Not for the first time in their MLS existence, the Vancouver Whitecaps are looking for answers at both ends of the field.
Their young and fast forwards have found only fleeting success trying to replace Brazilian bombardier Camilo, who bolted for Mexico last January after netting 22 goals and winning the MLS Golden Boot award in 2013. The back line has struggled for consistency and lost an important piece last week by the retirement of centerback and captain Jay DeMerit, the first player signed after the ‘Caps joined MLS prior to the 2011 season. Though injuries limited him to 71 matches, his presence on the field and in the community greatly enhanced the team’s quest for success and respect.
With three months of season to be played, the ‘Caps are on the playoff bubble at 6-4-10 and on pace to surpass the 15 ties posted by Portland last year. (The difference is Portland also won 14 games and topped the Western Conference.) The 'Caps are right in the middle of the 19 MLS teams in goals conceded with 29, and are tied with three other teams in sixth place in goals scored (31).
There’s a palpable sense that they are treading water and need to make moves with the closing of the transfer window (Aug. 6) and league trade deadline (Sept. 15) not that far away. They bear the stigma of a 2012 midseason makeover that severely disrupted team chemistry – that was the summer of DP bust Kenny Miller, remember – and dropped the team down the standings into a wild-card game against the Galaxy, which it lost. Last year, it posted a 13-12-9 record and plus-8 goal difference, but finished seventh and missed the playoffs.
Some signs are encouraging. Chilean playmaker Pedro Morales has flourished in his first MLS season and leads the team in both goals (7) and assists (8). He has taken over as captain for DeMerit. Sebastian Fernandez, one of two Uruguayans signed during the offseason, has played 19 games and scored three goals, including a rocket that downed Seattle, 1-0, on July 5. Defensive mid Matias Laba leads the league in tackles. Keeper David Ousted has played every minute to mostly favorable reviews.
But games like the 2-2 tie Sunday with FC Dallas in a sold-out B.C. Place leave a gnawing ache of frustration. Vancouver took an early lead, conceded twice to fall behind, and came back during a match rife with excitement and for the home crowd, disappointment. The 'Caps outshot FCD, 30-10, and rattled a shot off the crossbar. They would have leapfrogged FC Dallas in the standings with a win but couldn’t get it done.
Darren Mattocks, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 SuperDraft who has yet to establish his first-team credentials, raced behind the FCD back line to give the ‘Caps that early lead in the 11th minute. He ran onto a precise through ball from Gerson Koffie to drill home his third goal in as many games, yet his finishing on subsequent opportunities wasn’t nearly as sharp.
The ‘Caps didn’t manage the lead, or their composure, very well. Blas Perez scored from close range to tie the game after Vancouver couldn’t clear a shot off the crossbar. Ten minutes later, centerback Carlyle Mitchell, who has been paired in the middle with Honduran Johnny Leveron in the absence of DeMerit much of the time, inexplicably swatted a ball out of the air with his arm, in the penalty area. Michel drove home the penalty kick and despite a fair share of dominance Vancouver trailed at halftime, 2-1.
The ‘Caps pressed forward to start the second half and strung together a nice sequence of passes, one of which was handled by Moises Hernandez. Up stepped Morales to convert his fifth penalty kick of the season to re-tie the game at 2-2, and down stretch Mitchell hit the bar with a header and FCD keeper Raul Fernandez twice stymied Morales, who set a personal record with 12 shots and was named Man of the Match.
No one player was expected to replace Camilo, who scored 39 goals and notched 16 assists during his three seasons with the ‘Caps. Just about every MLS team needs better finishing, yet the ‘Caps are notorious for racing into the final third numbers-up and coming away with nothing.
Despite his recent run, Mattocks has scored only five goals, and fellow speedsters Erik Hurtado and Kekuta Manneh have played well in bursts while netting four and three goals, respectively, but none of them have been able to impress consistently. If Mattocks can maintain his recent form, he can open up space for Morales, who has shown a knack for unlocking defenses on the dribble and with the final pass.
Club management has stated it will look for a central defender to replace DeMerit, though tinkering with the back line this late in the season can be a tricky exercise. The return to health of Andy O’Brien, who has battled injuries this season and was an unused sub against FCD, will help. Yet he’s 35 and can’t be counted on week after week, especially on artificial turf.
On Wednesday, Vancouver plays the other MLS team with double-digit ties, Chicago, on the road. The 'Caps have tied six of 10 away games so far this season so another point, on paper, is welcome. But that scenario can change quickly.
As has been the case the past two years, the ‘Caps are again in that "tweener" category of a good team that doesn’t look much like a serious MLS Cup contender. One big move may help but there are still a few too many players who are only good enough part of the time.