Boehm: Stalemate in Vancouver a question of strategy, not playoff format

The win-or-else Knockout Round is in the past, and the two-legged segment of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs is upon us. And if you managed to forget, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders provided us a sobering reminder of just how much the competitive dynamic can change on Sunday night at BC Place.

While Atlanta United and Columbus Crew SC showed us how much breathless fun a scoreless draw can be last Thursday, the 'Caps and Sounders served up, well, a chess match version of the 0-0 variety, which can be intriguing for purists but leaves many among the rest of us cold, wanting more.

When the winner is decided over 180-plus minutes, not 90, the landscape changes – and each team handles that differently. It’s at moments like these that we can glimpse a coach’s true colors.

What happened to that merciless Whitecaps bunch that pummeled the San Jose Earthquakes 5-0 on Wednesday? Coach Carl Robinson seemingly had no intention of encouraging any such track-meet environment to unfold this time.

With the decisive Leg 2 set for Seattle’s CenturyLink Field on Thursday (10:30 pm ET; FS1, FOX Deportes in US | TSN5, TVAS in Canada), both sides took care to mind the back door, leaving as little space as possible for counterattacks and often lumping the ball long at the slightest sign of difficulty – though it should be said that Seattle generally looked more at ease. This wasn't just a conservative playoff game; it was in statistical terms the most cautious and uneventful game of the entire 2017 season:

“I think both teams were afraid of making mistakes. So it bodes well for us,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said after the final whistle. “We’ll take our chances at home.”

It sure didn’t make for a great spectacle. But as our own Matt Doyle repeatedly reminded Andrew Wiebe on MLSsoccer.com’s Playoff Central postgame show, this approach is a logical response to the away-goals rule in this format. For Vancouver that means that on Thursday, a tie with any goals involved is now as good as a win (another 0-0 would be decided by penalty-kick shootout). Conversely, the Sounders can reassure themselves that their large, loud home crowd will drive them forward as it so often has in playoffs past.

The sight of two longtime rivals being so content to kick the can to midweek was a little bit surreal, considering that at this stage last year, many of us were high on the heart-pounding audacity of the Sounders, Montreal Impact and Toronto FC ambushing their higher-seeded opponents in the first leg at home, setting the tone for the series en route to successful upset bids over FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, respectfully.

No such boldness was in sight from Robinson on Sunday, which did little to raise the pulses of the 27,837 spirited supporters in attendance at BC Place, the biggest turnout of the year for Vancouver. There’s something of the old Muhammed Ali rope-a-dope in what the Whitecaps boss seems to be plotting in this series, the idea of letting the opponent tire out while they’re landing meaningless punches in order to set the stage for your own late flurry. Europe’s leading managerial Machiavelli, Jose Mourinho, rarely hesitates to play for a 0-0 draw when his teams are in Vancouver’s shoes, knowing that just one mistake by the second-leg hosts could lead to victory (albeit “victory” by draw in some cases, thanks to that away-goals rule).

“I thought it was a good match,” said Whitecaps center back Tim Parker, speaking like a true defender. “Hopefully we can nick one, whether it's on a set piece or on a counter, whatever we need to get one [on Thursday],” maintaining that his team’s tactical plan played out “very well, very well.”

The Whitecaps hold the worst home record of any team in these playoffs, while their road record is the best in the West. And it’s been a general rule of thumb this year that with their counterattacking ways, the lower their percentage of ball possession in a match, the more likely they are to win. So in a perverse rebuttal of the usual dominant influence of home-field advantage in MLS play, they find themselves more comfortable hunting victory in front of someone else’s fans.

That makes Robinson’s plan a logical one. But it’s also a curious message to send to your own players, as well as the supporters who turned out on short notice to make up that overcapacity crowd at BC Place. Most teams instinctively want to get after it in front of their home faithful, and in this case, a Sounders side bereft of the suspended Clint Dempsey and several other key starters looked vulnerable to an early blitz.

But Robinson preferred passivity and caution. Thursday will tell us whether or not he got it right.

“This is definitely the loudest I’ve heard the crowd here in Vancouver and I’ve got to give them props,” said Frei, praising the “amazing” ambiance of the evening along False Creek. “These are the atmospheres we want to play in and it’s fantastic for the growth of the sport.”

Now the Whitecaps will have to win this series in front of Seattle's support.

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