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MLS Breakdown: Vancouver prepares for the future under Carl Robinson

Vancouver opted to promote assistant Carl Robinson to fill its coaching vacancy in December. Robinson's desire to implement a possession-oriented approach inspired a roster overhaul and sparked a shift that will require some time to take hold.

Vancouver coach Carl Robinson wants his side to keep the ball more effectively in 2014.

Anne-Marie Sorvin / USA Today Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.

Carl Robinson planned as he waited for Vancouver to appoint its next coach. He knew Whitecaps executives wanted to sound out other options before deciding upon its next manager. He also understood he could not afford to waste time in event he ascended to the top job.

“I think you have to be proactive in this game,” Robinson said before his Whitecaps secured a 0-0 draw with New England. “If I wouldn’t have got the job, then the preparation that I did in relation to what I thought needed changing with this team, who I would have wanted to bring in and why, I would have just taken with me to my next venture. I think you just have to be prepared just in case because that’s what happens in this game.”

Robinson compiled his potential structures based upon his knowledge of the squad after two years as an assistant and his preferred way to approach the game cultivated during his playing career and his studies for his UEFA Pro License. He wanted to inject more creativity into the ranks and place more emphasis on retaining possession.

“For him, it’s a transition of football,” Whitecaps midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker said on Friday. “We want to play from the back. He’s given confidence in the players to play from the back and the faith and the belief in them to say, we want to play football. This is the modern game and how it’s played. Most teams play from the back, through midfield and into the attacking area. He gives you the freedom to go and express yourself in the attacking part, to go and be creative.”

The outlines Robinson concocted during the period between Martin Rennie’s departure and his eventual appointment in December allowed him to acquire the pieces to further those plans. Club contacts purloined Sebastian Fernández and Nicolás Mezquida from Uruguay. Robinson then acquired Matias Laba from DP-stocked Toronto FC to partner Reo-Coker in central midfield and procured Pedro Morales from Malaga to fill the elusive number 10 role.

By supplementing the options in the middle third, the Whitecaps increased the choices and the combinations available within the ranks. Throw in the arrival of Steven Beitashour as Young-Pyo Lee’s replacement at right back and this group looks more formidable when moving forward.

Recently acquired playmaker Pedro Morales will play an instrumental role in the Whitecaps' success in possession.

Anne-Marie Sorvin / USA TODAY Sports

“It’s a lot of flexibility,” Robinson said. “If you ask any coach, it’s well, what do you want to play, what system. You want to set out a system and how you want to play, but you have to be subject to change if it doesn’t happen.”

The first three weeks offered tangible examples of how this shape could change if required. Robinson deployed his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation in the 4-1 home demolition of New York on opening day, but he reverted to a more streamlined 4-4-2 setup in the second half against Chivas USA to take advantage of the 10-man home side with pace in behind. The visit to New England prompted a return to the usual shape and showcased the strides still to make with a regular dose of long balls out of the back serving as the primary method to relieve pressure during the tense opening stages.

The constant return to rudimentary disposal methods offers a glimpse into the transition ahead. Vancouver fell toward the bottom of the pack in terms of keeping possession (47.4 percent average share, per MLSsoccer.com) and landed in the middle of the league in terms of average buildup (1.67 passes per shot, per MLSsoccer.com) last season. The shift to more deliberate work on the ball requires the patience to adjust to the revised demands without reverting to previous habits or sacrificing results.

“For us, I don’t think it’ll take that long at all,” Reo-Coker said on Friday. “If you look at our past few games – just before the season and when the season started – we’ve passed the ball better. Possession-wise, we’ve kept it better. We’re still learning. We’re a new team that’s only been together for maybe seven or eight weeks. We’ve got some players who have only been here for four or five weeks. It’s still going to take some time until we’re really glued and jelled together as a team.”

Improved passing accuracy – 79.5 percent against New York and 80 percent against Chivas USA, though just 70 percent against New England at the weekend – bolsters Reo-Coker’s point, but three games hardly offers a substantive sample. The real measure will come as this season progresses as the Whitecaps implement Robinson’s ideas wholesale and move forward toward the future.

“I keep level-headed,” Robinson said before the draw against the Revolution. “We’re the same team we were before both games. We’re going in the right direction. We still have a lot of work to do. It’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight. The first building block is there, but there are five or six building blocks that need to be put in place. There’s a short-, medium- and long-term plan in place for this club. This is what I’ve got. Hopefully, over the course of this season, next season and hopefully two or three more seasons after, all that will come to fruition.”

Five Points – Week 3

José Gonçalves reclaimed the armband upon his return to the New England lineup on Saturday.

Greg M. Cooper / USA Today Sports

1. José Gonçalves returns, New England benefits: Gonçalves spent last weekend pondering his plight in New England after Revolution coach Jay Heaps omitted him from the squad to face Philadelphia. His display in the season-opening 4-0 defeat at Houston betrayed the disquiet surrounding his contractual status (he wants a new, larger deal to reflect his previous wages with FC Sion and replace the option exercised when the Revs acquired his services permanently last year, but the parties haven’t agreed to terms on a fresh pact to boost his current salary from the $450,000 bracket) and forced the situation to a head in the buildup to the 1-0 setback against the Union.

Gonçalves took the time and used it wisely. He returned to training with the proper attitude and spurred Heaps to restore him as captain for the 0-0 draw with Vancouver on Saturday afternoon. His imposing performance justified the decision to restore him to the starting XI and underscored his importance to the side moving forward.

“I trained every day,” Gonçalves said after the match. “I’m professional, you know? When I’m on the field, I give 100 percent. For me, I didn’t see any situation or problems. I train. I focus on my game and helping the team as I can. That’s it.”

Revolution general manager Michael Burns said before the game that the relationship between club and player had returned to normal. Gonçalves echoed those statements and reiterated his commitment to the side in the weeks ahead. The big test for Gonçalves now: keeping his focus on the field even if he isn’t perfectly content with compensation and serving as the reliable, steady touchstone for the duration of the season.   

2. Toronto FC continues its encouraging start: The first couple of matches offered a glimpse of how the Reds will function moving forward: they’ll keep it tight defensively in the basic 4-4-2 formation, move the ball quickly through midfield and wait for the right moments to play high to Gilberto (as evidenced this weekend) or spring Jermain Defoe through the line.

D.C. United enjoyed the majority of possession in its 1-0 defeat at BMO Field (62.8 percent, according to Opta statistics), but TFC won because it found a way to produce chances more frequently. The buildup to Defoe’s third in two games – including another sumptuous Michael Bradley pass, a good effort by Gilberto on the initial attempt and a typically instinctive finish from Defoe to complete the move – offered a glimpse at the danger presented by this revamped side.

3. Capture the essence of Columbus-Philadelphia with one 35-yard drive: The early stages of this season have revealed a significant improvement in midfield play for both sides. This match reinforced the growth and supplied ample hope moving forward. And the decisive moment – Bernardo Anor’s lash from distance to win the game moments before halftime – provided a decent measure of the match as a whole.

4. Colorado delivers Pablo Mastroeni’s first win from the spot: Deshorn Brown and Vicente Sánchez made it three goals in three attempts from 12 yards to give the Rapids all three points in Commerce City. Portland coach Caleb Porter lamented the way those penalty decisions turned the game (and it did look like 0-0 might have unfolded otherwise), but it’s tough to argue with Donovan Ricketts’ dismissal (he speared Brown in the stomach with his challenge when Brown rushed behind the line) on Sanchez’s opener or substitute goalkeeper Andrew Weber’s foul on the second award minutes later.

5. Seattle benefits from tactical switch in Montréal: Sounders FC boss Sigi Schmid continues to alter his team shape to extract the most from his talented squad. His team selection for the 2-0 victory over the Impact on Sunday reflected his usually savvy approach to sticky situations.

The absences of Clint Dempsey (two-match suspension) and Brad Evans (calf) altered any plans to stick with the 4-2-3-1 setup preferred in the 2-1 defeat to Toronto FC a week ago. Schmid instead opted to drop Marco Pappa and switch to a 4-3-3 structure designed to exploit space on the counter, foster mobility among the front three and protect the rearguard with a compact defensive setup in the middle of the field.

Schmid’s decision to deploy Kenny Cooper and Lamar Neagle on either side of Obafemi Martins turned into a masterstroke. Martins pulled the wayward Hassoun Camara all over the park with his willingness to drop into midfield, while Cooper and Neagle roved on either side to threaten from a variety of angles.

Their production – plus the Impact’s inability to produce consistent service from the wide areas ceded by the tight midfield trio – vindicated the decision on the day: Neagle forced Troy Perkins’ own goal by heading off the frame, while Cooper’s delicate cross allowed Martins to nod home the second.