Vancouver coach Carl Robinson knew better than to delve into the particulars of the budding animosity with FC Dallas before his Whitecaps stepped on the plane for their Knockout Round tie in Frisco on Wednesday night.
Robinson focused on the meaning of the discord instead. There is enough riding on this meeting at Toyota Stadium — it is a one-off match to keep the season alive and set a date against Seattle in the Western Conference semifinals, after all — as it is. A little extra emotion can only help the cause as the two teams scrap to stay alive, according to Robinson.
“I’d prefer that than just be matey, matey and friends all the time and on the field the players pick each other up when they have physical contact because the game’s not about that,” Robinson told reporters before his Whitecaps left Vancouver on Monday. “I watch the hockey and it’s brilliant and maybe I can turn my team into that a little bit, without the fighting.”
Both sides can only hope to avoid such extracurricular activities after the tension in FC Dallas’ 2-1 victory in Frisco on Sept. 13 and the modest post-match scuffle in the wake of the Whitecaps’ 2-0 triumph at B.C. Place on Oct. 4. FCD coach Oscar Pareja and Whitecaps assistant Martyn Pert both received fines from MLS commissioner Don Garber for their confrontation on the field in the aftermath of that affair.
The simmering tension stems from the intensity and the pace of the game when these two sides meet. Both teams love to break quickly and rely on their pace to exploit the opposition. The inevitable fouls to chop up those endeavors and close down the space in midfield. The prospect of leaving Fabian Castillo with room to dash into the attacking half at top speed or permitting Pedro Morales to play another through ball without the corresponding attention isn’t palatable. The halting dynamic tends to spark conflict, particularly if a couple of peculiar decisions throw fuel on the fire.
“We’re very competitive, no one likes to lose and you can see the rivalry on the field in all three games,” FC Dallas midfielder Victor Ulloa told the club’s official website. “We had an incident here, but that’s just the intensity that we bring. We’re ready to win. We know they’re a hot team, but they’re going to come here and we’re going to [battle] on Wednesday night.”
There is a time and a place for those sorts of disagreements and unpleasantries during the regular season, but the stakes at hand require a more restrained approach. Balance is the key word for everyone involved. There simply isn’t enough latitude to cross over the line and put the team in peril.
FC Dallas — tied for the league lead in dismissals with nine this season, four more than the next highest playoff team – must heed the lesson carefully, but Vancouver must step warily, too. Robinson said he expects both teams to figure out the right way forward in this robust encounter.
"There was a bit of edge in the [last] game," Robinson said. "I think there’ll be a bit of edge in the game on Wednesday and it’ll be the calmer heads that prevail. We’ve got to make sure that we do that: we match the battle and physicality that I know Oscar likes to bring to his team, but we remain calm."
1. Vancouver must confront its aerial challenge: FCD will test the Whitecaps with plenty of dangerous set pieces from Michel and plenty of direct service toward the irrepressible Blas Perez. Vancouver managed to keep the aerial battle even in the 1-1 draw on July 27 and in the victory earlier this month, but the Whitecaps won just 38 percent in the air (down from their season average of 48.6 percent, per Opta statistics) in the defeat at Toyota Stadium last month. That sort of rate won’t suffice here, though the Whitecaps can certainly cope with Andy O’Brien (66 percent win rate) and Kendall Waston (73 percent win rate) in central defense.
2. FCD need to take advantage on its set pieces: Michel boasts perhaps the best left foot in the league. He wields it to devastating effect. Perez and Matt Hedges serve as ideal targets because they boast the height to present a threat and the intelligence to make threatening runs. Vancouver must keep its concentration to cope with the threat, particularly with the potential absence of Steven Beitashour (hamstring) likely to strip away one of the better secondary aerial markers (72 percent win percentage in aerial duels, per Opta statistics).
3. Cherish the open space when it emerges: Both teams prefer to sweep through midfield and use their pace in the wide areas to torment the opposition before they can establish their shape. This shared tendency does have some drawbacks in this situation, though. The familiarity with the approach — plus the tactical acumen of the holding players – naturally leads to defensive adjustments and restricts those openings. The state of play means the two sides must take full advantage of those opportunities when they arise, particularly with the Whitecaps likely forced into a change at right back due to Beitashour’s fitness.
One related point to monitor here: Vancouver will have an easier time coping with this particular threat if Gershon Koffie (right foot) is fit enough to feature from the start and mobile enough to snuff out those counterattacking moves as he usually does.
4. Pedro Morales creates the danger … : Morales finished fifth in MLS in both key passes (defined as a pass producing a shot that does not result in a goal) and chances created (defined as key passes and assists), per Opta statistics. His adaptability and his movement plays a large part in his success. His range of passing allows him to play accurately over the top or thread more intricate balls through the line.
FCD cannot allow Morales to function as the attacking hub if it wants to live to play another day. The best way to subdue Morales: close quickly at all times and shut off the opportunities to play neat one-twos to emerge from the pressure.
5. … and his teammates must finish it: Vancouver scored the fewest goals of any playoff team. Their modest haul of 42 goals included 10 penalties and three goals from corner kicks, per MLS statistics. There isn’t exactly a lot of room for error here. Morales will set the table where he can and try his luck from distance, but his supporting players — Erik Hurtado will likely replace Darren Mattocks up top if he is fully recovered from illness — must find a way to nick a goal and relieve some of the pressure to secure a first playoff victory.