Alphonso Davies, Whitecaps vs. Minnesota, 7.28.18
Photo by Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Opponent | Congested stretch forces tough choices for Vancouver ahead of Cascadia Cup showdown

The Vancouver Whitecaps have three weapons that stand out above their others: striker Kei Kamara’s potential to, at any moment, best any center back in MLS; winger Alphonso Davies’ explosiveness carving through a defense; or center back Kendall Waston proving again that, on the end of a dead ball, he is among the most dangerous players in Major League Soccer.

With the Portland Timbers coming on the heels of home games against the Montreal Impact, Houston Dynamo and Philadelphia Union – three teams who, like the Whitecaps, are hovering near their playoff line– these warnings sound like a skipping record – notes that monotonously, metronomically tick from article to article. These teams are dangerous, we’ve said. All teams in Major League Soccer are. But, we keeping saying, these are games a team like the Portland Timbers -- one with aspirations to go deep into the MLS postseason -- should be winning at home.

And so it is with the Whitecaps. The team’s eight wins this season and spot in the finals of the Canadian Championship testify to their capabilities, just as their nine losses and six draws in league play speak to their reality. Only two teams in Major League Soccer have allowed more goals than Carl Robinson’s, and their minus-10 goal difference is tied for the worst mark in the Western Conference.

Not surprisingly, Robinson sees his team in a slightly different light – a justifiable one, given Vancouver has gone four games without a loss. That three of those games were against teams which, in MLS, have negative goal differences is relevant, but only to a certain extent. In every league that’s ever existed, some teams are more dangerous than others.

“The direction all season has been very good,” Robinson said on Thursday, when asked about his team’s recent uptick in form. “We’ve let ourselves down with one or two individual performances, at certain times … We’ve been exceptional going forward. We’ve leaked too many goals – we know that. And things maybe have gone against us at certain times. But performance-wise, we’ve been excellent.”

Yes, as you can see in the Whitecaps’ goal column (with a goal rate similar to but slightly worse than the Timbers’), the team has individual talents that can hurt you. But so does everybody else. And in reality, not only have their individual talents have come up short on 15 different occasions, but it’s unclear to what extent the best ones will even factor into Saturday’s game at Providence Park.

That’s because, for the second week in a row, the Timbers are hosting a team that’s well into the heart of their domestic cup competition. Last week it was the Union, who rotated about half their lineup for their Saturday night kickoff in Goose Hollow. Come this weekend’s first whistle, Vancouver will be three days removed from the first leg of their Cup final series, having drawn Toronto FC, 2-2, Wednesday night at BC Place.

Kamara was in that lineup, as was Davies, as was Waston, and while it’s entirely possible they will start Saturday in Portland, the return leg of the Canadian Championship will only be four days away. And with a cross-country flight to Toronto looming, it may behoove Robinson to exercise caution.

“You need a squad,” Robinson explained, evoking part implication, part obfuscation when asked about managing his team’s congested summer. “The squad is best put to use at times like this. You have to deal with it. You have to enjoy it. You have to embrace it.

“And there will be changes, and when you get a chance, you have to take your chance. The players who played on Saturday (Aug. 4) against a really good New York (City FC) team performed brilliantly. And then there were a number of changes last night (against Toronto), and they were exceptional.

“There’ll be changes again on Saturday (in Portland), and there’ll be changes again on Wednesday (against Toronto), and then the following Saturday.”

What might those changes look like? According to Robinson, Vancouver will “slightly adjust the formation” in addition to the personnel, potentially in much the same way he did last weekend at Yankee Stadium, when he was again preparing for a mid-week Canadian Championship battle. Then, he shifted his formation from a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-4-2, a slight tweak that moved the team from a one-striker approach to a two-front.  Venezuelan Anthony Blondell got the start, then, alongside Uruguayan Nicolás Mezquida, but don’t be surprised to see Beaverton’s own Erik Hurtado is the starting XI at Providence Park, given his two goals over the last seven days.

MLS mainstays like Brek Shea, Felipe, Sean Franklin and Aaron Maund could also feature, but three players who were notably not in that XI Robinson started against NYCFC: Kamara; Davies; Waston.

Davies came on in the second half, and given the short distance between Vancouver and Portland (and, the lack of training days lost, let alone hours off the clock), there’s an increased chance Kamara could make an appearance, too. Regardless, Robinson’s plan seems clear. He feels he has a squad. He feels he has priorities. He feels he has to rotate for this round of the Cascadia Cup.

And, given the approach produced a result last week in New York, the plan just might work.

“If we can go with the right frame of mind and have our game plan …” he explained, “then I’ve got every confidence we can go there and get a result.”