Where do the Vancouver Whitecaps go from here?
It’s a question that fans and pundits have been asking themselves since the Whitecaps’ disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the Seattle Sounders last week. Fresh off a 5-0 home win over the San Jose Earthquakes in the knockout round, the Whitecaps entered their Western Conference semifinal series against Seattle as the underdog – but only slightly.
The Whitecaps were the first team from out West to earn a playoff berth, and they had multiple chances to clinch first place in the Western Conference, and thus secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage. But they went winless through their last three games of the season, eventually dropping from first to finish third.
Had the Whitecaps finished first, we might be talking about them preparing to contest the Western Conference final. Instead, a timid display against Seattle in a 2-0 aggregate series loss meant Vancouver is still trying for its first major breakthrough in the MLS playoffs.
So, now what? What does Vancouver need to do this winter ahead of the 2018 MLS regular season? What changes have to be made to transform the Whitecaps from pretenders to MLS Cup contenders?
Here are a few thoughts.
Find a proven scorer and a No. 10
This is a talented Whitecaps team, especially on the back end. Kendall Waston and Tim Parker form a strong partnership in the middle of the defence. Rookie right fullback Jake Nerwinski looks to be a promising prospect. There’s plenty of steel in central midfield with Matias Laba (when healthy), the ultra-reliable Tony Tchani, Aly Ghazal and newcomer Nosa Igiebor.
What Vancouver is missing is a proven scorer up front, a forward who can bag 15 to 20 goals a season. The Whitecaps have only had one such player, when Camillo scored 22 times in the 2013 campaign.
Fredy Montero led Vancouver in scoring this season with 13 goals, a respectable tally. But the Colombian blew hot and cold, although he often cut an isolated figure in the Whitecaps’ attack and received little service. Still, he isn’t the long-term solution, as his loan deal is over and he is expected to return to Chinese club Tianjin Teda.
Vancouver could also use a creative playmaker – a player of genuine quality and vision who can orchestrate the attack, and serve as the key midfield fulcrum. Someone who is comfortable while in possession, and can hold onto the ball before quickly releasing a teammate on goal.
The Whitecaps need only look at what the addition of Victor Vazquez has meant for the Toronto FC this season. The Spaniard has been sensational in his debut MLS season, recording 16 assists (second-most in MLS) and chipping in with eight goals.
Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson was pretty blunt when assessing his team after the 2-0 loss to Seattle in the second leg.
“I put as many attacking players on the field today as I could, and we still couldn’t muster two or three or four or five decent chances,” Robinson said. “Sometimes … it’s about lack of quality. Over the two legs, we didn’t have enough quality to get through.
“You’ve just go to try to find better players. I believe we’re in a better place than we were two years ago when we went out to Portland. Better players make you a better team.”
Simply put, Vancouver has to spend money get the quality players they need to make them a legitimate MLS Cup contender. Traditionally, the Whitecaps have scoured the globe for players who are flying under the radar or who are in a bad situation at their club.
A solid base and a deep roster are musts in a salary cap league such as MLS. But having impact players is just as important – stars who can influence a game in an instant. A forward who can score on a regular basis, and a creative midfielder who can pry open defences. Those types of players, those true game-changers, usually cost money, and it’s not often you can find them in bargain bins.
Vancouver boasted the ninth-highest payroll in MLS this season at $8.07 million US. Taken on its own, that number is pretty significant. But it’s telling that the Portland Timbers, who topped the Western Conference, have four of the league’s 50-highest paid players, while Seattle has three. The Whitecaps only have two in Montero and Laba, and the later suffered a season-ending knee injury in August.
Develop a new philosophy
Robinson has led Vancouver to the Western Conference semifinal in two of the last three years. But in those four games, the Whitecaps failed to score a single goal – and in 180 minutes against Seattle they didn’t even register a single, dangerous shot on target.
Seattle was there for the taking in the first leg. The Sounders were missing influential forward Clint Dempsey through suspension, Vancouver was riding the momentum from its thrashing of San Jose, and it had a boisterous crowd at BC Place behind them. It was all set up for the ‘Caps to go for it.
But Robinson played it safe, and his team never attempted to try to open it up against the Sounders, playing not to lose, instead of trying to win. The Welsh manager’s conservative tactics proved to be incredibly tone deaf, and he doubled down on that approach in the second leg in Seattle – although, to be fair, influential attackers Yordy Reyna and Cristian Techera weren’t at full strength and played with injuries.
Still, when the stakes have been at their highest, Robinson has cowered in terms of his tactics and player selection. A new philosophy has to be adopted, a culture change within the Whitecaps organization must take place. Complacency can no longer be accepted. They can’t be afraid of losing. From top to bottom, there has to be a fearlessness every time the Whitecaps take to the pitch, an expectation that they are going to win every game they play.
We’ve seen the exact opposite from the Whitecaps in their last two Western Conference semifinal appearances. Ultimately, that’s why they lost both series.