O’Brien gives Whitecaps a defensive boost

The Vancouver Whitecaps haven't had much luck against the LA Galaxy, but with their coach pumping them up and feeling confident after a win in Portland, they're ready to face off against Goliath.

Every Friday, Sportsnet.ca will chat with Sportsnet soccer commentator Paul Dolan—a former Canadian national team goalkeeper—about the big stories and issues in Major League Soccer.

Vancouver battled Chivas USA to a 0-0 draw on the road last weekend. In doing so, the Whitecaps extended their shutout streak to 321 consecutive minutes in league play. What have been the keys to their recent strong defensive form?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the return of Andy O’Brien has led to consecutive clean sheets and two very strong defensive performances by Vancouver. He missed quite a few games through injury but his veteran presence, communication and positional understanding is excellent, especially alongside a younger centre-back partner Johnny Leveron, who is coming into his own now with the Whitecaps—he’s been given a chance to play in the absence of Jay Demerit and O’Brien.

Nothing helps improve defensive understanding and confidence more than a run of games and chemistry among the back four and goalkeeper, and Leveron is improving each match because of that. At the same time Jordan Harvey has remained very steady at left back and I really think Steve Beitashour has found his rhythm since returning from the World Cup, as he was outstanding against Kansas City and solid in the shutouts of Chicago and Chivas, as well.

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New Argentine designated player Ignacio Piatti made his debut for Montreal in the Impact’s 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday. What did you make of the midfielder’s performance? How can he help the Impact going forward?

I was impressed by what I saw in some of his touches and although it wasn’t the dominant performance Hernan Bernardello had in his debut as a DP for Montreal last summer, you could see Piatti exudes qualities the Impact desperately need to improve their standing. I thought he contributed well mid-week in the Champions League game in El Salvador as well, and like Gilberto in Toronto it will take time to become accustomed to the league and his teammates. I think the biggest area of improvement required by the Impact is ball-winning and bite in midfield. But if the Impact can get the ball to Piatti you can already see he has excellent chemistry with Marco Di Vaio and will help to supply much more offensive threat for Montreal.

Toronto FC is coming off a 4-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City. After going through a dry spell, Gilberto has been scoring with regularity as of late. How do you account for the Brazilian’s turnaround?

Ryan Nelsen insists it was just a matter of Gilberto getting to know the league and settling in for him to get more comfortable and play well. It’s hard to argue that point especially for anyone who has had to move to a new team and country, never mind having to learn a new language and style of play. To be honest, I think many people who watched Gilberto closely in the early part of the season could see that he had attributes that would eventually prove useful in MLS. He is strong, good at running with the ball and right from the beginning of the year he showed a very gritty and determined attitude. He is also showing a confidence around the net now with all five of his goals being taken very well.

Seattle Sonders defender DeAndre Yedlin recently signed with Tottenham, although he’s going to finish this MLS season before joining Spurs. Is he ready to play in the Premier League?

That is yet to be determined but his play at the World Cup for the U.S. suggests he won’t be overwhelmed by the occasion as I thought he was sensational, particularly in the Belgium game. One match does not a superstar make, but he has the physical quickness and strength to play in the Premiership and he doesn’t lack for confidence. Every team loves to have a player that can attack down the wing and get crosses in. But the telling factor for Yedlin’s success in England or anywhere he plays at a high level will be his ability to defend some of the best players in the world, and that is certainly his main area of weakness.

The Chicago Fire and reportedly close to signing U.S. international Jermaine Jones to a DP contract. Is this a good fit for Chicago? Would Jones address any of Chicago’s problems?

I like the idea of bringing in U.S. World Cup players to MLS to both help strengthen teams within the league as a whole and raise the profile of the national team and its players in the U.S. When you look at the Chicago roster, it’s hard not to think Jermaine Jones would be a big upgrade to what they have in midfield, although I’ve always thought Jeff Larentowicz was one of the better defensive midfielders in MLS.

Chicago is a team that needs help in every position though and Jones was another player that had a very strong World Cup mainly through sheer hard work and determination. You would hope for Chicago’s sake that if he did sign there that his work-rate and attitude on the field would rub off on his teammates as that energy and aggressiveness alone might help turn so many games that end in draws this year for Chicago into wins and put them into contention for a playoff spot in the East.

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