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Complete preview for MLS week 28: The Whitecaps have a possession problem

Vancouver won in Columbus last weekend, but they remain far from perfect ahead of their crucial clash with Seattle.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Possession

The Vancouver Whitecaps are not technically out of the playoff race yet, although it seems likely that they will be soon. Kekuta Manneh is injured, so they can’t score goals, and Kendall Waston has been more of a yellow card-machine than anything else this year, so they’ve struggled to do much defensively. It hasn’t been a banner year for Carl Robinson and co.

They had a bit of a bright spot last Saturday when they defeated the Columbus Crew 3-1 on the road, putting together possibly their best, most cohesive performance of the season. Waston was in 2015 Defender of the Year candidate form, Matias Laba was solid as a defensive midfielder, and their 4-4-2 formation with Giles Barnes and Masato Kudo up front generated enough genuine attacking chances for the goal-challenged Caps to score three times.

It feels too little too late, as they’re four points behind Portland for the coveted sixth playoff position with Seattle and San Jose (both with two games in hand on Vancouver) hanging around in eighth and ninth. But it reminded Whitecaps fans of their lofty preseason expectations, and how much their team failed this season.

Many thought this team — supposedly filled with potential stars — would walk into the playoffs and challenge for an MLS Cup, or possibly the Supporters’ Shield. I had them finishing second and making the Western Conference finals, with Waston winning DotY. Matt Doyle of MLSsoccer.com predicted a top-two finish and an MLS Cup. Jason Davis and Graham Parker of ESPNFC both had them winning trophies.

They seemed set up to succeed. They had one of the best defenses in the league (on paper) with Waston and US January call-up Tim Parker in central defense, Goalkeeper of the Year possibility David Ousted between the pipes, and Laba manning the space in front of the backline. Pedro Morales would create chances, Manneh would destroy players on the counter, and Blas Perez would finish chances up top.

It clearly hasn’t worked out, but their win in Columbus last week was one of the few times Vancouver provided their fans with a reason to think this team may not be as bad as it has been in the standings. Maybe things are turning around.

They could be turning around. They found a new formation — although it doesn’t include Morales in the starting lineup — and they wholly dominated poor Crew SC.

The problem is that still have one fundamental weakness, and it’s a weakness that no successful club in modern soccer has: Possession, and their ability to keep it and turn it into penetration.

Vancouver are more inclined to go rely on route 1 long balls and low-percentage crosses into the box than anything else, and while that alone won’t kill you in moderation, the Whitecaps don’t have the personnel or the second-choice tactics to make it work. They don’t have a target No. 9 to win aerial duels or an elite poacher to feast on second balls; and they don’t have overlapping full backs who can put in top-quality crosses. It just doesn’t work.

They struggle to play direct, so theoretically they should be trying to gain more possession and attempt to string passes together in the midfield and in the final third. The issue is, they can’t do that. Look at their passing map from the Columbus game. Green is completed passes, red is incomplete:

There is clearly a lot more red on here than there is green.

The Caps had just 35% of possession against the Crew. That can partially be explained by Columbus’s possession-based strategies and the fact that the game took place at MAPFRE Stadium, but that’s still really bad from Vancouver. Here’s another telling stat: The visitors completed just 66% of their passes, 14% less than Crew SC.

Vancouver often would turn the ball over within seconds of getting it, or would run out of options at the back and hoof it long into the hands of Steve Clark. This video sums it up pretty well:

Nobody ever emerges from the midfield as a forward passing option. Laba doesn’t step back, and none of the attackers drop deep to receive the ball from defenders. You don’t have to be Columbus or NYCFC to know that every team must be able to distribute from deep, to an extent.

The Whitecaps can’t do that, and they also can’t turn possession into penetration. Even if Pedro Morales is in the lineup, nobody on that team can turn in midfield, get their head up, and find a ball to an attacker in a good position. They not only need a chance-creator, but they need a box-to-box No. 8 who can facilitate possession and connect passes all over the pitch. Russell Teibert is not that guy.

The only reason they were able to score against Columbus was their ability to create turnovers high up the field and quickly turn them into opportunities. This isn’t something they can sustain, however, because this is more about the Crew being sloppy than it is the Caps’ pressing skills.

That means Carl Robinson has to figure out a way to be better about finding possession, distributing from deep, and completing passes at a more consistent rate. Even if he does, and I don’t think he will with this group, I don’t foresee them catching up in this playoff race.

Other notes:

— FC Dallas won the US Open Cup on Tuesday. Maxi Urruti scored twice, Mauro Diaz went beast mode with three assists and Dallas put in a thorough beatdown of New England. Urruti showed that he does have the ability to get into scoring positions and finish the chances given to him, but his inconsistency continues to be an issue. He can’t be trusted to do that at a constant rate, even with Diaz feeding him.

That’s why Carlos Ruiz was signed only a couple days after that game. Ruiz turned 37 this week, but he is a CONCACAF legend and carbon copy of Blas Perez, a physical target No. 9 who made his MLS living off coming in as a super-sub in crucial moments and wreaking havoc on center backs and referees. People have said that this isn’t a sign of good youth development, but of all teams to tell that to, why pick FC Dallas?

The point is, this is a solid, necessary signing for a team that could probably use some veteran expertise, not to mention a 9 who can put goals in the net in the playoffs, which Urruti has not proven he can do. Even if he isn’t a 20-year old Argentinian academy product, he’s a practical signing who can help this team.

Is he enough to help them clinch the Supporters’ Shield? Well, that remains to be seen.

— Speaking of the Shield, Toronto FC are becoming an increasingly viable pick to steal it away from FCD. They were given a 36% chance to win it by American Soccer Analysis — to Dallas’s 28% — and they play five of their remaining six games at home. At this point, it could go either way.

TFC have a big chance to pull away from the rest of the East when they battle the Red Bulls on big Fox on Sunday. RBNY struggle to close out leads, but they are mostly the same team that won the Shield last year and are kicking in to full gear as we hit mid-September. Also, Dax McCarty should return soon. That’s big.

— Remember when NYCFC were defying odds and taking control of the Eastern Conference by winning games on the road? Well, that’s no more, as they appear to have quietly regressed to the mean.

Their home struggles haven’t been as pronounced of late — they’ve won their last three by a combined 9-3 — but they haven’t been nearly as good on the road, which is one of the main reasons why they have dropped to third in the conference. They are 0-2-3 (wins-draws-losses) in their last five away games, and they haven’t won away from the Bronx since mid-July.

They play FC Dallas at home on Saturday. It would be huge for them if they were able to nail down three points.

— Seattle and Vancouver on Saturday afternoon is quietly looking like one of the better games of the weekend. The Sounders haven’t been as good since Clint Dempsey was sidelined, and this game is a great chance for them to stick around in this playoff race for just a little bit longer. We talked about the Whitecaps extensively above, so we won’t go back into them, but it should be mentioned that this is a huge game for them as well.

— D.C. United will want three points in Chicago, as Orlando are at home against the Crew this weekend with a chance to go even farther ahead of DCU.

— There’s a second game on Fox this Sunday, with Sporting KC and the LA Galaxy playing at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City.

How much will Landon play? That is the golden question.