There’s only so much a club can do with so many of its best players are missing.
While critics will be piling on to what was a fairly uninspiring performance by the Vancouver Whitecaps in a 2-0 road loss to FC Dallas on Wednesday night, the reality is that if you’re without four or five players who would be in contention for starting spots, there’s going to be a struggle.
At the back, the big miss was Kendall Waston, a contender for the team’s most valuable player award this season. The towering centre back put in 90 minutes for Costa Rica in a 1-0 win over the United States the day before, and watched from the bench Wednesday. Reportedly he asked to play, but coach Carl Robinson ruled him out.
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Playing back-to-back games is simply not an option at this level unless it’s an absolutely must-win situation, and as nice as it would have been for the Whitecaps to claim points in Texas, it was always going to be a challenge.
Beyond Waston, Designated Player Pedro Morales was also unavailable due to a hamstring problem. Nicolas Mezquida and Mauro Rosales, each capable stand-ins for Morales in the No. 10 role, are also hurt right now. Then there’s Cristian Techera, the diminutive winger who has been so electric for Vancouver. He was left on the bench because of a hamstring injury.
But even with this reality, there’s no denying the fact that a home playoff date—the stated goal of this franchise going into this season and which once looked so certain—now looks seriously at risk.
This situation is down to a dreadful end-of-season run that has seen the Whitecaps win just twice over the last nine MLS matches, and once in the last seven. Pick your spell over the last while and it’s difficult to find a series of results that fits the narrative of a positive thinker.
Again, while the results have been poor, it’s difficult to imagine any MLS team losing so many big players and doing much better.
But the situation has conspired as such that it’s hard to suggest that this team, which once looked so formidable this summer, is now in any position to seriously compete for the MLS Cup.
There are two weeks for this hamstrung club to heal up before the playoffs begin. It seems at this point that it will be the physio and sports science team, and not any brilliance from Robinson, that will be most important factor ahead of the playoffs.
Still, Wednesday’s match will have given Robinson some new information about his side. The narrow midfield, which he was basically forced into playing given the absence of wide players, wasn’t that effective.
That won’t help him much if those players aren’t available, but this match has taught him that that particular group of players isn’t suited to that formation.
It wasn’t a devastatingly bad performance, but the midfield tucked in far too much and Dallas’ wingers were allowed far too much room on the flanks, leaving fullbacks Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour quite exposed.
If there is one real bright spot on the night, it was the MLS debut of Marco Bustos, who made his national team debut for Canada just one day prior.
He looked lively off the bench with some nice passing and will surely be one to watch in the years ahead. With a fully fit side he’s still on the fringes of this squad. But with an off-season to mature, if he comes in with a strong pre-season he could make a case for more involvement next campaign.
There may be an off-chance Bustos could play a more prominent role in the playoffs if the senior stars do not recover from injury in time. Given there’s two weeks until that stage, the 19 year old will likely have to wait.
Another player worth mentioning on this night is goalkeeper David Ousted. The all-star Danish netminder has been exceptional this season and put in another fine performance on this night by stopping a penalty kick at 1-0 to keep his side in the match.
It didn’t matter on this night, but in a tight playoff match that sort of stop very well could make the difference.
Martin MacMahon is a Vancouver-based writer. Follow him on Twitter