This penultimate Cascadia Cup match for the Seattle Sounders sees one of their rare remaining road games. They see the Vancouver Whitecaps while heading in opposite directions. In Seattle's last five matches they have 8 points. For the Whitecaps their last 10 matches see them at 8 points. Where the Sounders are pushing for a Cascadia Cup and possible second seed in the West, Vancouver is hoping to just make the MLS Playoffs and fend off surging Dallas.
But the British Columbia team was once good. They have a great backline even if they are 11th in goals against on the season. They also boast one of the most athletic and intriguing forward talents in the league. There will be more on Darren Mattocks later. For now Ben from 86Forever helps answer four questions in this match important enough to get NBC Sports Network into Canada for Saturday's 6 PM game.
SaH: Is the shift in performance normalization or more due to greater dependence on direct play?
86ers: Partially, the reason the Whitecaps have struggled recently is just normalization: bad luck now to chase the good luck Vancouver enjoyed at the beginning of the year. The team, for example, fairly clearly outplayed and outshot Colorado last Sunday, but got only one point instead of the three they earned because Colorado made their inferior number shots count. That's essentially providence talking; not that Whitecaps fans can complain after pulling off the reverse so often during the summer.
In addition, there's been a tough schedule with a long road trip, including games at two first-class teams. Most of Major League Soccer would expect to lose both in Seattle and Los Angeles, which the Whitecaps did (and without much fight). There have been suspensions and nagging injuries, and all of that adds up to a real slump. I don't think direct play is in of itself the problem: direct play is a symptom, as it comes about when the Whitecaps are overmatched and playing mostly defensively, or when they're missing key players that can normally link the forwards to the midfield, or when it's late and they're desperate. The Whitecaps just aren't that good a team and it's being exposed right now.
SaH: Claiming that the Whitecaps have the best two fullbacks in the league wouldn't be outrageous. How much are they helping the team?
86er: It wouldn't be outrageous but I'm not sure it would be quite accurate, as Lee Young-pyo has tired after a hot start. He's showing much less attacking audacity and his vaunted crossing hasn't been much of a threat. He also has more trouble with quick wingers than the casual observer might think. That said, it's nitpicking in a sense, as Lee remains a fine right back who is one of the few Whitecaps players you can really rely on in every situation. If the Whitecaps are trailing, tied, or winning, you'd want Lee out there for 90 minutes every game. There's only one other Whitecap I can say that about so unreservedly.
That other Whitecap is the left back, Alain Rochat. Here I will absolutely give into the hype: Rochat was my team MVP last year and is making a great case this year. The past two games he's been lining up in defensive midfield, moving Jordan Harvey to left back; watching the contrast between Rochat and Harvey, one immediately appreciates all Rochat brings out wide. Harvey isn't a dreadful player, but he hasn't got Rochat's natural knack for positioning, or those occasional "where did he come from?" moments in the attacking third, or his ability to strike a free kick. Then again, Rochat's been valuable holding the ball up in midfield.
SaH: Has Vancouver spent too much money on its backline?
86er: Unlikely. Of the four highish-priced defenders only Jay DeMerit isn't fully covering the bet, and DeMerit is the team's captain, its face, and possibly its best-known and regarded player. DeMerit is by no means a bad defender, even if he's culpable for way too many goals against given his salary, and if you're going to pay anybody for off-field value he'd be the guy. Other than the starters (and probably Andy O'Brien, but until his salary emerges it's hard to comment) nobody in the defense is paid much more than the minimum.
If anything the Whitecaps are overspending on past-it players with too many miles on them like John Thorrington and Atiba Harris, or players like Joe Cannon who aren't bad but can be replaced much more cheaply. The team defense is only middle-of-the-road, and it might seem like a lot of money is going into making it that way, but the Whitecaps have also carried a higher-than-usual number of completely one-dimensional attacking players this year. What hurt the team's defense most of all was moving Sebastien Le Toux.
SaH: [Yeah, I lied] Some suggest that the Robson/Miller signings signify too much reliance on British talents. Are they really that similar?
86er: They're both Scottish veterans. They have accents. They're Designated Players. That's it.
There's just no similarity between the two of them on the field or even off it. Miller is quiet, Robson is so loud and demonstrative the fans got on his case about it. Miller is a former speed demon who's still quick enough to cause problems but makes his bones with positioning and getting so many clear chances he has to score one of them; Robson is a midfield general who can also play on the wing and whose specialty is everything to do with striking the ball. Robson is a fair ball-winner; Miller's idea of defensive play is fouling a guy. Robson plays with a devil-may-care style and Miller is sneaky dirty. They are very different players in both style and ability.
The Whitecaps have problems, but if someone's saying that one of them is "they're too British" that's superstition rather than intelligence. Robson has more in common with Gershon Koffie than he does with Miller.