All good things come to an end, and the ‘Caps honeymoon start to the season is no different.
After starting the campaign with ten match unbeaten streak and coasting through the first half of the season, Alan Koch’s side has hit a snag. Their torrid first half of the year has been followed up by a 4W-6L-2D stretch, including one win in the team’s last seven matches. The dip in form has seen them surrender sole possession of top spot in the conference, and has suddenly dropped WFC2 into the thick of the tight Western Conference playoff race.
“You’re going to have spells, said Koch following his team’s most recent match, a 1-0 loss at home to Orange County. “It’s a thirty game season, so to expect to be at the top levels that we performed at for the full thirty games is almost impossible.
"I think we just have to stay calm and relax," said centre back Sem de Wit of the team's struggles. "This is a good team, we have a good group [...] we just need to keep calm and train hard and [the results] will come again."
A full professional season is gruelling for any team, but confounding the challenge for WFC2 is the fact that a few key players have gone missing recently, both in a good sense and a bad sense.
On the plus side, Koch’s team has done its job as a developmental side in the fact that two of their regulars from the first half of the season have graduated into the MLS squad. Teenage sensation Alphonso Davies, in case you somehow haven’t heard, was given a first team contract after an impressive start to his first professional season. However, even more importantly for WFC2’s fortunes, ‘Caps first round pick,Cole Seiler, has been exclusively a first team player as of late, having last suited up for WFC2 on June 19 versus Portland. Not by coincidence, the team’s 1-0 win that night was also the last time that the team has kept a clean sheet this season.
Replacing Seiler has proven to be a tough ask for Koch, as the gulf in class between Seiler and his replacements has been substantial. Sem de Wit was a standout during the first half of the season but has since struggled to mesh with his new partners. Both Elliot Green and Jackson Farmer have been given opportunities to run with the vacated position but both players have left much to be desired.
“It’s tough in any group where you have players that are rotating," said Koch. "Obviously as a defensive pair, your centre backs, that’s probably one of the most important relationships on the field. They really have to understand each other, [for example] if I do this, what are you going to do, that type of deal."
The confidence and fluidity that came from having a rock solid back line has since dissipated. Case in point, the late meltdown in a 3-2 loss to Arizona on August 3rd, which saw Farmer and Greene continuously unable to organize and take command of their box, eventually conceding a sloppy injury time winner.
With the back line in it’s current state of flux, goal scoring is at a premium, which is a bad time for a couple more players to go missing, this time in a more negative sense. Captain Kyle Greig, who at one point led the USL in scoring, hasn’t found the back of the net since June 9th. Furthermore, last year’s golden boy, Marco Bustos, has been barely noticeable this season after being the team’s best player by a country mile in the second half of 2015. The 20 year-old has not scored in over two months and he increasingly looks lost out on the pitch. Despite seeing increased minutes recently, Bustos has continued to struggle to find last year’s form.
“Second year pro,” answered Koch when asked about Bustos’ struggles. “I think when you come in as a first year pro, when you have success like he did last year, you almost forget at times how hard worked and what you had to do to have that success.”
While never a demonstrative player, Bustos’ body language lately is one of a player devoid of all confidence. His decision making is increasingly slow and the creativity and enthusiasm that shined through last season seems to have escaped him over the last few months.
All of that said, there is still seven games left for the team to right the ship. As of Thursday, Vancouver somehow still finds itself in a three way tie atop the standings but is also only three points clear of the playoff cut line, which sees the top six teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs.
If they are to complete their brilliant year two turnaround, 12 months removed from finishing second bottom, WFC2 are going to have to find themselves in a hurry. Rediscovering some of that lost confidence would be a good place to start… as would finding a centre back.