VANCOUVER, B.C. — As head coach of Vancouver Whitecaps FC for three seasons in the second division, Teitur Thordarson implemented a system that emphasized defensive structure. Now that the team is in MLS, nothing has changed.
That ability to shut down opponents, however, also requires strong team cohesion, and numerous absences haven’t made it easy for Thordarson’s squad to achieve that. The result has been 14 goals against in nine MLS matches, the second-highest total in the league.
The ‘Caps, though, finally feel their back line is coming together. After starting five different combinations on defense in their first five matches, the same back four of Jonathan Leathers, Michael Boxall, Alain Rochat (pictured above at right) and Blake Wagner started the next three matches, posting two shutouts.
“It’s just about constantly progressing, moving forward and gelling and developing chemistry,” said Leathers at training on Tuesday. “If we can do that, I think we can be a tremendous team.”
A total of seven players have started on defense for Vancouver, but Leathers and Rochat have played every minute. Boxall and Wagner, meanwhile, have done well, but further improvement has since come with the return to health of center backs Greg Janicki and Mouloud Akloul, who have slid into starting roles in the middle of the back line. This has allowed Rochat to move to his more natural left back spot, solidifying the team’s overall defensive stance.
“It’s so nice playing with the same players next to you on a consistent basis,” said Leathers. “You learn the tendencies of the players around you and what they like, what they don’t like, where you need to help them out and where they can help you out. It’s always good to be able to read one another.”
The newfound combination of Leathers, Janicki, Akloul and Rochat have started the past three matches together, improving from two goals given up against Columbus, to one against Montreal in Nutrilite Canadian Championship play, to a shutout this past weekend in Chicago.
“It’s very important to have a back line that works together all the time, and that was the main reason that I didn’t want to make a change,” said Thordarson. “Even though those players have played three or four games in a row and clearly are tired, when they get the chemistry and get things working they make less mistakes and that is important.”
With that said, one more change will likely soon be on the way. The final and most important piece to the defensive puzzle for the Whitecaps is captain Jay DeMerit. The US international has played just one full game for the ‘Caps — the season opener two months ago — but finally looks set to return to action and could potentially get into Wednesday’s match at Empire Field against San Jose (10 pm ET, Direct Kick, MatchDay Live).
“He trained in Vancouver while we were away and he trained today," Thordarson on Tuesday, "so as long as there are no setbacks, he will most probably be in the 18 for tomorrow's game."