Games against the Vancouver Whitecaps, from a D.C. United perspective, seem to happen far less frequently than they actually do. Maybe it's just me, but the Whitecaps feel like one of those odd NFL match-ups where the two teams haven't played since 2008 due to the fact that playing every other team in the NFL is impossible in a season. In reality, it's been fourteen months since United lined up opposite the Whitecaps, and before that it was another fourteen months (plus an extra week for good measure).
The lack of familiarity continues when you consider that United will be facing a Carl Robinson-coached team for the first time. The former Wales international is even younger than Ben Olsen (making tonight's game a coaching duel between MLS's two youngest bosses), and in his first season as a head coach has produced rather mixed results. Through June 25th, his 'Caps were 5W-7D-2L. That's a lot of draws, to be sure, but they were winning more than they were losing, and new Designated Player Pedro Morales looked like a straight-up superstar.
Morales has continued to perform, but Vancouver fell off as summer wore on. The Whitecaps are 2W-5D-4L over their last eleven matches, and have only won once in their last nine. Their tendency to draw games would be drawing plenty of attention if not for the Chicago Fire's bizarre quest to finish with 34 ties in 2014, but the fact is that United has managed to both win and lose more often than Vancouver has.
Last week's 3-0 loss at home to the Portland Timbers - a Cascadia Cup match that the Whitecaps more or less hyped as their most important fixture to date - also saw the TSN broadcasters note an odd statistic: The Whitecaps have not won a single game in which the score was tied at halftime. I checked into it, and it's true: Tied at halftime, the Whitecaps have gone 0W-7D-3L, including the Timbers loss.
It's an indicator that the Whitecaps have a couple of problems. One is a little less tangible: This Vancouver side doesn't have a particularly good instinct to go out and win games. They've been involved in nine different games in which the teams combined for four or more goals, but generally speaking they let game states control them too much. In other words, when the Whitecaps have a lead, they tend to concede goals; when they're behind, they have a knack for scoring.
They've managed to stage a two-goal comeback (at home against RSL, scoring in the 86th and 94+th minutes) and drop points due to a two-goal comeback (a visit to Philly that saw them go from 2-0 up to 3-2 down in eight minutes before then equalizing in the 81st minute). They've also seen two different huge leads turn into harrowing wins. A 3-0 lead over San Jose became a 3-2 win, and a 4-1 second half lead in Portland turned into a 4-3 victory.
The other issue that leads to the symptom of poor second half performances is that the Whitecaps are a one-note offense. Robinson doesn't have many options to change how his team attacks; up until very recently, his strikers and wingers all fit the same broad profile. They have what is probably the fastest attack in MLS, but there's no change-up in their arsenal. Sure, Darren Mattocks plays differently from Kekuta Manneh, who is different from Sebastian Fernandez, but they're not different enough to force teams to change how they defend. When Robinson makes an attacking change, he's largely just sending in fresh legs rather than asking a new question of the opponent.
All that said, they do pose a dangerous challenge in the form of Morales. The Chilean has rewarded the seven-figure contract the Whitecaps used to lure him away from Malaga by being Vancouver's top goalscorer (seven) and their top source of assists (nine). Throughout the season, anyone who has watched the Whitecaps has likely noticed a broad trend: Shut down Morales, and you probably won't concede any goals. Give him time to pick his head up when he's on the ball, and you're about to either concede a big chance or be forced to scramble desperately to shut the danger down.
The issue with Morales is that he's not like MLS's other #10s. He doesn't roam wide like Javier Morales does sometimes, nor does Vancouver ever start him on a wing like Portland does with Diego Valeri from time to time. Instead, Morales stays in the middle but is almost as much of a threat from inside his own half as he is at the top of the box. Tonight, United can't just harass Morales when he has the ball in the attacking third; he needs to be under immediate pressure every time he's on the ball, full stop.
The reason Morales is such a threat from deep positions is that he's MLS's most dangerous passer over long range. He has the vision to see developing plays from a long way away, and he has the skill to deliver the right ball even over 50 or 60 yards. Morales can switch the point of attack with ease, but he's even more dangerous going over the top for runners. In the event that United has failed to apply the correct pressure on Morales, the Black-and-Red back four needs to start retreating immediately, because Morales will be looking to send Vancouver's gaggle of speedsters in behind whenever possible.
Before we get into the specifics concerning those speedsters, though, let's look at how the Whitecaps line up. Despite playing a few games in an RSL-style 4312 this season - and there are rumors it could return soon - Robinson has largely preferred a 4231:
There aren't too many question marks here. Vancouver's shoddy defending against Portland does beg the question of whether they need to make some changes in the back, but the fact is that they don't have many options. The only spot I could see them making a change is in central defense, where Andy O'Brien doesn't really have a good partner available.
Newcomer Kendall Waston - that's Waston, not Watson - is the most physically imposing field player this side of Jamison Olave, but it's no mistake that Waston has spent a big chunk of his career as a striker rather than a defender. In CCL play on a couple different Costa Rican teams, he often looked lost as a center back; last week against the TImbers, it was more of the same. Waston does well in situations where he can use his size, but whenever positioning and communication are more important he tends to struggle.
The issue for the Whitecaps is that Waston doesn't have much competition due to Jay DeMerit's retirement. Carlyle Mitchell is basically just a skinnier version of Waston, and Robinson appears to have forgotten about Christian Dean, who was the 3rd overall pick in the Superdraft this year yet has barely played at all. Johnny Leveron would surely get the start, but he's away with the Honduran national team for the Copa Centroamericana.
Russell Teibert will partner with Matias Laba in the engine room thanks to an injury to Gershon Koffie. Koffie is a big loss in terms of physicality and speed in central midfield. Teibert still covers a lot of ground and is more clever than Koffie, but it doesn't change the fact that Teibert is better as a winger. He's also not the best partner for Laba, who is an outstanding player but as a short, slightly-built player benefits strongly from being partnered with the more powerful Koffie.
Nevertheless, Laba's positional sense places him among MLS's best defensive midfielders. United is going to find it difficult to outfox the young Argentine whenever they want to combine through the middle of the attacking third. Laba is the kind of player who uses his brain to discourage forward passes by seeing the opening before attacking players do, and when people try to force it he's there with an interception. The most likely result is that United will need to attack from wide positions.
That's good news, because the Whitecaps have not gotten much out of their fullbacks recently. Steven Beitashour has slowly regressed over the course of the season, while Jordan Harvey remains more of an attacking threat - his goalscoring record from open play is probably the best in the league - than he is a stout defender. There will be spaces for United to exploit, and the Black-and-Red have been good throughout 2014 at combining out wide to confuse outside backs.
I promised we'd address Vancouver's attackers, so let's get back to that. The recent acquisition of Mauro Rosales was more astute than the initial reaction would indicate. Yes, Rosales is slow and will struggle to avoid injuries playing on the hard turf at BC Place, but he is by far the craftiest winger or striker on their roster. Where their other wingers all want to run in behind and/or run at defenders, Rosales can create as a passer of the ball, and is still among the best crossers in MLS.
However, Robinson may opt to rest him due to Vancouver having another home game on Wednesday against San Jose (a far more vital match for their dwindling playoff hopes), which would likely mean a start for Sebastian Fernandez. The Uruguayan has had a hit-or-miss season; he's scored two different result-changing golazos, but in plenty of other games has simply failed to make an impact. Of Vancouver's non-Rosales wingers, he's the one most likely to dip inside from the right and go to goal.
Assuming Taylor Kemp gets the start, he needs to be prepared for three different challenges depending on Robinson's decision. Not only does he have Rosales and Fernandez as a possibility, but Erik Hurtado could be played as a winger as well. Robinson has used Hurtado as a striker more often than not, but he looked lost and confused against Portland until he was allowed to play underneath Darren Mattocks. If Robinson prefers Mattocks up top, Hurtado becomes an option down the right. In that case, Kemp would need to prepare for a physical, direct challenge (think a slightly less aggressive Danny Cruz).
On the other side, Kekuta Manneh got his first start in a while against the Timbers and didn't do much with it. Robinson's problem is that, with Teibert playing in the middle, he doesn't have many other options. Fernandez and Hurtado have made appearances on the left, but neither is comfortable out there. Omar Salgado was actually starting to push himself into contention after dealing with a years-long foot problem, but the youngster is in the doghouse after letting his frustration boil over after being subbed off last month.
If Manneh gets the start, Sean Franklin needs to step up high to prevent the Gambian from getting up to speed and/or facing up on the dribble. Manneh can be extraordinarily dangerous when teams stand off him thanks to his unpredictable nature and the fact that he always looks to get into the box on the dribble, so it's far better to confront him near midfield. The more isolated Manneh is from his teammates, the less he tends to have an impact.
Up front, both Mattocks and Hurtado are lacking in confidence at the moment. Neither player is particularly well-suited to the role of a lone striker due to the personnel in Robinson's 4231, either. Both struggle with back-to-goal play, and both players struggle in terms of their positioning. Their speed still makes them a threat, but it's more of a "puncher's chance" threat than a constant danger. United's defense needs to be especially alert whenever the midfield and forwards can't provide quality pressure.
In transition, DCU needs to be sharp in both directions. The Whitecaps struggle defending when the game gets open, but the combination of their team speed and Morales make them very dangerous on the attack. Upon giving the ball away, United needs to switch to both a defensive mentality and physically get into good defensive positions as quickly as possible. Vancouver has problems breaking down organized teams, and being a frustrating opponent is always valuable in MLS when you've flown cross-country to play as the visitor.
On set pieces, Morales usually produces a few dangerous services per game. The Whitecaps don't have a wide range of targets, though. Waston is a (literally) huge threat - he scored 8 times last season with Deportivo Saprissa - but overall there's a lack of size and power throughout their lineup. Harvey has a knack for getting to loose balls during scrambles and being unmarked at the back post, but that's about it. If United can keep Waston from getting to the ball, the service of Morales (and Rosales, for that matter) isn't that big of a deal.
At the other end, United should be able to create some looks. The size advantage Ben Olsen's side will have is a big factor, but another problem Vancouver has is that they tend to be static on corner kicks and free kicks. If United is mobile and aggressive, there should be some pretty high-quality opportunities. Goalkeeper David Ousted doesn't have the size or aggression to bully his way through traffic, either, so crosses between the penalty spot and the top of the six-yard box should be dangerous.
All in all, this is the sort of game United has made a habit of winning this year. The Whitecaps are not a bad side by any means, but they're tactically limited and are struggling in terms of belief at the moment. It's tough to go to the Pacific coast and play on arguably MLS's worst surface, but Vancouver is a reactive team rather than being proactive. For lack of a better way of putting it, United has shown a knack for controlling the mood of games, and this Whitecaps team doesn't do well when their opponent imposes upon them.