Injuries force Whitecaps coach to improvise

For the first time ever, every Canadian team will be in the MLS playoffs. James Sharman and Brendan Dunlop preview the action, including Toronto FC’s game against the red-hot Montreal Impact.

VANCOUVER – It has been far from smooth sailing for the Vancouver Whitecaps down the stretch, but on Sunday the club finally seemed to catch a tailwind, as they defeated the Houston Dynamo 3-0 at BC Place.

The win secured the Whitecaps second place in the Western Conference, and ensures fans at BC Place will see their first ever MLS playoff match.

Sunday’s result also means a bye to the Conference semifinals, which is a home-and-away two-leg series against one of the LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers or Seattle Sounders. Sporting Kansas City is the other team in the knockout round, but as it is the lowest seed, if the side advances it will play FC Dallas, the first-place Western Conference team.

It’s a wonderful accomplishment for coach Carl Robinson, who has brought this team to its best-ever regular season finish despite missing Designated Player and captain Pedro Morales for large stretches due to injury, as well as a number of other attacking players at various points.

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The main stand-ins for Morales in that No. 10 role have been Nicolas Mezquida and Mauro Rosales. The two have done well when called upon, but both have struggled with injuries in recent weeks.

That has meant an element of improvisation on the part of Robinson, and while Mezquida did very well mid-season in that role, in recent weeks it has been a case of more questions than answers about how Morales’ absence was going to play out.

Robinson once again had to get creative on Sunday, deploying Gershon Koffie, naturally a more box-to-box player, in that No. 10 role behind lone striker Octavio Rivero.

Koffie lacks the sort of guile Morales and to a lesser extent Rosales and Mezquida are capable of, but he put in a strong showing on Sunday and played a part in setting Kekuta Manneh up for the game-winning goal. Manneh took the goal brilliantly, taking a touch before picking the bottom left corner with his right foot, the ball bouncing off the turf before tickling the twine behind Dynamo backup goalkeeper Joe Willis.

It was a well-taken effort, and an important one for the player who will likely carry much of this team’s hopes on his shoulders in the playoffs—especially if Morales is unable to play any sort of meaningful role.

It was also encouraging from a Vancouver perspective to see Kendall Waston convert another goal from a set piece. The player was voted player of the season by the fans and it was a worthy honour. While Morales has missed far more games this season, on the rare instance when Waston has been unavailable the void and drop in quality at centre back has been abundantly obvious.

David Ousted should certainly be in that discussion too for player of the season, but when a team concedes just 36 goals (the joint lowest in MLS), it can’t be anything but a joint effort.

The cherry on top for the Whitecaps on Sunday was a stoppage time goal from Robert Earnshaw. The diminutive Welshman timed his run to perfection to nod home a perfectly weighted Rosales ball past Willis in the Dynamo goal.

What this all means for the Whitecaps’ playoff hopes is unclear. While it worked out well on this evening, against better sides a central midfield made up of Matias Laba, Russell Teibert and Gershon Koffie, while resolute, is a bit too predictable and limited offensively.

One of Rosales, Mezquida or Morales will need to get fit for this team to be in optimal shape to compete for the MLS Cup.

Clinching second place at least helps the ‘Caps avoid playing a mid-week match, but next weekend may be too soon for Mezquida to make a start. Rosales looked good off the bench but will Robinson be willing to risk playing the injury prone veteran from the opening whistle?

It must be an incredibly frustrating situation for Robinson to be in, with three quality No. 10 players in his squad, but none of them capable of comfortably playing 90 minutes due to injury. Perhaps the solution for that initial away game next weekend will be to stick with what worked in this match—perhaps start Koffie, keep it tight, and then bring on Rosales or Mezquida if a goal is needed.

But that’s a question for another day. This match was a fitting end to what has been a wonderful, if at times rocky, regular season for the Whitecaps.

Robinson has put together a young, defensively sound side that probably would have shot even higher had injuries not neutered its attack in the final third of the season.

Regardless of what happens in the post-season it’s been a well-fought campaign and this squad’s future looks bright.

Martin MacMahon is a Vancouver-based writer. Follow him on Twitter

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