The Vancouver Whitecaps wasted a golden opportunity to strengthen their MLS playoff bid after losing 3-0 to the Portland Timbers on Saturday night at BC Place. The Timbers' victory saw the visitors leapfrog the Whitecaps in the Western Conference standings, moving Portland to the fifth and final playoff place on 34 points, one more than Vancouver, who sit in sixth.
Both teams lined up in 4-2-3-1 formations. Once Portland took the lead in the second half, Whitecaps' head coach Carl Robinson brought on Darren Mattocks and switched to a 4-4-2 formation, with Pedro Morales dropping to left midfield and Mattocks partnering Erik Hurtado up front.
The opening half was a cagey affair, with each team canceling the other out. Given the importance of the match, this was almost predictable; a Whitecaps win would have seen the hosts take a five-point lead over the Timbers (with a game in hand) for the final place in the Western Conference playoff race, so the Timbers knew they had to keep the game tight. With Portland coming off a 4-2 humiliation at the hands of the Seattle Sounders, they were also desperate to bounce back with a solid defensive performance.
In many respects, this game was a positional duel. Pedro Morales against Diego Valeri; Matias Laba and Russell Teibert against Will Johnson and Diego Chara. Which team's players would perform their respective duties better? While the teams were even in the first half, in the second half there was only one winner.
Portland put on as good a performance from an away team at BC Place as I have seen all season. The midfield duo of Johnson and Chara was outstanding; they owned the space in front of the Portland back four, and nullified the threat of Morales completely.
The Chilean playmaker had his worst performance at home in a Whitecaps jersey, in large part due to the tenacious play of Johnson and Chara. The duo kept things simple in transition, and found the feet of Valeri, Darlington Nagbe and Rodney Wallace, or relieved pressure by bringing the Timbers' fullbacks into play.
Fanendo Adi led the line really well for Portland, and the big man gave Vancouver's Andy O'Brien and debutant Kendall Waston all they could handle at the back. While Adi didn't score, he demonstrated just how valuable it can be to have a striker in the team who can hold up the ball and bring the attacking midfielders into play.
This is something that eluded Vancouver all evening, because neither Erik Hurtado nor Darren Mattocks has a good enough tactical understanding of the game to lead the line as a lone striker.
One of the key roles for a lone striker is to provide an option for fullbacks and wide midfielders to play the ball forward into feet. This keeps the team in possession of the ball and allows them to bring their creative midfielders into play further up the pitch.
Far too often, Hurtado was caught on the wrong side of the pitch when the Whitecaps were building up down the flanks, meaning that Portland could get very tight in midfield without having to worry about the threat of the ball being played into Hurtado or in behind their back four. A small tactical point that is being lost on both Hurtado and Mattocks; both players routinely fail to execute this crucial role for Vancouver.
This failure had a significant knock-on effect for the Whitecaps. With Portland tightening things up in midfield, Pedro Morales had little room in which to operate. Morales tried to link with Mauro Rosales - who was also making his home debut for Vancouver - but all too often, their interplay came to nothing as Portland was able to get numbers around the ball.
This is one of the challenges for Vancouver's coaching staff: Can they teach their young players to understand that the game is about more than what they do with the ball at their feet? If the likes of Hurtado, Mattocks, Kekuta Manneh and Teibert are going to go on and be first team regulars, they have to offer much more to their team when they don't have the ball at their feet.
Teibert's role in the team on Saturday was important for Vancouver, and it was on display for all to see in the first half as he did some excellent defensive work to nullify Diego Valeri. But if the first half was a plus for Teibert, the second half highlighted the concern I have with his overall game.
When Vancouver are at their best, their three central midfielders all stand out. Laba provides excellent defensive protection, Morales gets on the ball and is the creative fulcrum of the team, and Gershon Koffie provides power, athleticism and excellent ball retention. Those three players complement each other really well. Yet with Teibert in a central role in place of the injured Koffie, the Whitecaps failed to click.
My worry for Teibert is that he suffers from a case of being "good not great". His greatest asset is his fitness, but that isn't really a defining characteristic for a central midfielder. The ability to run all day is considered par for the course in the modern game – every midfielder is fit.
It is the other things that they do (within the framework of the team's tactical approach) that make players valuable. Teibert is a good passer of the ball, but not in the same class as Morales. Teibert is a good defensive screen, but nowhere near as good as Laba. Teibert can run all day, but he isn't as powerful, athletic or strong in possession of the ball as Koffie.
Teibert doesn't excel in any of the areas that one would normally categorize midfielders, which is what led me to state during the broadcast of the game on TSN that he "doesn't impact the game". It may seem at face value to be a blanket statement, but when one considers it in the context of what Robinson needs his midfielders to do in his chosen tactical approach, it becomes very clear.
Teibert is not better than the other options Robinson normally has at his disposal, and must improve or he will be in danger of forever being second choice.
The second half performance from Vancouver was poor though, and Portland deservedly stamped their authority on the game when Alvas Powell glanced a header past David Ousted to open the scoring. A slip from Kendall Waston allowed subsitute Maxi Urrutti the time he needed to double Portland's lead before great work from Darlington Nagbe set up Rodney Wallace to make it 3-0 for the visitors. If Teibert needs an example of a midfield player who impacts the game for his team, he need look no further than Nagbe or Valeri - both were excellent for Portland.
It's difficult to praise a defender when a team concedes three goals, but Kendall Waston put in a good shift in his first start as a central defender for Vancouver. He had a few half chances from set pieces, as well, and looked a threat to score when the delivery was good. The Whitecaps need to devise a way to spring Waston free in the penalty area if they are to capitalize on his aerial ability.
Conceding three goals at home in a derby game is bad enough to deal with, without having individual players singled out for failing to perform. Write this one off as a bad day at the office and start preparing for the next game against DC United on Saturday, Sept 6 (10pm ET, 7pm PT, TSN1).
THE STAR MAN
Darlington Nagbe was a real handful for Vancouver all night. His movement was excellent, drifting in from the right side of midfield to find space between the lines against Vancouver. Perhaps Gershon Koffie would have been able to combat Nagbe's power, but with the Ghanaian unavailable through injury, Nagbe had a field day against a Whitecaps midfield that wasn't at the races.