Loads of blues, but not much white

The Vancouver Whitecaps had an opportunity to solidify their playoff hopes on Saturday, but chose to soil the sheets instead. A middling first half was followed by a disastrous second; the forward corps showed little imagination, the back line stumbled and fell apart, and keeper David Ousted failed to make big saves for the team to rally around.

Coach Carl Robinson keeps talking about the youth of this Whitecaps team. “We’re a young team,” he’s fond of saying. When young teams win, as Vancouver did 4-3 against this same Portland in June, it’s a wonder to behold. When young teams lose, however, it’s also a spectacle.

Darlington Nagbe shamed Matías Laba before knifing a lovely pass to Rodney Wallace, who embarrassed David Ousted. It was a perfect encapsulation of the second half. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Darlington Nagbe shamed Matías Laba before knifing a lovely pass to Rodney Wallace, who embarrassed David Ousted. It was a perfect encapsulation of the second half. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The Whitecaps generated a total of four legitimate chances in a game against one of the worst defensive teams in the Western Conference this season. Pedro Morales and Kendall Waston put headers over the bar early in the game, and Mauro Rosales sailed a right-footed strike two yards wide from ten yards out. Only Darren Mattocks forced Timbers keeper Donovan Ricketts to make a save of note, in a game that would have put Vancouver four points clear in the playoff race with nine games remaining.

Putting up bagels is getting to be a bit of a habit — they’ve been kept off the score sheet three games running and four games out of five; the Caps have just eight goals for in their last twelve games— but this is the first time in recent memory such a drought has been accompanied by the defensive lapses of a high school rep squad playing two leagues above their age group.

New Whitecap Mauro Rosales was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing 3-0 loss to the Portland Timbers. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
New Whitecap Mauro Rosales was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing 3-0 loss to the Portland Timbers. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

After a spiritless 0-0 draw against the hapless Chivas USA squad, the Vancouver Whitecaps FC have now been outscored by a combined five goals to nil in back-to-back losses against the LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers.

The loss against the Galaxy was disheartening but expected — Vancouver has never had much success at StubHub. Saturday’s second half collapse against a team below them in the standings, however, was unforgivable.

The first Portland goal, a deft whisper of a header by Alvas Powell five minutes into the second half, was made possible by a trio of defensive mixups; Waston made a weak challenge on Fenendo Adi, who calmly moved the ball wide to Diego Valeri. Unchecked, Valeri had a simple task to cross the ball in at chest height. Powell, unmarked as well — see a pattern here? — kissed the ball past a startled Ousted.

Fanendo Adi kept Matías Laba and Jordan Harvey in fits most of the night. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Fanendo Adi kept Matías Laba and Jordan Harvey in fits most of the night. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The Timbers scored again in the 75th minute when Waston tripped over his own feet in the 18-yard box. (The newcomer hit the deck on a number of occasions in his first start as a Whitecap, calling to question his experience on artificial turf.) He blocked Andy O’Brien from moving forward, allowing Maximilliano Urruti to unload a rocket crossbar down from 15 yards out.

Just four minutes later, Darlington Nagbe shamed Matías Laba before knifing a lovely pass into the area; Rodney Wallace one-timed a left-footed shot under Ousted. The third goal made this the worst home loss since a 4-0 drubbing against the league champion LA Galaxy in 2011.

Whitecaps - David Ousted 1036
David Ousted had a lot of soul searching to do after allowing three against the Portland Timbers. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The Caps keeper might not be at fault for any of the three goals he allowed this night — nay, the defense in front of him was sloppy at best — but David Ousted has rarely come up with the big saves necessary to bind a fragile team together this season. If he gets a finger on Urruti’s high flyer, the Caps sit at 1-0 and still have 15 minutes to gain an equalizing goal. If he goes full starfish to get a shinpad on Wallace’s strike, the team is saved the disgrace of an embarrassing result, and merely suffers a loss.

To paraphrase Coach Robbo, it matters not if you lose 1-0 or 3-0; Ousted can’t be blamed if his team can’t score. If they do start to hit the back of the net once in a while, however, at some point the keeper is going to have to stop the ball.

515km

Halfway there

Back in March, nearly 300km ago, I wrote that my goal of running a thousand kilometres this calendar was going more smoothly than expected. I also admitted that I’d probably just doomed myself to suffer some serious physical ailment — which turned out to be completely true. Just as the weather started to warm up this spring, I stepped awkwardly in a divot while walking to work, and gave myself a grade three ankle sprain.

It meant nearly 10 weeks of a somewhat sedentary lifestyle. Crutches and a plaster cast, then a walking boot, then a tensor bandage. Very little motion for the left foot. Loads of elevation, icing and compression translated into loads of television, reading and — well, I can’t in all honesty say ‘depression’, but ask my wife, I was mopey and difficult more days than I care to admit.

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He didn't score, but Erik Hurtado gave defender Seth Sinovic fits all game during a 2-0 Vancouver Whitecaps victory over Sporting KC, the top club in the MLS Eastern Conference. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Photo Gallery: Whitecaps vs Sporting KC

The Vancouver Whitecaps posted an impressive 2-0 victory over the best team in the Eastern Conference last weekend. No matter what the official stat lines say, the Whitecaps dominated both sides of the ball and severely limited the visitors to a handful of threatening moments in nearly 97 minutes of action. It marks the first time Vancouver has defeated Sporting KC in MLS play — the Caps have now beaten every team in this man’s league. (Bring on those expansion teams next season, I say! NYCFC and Orlando City FC, beware: this young team is out for blood.)

Here’s our Pucked in the Head photo gallery for your viewing pleasure:

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Pedro Morales was once again the lynchpin of the Whitecaps attack. He controlled the field when the Caps had the ball, and numerous times forced KC to give up possession when they didn’t. His long ball forward turned a Sporting miscommunication into an own goal in the 17th minute, as defender Igor Juliao headed the cross over Gruenebaum’s outstretched arms. Just over 20 minutes later, Morales gifted Darren Mattocks a one-timer for the Jamaican’s sixth goal this year.  Remarkably, with nine assists so far this season, Morales now shares the franchise record for MLS assists in a single season.

The Whitecaps were unlucky not to lead by three or four in the first half; there were two separate non-calls by referee David Gantar that could have sent Pedro to the penalty spot — whether it was travel,  some sort of turf-related disorientation, or just plain speed on the the part of the home side, Sporting KC looked discombobulated for most of the match, and played a chippy, pull-that-jersey-at-all-costs kind of game.

It wasn’t until the 84th minute, however (and seemingly the gazillionth clear foul by a visitor), that Gantar pointed for a PK. By then, however, Morales had sat down in favour of Canadian Russell Teibert, and Mattocks stroked a lazy, stoppable shot at replacement keeper Jon Kempin instead of slamming home his seventh goal.

But let’s give young Mattocks a break, shall we? He may be overly proud, but he has scored in four of the last five games, and tends to pick himself up after tackles faster than in past years. And rather than sulk after an early missed chance in the first half, he kept up the pace and scored that counterattack beauty to make it 2-0 instead.

Want highlights? You got ‘em.

Dustin Ackley has been knocking the ball out of the park for the Mariners since the All-Star Break.

Offense? What’s That?

Dustin Ackley has been knocking the ball out of the park for the Mariners since the All-Star Break.
Dustin Ackley has been knocking the ball out of the park for the Mariners since the All-Star Break.

A resurgent Dustin Ackley is suddenly knocking balls over the fence with some regularity. Thursday the Mariners scored 13 runs.  No, this is not a misprint. THIRTEEN RUNS! It really happened, I swear.

It’s been pretty obvious since early in the season that while the defense is good, and the bullpen is good, and the starting rotation is even better than we thought (Chris Young! Who knew?) the Mariner offense is… not good. Yes, Robinson Cano is a great player, and Kyle Seager is underrated, and man can Mike Zunino pound the ball when he gets a piece of one, but…

OK, you say, so the Mariners picked up Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia, and didn’t you write about that already? Why, yes, yes I did – but those two weren’t going to be enough. Kendrys Morales (yeah, I wrote about him too) wasn’t going to be enough, either. We really needed some other guys already on the roster to heat up at the plate for this playoff stretch run. Lo and behold, Dustin Ackley appears to be reading Pucked in the Head.

If you’ve been watching the Mariners for the last few years, you’re familiar with the seemingly endless string of players (Justin Smoak! Nick Franklin!) who were going to be the next big thing. Ackley came near the top of that list as a first-round draft pick in the 2009 amateur draft. The Mariners wanted Ackley at second base… and that didn’t work out real well. Then the Mariners put Ackley in the outfield… and while his defense has been improving, again not so much with the bats.

Until… well, until July, really. Dustin Ackley had a great July. Here are his slash lines before and after the All-Star Break:

Pre-All-Star-Break: .225/.282./335.
Post-All-StarBreak: .360/.368/.587.

Wow.

(Editor’s note: that slugging percentage is in-freaking-sane.)

Now, Ackley’s had good months before, and baseball is nothing if not a game of adjustments. It’s possible the pitchers figure him out over the rest of August and September and he falls apart. It’s also possible he continues hitting at something close to his current clip. Obviously Mariners fans would prefer the latter option.

With the White Sox at Safeco over the weekend and Felix starting on Monday, and the good guys coming off taking two from the Braves earlier in the week, now would be a great time for Ackley (and the rest of the Mariners offense) to keep hitting. As crazy as it sounds in these glorious Northwest summer days, we’re only 48 games from the end of the season. A few more baker’s dozens will go a long way to providing Seattle baseball this October.

Go Mariners.

Top seed Marcos Baghdatis took home the men's singles title with a 7-6, 6-3 win over #4 Farrukh Dustov. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Back to Baghdatis

The Vancouver Open got a blast from the past this weekend, as Marcos Baghdatis won his second title at Hollyburn Country Club; the Cyprus native was previously the 2009 VanOpen champion. Currently ranked #105 in the world, Baghdatis came into this week’s play as the top seed and made the most of it, outlasting fourth seed Farrukh Dustov of Uzbekistan to win the 2014 Odlum Brown Vancouver Open, 7-6, 6-3.

Top seed Marcos Baghdatis took home the men's singles title with a 7-6, 6-3 win over #4 Farrukh Dustov. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Top seed Marcos Baghdatis took home the men’s singles title with a 7-6, 6-3 win over #4 Farrukh Dustov. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Despite being the tournament’s top-ranked player, Baghdatis didn’t make things easy for himself. After needing a late third-set break to get through the first round, he went to tiebreaks in his remaining four matches. Through the first part of Sunday’s final, Baghdatis looked slightly off-balance; he made some remarkable shots under pressure from Dustov’s attack, but during some rallies he seemed lucky just to stay on his feet. He gained momentum once the first-set tiebreak fell his way, jumping out to a 5–2 lead in the second before serving out for the match.

Fourth seed Farrukh Dustov  moves well for a big man, but he just couldn't quite keep up with the top dog Marcos Baghdatis in the 2014  Vancouver Open final. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Fourth seed Farrukh Dustov moves well for a big man, but he just couldn’t quite keep up with the top dog Marcos Baghdatis in the 2014 Vancouver Open final. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

“When you’ve never played the other guy before, he always seems to be more relaxed. He can just come at you, because the pressure’s off,” said Baghdatis after his straight sets victory. “[Dustov] hits the ball very hard, so I just tried to weather the storm, especially at the start.”

Neither man was particularly dominant on serve; each was broken twice in the first set, and Baghdatis offered up just seven aces to Dustov’s five. Coming in at just under two hours, the men’s final finished with most of Centre Court in shadow. It was a welcome relief for the crowd filling the bleachers, as the afternoon had been full of tie-breaks, direct sun and temperatures as high as 30° Celsius.

Baghdatis, whose career best ranking was #8 in the world in 2006, is the second man to win two Vancouver Open singles championships. Dudi Sela of Israel won in 2008 and 2010. On the women’s side, American Ansley Cargill won back-to-back VanOpens in 2005 and 2006.

The Odlum Brown Vancouver Open is an ATP Challenger tournament, offering 100 ranking points to the champion and 60 to the runner-up. For Baghdatis, this probably means jumping back into the top-100 for a while, after several years of injuries and uneven play. For Dustov, it will certainly mean a tick up from his current world ranking of 144.

Earlier on Centre Court, Australian Jarmila Gajdosova overpowered Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine with a come-from-behind women’s final win: 3-6, 6-2, 7-6(3). The pair were fairly close in many statistics by match end; both ladies recorded seven breaks, winning roughly 50% of their service points. Where Tsurenko seemed to — ahem — falter was on her second serve. She double faulted 11 times during the match, compared to just five for the eventual champion Gajdosova.

Larmila Gajdosova won the women's final in a thrilling third set tie break. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Larmila Gajdosova won the women’s final in a thrilling third set tie break. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

In the first match of the day, Austin Krajicek (USA) and John-Patrick Smith (Australia) took home the men’s doubles trophy when opponent Marcus Daniell (NZL) double-faulted on match point during the third-set tiebreak, 6-3, 4-6, 10-8.

Austin Krajicek (left) and John-Patrick Smith won the men's doubles trophy over Marcus Daniell and Artem Sitak, 6-3, 4-6, 10-8. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Austin Krajicek (left) and John-Patrick Smith won the men’s doubles trophy over Marcus Daniell and Artem Sitak, 6-3, 4-6, 10-8. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Trade Deadline: Good News!

jackson-breaks-bat_opt

No, the Mariners did not get David Price from Tampa Bay. He went to the Tigers.

Instead, the Mariners got Austin Jackson, who is a legitimate center fielder, from the Tigers. And I am happy.

Does this move by itself mean the Mariners make the playoffs? Of course not. But if you had told me in April that we’d have Austin Jackson for the stretch run, I’d have been thrilled, and I’m (still?) thrilled today.

Jackson instantly gives the Mariners a competent outfielder – and while I was thrilled with James Jones at the beginning of his time with the team, the reality is his numbers have been going the wrong direction for a while now. And that’s both offense and defense. And, the addition of Chris Denorfia in a separate deal gives another competent outfield piece to a team that, let’s face it, really didn’t have a Major League outfield when the season began.

Defensively, Jackson is an immediate win over our current outfield. I would expect to see Endy Chavez out of the mix quite quickly. Once Michael Saunders gets back, I would also expect to see a lot less of Stefen Romero as well. Don’t be surprised to see a Dustin Ackley/Denorfia platoon.

Offensively, Jackson started the season slow but heated up in July. The hope is that reuniting him with Mariners Manager Lloyd McClendon, who was his hitting coach with the Tigers, will help. Even if Jackson is relatively neutral offensively, this is still a win for the team. McClendon has already said Jackson will be the new leadoff hitter.

I think the key takeaway from this trade is what did *not* happen – the Mariners did not give up any of their top talent. They didn’t mortgage the farm, as has been done in years past, in a misguided effort to win it all now. I want to see the Mariners make the playoffs as much as anyone, but if there’s one thing we learned in the Bavasi years, it’s that you can’t jump the queue in baseball. You have to take your time and work with what you have and fill the holes with trades – or you have to be the Yankees or Dodgers. This deal sends a player I personally like, Nick Franklin, whose best position (2nd base) is going to be filled by Robinson Cano for quite a few years to come. In return, it brings back an outfielder who we’ll have this year and next. This means that in the offseason, Jack Zduriencik will not have to worry about center field. And this is a good thing. And the Denorfia trade gives you another outfield piece, albeit not as valuable a one as Jackson, for almost nothing of value.

I don’t know what the next two months hold for the Mariners. But you gotta like their chances more with these two moves than you did this morning, and that’s a good thing. Go Mariners.

Asia Muhammad of the United States returns a shot during qualifying rounds of the 2014 Vancouver Open. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Hollyburn magic

It was another gorgeous day as qualifying matches wrapped up and the first round began at the 2014 Odlum Brown Vancouver Open. If you have even a passing interest in passing shots, you ought to pony up  a few bucks and go enjoy some damned fine tennis at the Hollyburn Country Club in West Vancouver. How fine, you ask? Last year’s men’s singles champ, Vasek Pospisil, went on to win the doubles title at this year’s Wimbledon, for goodness sake.

Asia Muhammad of the United States returns a shot during qualifying rounds of the 2014 Vancouver Open. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Asia Muhammad of the United States returns a shot during the first round of the 2014 Vancouver Open. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

In first round action on Tuesday, American Asia Muhummad rallied to oust the eighth seed Urszula Radwanska of Poland,  6–7, 6–4, 6–3. Muhammad is ranked #363 in the world, and earned her way into the tournament as a wild card entry, but she used her height advantage and a strong first service game to outlast the heavily favoured Radwanska.

Muhammad now goes on to play the diminutive firebrand from Kazakhstan, Yulia Putintseva, in the second round. Putintseva dispatched Canadian WC Gloria Liang in straight sets on Tuesday, 7-5, 6-3.

Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan dispatched Canadian wild card entry Gloria Liang in straight sets to open the 2014 Vancouver Open. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan dispatched Canadian wild card entry Gloria Liang in straight sets to open the 2014 Vancouver Open. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

More pics to come later in the week.

 

Darren Mattocks celebrates setting an MLS record for missing the net from less than six yards out. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The Summertime Slide

The Whitecaps AD (After DeMerit) found themselves in familiar territory prior to their game versus FC Dallas. Some strong performances in the first half of the season had led to all sorts of good feels and warm and fuzzy insides for the team and its supporters.

But as the temperature rises outside, it seems as though this club cools down and the results have been calamitous.

Darren Mattocks managed to score versus Dallas FC but couldn't finish on numerous quality opportunities. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Darren Mattocks managed to score versus Dallas FC but couldn’t finish on numerous quality opportunities. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

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Kendrys Morales had two, count 'em TWO chances to do more than bupkes with men on base, and guess what he accomplished. Go on, we double dog dare ya.

Lost Weekend at Safeco

Ouch.

My wife and kids watched two Mariners games this weekend. Both went into extra innings. Both ended as Mariners losses.

Morales in the dugout - not exactly burning down the house so far, unfortunately.
Morales in the dugout — not exactly burning down the house so far, unfortunately.

I only sat through one, Sunday’s 10-inning 3-2 affair. The Ms put up ten hits but could not bring a man across the plate when it really, really counted. Kendrys Morales (and yes, it’s only a small sample size) is 1-for-10 in his return to Mariners blue. Twice Sunday afternoon he came up with runners on, and did absolutely nothing productive. Unfortunately he was not alone in this predicament.

Talking with an old friend earlier today, I realized that part of me just wants the team to tank, go on a 15-game losing streak and erase any possible hope at the playoffs. The certainty of suckitude, in some ways, is better than the ping-pong teasing of having a wild card slot and then losing it. Yes, there is still a chance the Ms can take that wild card slot back – but this weekend did not help that chance.

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Center fielder of the future? Or will the Mariners find another outfielder before the deadline?  Image unceremoniously screenshotted from USA TODAY Sports

The Baseball Bus

Center fielder of the future? Or will the Mariners find another outfielder before the deadline?  Image unceremoniously screenshotted from USA TODAY Sports
Center fielder of the future? Or will the Mariners find another outfielder before the deadline? Image unceremoniously screenshotted from USA TODAY Sports

Last night I asked my daughter to pick out stories for bedtime. She handed me a stapled-together booklet, complete with preschool artwork, entitled “The Baseball Bus”.

This original piece by my soon-to-be-famous young lass chronicles
our Seattle Mariners, as they board the team bus in the rain, journey to Safeco Field, beat an unnamed opponent, and win their
playoff game to advance to the World Series. Our clan is of
course in the stands cheering them on.

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