The Vancouver Whitecaps made a tactical change for their game against the Houston Dynamo on Saturday, dispensing with their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation in favour of a 4-4-2 formation with a 'diamond' midfield.
Carl Robinson made three changes to the team that started against the New England Revolution a week ago. Skipper Jay DeMerit replaced Jonny Leveron at the back, Gershon Koffie replaced the concussed Nigel Reo-Coker to make his first start of the season and Pedro Morales replaced Sebastian Fernandez. The changes saw Matias Laba play as Vancouver's holding midfielder, with Russell Teibert on the left and Koffie on the right, leaving Morales to operate as the attacking midfielder.
The Dynamo had a bye week last weekend, and head coach Dominic Kinnear decided to field an unchanged lineup from their 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact on March 15.
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Tactically, this was an intriguing matchup. The Houston Dynamo are one of the most well-organized teams in MLS, and Kinnear has an experienced squad who are consistent performers.
However, Carl Robinson's decision to play a diamond midfield was a clever one. Not only did it allow Robinson to get his most creative player (Morales) into his preferred position, it allowed Vancouver to nullify many of Houston's threats.
Both Houston fullbacks – Corey Ashe and Kofi Sarkodie – are encouraged to get forward to supply crosses for Will Bruin and Giles Barnes. The quality of Brad Davis on Houston's left side, coupled with Ashe's energy, could have been a real problem for Vancouver. But the introduction of Gershon Koffie on Vancouver's right, coupled with the tactical change to the Whitecaps' lineup, limited Houston's ability to generate a supply line from that side.
With Russell Teibert shutting down Kofi Sarkodie on Houston's right flank, both Bruin and Barnes were cast adrift, starved of the crosses upon which they thrive.
In midfield, Matias Laba had an excellent game for Vancouver, disrupting Boniek Garcia's forward progress. The young Argentinian is proving to be an excellent signing for the Whitecaps, and his ability to cover so much ground freed up Pedro Morales to dictate the game.
In the opening half, Morales had arguably the best 45 minutes of any player in the Whitecaps' relatively short MLS history. His technical ability is superb, and his passing range is magnificent. Time and time again, Morales was able to spring teammates into attacking positions, or change the point of attack with his precise short and long range passing.
Vancouver went into the break leading 1-0, courtesy of a Jordan Harvey goal. After his corner kick was cleared, Morales hooked a one-time pass to the back post, where it was nodded across goal by Andy O'Brien. Harvey caught the Dynamo defenders flat-footed, and he prodded the ball home from six yards.
Vancouver added to their lead in the 58th minute, as Kenny Miller converted a penalty kick after Kofi Sarkodie had handled in the penalty area. Miller scored at the second attempt, as his first kick had to be retaken due to the encroachment of Darren Mattocks.
The Jamaican striker could be forgiven for his exuberance – it was his excellent work that created the penalty kick in the first place.
Mattocks has yet to score this season – something at which he is surely frustrated – but his play has been much improved over last year. He is holding the ball up well, linking with his teammates, and because of his blistering speed, he is a genuine threat to any defence that chooses to play a high line. If he can improve his composure in front of goal, he will surely reach double figures in goals.
Down 2-0, Houston brought on Omar Cummings for the ineffective Garcia. Cummings took a place up front alongside Bruin, with Barnes dropping into midfield. The substitution effectively resulted in Houston matching Vancouver's diamond midfield – something that should have been done at the half.
Houston's midfield partnership of Garcia and Ricardo Clark never got to grips with the movement of Pedro Morales. The Chilean was everywhere he needed to be to get on the ball – even dropping into the left back position at one point to gain possession. Morales effectively dispelled the notion that a midfield diamond has to be narrow or positionally rigid.
Playing Miller up front alongside Mattocks also worked in Vancouver's favour.
While Mattocks offered game-breaking speed, Miller offered craft and guile. When Morales vacated the central position, Miller was clever enough to move into that space – meaning Houston always had to be wary of Clark and Garcia getting bypassed. And because Mattocks' speed caused the Dynamo's Jermaine Taylor and David Horst all kinds of bother, neither centreback wanted to step into midfield and leave the other exposed 1v1.
After Houston pulled a goal back through Clark in the 75th minute, Robinson showed his tactical nous by reverting back to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Teibert slotting in alongside Laba to congest the middle of the park, and substitutes Sebastian Fernandez and Kekuta Manneh taking up wide positions. This allowed Vancouver to see out the remainder of the game, sealing an important three points and maintaining their unbeaten start to the season.
Pedro Morales showed all of the qualities that led the Whitecaps to make him a designated player. He rarely conceded possession, showed fantastic one and two-touch passing range and generally controlled the tempo of the game.
The midfield diamond from Vancouver worked very well, and now offers Robinson a viable alternative to the 4-2-3-1 formation that he used in the first three games. Both Russell Teibert and, to a lesser extent, Gershon Koffie, had effective games, and Matias Laba reaffirmed his growing reputation as one of the top holding midfielders in MLS.
Houston defender David Horst shouldn't be surprised if he receives a phone call from the league's Disciplinary Committee this week.
On two occasions, Horst used excessive force against Vancouver players. The first was a deliberate elbow into the ribs of Pedro Morales; the second, a deliberate elbow into the neck of Kekuta Manneh. Given the league's recent precedent of handing out supplementary discipline, Horst could well be in line for a suspension.
The Star Man
Camilo who? Pedro Morales is making disgruntled Whitecaps fans quickly forget last season's departed top scorer, as Morales had a magnificent game for Vancouver. He is quickly establishing himself as the number ten that fans have always craved – a technically gifted, free-flowing maestro whose lead the other players follow.
With eight points from their opening four games – including two impressive home wins – the Vancouver Whitecaps are off to a great start under Carl Robinson. Vancouver's next match is on Saturday, April 5 (6:30pm ET, 3:30pm PT on CTV BC) against the Colorado Rapids.