Whitecaps still searching for their identity this season


Vancouver Whitecaps defender Fraser Aird and Sporting Kansas City midfielder Connor fight for the ball. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER—Watching the Vancouver Whitecaps over the course of this Major League Soccer campaign so far has occasionally felt like witnessing some sort of avant-garde performance art. That is, you’d be forgiven if you were left bewildered at the end, wondering what to make of what you’d just seen.

If the Whitecaps sometimes inspire a bit of ambivalence with their performances, that’s because, as coach Carl Robinson noted following the team’s 1–1 draw at home versus Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday night, the team has shown a bit of everything this year. They’ve been up, down and in between—which is normal in a league with so much parity, though in their case, it’s felt a bit more extreme than usual. The Whitecaps, it seems, are still searching for their identity.

“I’m not sure,” said coach Carl Robinson, describing his reaction to Wednesday’s draw. “I said that to the guys in there. I’m not sure whether to be happy, to be sad, to be frustrated, annoyed.”

Coming off of a 3–0 win over FC Dallas last weekend, Vancouver seemed to have finally put a longstanding narrative to bed: after some offensive struggles, the team found the back of the net twice (they were gifted a bonus one courtesy of a Dallas own goal). The hope was that the scoring would continue, and of the positive takeaways from their matchup with Dallas—and there are several—the team at least wasn’t shut out.

The Whitecaps looked lively early on versus KC, and 14 minutes into the match, Christian Bolanos scored his first MLS goal with a beautiful finish on a corner kick by Cristian Techera. Bolanos, who received a hearty post-goal embrace from Techera and midfielder Russell Teibert, had taken some heat this year for his lacklustre performances, so his contribution was a hopeful sign. He’d often seemed to lack the push you’d expect from a player with World Cup experience, and his performance on Wednesday showed that fans were right to expect more from him.

“I was surprised,” said Bolanos of seeing his left-footed volley make its mark. He expressed his delight at nabbing his first goal, though the on-field happiness was short-lived. Kansas City tied the game in the 27th minute, with striker Diego Rubio scoring his first MLS goal.

What followed was something we’ve seen before: with the game tied at the half, the Whitecaps made a series of defensive blunders. Central defender Kendall Waston, who’d earned a yellow card in the first half, made a clearly illegal tackle on Rubio following a bad pass back from teammate Tim Parker. Waston got his second yellow, and Vancouver was down to 10 men for the third time this season.

“I’ve got no complaints about the second yellow card,” Robinson stated. “I think it’s a poor decision not just by Kendall but from a number of players.”

Parker, for his part, immediately apologized to his teammate, owning up to his mistake.

“I think, obviously, I shouldn’t have taken that free kick to start off with, and then I kind of lost my footing a little bit,” Parker explained. “And then it led to the ball getting stuck under my feet, and then obviously the bad pass back, so it’s kinda just one big mess-up of a play.”

Despite the draw, Parker said he thought the team had done well—though they’d failed to capitalize on a chance to earn three points.

“I thought we had them,” he said, noting that “maybe without Kendall getting sent off,” the final outcome would have been different.

The error aside, Parker put in a strong showing—the 23-year-old in his second MLS season has been a vital member of the team’s defensive unit—even after taking a knock from Dom Dwyer that left him hobbling on the field with a bloody shin.

Left fullback Jordan Harvey put in arguably the strongest performance of the night, making some nice passes and doing a fantastic job of covering his territory with the team down a man, and though Robinson was displeased with some of what he saw on defence—“There was a lot that I didn’t like on the defensive said,” he said—the Whitecaps’ ability to stay compact when down a man kept their opponent from scoring.

In fact, every time Vancouver has gone down a man this year, they’ve managed not to concede a goal.

“I think after going down to 10 men we showed a lot of character to not get scored on, and to finish the game and get a point out of it,” Teibert offered.

That ability to keep opponents from scoring when they’re down to 10 men explains why “resiliency” has often come up in talks about the team’s character this year—though their inconsistency overall explains why the team’s performances also inspire mixed feelings.

So does Robinson know what kind of team this is, and what exactly we should expect from them this year?

“Probably not, no,” he admitted. Robinson noted the importance of getting into a rhythm—which has maybe been the Whitecaps’ biggest problem this season.

If getting into a rhythm has been tricky, the Whitecaps are at least in the middle of a quick string of games that could help them figure out what exactly they’re made of. As they head to Yankee Stadium this weekend to face New York City FC—who are also coming off of a 1–1 draw on Wednesday night—they’ll be hoping to replicate their dynamic first-half performance, and hoping to avoid what happened in the second.

“Second half is a catalogue of errors from us, and we’ve got to make sure that we don’t do that too many times,” Robinson said.

While Robinson was rightly unhappy about the team’s defensive sloppiness, he was quick to praise his group’s character, calling it “phenomenal,” and he acknowledged that the team has come up big “with their backs against the wall.”

If the Whitecaps can avoid putting themselves into that position in the first place, they could show us who they really are. With their third game in eight days, though, it’ll be tough going—though perhaps tough going is exactly how they fare best. Right now, it’s a little hard to tell.

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