Whitecaps Scouting Report: Stuck In The Middle Without You

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

A return engagement to the land of Tim Horton and Don Cherry, where the Sounders will try to keep up in the Cascadia Cup standings and keep ahead in the race for the Supporters Shield.

By my Miniature Dachshund of the Month calendar, the Sounders' last visit to BC Place was a while ago — nearly six weeks. But thanks to the World Cup break, by the schedule it was only four games ago. So there aren't likely to be many new lessons to be learned about Vancouver based on the play since that 2-2 draw. They are still heavily reliant on speed and penetrating balls to get past the defense. And when that doesn't work, they're still heavily reliant on blasting shots from distance.

Most of the speed comes from forwards Erik Hurtado, Kekutah Manneh, and Darren Mattocks, with Mattocks has been coming off the bench in most matches. The Sounders did a good job of neutralizing their pace in the last matchup. The two Whitecaps goals in that one came off of some individual brilliance from Hurtado in the box (when he cut back on Osvaldo Alonso twice to clear space for a shot) and from some legendary Seattle derp when Stefan Frei went on walkabout to clear a ball straight to the middle of the field to be sent back into his open net. Otherwise, Vancouver had few chances. A repeat performance of that would give Seattle a good chance to pick up at least a point.

The evidence so far is that the break has not been kind to the Whitecaps offense. In the three games before the layoff they scored 9 goals — in that Seattle draw, an absurdly frantic 4-3 win in Portland, and a nearly as frantic 3-3 draw in Philadelphia. But in the two games since they have yet to score. Their first game back was an unappealing scoreless home draw against the Impact, and last week they fell 2-0 to Colorado in a game in which they earned only a single shot on goal. That loss ended a 'club-record eight match unbeaten streak', but it's one of those sly streaks built on a rickety foundation of draws. In fact, they'd only won 3 of those 8 games and despite the 'streak' they're still hovering just above the red line in both points and points per game.

Key Players
Erik Hurtado The Oregonian has quickly become Vancouver's most important attacking player, with a total package of pace, strength, and technical ability.
Matias Laba The DP castoff from Toronto is the rock in the center of the midfield and can move forward to be a playmaker as well.
Pedro Morales All of those sprinting forwards and wingers need someone to get them the ball, and that's the Chilean's job.

So how did the Rapids neuter Vancouver's potent attack? Mainly, they just played solid team defense, especially in the middle. Nick LaBrocca was not at all adventurous coming out of defensive midfield. Instead he stayed at home to make sure there was never an open counterattack down the middle. And the Rapids packed numbers into the middle by pulling Dillon Powers, who was mostly playing the right side of midfield, away from the flank. That ceded the sideline, but against Vancouver that's a pretty good gamble. They are not a good crossing team and their forwards are not particularly good at winning aerial balls. You can give them the flanks and do well enough rather than give them freeways down the center to run though.

Unfortunately, Seattle has a problem in the middle thanks to a couple of otherwise innocuous yellow cards in the DC United win. One each to Gonzalo Pineda and Osvaldo Alonso combined with some very bad accumulation timing mean that neither of Seattle's normal central midfielders will be able to play in this match. And the Sounders are not blessed with depth in the middle, especially with Andy Rose out injured.

More cynical viewers might argue that Alonso didn't actually play in the previous match against Vancouver either, at least in the first half. He was uncharacteristically poor in leaving large gaps in the central midfield and in getting his ankles metaphorically broken by Hurtado on the Whitecaps' first goal. He had tightened it up by the second, but the Sounders have already proven they can play Vancouver straight up even without the Honey Badger in full effect. They don't need a superstar defensive midfielder. They just need to make up the numbers.

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A likely option is Brad Evans, who's been playing right back for club and country recently, but who was a solid central midfielder for many seasons in Seattle. Then you have to dip into the reserves. Michael Azira was brought to the team as a dual backup for Alonso in the middle and Yedlin at fullback. So he seems a natural inclusion. If the Sounders want to play a 4-3-3 to help pack the middle, Aaron Kovar is an option for the left side of that central midfield. Though at that point you've wiped out the bench options as well.

The MLS standings are at the point where Seattle can lose a couple of roster-stretching games like this one and still be a favorite for the Shield. But those aren't the only standings that matter here. In the Cascadia Cup standings, the Whitecaps have taken an early lead thanks to that road win over the Timbers. The Sounders have yet to play a home Cascadia match, but they only get two this season in the very unbalanced trivalry schedule. So if they're going to win back the Cup from the Caps, they need to get some results on the road. And giving up a win here, no matter how hollowed out the midfield, would be a serious blow to Seattle's chances.

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