After Vancouver Whitecaps FC secured their spot in the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League back in September 2016, head coach Carl Robinson knew that the ‘Caps would need to be fully match-fit for their early season continental clashes.
While the Whitecaps had spent all of their preseason training camps since they joined MLS in Tucson and Casa Grande, Arizona competing in friendlies against MLS, NASL, and lower-league competition, Robinson decided that the ‘Caps needed to step up their preseason competition if they wanted to be ready for the Champions League.
Back in September, Robinson said to the media, “When you play in preseason and early games, you’re playing against players who are also not fit and you’re able to maybe coast through games based upon you being 60-70 per cent fit and them being 60-70 per cent fit.”
“What I need, especially now that we’re in the Champions League, I need my players if they’re 60-70 per cent fit to be playing against players who are 100 per cent fit because it’s harder for them and we need to get up to speed a lot quicker.”
Although the Whitecaps only took on the under-23 sides of Cardiff City, Oxford United, and Bristol City, the matches presented Robinson and the squad a chance to gain chemistry and match fitness against teams in the midst of their seasons. Notably, the Cardiff City U23s are currently second in their Professional Development League division with a record of 9W-5D-4L at press time.
Despite a slow start to the tour from the ‘Caps, falling 1-0 to the Cardiff City U23s in their first match, the team picked up form throughout their 10 days in Wales, winning the final two games against the Oxford United U23s and the Bristol City U23s by matching score lines of 4-0.
The four goals against Oxford came from Erik Hurtado, Marcel de Jong, Kyle Greig, and Cristian Techera, while Alphonso Davies’ brace with additional goals from Jordan Harvey and Nicolas Mezquida propelled the ‘Caps over Bristol City.
Notable standouts for Vancouver throughout the three games included Marcel de Jong, Alphonso Davies, and Kekuta Manneh, with the latter two shining especially in the final game of the tour.
While de Jong was brought to BC Place to provide depth at left back, he started all three games at left wing, where he seemed to thrive. He looked to successful link up with Jordan Harvey on the left side and was rewarded for his many runs with a goal against Oxford and an assist against Bristol. With a talented attacking midfield core for the ‘Caps, de Jong looks ready to fight for a place in the starting eleven.
16-year-old Alphonso Davies was a particularly bright spot for the VWFC at right wing, earning two goals and an assist in his three starts. In the final game of the tour against Bristol, Davies scored two goals in the first half, both assisted by Manneh, winning praise from Robinson. If the young star can continue to play like that against grown men, a potential breakthrough MLS season could be in the wonderkid’s near future.
Additionally, Kekuta Manneh looked sharp as well, earning three assists and setting up Davies’ two goals against Bristol City. After a rocky 2016 with a foot injury sidelining him for the latter half of the season, the young Gambian looks ready for a comeback season. The 22-year-old looks as fast as ever and should be expected to be back to his former self: making runs that give MLS defenders nightmares.
Finally, although he didn’t stand out especially, 2017 SuperDraft pick Jakob Nerwinski looked solid at right back. With new right back arrival Sheanon Williams not on tour with the ‘Caps, Nerwinski got three starts as the only natural right back in the squad and was the only player to go a full 90 minutes against Cardiff. With the right back struggles Vancouver had last year, ‘Caps supporters should be pleased to have a capable backup.
One worry, which has become far too commonplace for the Whitecaps, however, was the lack of scoring from their strikers. With Barnes out for most of the tour injured, Erik Hurtado and Kyle Greig, the only other two natural strikers on the team, split the playing time.
Although Hurtado went 165 minutes and Greig went 105 throughout the three games, the two strikers only scored one goal each. While the scoring from the rest of the team was a positive for the ‘Caps, after a 2016 season plagued with a lack of goals, this start to the preseason is worrisome. With no rumours on the horizon of a new striker at BC Place, Whitecaps supporters can only hope that 2017 doesn’t bring goal scoring déjà vu.
If it’s any respite from the lack of scoring up front, at least the goalkeepers and defense looked solid for the ‘Caps. The only goal Vancouver allowed came from a poor short throw from Tornaghi, a forgivable offence, so a return to 2015 and its league-leading number of clean sheets could be a potential for the Whitecaps again this season.
After a training camp and tour that can be considered successful in numerous ways, the ‘Caps return home to train for Portland’s annual preseason tournament. The ‘Caps have been traditionally successful in this tournament, winning in 2014 and 2015 and finishing second in 2016, but whether or not their Welsh adventure has prepared them more than in the past is yet to be seen.
Vancouver kicks off the tournament and the second half of their preseason against Minnesota United FC on February 9th, before taking on Real Salt Lake and the host Portland Timbers on February 12th and 15th, respectively.
The Whitecaps fielded the same starting eleven for all three games of the tour:
Tornaghi for Ousted (30’), Lovitz for Harvey (46’), Norman Jr. for Jacobson (46’), Jenkins for Laba (46’), Bustos for Davies (46’), McKendry for Manneh (46’), Gardner for de Jong (46’), Greig for Hurtado (46’), Richey for Tornaghi (60’), Seiler for Parker (60’), de Vries for Dean (60’)
Tornaghi for Ousted (60’), de Vries for Nerwinski (60’), Lovitz for Harvey (60’), McKendry for Jacobson (60’), Teibert for Laba (60’), Bustos for Davies (60’), Mezquida for Manneh (60’), Techera for de Jong (60’), Greig for Hurtado (60’)
Waston for Dean (46’), Teibert for Jacobson (46’), Mezquida for Davies (46’), Techera for de Jong (46’), Greig for Hurtado (60’), Barnes for Manneh (60’), Tornaghi for Ousted (63’), McKendry for Nerwinski (80’), de Vries for Parker (80’), Lovitz for Harvey (80’), Bustos for Laba (80’)