Whitecaps steadying the ship after rocky start to season

Vancouver Whitecaps' Fredy Montero, right, celebrates his second goal with teammate Nicolas Mezquida, during the second half of MLS soccer action against the Seattle Sounders in Vancouver, B.C. Friday, April 14, 2017. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER – It’s been a rocky start to the season for the Vancouver Whitecaps, but an important win over a rival has steadied the ship for now.
 
Entering Friday’s Cascadia derby with the Seattle Sounders at BC Place, the ‘Caps had just two wins to show from nine competitive matches in 2017, between Major League Soccer and CONCACAF Champions League play.
 
In real terms those Champions League matches are irrelevant to the team’s MLS fortunes now, but the feeling of those two losses in the semifinals had added to what had been a fairly uninspiring beginning to this campaign.
 
On Friday, the team found its way to victory past the defending MLS Cup Champions in what was a largely tight affair, claiming a 2-1 win thanks to goals from Fredy Montero, a former Sounders star.
 
That result brings the club’s MLS record to 2-3-1.

“After a wonderful Champions League run – we managed to beat [New York] Red Bulls and then get to play Tigres, a top team, and we probably deserved to lose over the two legs,” coach Carl Robinson told reporters following Friday’s win, when asked to assess the season to date. “But we put a lot into that, and when you put a lot into that and you have league games after or before, your focus has to shift a little bit.
 
“I’m in charge. It was my decision to really focus on the Champions League with the club and maybe the first couple of results took a hit based upon that. But we could have gone the other way, but we didn’t. I think everyone enjoyed the run, because we don’t know when we’ll get there again.
 
“Now we have to refocus for Major League Soccer. It was an important game today.”
 
It was the sort of result that will go some way to convincing fans that this team has the guts and guile necessary to compete for a playoff spot after last season’s disappointment. Seeing Montero, a Designated Player, score both goals – true poacher’s efforts in the box – will go some ways to settling nerves about whether the Colombian will fit in here with Robinson’s squad.
 
Montero is that sort of player that oozes class with his movement and a silky touch, but his lack of breakaway speed or strength – essentially a lack of obvious athletic prowess – make him a very different sort of striker than this team has seen in some time. 
 
When Montero is not scoring, he can be a bit frustrating to watch. He has one gear and doesn’t press defenders in the way an Erik Hurtado does. He can’t win headers when the ball is aimlessly kicked up field. What he does have is an eye for goal that no Whitecaps forward has had since Camilo – and as long as he finds the target on a regular basis, nobody will be paying much attention to his time in the 100-metre dash.
 
“Just starting the season, I know this team has more to give,” Montero told reporters after the match. “I think in the stage that we are right now, we are fine. Obviously, we are trying to find that balance between defending well and scoring goals.”
 
Finding that balance will be important in the coming weeks, as the team plays four consecutive away matches, starting with another Cascadia derby next weekend against the Portland Timbers.
 
The club has lost its two road MLS matches so far, most recently a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Real Salt Lake last weekend. Veteran defender Jordan Harvey insists this group of players has the capacity to pick up points over these coming games.
 
“I think you saw a team that had some urgency, had a lot of confidence,” Harvey said in reference to Friday’s victory. “We need to continue that. On the road, I think this team has the grit to grind out points like we did a couple of years ago.”
 
Watching Friday’s match, it appears that Robinson is getting closer to an idea of what his best lineup is, or at least until off-season signing Yordy Reyna returns from injury in a month to give the manager a good kind of headache – or at the very least another option.
 
As far as the lineup right now, the only obvious question mark is in central midfield. Russell Teibert started this match but there’s no sense here that it’s his position to keep. Both Tony Tchani and Andrew Jacobson are more experienced players who also offer a more physically imposing presence.
 
While Montero will rightfully seize the headlines after Friday’s win, it’s also worth mentioning Cristian Techera. The winger seems to be back to his best after a fairly diabolical 2016 season individually.
 
The diminutive Uruguayan ripped the LA Galaxy to shreds two weeks ago, and it was a wonderful bit of individual play on the right wing followed by a perfectly weighted cross that set up the opener against the Sounders.

Sportsnet's Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop, and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport's biggest issues.