Team in transition
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Saturday’s loss to the San Jose Earthquakes served as a reminder to fans that the 2012 Vancouver Whitecaps are still a work in progress.
On paper, the Caps entered Buck Shaw Stadium as one of the revelations of the young Major League Soccer season.
Here was a team that finished dead last in the standings the year before but has yet to concede a single goal and is now hot on the heels of Real Salt Lake at the top of the Western Conference.
Of course, we knew better.
While the results from the first four games had been favourable, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call some of them flattering.
The team lacked life against Chivas, looked disjointed against D.C. United and was gun-shy in Philadelphia.
Still, there was an abundance of positives to draw on – from picking up those valuable points to Joe Cannon’s resurgence and the signs of a settled backline.
With those foundations in place, it was time to improve other aspects of Vancouver’s game.
To a man, manager Martin Rennie and his squad preached the need for big game players to step up and finally get the stuttering, yet talented, offence clicking.
To that end, the Whitecaps succeeded on Saturday.
Sebastien Le Toux scored the opener and continued to run hard for the team.
Eric Hassli, despite being goalless this season, provided a deft assist on the Caps goal and seemed to be involved in every play going forward.
He linked up well with teammates, ran more than we’re used to seeing out of the big Frenchmen and wasn’t afraid to create chances for himself when the Caps found themselves down 3-1 and lacking in ideas.
John Thorrington even provided the best evidence yet as to why three coaches have instilled their faith in his leadership and presence on the pitch during his short but injury-plagued career at the club so far.
The veteran made key plays on both sides of the ball during his 78 minutes on the pitch and was unlucky his composed side-footer hit the crossbar during a mad scramble in the first half.
By all accounts, the Whitecaps played their best 60 minutes of the season on Saturday until shades of the 2011 season reared their ugly head.
Poor marking off a throw-in and a mistimed Jay DeMerit interception in the 68th minute cost the Whitecaps their precious shut out streak (now the longest to start a season in MLS history).
The wheels seemed to fall off as two San Jose crossed down the left side led to relatively easy goals for Alan Gordon and Chris Wondolowski (Martin Bonjour and Jordan Harvey culpable of missed assignments on their respective goals).
The Caps managed a couple of chances in the time remaining but it was too late to prevent their first loss of the season.
Players bemoaned their late breakdown in composure and feel as if they flushed three-points down the toilet.
Rightly so, but that’s all part of the learning process.
The Caps offence showed signs of rounding the corner offensively against the Quakes, but let no one forget this team sported one of the worst defenses in the league last year.
They will be prone to the occasional mistake, they will have breakdowns.
Not conceding a goal in the first four games didn’t automatically fix all of the team’s problems and it’s something Rennie will need to work on all season.
It’s back to basics and now that the squad doesn’t have to worry about setting records or preserving a perfect record, the loss in California serve as a reminder that the 2012 Whitecaps are far from the finished product.
As it stands, Vancouver sits in a respectable fourth place in the Western Conference with a 2W-1L-2D record, already a huge improvement over last year.
Any progress the side has made will be severely tested on the 18th, when Sport Kansas City – the toast of the league so far this season – visits B.C. Place.
It’ll likely be another learning experience, one that will let the Whitecaps see how they measure up to the best MLS has to offer.