Whitecaps unshackled: Vancouver shows signs of a more explosive potential

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The tension between a talent-laden squad and a conservative approach erupted for a lopsided win in MLS' knockout road.

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Vancouver Whitecaps, MLS Cup champion? Don't count on it, although thanks to Western Conference mediocrity, this might be the best chance British Columbia's side has seen. At least since two years ago, and remember the disappointment that was?

The Whitecaps haven't had a particularly distinct profile since joining MLS, but in 2015, they seemed to take a big leap toward Major League Soccer's elite: 16 wins; second in the West; third in the Supporters' Shield chase.

It wasn't the start of something good, it turned out, and there's no certainty this year will be, either. Yet however things play out over the next six weeks -- and notwithstanding how they lost their grip on the top seed in the West -- this season has been rather a triumph. Carl Robinson has wrung nearly everything possible from his roster and conservative tactics, and Wednesday night's 5-0 rout of visiting San Jose has the 'Caps perhaps two Cascadia home-and-homes from the MLS Cup title game.

That's a long way off. Seattle, the conference semifinal foe, is a far more dynamic and dangerous side. Top-seeded Portland, which could await in the conference final, is just as capable, maybe more so. Vancouver isn't expected to advance any further, but if you're looking for the team most likely to shred expectations en route to Dec. 9, look no further.

Robinson prizes strong, organized defense, and that informs the Whitecaps, who have eschewed pretty soccer for something more effective. That's the path they took two years ago, too, but this team might have a bit more now, with Yordy Reyna's presence in the middle and a defensive unit that's gotten better with Stefan Marinovic's arrival.

Vancouver knows what it does best and works hard to perfect it. The 'Caps, when they're in form, sit and counter as well as anyone in MLS. They keep things tight at the back, then explode on the break behind Reyna, Fredy Montero and a talented group of wide players.

The Whitecaps' consistency has been impressive. They've lost successive games just once, back in March, and used a 9-3-3 tear from July 5 to the end of September to climb from seventh to first in the West. No Western foe won more games, and Vancouver finished just one win and one point shy of the club MLS records set two years ago. Until Wednesday night, it’d never won an MLS playoff game.

Montero spearheading Vancouver's arsenal. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Montero spearheading Vancouver's arsenal. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

The direct game can be effective, but it's also limited, and the Whitecaps' reliance on counter attacking and set pieces leaves them with a lower ceiling. They play virtually without possession: barely more than 41 percent this season, the lowest figure anybody has posted since Vancouver joined the league in 2011.

Success requires stout defense, and the Whitecaps have been decent, considering so much of their time is spent fending off opposition possession. The in-season acquisitions of holding midfielders Tony Tchani and Aly Ghazal helped things, and Kendall Waston, now 29, has grown as a center back. He's not so reckless, isn't a yellow (or red) card waiting to happen. And although Marinovic, a New Zealander who arrived in July from Germany, has been alternating in the nets with David Ousted, he's clearly the future.

Most pivotal has been Reyna, a Peruvian playmaker who was out until July after suffering a foot injury during preseason. He's brought a different level of creativity to the attack, and when he's sharp, Montero gets chances to score. Cristian Techera's presence, too, is vital. Vancouver is 19-0-8 when he scores or assists a goal.

The Whitecaps need more of that kind of creativity, but we've not seen enough of it from Techera, Christian Bolanos or Nicolas Mezquida, who are all capable. Or from Alphonso Davies, who has preternatural presence for a kid who's about to turn 17. That leads to the larger question facing Vancouver, whether or not it does anything more this postseason.

What kind of team do the Whitecaps want to be? What is their aim, beyond the obvious? Everyone wants to win trophies.

Vancouver has some very skilled attacking players who might flourish in a more dynamic system, and the addition of another player or two who know how to carve up opposing defenses could have a sea-change impact. If the 'Caps are going to go in that direction, and there's no sign they will under Robinson, now's the best time to get started.

The core here is young. Reyna, Techera, Mezquida, Ghazal, midfielders Matias Laba and Russell Teibert, forward Bernie Ibini, and defenders Tim Parker and Jake Nerwinski are 25 or younger. Davies has three years left as a teenager. Waston, Tchani and Brek Shea are in their primes.

There's a good foundation to build upon. Now let's see what Vancouver will do with it.

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