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The art of the 'smash and grab': An in-depth look at Vancouver's road success

VANCOUVER, BC – Smash and grab.

It’s a phrase commonly used in soccer when describing a team that comes away with a victory despite being under pressure for large parts of the match – the idea being that it’s a form of burglary. Many would say there’s an element of fortune involved in a “smash and grab” result.

And they’re probably right, but fortune alone is not nearly enough.

As Vancouver Whitecaps FC have proven over the last three years, there’s a lot more to it than dumb luck. No MLS team has won more games away from home (18) than Vancouver since the start of 2015. The latest example was a 2-1 victory at Houston Dynamo – a match that saw Houston control 67 per cent of possession and outshoot Vancouver 21-7. Notably, Houston was the best home team in the Western Conference last season, having only lost one game.

It’s certainly not the first time the ‘Caps have beat the odds with such a result.

Last September, they ended Sporting Kansas City’s 24-match home unbeaten run with a 1-0 victory, despite only seeing 26 per cent of the ball. It was a similar story the month prior, when Whitecaps FC earned a 2-1 victory at Orlando City SC Stadium – this time with 27 per cent of possession.

So how the heck do the ‘Caps keep pulling off these results? 

Let’s take a closer look.

DEFEND, DEFEND, DEFEND

Generally, the onus is on the home team to attack. Whether it’s due to the energy of the home crowd, the comfort of playing in their own stadium/climate, or the opponent having lower energy levels because of the effects of travel, that’s typically the case across world football.

So whenever you play on the road, you have to be ready to defend.

It requires a lot of hard work and discipline, but it’s a mentality that everyone must buy into – from the strikers to the defenders. The ‘Caps certainly have that mentality. They are comfortable sitting deep and inviting the pressure, because they know they can deal with it.

You can call it “organized chaos.” Or the “bend but not break” approach.

Consider this: no team had more clearances (47) than Vancouver last weekend.


Vancouver's clearances vs. Houston

As is so often the case, Kendall Waston was front and centre, recording a team-high 13 clearances. In fact, the 6-foot-5 centre back leads MLS in clearances (over 100 more than the next closest player) and blocks since the start of the 2015 season.

Waston is the king of clearances and 18-yard box defending. When you have the “Towering Tico” anchoring the back line, you ALWAYS have a chance to win.

It’s not just him, either.

From top to bottom, whether it’s Kei Kamara working his tail off up front or Alphonso Davies tracking back to prevent a scoring opportunity, the ‘Caps just know what it takes to grind out results.

TIMELY SAVES

In a perfect world, the above has prevented the opponent from creating any real scoring opportunities, but unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. Every team in MLS has enough attacking talent to create chances on their day. When the opponent is on the front foot in their own barn, they’re bound to break through at some point.  

That’s where your goalkeeper comes into play.

It’s unlikely you’re walking away with a road result without your goalkeeper coming up with a big save or two. That’s the reality of it.

Saturday was Exhibit A.

Whitecaps FC goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic made six saves on the night. Most of them were routine, but in the second half the New Zealand international denied Alberth Elis and Andrew Wenger with a pair of highlight reel, sprawling stops to preserve the lead – and eventually the victory.

Marinovic is comfortable playing in hostile environments, partly from his experiences with the New Zealand national team. In fact, he thrives off them. This past offseason, for example, he stole the show – and nearly the result – in a World Cup qualifying playoff vs. Peru.

Talk about high stakes.

It takes a certain type of mentality to be able to cope with these sorts of high-pressure situations, and Marinovic certainly has it.

CLINICAL COUNTER

In many ways, the ‘Caps are built for road success because of their lethal counter-attack.

When the home team is pushing numbers forward, it can leave space in behind and the ‘Caps have a vast array of attacking players who have the pace to take advantage of it – whether it’s Davies, Yordy Reyna, Cristian Techera, Erik Hurtado, who has scored eight of his 11 career MLS goals on the road, or as we saw on Saturday in Houston, Brek Shea.

Shea scored four goals for Vancouver last year in MLS play. Three of them were on the road.

It’s not a coincidence.

And if opponents don’t push numbers forward, they’re unlikely to break through Vancouver’s defensive wall. It’s a catch-22 that home teams do not like to be faced with.

Whenever the ‘Caps go on the road, they feel confident that they’ll be able to create enough chances to get a result. Then, it’s just a matter of taking them.

And they’ve been pretty good at that, too.  

PERSONNEL AND TACTICAL ADJUSTMENTS 

Being on the West Coast, the ‘Caps travel more than any other team in MLS, which can have a significant effect on players’ energy levels. That’s why Carl Robinson has built a deep roster.

And he certainly hasn’t been afraid to use it.

Robinson will rarely start an identical starting XI in consecutive matches, particularly when there is cross-continent travel involved. Last year, for example, he made a whopping nine changes to his lineup before Vancouver’s win in Orlando. He also made the decision to start Hurtado instead of Fredy Montero in Kansas City, and it was Hurtado who scored the game's only goal. 

Such decisions result in a lot of scrutiny, but more often than not, they have had the desired effect.

In addition to personnel changes, you'll notice that Robinson and his staff often make certain tactical adjustments to help counteract the opponent's strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses. These adjustments could come in the form of a formation tweak, as was the case when Robinson trotted out a new-look 4-4-1-1 in Vancouver's 4-0 win at FC Dallas last season. Or it could be something a little more subtle, such as asking players to take on different responsibilities on a week-to-week basis, depending on the matchups at hand.

It could even come down to making the right sub, like last weekend in Houston when Robinson brought Shea on for the injured Marcel de Jong and made the decision to drop Davies to left back. 

The point being: there's a lot that goes into every single one of these games. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn't. But at this point, I think we can safely say that Vancouver's road success is more of an art than it is a fluke. 

Next up for Whitecaps FC is a trip to Atlanta United FC at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this Saturday (4:30 p.m. PT kickoff on TSN2, TSN 1040 pre-match show starts at 3:30 p.m. PT). The ‘Caps will then return to BC Place on Saturday, March 24 to host LA Galaxy (7 p.m. PT – visit whitecapsfc.com/tickets for ticket information).