The Vancouver Whitecaps lost at home for just the second time this season in MLS league play on Saturday, falling victim to a third minute strike by Landon Donovan to lose 1-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy. Results elsewhere over the weekend saw the Whitecaps drop from the fifth and final playoff spot to seventh place in the Western Conference.
The opening 45 minutes saw the Whitecaps struggle to find their rhythm in midfield. Head coach Martin Rennie prefers to play a 4-3-3 formation, with Gershon Koffie his preferred option as a number six (holding midfielder) and Nigel Reo-Coker as a number eight (box-to-box midfielder). Unfortunately for the Whitecaps, their options for the number ten role (attacking, creative midfielder) are very limited.
Daigo Kobayashi has been given plenty of opportunity to earn his place in that role, yet every time he takes the field, he is found wanting. He just doesn't have a enough of an influence on the game, despite having the technical ability to do so. He hides from his teammates at times; he makes an angle to receive the ball, but not enough of an angle to make passing him the ball a legitimate option. That his instructions from the coaching staff upon being put into the game as a second half substitute on Saturday were, "Get involved!" speaks volumes about his lack of influence.
Against the Galaxy on Saturday, Matt Watson was given an opportunity to stake his claim for the third midfield spot alongside Koffie and Reo-Coker. Unfortunately for Watson, he simply isn't the option that the Whitecaps require.
Watson is a hard-working, diligent, versatile player. He covers a lot of ground, and his work rate is excellent. However, a number ten needs to have exceptional technical ability, vision and creativity - characteristics not generally viewed as Watson's strengths.
The Galaxy goal was an excellent example of this. As the ball was played in to Watson from left fullback Jordan Harvey, Watson's best option was to play the ball around the corner with the outside of his right foot, into the feet of striker Darren Mattocks. Watson's technique let him down, as his wayward pass was intercepted by Galaxy fullback A.J. DeLaGarza, whose ball up to Robbie Keane was deflected into Donovan's path. Donovan took a touch before smashing a left-foot strike into the top corner.
(There is plenty of blame for the goal to be laid at the feet of Mattocks, whose lack of awareness was painfully obvious - but that is for another blog!)
Given the players at Rennie's disposal, if his preference is to stick with a 4-3-3 formation, he might consider dropping Kenny Miller into the number ten role - something that worked well in pre-season for the Caps. The reason to choose Miller over players like Russell Teibert or Kekuta Manneh is very simple: those players are still very young, and the burden of such an important role should be borne by an experienced player.
Miller has shown that he is capable of causing problems when dropping into the gap between the opponent's back four and midfield, which is the area traditionally occupied by a number ten. Shifting him into this role is something that he would take in his stride, allowing the Whitecaps to use an array of speedy options up front.
The likes of Manneh, Mattocks, and Erik Hurtado are exceptionally quick. With leading scorer Camilo always likely to be the first option through the middle up front and Teibert occupying the right side, Rennie could start with Manneh on the left, leaving the speed of Mattocks and Hurtado as options off the bench.
Another solution for Rennie, of course, is to bring in a new player to occupy the number ten role. With the transfer window now being closed in MLS, that will have to wait until the end of the season.
Ironically, former Whitecap Davide Chiumiento would thrive in Rennie's current squad, given the additions of experienced players like Miller and Reo-Coker. A player of Chiumiento's ilk is certain to be top of Rennie's shopping list in the offseason.
Before we get there, though, the Whitecaps have a tough run of games to finish the season, with eight of their nine remaining league games being against Western Conference opponents. If they are to make a second consecutive playoff appearance, the Whitecaps will have to first address their lack of balance in midfield.