It feels odd to label any game for a team in the Vancouver Whitecaps’ position a “must win,” but this is as close as the Whitecaps are likely to come before the playoffs. Things are good in Rain City, with the club sitting pretty atop the Western Conference, but the Caps face an absolutely brutal run-in, with away matches against the three clubs immediately below them and only one home date after tonight.
For at least the half-dozenth time this season, the Vancouver Whitecaps debuted a new lineup, and spent a good half hour making one think, “Hey, maybe they’ve got something here,” only to spend the next 15 minutes making one make the “hrmmmm” emoji face. As they returned to MLS action following the international break, it was the if-not-white-hot-at-least-uncomfortably-warm Real Salt Lake providing the opposition. The 3-2 win was perhaps more laboured than it needed to be, but they’ll all look the same at the end, and for now it’s vaulted the club into third place in the Western Conference.
The first thirty minutes of this game was some of the finest football Vancouver has played all season. The punt was an option, but not an overused one. Mostly they kept the ball on the ground and generated a number of high-quality half chances. Cristian Techera was two hairs away from a hat trick, and Fredy Montero nearly had a goal of the year candidate when he barely missed connecting on a scissor kick. When the breakthrough came on 29 minutes it felt like the game was Vancouver’s.
Then, as has been their wont this season, Vancouver regressed to their mean, route one mean. (That makes sense. Read it again.) Long balls. Missed connections. RSL still didn’t look particularly dangerous, but they were at least getting forward. Still, it can’t be said they really deserved the goal they got. A cross, a missed header and an unlucky roll. Some thought it was a poor showing by David Ousted, but I won’t fault him on this occasion. He did well to even get a hand on it.
When the second half came around, things having become a tad stale, it was a set piece that once again got things on track for the Whitecaps. Yordy Reyna delivered a free kick to the reddish noggin of Tim Parker who nearly scored for the umpteenth time this season. The ball ricocheted off the post to a waiting Kendall Waston who made no mistake and brought the 20,783 in attendance back to life.
The eventual game winner came in the 64th minute when Bernie Ibini – largely invisible to that point – arrived with a baffling, fantastic, brilliant pass from inside the six-yard box right to the diving head of Yordy Reyna. How he knew to make that pass I expect never to know. It was shocking. NO forward passes up a shot like that. But it was absolutely the right play, and his unselfishness secured the win.
Down 3-1, throwing everything forward, RSL finally looked like they might score a goal, and they did. It made the final 10 minutes more interesting, but it would be as close as they would get.
Now let’s talk about the big story from this game. Aly Ghazal, Vancouver’s now second-newest midfielder, finally made his debut in the starting lineup. (Side note: is this the first mid-season acquisition to jump straight into the starting lineup in the Robinson era?) Ghazal is the kind of player that the anti-stats crowd will point to when they make their “you can’t count what he does” arguments. Because… well, you don’t appear to be able to count what he does. The man doesn’t tackle; he was 0-2 on the night. He doesn’t pass very well; 21-32 on the night, albeit with six recoveries. He only had a couple of interceptions, a couple of clearances. He’s just kind of… there… but in a good way.
He forced more bad decisions than I can count, letting Waston and Parker rack up the stats. He gets in there and stops the ball without lunging in for the tackle as Matias Laba often does. I’m not entirely convinced yet, but RSL had VERY few chances through the middle of the park, relying instead on balls to the wing, which is exactly what Vancouver wanted them to do. Exciting times, if they continue.
Goaltender: FIVE Pucks in the Head
David Ousted was solid if generally unspectacular. A couple of good reaction saves that looked nice but we probably would have been disappointed by if they’d gone in. One unlucky break on the first goal.
Defence: FIVE Pucks in the Head
Jake Nerwinski has rendered Sheanon Williams obsolete. There, I said it. Get rid of him and sign a cheap backup. Waston and Parker were on their games. Harvey was okay, but could have done better on the second RSL goal.
Midfield: SIX Pucks in the Head
Ghazal was fantastic. Tchani was fine except for that one time he just stopped and got dispossessed. Reyna, Ibini, and Techera all either scored or had primary assists. Tough to ask for much more.
Forward: FIVE Pucks in the Head
Honestly, Montero was almost playing as a midfielder. His best moments were passes. He had two key passes, which is decent for any distributor. Had he connected on that scissor kick, hooo boy.
Dear Canucks Fan,
You have no doubt become aware of this, yet I still feel it necessary to warn you that the hockey team you follow is terrible. Languishing low in the league, Vancouver, despite its stated intention of competing for a playoff spot, seems instead destined to once again offer its fans the cold consolation of a lottery pick.
(My apologies for the Lemony Snicket-style alliteration, I’m just really excited for Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf.) Continue reading A Series of Unfortunate Decisions – The Promising Prospect
*Heavy, world-weary sigh.*
Well, here we go again. The clock has ticked over to August 26th, and the Vancouver Whitecaps will play the Montreal Impact tonight at BC Place in the final match of the Canadian Championship. The forums, message boards and social media outlets have all filled up with the prognostications of the supporters. Most are dire, a Pavlovian response to the words “Voyageurs Cup Final” borne of 13 years of failure. Yet there is a feeling of hope, too. A dangerous feeling, that. The hope exists because — for at least the fifth consecutive year — the Whitecaps have their best-ever chance to finally capture this trophy. Continue reading Voyageurs Cup 2015 – Final Leg Preview
Yesterday, my good friend Jason Kurylo demonstrated just how wrong he can be at times: he published a list of the ten sports movies that you really ought to re-watch. The post’s purpose was the same as all posts of that nature: to make people argue with the author. So argue with him I shall. Cool Runnings, Jason? COOL RUNNINGS?? Continue reading 10 Sports Films You Should Watch If You Have Actual Taste
We at Pucked in the Head don’t hang our heads in shame and tears just because the Vancouver Canucks had their behinds handed to them by the low-down, dirty, rotten, head-shottin’, potshottin’, ball-droppin’ Flames. Nay, we hold our heads high and own our team’s decades-long failure to bring a Cup to the west coast. At least we’re not the bloody Leafs, right?
And so, we put our heads together and prognosticate the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for your scoffing pleasure.
New York Rangers vs Washington Capitals
Jason: Kudos to the Capitals for skirting past the New York Islanders, but even with Alex Ovechkin honouring defensive assignments they won’t have enough to get past the Vigneault-led Blueshirts. Lundqvist outsaves Braden Holtby in a series whose brevity belies hard-fought games. Rangers in five.
Chris: If there’s anything to indicate that Washington can take New York in a best-of-seven, I haven’t seen it. The Rangers steamrolled Pittsburgh and then took the weekend off while the Islanders gave the Caps all they could handle. (That’s right: Eleven shots on goal is about all the Capitals could handle.) Ovechkin may be the best player in this series, but New York is deeper, and Alain Vigneault shouldn’t even need a full pack of lozenges to out-coach Barry Trotz. Rangers in five.
Montreal Canadiens vs Tampa Bay Lightning
Chris: Should be a barn-burner. The Lightning netted a whopping 41 more goals than the Habs during the regular season, but Montreal’s defence was much stronger. On recent form, my money goes to Tampa. They dispatched Detroit without a single goal from Steven Stamkos, and you can only hold that man off the score sheet for so long. Meanwhile, the Canadiens were lucky to get past Ottawa in a game six where a referee’s untimely whistle cost the Sens a tying goal in a contest they dominated. Lightning in seven.
Jason: Kudos to the Bolts for getting past the ageing wreck of a Red Wings team that barely made the post-season. I mean, the Wings have only been mired in a Mike Babcock will-he-or-won’t-he story all year long, and got to Game Seven on the strength of a handful of nobodies ruddering a ship full of greybeards. The Habs, on the other hand, have been the class of the East for a couple of seasons, boast perennial candidates for the Norris and Vezina trophies, and ride the winds of the most powerfully emotional fan support in North American sport. Individually, what’s not to love about seeing PK Subban flatten Steven Stamkos? These guys have been playing hockey against each other for twenty years already, and damned if it ain’t more fun every year. Canadiens in six.
Anaheim Ducks vs Calgary Flames
Jason: Do we really have to talk about this? Where the Canucks and Flames both exceeded expectations by just making the dance in the first place, the Ducks have been promising a deep run for years. Getzlaf, Kesler, Perry, Beauchemin, Fowler… This roster is deeper than any of the wrinkles walking into Botox clinics around the Honda Center. The Flames are hard-working, sure, but they’re just a bunch of Grade Eight boys hanging about in the corner, ogling the good looking seniors across the gymnasium floor. Ducks in two and a half.
Chris: Seeing the Flames in the second round is enough to make me want to vomit like I’d just eaten undercooked fowl. Undercooked, by the way, is exactly what I expect these particular fowl to be at the end of the Pacific Division Final. The Flames are a terrible possession team, and their luck won’t get them close enough to roast the Ducks. The Saddledome crowd helps Hiller steal one from his old team, but Ducks in five.
Chicago Blackhawks vs Minnesota Wild
Chris: Devan Dubnyk has been outstanding, but I’m not convinced he can hold off the Hawks’ firepower. Both teams have high-end defencemen that can do a number on the opposition’s top line, but the Wild lack the offensive depth that Chicago has in spades. One ray of hope for Minnesota: Corey Crawford is in net, and Chicago conceded 21 goals to a similarly dubious offensive team in Nashville. The goaltending disparity will keep the series interesting, but Chicago outscores its problems. Hawks in six.
Jason: The Chicago Blackhawks have somehow flown under most people’s radars this season. Jeez Louise, people, this team is full of all-Stars, Olympians and beauties who fuckin’ work their nuts off, and has won two of the past five Stanley Cups. As for the Wild, Thomas Vanek has been promising to do something important in the playoffs for years, but hasn’t helped a team win anything since the 2003 Golden Gophers took the NCAA championship. Maybe it’s unfair to saddle the guy with his teams’ lack of success, but damnation, does this guy ever know how to pull a disappearing act in the post-season. Ryan Suter can’t do everything, man. Hawks in five.
In December, in Don Garber’s state of the league address, the Major League Soccer commissioner made an astounding claim: MLS clubs were collectively losing over $100 million per season. The announcement was widely scoffed at, and seen as posturing ahead of the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations.
As someone who once flirted with an accounting career, going so far as getting a diploma before realizing how bored I was preparing myself to be for the rest of my life, I know that the profits or losses a company declares in its financial statements don’t necessarily equate to cash gains or losses. That said, it’s discordant to see MLS simultaneously crying poor and announcing multi-million dollar signings of players like Steven Gerrard, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. I’m going to do something in this article I don’t usually do: take MLS at its word. The league is in awful shape, losing over $100 million per year, and its solution is to keep buying increasingly more expensive players. Is this a good strategy?
First, let’s look at who these expensive players are, and how much they’re making. We’re going to look at 2014 numbers, because it’s obviously too early to know what effect the latest crop of players will have on the league. Here is every player that made $1 million or more in 2014:
- LAG – Landon Donovan ($4,583,333)
- LAG – Omar Gonzalez ($1,250,000)
- LAG – Robbie Keane ($4,500,000)
- MON – Marco DiVaio ($2,500,000)
- NER – Jermaine Jones ($3,252,500)
- NYRB – Tim Cahill ($3,625,000)
- NYRB – Thierry Henry ($4,350,000)
- ORL – Kaka* ($7,167,500)
- POR – Liam Ridgewell ($1,200,000)
- SEA – Clint Dempsey ($6,695,189)
- SEA – Obafemi Martins ($1,753,333)
- TOR – Michael Bradley ($6,500,000)
- TOR – Jermain Defoe ($6,180,000)
- TOR – Gilberto Junior ($1,205,000)
- VAN – Pedro Morales ($1,410,900)
*It’s not clear how much of Kaka’s salary was paid by Orlando, as he was loaned to Sao Paulo, but again let’s take the numbers provided at their word.
Only nine out of twenty-one clubs had a million-dollar player on their roster in 2014. (We’re counting Orlando and NYCFC because the player’s union says they had guys earning salaries.) Only four had more than one. In total, fifteen players, spread over fewer than half of the league’s clubs, accounted for just over $56 million dollars in salary, or over half of the league’s losses. Is the league likely to recoup these losses?
Let’s start with the largest cash infusion in the league’s history: its new domestic television deal worth an estimated $90 million per year. This type of money likely isn’t thrown at the league without the star power of some of the names in the above list. Subtracting the money from the previous TV deal, we can expect the league to offset about $60 million of its losses just on new TV money in 2015. More, if Sky Sports paid anything significant for the rights to broadcast two games a week in the UK. As terms of the UK deal, unlike the domestic rights deal, were not disclosed, I am assuming Sky did not need to pay much, and MLS was happy enough just getting their product on British television. We’re down to a $40 million shortfall.
Now things get slightly murkier. How much of an effect do players of this calibre have on attendance? This is difficult to measure, because winning tends to have a positive effect on attendance and it’s difficult to pin how much of a team’s success is attributable to its most expensive players. The Galaxy, for instance, brought in Robbie Keane in 2011 and saw a nearly 2,000/game bump in attendance, but they were riding a 2010 Supporters Shield victory, and won a second one in 2011. How much of that attendance bump is “oooh, Robbie Keane” and how much is “oooh, I like winning teams.” Let’s see how the rest of the clubs fared.
- Montreal signed Di Vaio in 2012 and saw diminishing attendance for the two years thereafter.
- New England’s attendance increased by about 1,850/game, but they didn’t win the Jermaine Jones lottery until September.
- New York saw their attendance soar by about 6,000/game when they signed Henry in 2010. The arrival of Tim Cahill in 2012 did not have a similar effect; the club lost 1,800 fans that year.
- Portland has seen attendance increase every year, but that’s as much due to capacity increases and pent-up demand as it is Liam Ridgewell.
- Seattle experienced a small spike in their first half-season, and a small decrease in their first full season, after the additions of Dempsey and Martins. They’re up about 500/game in total.
- Toronto lured back 4,000 disenfranchised supporters with their bloody big off-season spending spree in 2014.
- Vancouver saw a modest 400/game bump after Pedro Morales was added.
Let’s be generous here and say that those attendance bumps are permanent over the contract of the player. You’re going to get maybe 10,000 more butts in seats league-wide, on average, which translates to $12-15 million in extra revenue, depending on the average ticket price of the clubs doing the buying. In the best-case scenario, we’re still left with at least a $25 million shortfall.
Now how generous do you want to get with things like merchandise? Let’s assume every one of those 10,000 extra attendees buys a jersey for their new favourite player. At $140 for a customized jersey and (pure guesswork here) a 30% markup. You’re talking less than half a million dollars in extra revenue. In fact, you would need to sell 773,755 extra jerseys (at my guesstimate figures) to make up the shortfall.
Colour me extremely skeptical that the league is managing to approach breakeven on these players.
So how much of a problem does the league have? Its single-entity nature means the league can distribute its losses somewhat, and it’s probably only going to average a $1-2 million loss per club. The problem, though, is the league is setting itself up to be similar to a European league, with a small number of dominant teams at the top spending all the money and getting all the results. Look at the champions since the league started loosening restrictions and allowing multiple Designated Players: three out of the last four Supporters Shields and MLS Cups have been won by clubs with more than one millionaire salary. In the big European leagues this works ok. There are other things to play for. Relegation battles, cup competitions that the big clubs don’t always take too seriously, the prospect of Champions or Europa League play if you can get hot and sneak into the top five for a year. In MLS you have a race to the bottom for the right to draft next year’s stand-out NCAA player. Woohoo.
I worry that we’re seeing the effects. The league has just folded its third franchise in only nineteen years of existence. Rumours are swirling that season ticket sales in Montreal were horrendously bad, though perhaps their dramatic upset win in the Champions League quarterfinals will improve that somewhat. A glance at the stands in Houston, Dallas, DC and even Philadelphia shows that many clubs can’t even sell out their barn for opening day. The TV numbers league-wide remain terrible.
This is a league that once enjoyed modest success and growth with their devotion to parity. Nine different teams won the Supporters’ Shield in the league’s first thirteen seasons. Eight different clubs won MLS Cup over the same period. There was a reasonable chance that even if your club sucked one year, it could be good again the next. The league has gone away from that and it’s not at all clear that a lack of parity is in the best interests of anybody but a select few clubs.
In the 2015 MLS SUUUUUUUPERDraft, the Vancouver Whitecaps selected, I kid you not, a guy from Hicksville and a Banjo for him to play with. The Caps came into the draft looking to shore up their depth in a couple of key areas, and appear to have ticked all their boxes by selecting Tim Parker from Hicksville, NY via St John’s University, and Kay Banjo from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
If there remained any doubt about who the Vancouver Whitecaps’ most valuable player is in 2014, tonight’s match removed it. The Caps returned to the Stubhub Center on Saturday evening without standout defensive midfielder Matias Laba, who served his one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation. The difference was stunning.
Without Laba, and with Gershon Koffie still nursing an ankle injury, the Whitecaps resorted to a defensive midfield pairing of Russell Teibert and Mehdi Ballouchy. The result was an underwhelming, listless performance in a 2-0 defeat to the LA Galaxy. It was arguably Vancouver’s worst performance of the 2014 campaign.
Laba’s absence seemed to affect the Whitecaps in a way no other player’s absence has so far this year. They missed his timely interventions, and the way he so casually turns the ball up field without immediately conceding possession.
Without him, Los Angeles roamed through Vancouver’s half with impunity, the Caps utterly unable to dispossess them. Even when the ball miraculously ended up on the foot of a player in blue, the clearances were uninspring. Ballouchy and Teibert often resorted to farting the ball in the general direction of Darren Mattocks, hoping he would be able to win an aerial duel. I am unable to recall him doing so.
The highlight of the game was getting a look at both of the club’s latest acquisitions, with Kendall Waston and Mauro Rosales both making second-half appearances. Though neither was able to make a difference on the scoreboard, both showed glimpses of why Carl Robinson brought them in. Waston set up Vancouver’s best scoring chance of the night, with a nice little touch to Mattocks, while Rosales had some promising possession on the right.
The lowlight was a ridiculously bad tackle from behind late in the game by Johnny Leveron that drew a straight red. Though it certainly didn’t affect the outcome of the game, Vancouver having rolled over long since, the mistake could be exceptionally costly for Leveron, as it opens the door for Waston to start in his natural centre back position next week. It would not surprise in the least if the big Costa Rican took the spot and did not relinquish it.
Up next for the Whitecaps is a potentially Cascadia Cup-clinching derby at home against the Portland Timbers. Fans should keep their fingers crossed that the return of the young Argentine turns around the dreadful form the team was on tonight.
Hi, I’m Chris.
You may remember me as that guy who used to write things on this site from time to time before inexplicably going away for several months!
I’m back now, having dusted off the ol’ keyboard, and I have opinions about the Whitecaps that I will be relaying to you presently.
(Note: Mr Withers is not only a snazzy dresser and the co-founder of PitH — he’s also pretty active as the Director of External Communications of the single largest Whitecaps FC supporter group there is. So much so, in fact, that he appeared on a recent episode of From the Backline podcast to discuss the Southside experience.) Continue reading Whitecaps Preseason Roundup