Out of 171 chances, Vancouver has only scored a meagre three times
By Marc Weber
It would have been an interesting Vegas betting line at the start of the season — odds on the Whitecaps scoring more goals off long throw-ins than corner kicks.
The glass half-full folks will say that four goals from Wes Knight's launching pad arms are a real positive — and they are. But what to make of their measly three from the corner flag?
It's a statistic made more disturbing by the fact they've had 171 cracks at it, and that none of the three tallies were bang-bang plays from someone's boot to someone's head to the back of the net.
There was Marco Reda's "excuse-me" thigh finish, a wicked own goal, and Martin Nash's blast from 20 yards after a clearance attempt.
"It's a bit of a concern because that's very often the difference when you come to the playoffs when games are so tight," said head coach Teitur Thordarson, whose squad hosts the Austin Aztex Wednesday night at Swangard Stadium (7:30 p.m., Shaw).
"We get so many corners and we should score on a lot more. We are possibly not tough enough on them. We haven't been brave enough."
The USL-1 doesn't keep corner statistics, but to put Vancouver's totals somewhat into perspective, opponents have scored against the Whitecaps on 3-of-99 corner kicks. That speaks to Vancouver's defending, but also gives some idea of what a league average might look like.
All the elements of a good corner kick — the delivery, the runs, the finish — can be questioned. In their 1-1 tie with Rochester last week, the service was good enough to generate two or three goals. No one, however, got on the end of Marcus Haber's flick-on to the far post, and defenders Chris Pozniak and Shaun Pejic failed to get their clean-look headers on target, let alone in the net.
Earlier in the season it was the service that was lacking, and no doubt playing most of the campaign without forward Marlon James — a tall, strong finisher — has hurt the end result.
Nash and Haber echoed Thordarson's sentiment — that it mostly comes down to toughness. A willingness to throw one's body into the fray. To risk a clash of heads or absorb a clearance punch from the goalkeeper.
"Part of it is just aggression," said Nash, who will sit out tonight with a tender hamstring, leaving corner kick duties to Ansu Toure, Gordon Chin and perhaps Tyrell Burgess. "We're attacking the ball better lately, but we've still go to work on it."
Added Haber: "I think the most important thing is to expect the ball no matter where you are or what your role is. You've got to be the quickest to react and really believe you can get to the ball first. It's about aggressiveness and timing."
In fairness to Vancouver, they do have three goals off free kicks to go with their four on long throws. So, of their 34 total goals — the third-highest total in the league — 10 have come from set pieces.
Knight and Gbeke, especially, have developed a chemistry on long throws.
But there's no doubt that a failure to convert from the corner flag has cost them points. And because Vancouver generates, on average, almost twice as many corners as their opponents, the lack of production sticks out like a tackle from behind.
One of the oddest statistics this season is that in the eight games Vancouver has earned between nine and 15 corners, they are 1-5-2.
"I think we're more worried about how we're playing in the run of play — we're so concentrated in practice on making the team good because it's such a new team," said Nash. "But we've been working on set pieces more lately because come playoffs that can be the difference."
Nash will be replaced in the starting lineup tonight by Haitian Kenold Versailles, who is making his first home start.
Gordon Chin also replaces Nizar Khalfan, so it's new-look central midfield.
Nash is missing his first game due to injury in five years, but Thordarson called it a precautionary move. His captain will make the road trip Thursday.
GAME PREVIEW: Austin Aztex at Vancouver Whitecaps
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Venue: Swangard Stadium
TV: Shaw; Web: USLlive.com
Five games remain in the regular season for Vancouver — three are at home, and four of the five are against the bottom three teams in USL-1, including tonight. Considering their schedule, the Caps are safely in the seventh and final playoff spot, but still trying to chase down Montreal (9-10-6) for sixth and Rochester (9-8-8) for fifth. ... M Martin Nash (hamstring) and F Marlon James (groin) are out, but D Geordie Lyall (thigh) draws back into the 18-man roster.
Austin Aztex (4-13-8)
The expansion Aztex — coached by former Everton and Stoke City midfielder Adrian Heath — have just five away goals all season.
Top league scorer: Eddie Johnson (5) (inj.)
Vancouver Whitecaps (8-9-8)
Predicted starting XI: J Nolly; T Hirano, S Pejic, C Pozniak, L Martin; A Toure, G Chin, K Versailles, W Knight; C Gbeke, M Haber.
Top league scorer: Charles Gbeke (9)