EDITORIAL – It has been a time of highs and lows for Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Undeniably more lows, let’s make that clear. These lows stretch far beyond this mess of a 2020 campaign, global pandemic included. A club with a declining fan engagement percentile and a high player turnover rate saw Vancouver bellowing from the trenches of the Western Conference in 2019. Not much has changed so far in the Vancouver Whitecaps midfield. Russell Teibert, Yordy Reyna and Jake Nerwinski are the only players remaining from the team’s run in the 2017 playoffs. Three years later, and the inhabitants of BC Place are almost unrecognizable from a mere stone’s throw ago.
Examining the Rubik’s Cube That is the Vancouver Whitecaps Midfield
There are a number of problems currently swirling in the air surrounding the club. Some have been previously mentioned, some are maybe better left unsaid. The focus of this piece will be the Vancouver Whitecaps midfield, from how it looks and plays, to improvements that need to be made. Not “should be made”, “need to be made”.
Considering the bulk of this article will be negative, starting off on a positive note seemed like the best foot forward. Head coach Marc Dos Santos has received a lot of praise for his ability this year to give minutes to young Canadiens. Derek Cornelius, Theo Bair, Patrick Metcalfe and Thomas Hasal to name a few. This was something Caps’ fans didn’t see a whole lot of in the Carl Robinson era, continually seeing numerous academy graduates make the Starting 11 week in and week out.
The biggest break out player, at least in the Vancouver Whitecaps midfield, has been one Michael Baldisimo. Standing at just 5’6″ and 165 lbs, “Baldi” (the worst nick name to give a 20 year old) is clearly not a physical threat. But what he lacks in size, he makes up for on the ball skill and his passing ability. In Vancouver’s recent win over Toronto, Baldisimo lead the team in passes, tackles and completed dribbles. He picked up a goal and an assist as well in his home debut.
In a short sample size, Baldisimo looks to bring to the side everything they had hoped for with In-beom Hwang. The South Korean showed small flashes of promise, but Vancouver was never quite right for him. Following just over one season with the club, In-beom got the move to Europe he always wanted and was sent to Rubin Kazan in Russia.
Mustering only three goals and five assists in 2019, Hwang got off to a flying start in Russia, producing a goal and two assists in his first two games. It was a positive sign to see Vancouver test out Hwang in a number of different roles to see if he could have worked out before both parties moved on.
I will come out and say something that some Whitecaps supporters might not be ready to hear yet. Russel Teibert’s days starting for this team are numbered. Leonard Owusu has slotted very well into this team and has quietly been one of the players of the season for me in a Vancouver jersey.
Janio Bikel is sitting on the sidelines and is close to being fully healthy. From the limited game tape there is of Bikel, he reminds me a lot of Owusu and those two would be a brilliant defensive midfield pairing. Dos Santos has said that the club is looking for a CAM/number 10 playmaker for the midfield. All of that, mixed with the fact that Baldisimo is impressive every time he takes to the field, there’s only so many spots in midfield.
Teibert has been a great servant to the club and is respected as a leader/captain around BC Place, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize he might be a step behind the pace of the game now.
Another glaring issue facing this team is their lack of identity. Granted, it is difficult to form an identity when it’s challenging to get a foothold in the game. This problem has left Dos Santos throwing out formations like throwing mud on a wall, trying to see which will stick. Seven different starting formations in ten games this year proves that it’s a difficult ship that the coaching staff is trying to get right.
Having tried three, four and five at the back, players in different positions, and different striking partnerships, the team is no further along now than they were in February. The fact that the team is evidently stuck in the metaphorical mud that they threw at the wall sums up the progression of this team.
The ugly, simply put, is the way this midfield plays and moves. This comes back to the identity crisis the club has faced for years now, with no end in sight. Again, flashes from Hwang (and now temporary replacement Baldisimo) would be enough to spark a few embers, but the would never catch. With limited attacking options, new designated player Lucas Cavallini is the latest to join “striker island” for Vancouver, receiving limited service. With more missed penalties than goals this season, Cavallini isn’t fully to blame.
Experiments have been tried with Reyna, Milinkovic, Dajome and Hwang all at a sort of “free roaming number 10/CAM”, with limited success. There have been hints that the club is looking to fill their final DP spot with someone who can take the role by the scruff of it’s neck, but seems as though they are still a ways away from finding that missing piece.
Fans and media alike have seen both too much space in the midfield, as well as times where there hasn’t been any width or dynamisms to the team. Full backs Ali Adnan and Jake Nerwinski both tend to get forward and fill some holes on the attack, however gifting opposition plenty of room for a fast counter. So the future of this midfield needs to take that aspect into consideration as well.
It is difficult to really talk about “moving forward” until this mystery man swoops in at CAM and ignites some life into this franchise. Yes Vancouver just beat Toronto and have been improving, but Dos Santos said it still wasn’t good enough.
“It was a win, a fight and commitment and guys doing things with passion, but it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t very good in some parts of our game. Again, we have to grow with the ball, we have to, if we grow with the ball we’re going to have even more opportunities to score.” – Marc Dos Santos
I stand by my opinion that unless he turns his performances around, Teibert could be out of the starting line up as soon as the next phase of play. Baldisimo has played well in these past few outings, but he’s just not quite ready to be Hwang’s long term replacement. Bikel is a huge question mark about how he will look and fair alongside Owusu, as rumours of him appearing for the first time since March are coming out.
In the few flashes of the 4-3-3, it has seemed to work wonders for the Vancouver Whitecaps and the team as whole. Between preseason success and spells of it being implemented here and there, it’s only a matter of time before that becomes the next fistful of mud that Marc Dos Santos and his men hope to find some answers in.