been incredibly testing for the Colombian marksman. Following this match, Montero has just one goal in his last eight contests.

For much of this season, he has been played as a lone striker. He has been left isolated, and asked to feed off scraps with little in the way of support. His teammates persist in sending him aerial balls, despite the fact he lacks the strength or athleticism required to do anything worthwhile from that type of service.

In this match, he had a strike partner in Brek Shea – but the pair didn’t link up particularly well.

Possession problems

Whenever anyone brings up the clear issue the Whitecaps have with holding the ball, there’s always someone with a grin in the corner asking, “What about Leicester City?”

While a counterattacking approach may work in some circumstances, holding just 26.8 per cent of the ball — as the Whitecaps did on this nigh — simply isn’t enough. When you allow your opponents to have that much of the ball, you give them the opportunity to dictate play. It was clear that as this match progressed, the ‘Caps ceded more and more control and influence to Minnesota. Teams can find a way to win by deliberately sucking their opponents in and then punishing them on the counter. The Whitecaps don’t have the personnel at this moment to make this an effective approach.

But it wasn’t all bad for the Whitecaps. As mentioned off the top, any draw on the road in this league is a good result. Let’s have a look at what went right.

Big impact from the little man

After a fairly forgettable 2016 season, Cristian Techera has been absolute dynamite for the Whitecaps this season. He ran the show against LA Galaxy in a 4-2 win in April at BC Place, and has kept that pace since then – just last weekend he powered home a commanding free kick to secure the ‘Caps a 1-1 draw against FC Dallas. Once again on this night, Techera was the man making things happen for Vancouver – he scored the opener from the penalty spot, and sent in a perfectly weighted ball for Tony Tchani’s headed goal from a set piece. The Uruguayan has been unplayable at times for the club’s opponents, and a treat for Whitecaps fans to watch.

Tchani presence

Tchani’s goal to give Vancouver a 2-0 lead was powerful and came at an important moment. In brief moments, the player has that raw athleticism to be a real difference maker. However, it’s difficult not to hand him a significant portion of the blame for the team holding less than 30 per cent of the ball. If head coach Carl Robinson is unwilling to make serious adjustments to deal with the side’s ball-retention issues, senior players need to find a way to figure it out themselves. Tchani must be part of that solution.

So that’s Ibini

The Australian international wasn’t on the field for long, but he nearly scored a spectacular headed effort. It was only a wonderful reaction save from Bobby Shuttleworth that likely secured Minnesota the point on this night.

Whitecaps fans will still be wondering what Bernie Ibini’s full potential is – but this little sneak peek will be cause for some hope.