Know Your Enemy: Vancouver Whitecaps

It's just a love tap - Rich Lam

This is the first of potentially several meetings (albeit the only MLS clash) between the two Canadian rivals this season. While there are plenty of new faces on Toronto FC this season, Vancouver also boasts a few as well.

It's always difficult to glean too much from preseason results. The camera angles are either too narrow or too wide, the quality of the competition is spotty at best, the lineups a mish-mash of trialists and youth, the formations are often more geared towards seeing a player's ability - especially in the early fixtures - than about building to opening day, and the announcers can be ill-informed or just downright wrong and that's if they happen to be broadcast at all.

With that stated and the 2013 MLS season set to kickoff on Saturday, it's time to have a look at the match that will draw the attention of many Canadian eyes early Saturday - afternoon or evening, depending which side of the county one finds oneself.

Toronto FC, reinforced in recent days with a flurry of signings, have travelled across the breadth of the nation for a showdown with distant cousins, the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Another offseason rebuild has left Toronto fans scratching their heads, knowing not what to expect from their club in this their seventh season.

Soothsayers have prophesized doom, but truth be told, nobody really knows what the team will look like when they take the pitch.

With the opening caveat in mind and a measure of reassurance for any Toronto fans on the edge, a closer look at First Kick opposition is in order.

The Lineup

Vancouver has used the offseason to strengthen their side in several areas of the pitch, as well as bid farewell to some of the underperforming members of the side. Barry Robson has left, reportedly his family failed to settle in Vancouver, much as he failed to settle on the pitch.

Martin Bonjour has left as well, deemed surplus to requirement with the arrival of Andy O'Brien at the end of the season. As too have John Thorrington, Atiba Harris, Etienne Barbara and Michael Nanchoff.

Despite having a raft of strikers in tow, goal-scoring was an issue for the ‘Caps last season, as such manager Martin Rennie has made good use of the re-entry and Super drafts in order to restock his pantry of attackers.

Enter Paulo (Morais de Araujo Junior) Jr - formerly of Salt Lake, Tommy Heinemann - formerly of Columbus and with Rennie at Carolina, and Corey Hertzog, once of New York, who excelled in the USL PRO with the Wilmington Hammerheads on loan last season - surely Rennie made use of his contacts in the league to scout the young striker.

The SuperDraft proved an interesting day, as Vancouver sent allocation money and a later draft pick (tenth) to Toronto in order to select Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado at fourth and fifth, respectively.

Adding to the glut of new players were the silky Japanese creative midfielder Daigo Kobayashi, hulking American defender Brad Rusin - returning from Denmark, having also played for Rennie at Carolina, Honduran (Boo) defender Johnny Leveron and English midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker.

Canadian goalkeeper Simon Thomas also returned to the club that helped develop him after impressing on trial and with the Canadian National team.

Needless to say Rennie has a plethora of options at his disposal, and judging just how he will deploy them come Saturday is difficult. An informed guess, sees the projected lineup (4-2-3-1) as follows: Joe Cannon in goal; from right to left - YP Lee, Andy O'Brien, Brad Rusin, Jordan Harvey along the back; Gershon Koffie and Alain Rochat sitting with Daigo Kobayashi in the hole; Darren Mattocks on the right, Kenny Miller down the middle, and Kekuta Manneh on the left.

Diagram

football formations

A few rationalizations: Jay DeMerit is determined to start, despite suffering from a bout of Achilles tendonitis that has hampered his preseason, but his long-term health over the season is not worth risking him at this point.

Camilo, Erik Hurtado, and Russell Teibert were part of a split squad that travelled to Carolina for a late preseason match with the RailHawks, and as such, are likely not in the manager's initial plans. The goalkeeping battle between Cannon and Brad Knighton will be an interesting story to watch this year - it wouldn't be a Vancouver sporting enterprise without a goalkeeping controversy, now would it.

Reo-Coker was a late addition to the squad, and is more likely to feature as a substitute, while defender Leveron is more a long-term project than a player to be immediately slotted into the side.

Rochat or Lee could play at left-back over Harvey, to make space for Jun Marques Davidson in the holding midfield, or Reo-Coker, should Rennie choose to start either. There's a lot of moving parts.

The Form

Vancouver enjoyed a very strong preseason, free scoring and at times dominant in possession.

They won six matches, drew one and lost one - both non-wins came against MLS opposition deeper into their preparations.

Mattocks, having boasted his aim was to reach the twenty-goal-mark this year, scored five, but hasn't contributed any from open play since the start of the Charleston tournament, not that that really means anything at this point.

Camilo scored a hat-trick in that reserve squad match versus Carolina, while Kekuta Manneh, the eighteen-year-old Gambian was very impressive throughout, adding a brace against Charleston.

Miller only contributed a single strike, from the spot no less, but it would cause a lot of undue speculation were he to be dropped, as he showed a propensity to drop deep and encourage interplay with those around him.

Hertzog added two goals, both from intercepting poor back passes against Houston - in two separate matches.

The Tactics

From their formation Vancouver utilizes a lot of interchangeability, remember, rigid theoretical positions denominated by numerical formation blocks are really only starting points, intended to give an outline to what happens on the pitch. What transpires is always more complicated than the simple number scheme suggests.

Speed is a dominant feature of their attack, with Mattocks, Manneh, Hurtado and even Camilo stretching defenses.

Miller, Camilo, and Kobayashi all saw time as the number ten, or attacking midfield creator, playing in the hole behind the striking trio.

The cut-back pass, where a wide attacker draws defenders towards him as he approaches the end-line, before pulling the ball back to a teammate at the near-post or centre of the goal featured prominently, as did the searching cross-field ball, finding a player in space to exploit a defense that has shifted to one side.

Watch in particular for a forward, say Mattocks, to dish off to a teammate outside the box, then surge on goal to open space for that player to shoot or make a play.

Perhaps the match that best displayed what Vancouver was capable of was the 3-2 victory over the Charleston Battery. Watch as Manneh's devastating speed led to two goals, he blew past Mattocks on an earlier goal that was wrongly ruled offside, before collecting a tidy brace.

He also had a lovely attempt from a failed corner kick that fell to him at the top of the box, only for his placed, right-footed shot to be pushed over the bar by the keeper.

Video

The Charleston match also evidenced the weakness at the back that will cause Vancouver trouble.

A conundrum the Whitecaps will struggle with is that they are set up to counterattack, with their pace, but are also strong in possession, which leads to them getting caught up-field and countered upon themselves.

Most counterattacking teams sit back, absorb pressure and wait for chances to break forward. Vancouver's tendency to send numbers forward, especially from the outside-backs can cause problems, particularly should those full-backs be caught up pitch, leaving the slower centre-backs to defend in wider positions and create space.

Both of Charleston's goals came from such breaks, where Vancouver was unable to recover in time. This was a problem pointed out last season and Rusin does not have the speed to make up for the older legs with which he was paired

Vancouver also showed softness in dealing with aerial balls into the box.

Bobby Boswell met a Giles Barnes cross over O'Brien with such ease that it was almost embarrassing. They were also victimized by deft through-balls - Brad Davis spliced them open for Will Bruin to finish, as well as shots from distance with Adam Moffat scoring the winner in that match from a thirty-yard blast that beat Knighton.

Another problem that plagued them last year was a hesitancy to pressure the ball once it arrived at the top of their box. Chicago's goal came when Rochat was slow to track back to harry Chris Rolfe, who calmly squared the ball to Maicon Santos who had time and space to blast a shot in off the underside of the bar.

Exploitation

The one facet that may play into Toronto's hands is that nobody, including Vancouver, will have much of an idea as to what the team that takes the pitch will look like.

It is safe to presume that manager Ryan Nelsen, a centre-back by trade, will likely ask his team to be sturdy at the back first and a QPR-style 0-0 draw could be the aim.

Dead-balls, likely won by midfield runs from Luis Silva, will grant TFC a few chances to exploit that aerial susceptibility, though the risk of being countered is a concern that will prevent Toronto from flooding numbers forward.

The space that Vancouver leaves behind its outside-backs as they push forward could be a weakness to target, sending balls into that space and hoping either a mobile forward or a wide midfielder can shirk their defensive duties for a moment, to grab a goal against the run of play.

One potential advantage that TFC could have is that travel issues made returning from preseason a more difficult enterprise than had been intended last weekend, while the club only had their jersey launch party on Wednesday, followed by media day on Thursday, minor disruptions that may, perhaps, have taken the focus off the upcoming match.

Clutching at straws could be an appropriate term to employ in response to these humble observations.

Points of Interest

The clubs met three times last season, with Toronto winning their home-and-home final tie in the Voyageur's Cup, leaving Vancouver in the first leg with a 1-1 draw, before winning at home 1-0 a week later to win their fourth straight Canadian Championship, much to the consternation of the West Coasters.

The two have been separated in this year's edition, but could meet in the final should Vancouver progress past Edmonton and Toronto beat Montreal in the semifinal round.

A few months later they played an entertaining five-goal thriller that saw Toronto stroll out winner by the odd-goal.

Mattocks thought he'd stolen the equalizer after posterizing Logan Emory and Milos Kocic, only for Vancouver-born Terry Dunfield to meet a last-minute corner kick with a powerful header.

This is their only league meeting of the season.

This will be Vancouver's third straight home opener versus Canadian opposition, having beat both Toronto and Montreal - in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

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