The Vancouver Whitecaps are unbeaten to start the Major League Soccer season, but rookie head coach Carl Robinson knows his club is still very much a work in progress.
After thumping the New York Red Bulls 4-1 in their home opener on March 8, the Whitecaps secured a pair of road draws the last two weeks — 1-1 against Chivas USA and 0-0 against the New England Revolution.
Points away from home are always a bonus in MLS, but Robinson wasn’t happy with certain aspects of the games as goalkeeper David Ousted was forced to bail out his teammates on a couple of occasions.
With that in mind, the Whitecaps spent time this week getting back to basics in preparation for Saturday’s home date against the Houston Dynamo.
“We haven’t played enough football in the last two games that I would’ve liked,” said Robinson. “We tried to break it down into segments of building from the back at the right times with a midfield player, breaking lines in the midfield and transitioning quickly.
“The boys took the concepts very well.”
Robinson will hope the lessons stick as Houston (2-0-0) comes to town rested, having not played since a 1-0 victory over the Montreal Impact on March 15.
“A very tough game,” said Robinson. “I said to the guys in the changing room that they’re always in the playoffs, they’re a very strong team, well coached ... and it’s going to be a stern test for us.”
Vancouver is 2-2-0 against Houston all-time in MLS play, including a 3-1 home victory over the Dynamo at B.C. Place Stadium back in 2012.
“It’s always been a fortress for us,” Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit said of his team’s home field. “Throughout the years we’ve been able to pick up good results and we’ll look to continue that. We know we have a tough opposition this week.”
Robinson, who was promoted to the top job in December after former head coach Martin Rennie was fired, has tempered expectations as he attempts to put his mark on the club and return the Whitecaps to the post-season.
“I was never getting too carried away after the first game and I’m not getting too down after two difficult away games,” said the former Welsh international. “It’s important we try and put our stamp on the game. Because we’re a young team with new players, it’s important we manage games better.”
That begins at the opening whistle, where the Whitecaps struggled the last two weeks to assert themselves early on the road.
“A lot of teams in Major League Soccer play very well at home,” said Robinson. “It’s difficult to go on the road and play. The successful teams manage to find a way to win on the road. We’re very good at home. We know that, and if we want to be competing for the playoffs we’ve got to be very good at home.”
One player the Dynamo will have to pay close attention to is Whitecaps striker Darren Mattocks, who has two assists this season, and three goals in two career games against Houston.
“Mattocks is a fast guy,” Dynamo defender Kofi Sarkodie told the club’s official website. “As long as we stick together as a back line as we’ve been doing and just kind of eliminate space in behind, I think we can nullify them throughout the match.”
DeMerit said the Whitecaps have had past success against the Dynamo because their style suits the matchup.
“That means getting the ball down, getting our link play up and our combinations up front to create chances in our final third,” said DeMerit. “The way you beat them is to pick them apart, and we’ve been able to do that most of the time.”
The Dynamo — who will face their first road test of the season — have yet to concede a goal this year, while striker Will Bruin already has three of his own to go along with an assist.
“Strong team,” said Ousted. “Good crosses and big guys up front that are good in the box, so we need to study up on those guys and be ready for it. Hopefully we can go in and dictate the play a little more than we did in the two away games.”
DeMerit will draw back into the lineup for Vancouver after a week of rest. Another change comes out of necessity, with Gershon Koffie expected to replace Nigel Reo-Coker in the centre of midfield.
Reo-Coker suffered a bizarre injury on Sunday when he tripped over a bike rack in Vancouver and suffered a concussion and cuts to his face.
Koffie, who has started 77 games for the Whitecaps since 2011, subbed in for Reo-Coker for the final 20 minutes against the Revolution for his first action of 2014.
“It’s always learning when you’re on the bench,” said Koffie. “It’s not easy to be on the bench ... but also you have to learn from the bench.”
Robinson said he’s pleased with Vancouver’s unbeaten run to kick off the campaign but stressed it’s far too soon to be looking at the standings.
At this point, the process is what concerns him.
“We started off very well. We’ve still got obviously a long way to go. We’re unbeaten in three but it’s early stages,” said Robinson. “It’s important we progress every game and along the way we’ll win games and we’ll lose games.
“But as long as we’re progressing in the right way and trying to put the style of play I want in the team, then we’re moving in the right direction.”
Note: The Whitecaps will honour Y.P. Lee before Saturday’s game. The famed South Korean defender joined Vancouver in 2012 after a lengthy career in Europe and the Middle East before retiring in October.