After losing 1-0 to the Los Angeles Galaxy in Carson, California, last weekend, Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson chose a different tactical formation for the rematch at BC Place. The Whitecaps lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield, with two changes from the previous match; Matias Laba returned from suspension and Kenny Miller started the match, replacing Kekuta Manneh and Sebastian Fernandez in the starting XI.
The Galaxy lined up with the same lineup and formation that took the pitch the previous week, matching Vancouver's 4-4-2 midfield diamond.
The Galaxy have for many years been the standard by which every team in MLS is judged. They are well organized, tactically disciplined and, in Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, have two of the most dynamic attacking players in the league.
Bruce Arena is arguably the best coach in MLS and he showed his pedigree with his game plan against Vancouver.
The Galaxy encouraged the Whitecaps to have the ball at the back, and as soon as either of Vancouver's central defenders - Jay DeMerit of Andy O'Brien - had the ball, LA applied immediate pressure. This disrupted the Whitecaps, as they weren't able to effectively move the ball out of the back.
When the Galaxy were in possession, both Keane and Donovan dropped into midfield when the opportunity arose. This encouraged Baggio Husidic, Stefan Ishizaki and Marcelo Sarvas to make penetrating runs from midfield, which caused Vancouver problems defensively. Far too often, Russell Teibert and Gershon Koffie were narrow defensively, leaving too much space for the Galaxy to exploit in wide areas.
This was the case when the Galaxy opened the scoring in the first half. Matias Laba vacated his central position to put pressure on Galaxy fullback, Dan Gargan, who had acres of space on the right flank to deliver a cross to the back post.
Laba's enthusiasm meant the Whitecaps had no midfield presence in the penalty area to deal with Ishizaki or Donovan, who had drifted into midfield. The lack of midfield defensive cover meant that the Whitecaps were outnumbered in their own penalty area when the ball was delivered.
Defensively, the back four were culpable for not dealing with the cross from Gargan, as well as for not marking effectively in the penalty area. When Husidic headed the ball back across goal, every Whitecaps defender got caught ball watching, with Ishizaki lurking near the penalty spot.
Given that Laba was out of position on the left - and no other midfielder slid in to cover his defensive responsibilities, Ishizaki was left with a free header from six yards out to open the scoring. Worryingly for Vancouver, Donovan was also in a prime scoring position, completely unmarked.
A series of defensive mistakes that individually, might not prove costly. But collectively, these mistakes lead to goals being conceded.
At the halftime break, Robinson made a bold move - which proved to be the correct one - by making two substitutions. Jonny Leveron and Kekuta Manneh came into the match, replacing Andy O'Brien and Russell Teibert.
Leveron immediately improved Vancouver's ability to move the ball out of the back and into midfield, and Manneh provided an attacking threat that was missing in the first half. This threat was further amplified when Erik Hurtado replaced the largely ineffective Pedro Morales part way through the second half.
Both Manneh and Hurtado stretched the Galaxy back line with their speed and direct play. It was Hurtado's forward run that played a role in Darren Mattocks' equalizer, and after Robbie Keane had put the Galaxy back in front, it was Manneh who drove home Vancouver's second tying goal.
The Whitecaps deserve credit for building a squad of players rather than just focusing on improving their starting eleven. In every game this season, Vancouver have had options on the bench that could change the game, and Saturday's game was an example of how Robinson used those options effectively.
There will be many fans calling for Manneh - who was 'Player of the Match' in my eyes for his 45-minute performance - to get a run of games in the starting lineup now. But those fans need to be careful what they wish for. The biggest challenge that all young players face is finding a level of consistency from game to game. Manneh faces this same challenge, and despite his bright performance against the Galaxy (as well as a good performance as a substitute against Chivas USA in the second week of the season), I feel that Robinson is doing the right thing by keeping the reins on Manneh as a first team regular. It is far better to have a player succeed in the long-term, rather than to have him fizzle out because he was rushed into the first team.
One of the criticisms levied against former head coach Martin Rennie was that he could be indecisive. Many felt that Rennie waited too long in games to make his substitutions, thus reducing the impact of the players he brought on to change the game.
This criticism cannot be levied against Robinson. The first-year coach made a bold move taking off O'Brien and Teibert at the half. Robinson also altered Vancouver's tactical approach during the second half, changing their 4-4-2 midfield diamond to a more conventional 4-4-2, with the central midfielders operating as double pivots.
Both Manneh and Hurtado were bright spots for Vancouver in the second half, as was Leveron. Defenders get paid to prevent goals, but the Honduran's ability on the ball is what Robinson is looking for from his central defenders when the Whitecaps are in possession. Because of this, Leveron will be first choice for Robinson in that position in the long-term, and could very likely replace DeMerit or O'Brien in Vancouver's starting lineup for their next match against Real Salt Lake (Saturday, April 26, 9:30pm ET, 6:30pm PT, TSN).
Defensively, there were all kinds of problems for the Whitecaps on both of the Galaxy's goals.
For starters, Vancouver was very narrow in midfield and never got to grips with the problems caused by the movement from Keane and Donovan. This gave the Galaxy the freedom of the flanks, which allowed for uncontested delivery into the penalty area on both goals.
At the back, the partnership of Jay DeMerit and Andy O'Brien is fraught with issues. Neither player is especially quick, but their experience should be enough to see them cope with this handicap. But as neither player has Leveron's technical ability or passing range, the Whitecaps are hamstrung when it comes to playing the ball out of defence when they are paired together. This puts immense pressure on Vancouver's midfielders, as their opposite numbers know that if Vancouver are going to get the ball forward, it will have to come through midfield.
The Star Man
At just 19 years of age, it is tempting to think of what kind of player Kekuta Manneh is going to be when he matures. He is quick, skillful, direct and not afraid to shoot the ball - all qualities one looks for in an attacking player.
Manneh made a dramatic impact for Vancouver when he was introduced at the start of the second half. He terrorized the Galaxy defenders, and it was fitting that it was his strike that brought the Whitecaps back on level terms.