Let the Whitecaps' internal battles begin

 

Fullback Sam Adekugbe one of many youngsters fighting for more playing time with the Whitecaps

 
 
 
 
Fullback Sam Adekugbe started seven times for the Vancouver Whitecaps last season and has played 14 games for them over three seasons.
 

Fullback Sam Adekugbe started seven times for the Vancouver Whitecaps last season and has played 14 games for them over three seasons.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

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PORTLAND, Ore. — As the prototypical modern-day fullback — high-end pace, a strong instinct to push forward and a first-class crosser of the ball — Sam Adekugbe is practically giddy at the possibilities with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The off-season additions of crafty midfielder Cristian Bolanos, a two-time World Cup veteran with Costa Rica, target striker Blas Perez and Japanese scoring star Masato Kudo look to have brought added diversity to the Caps’ attack.

It was an attack that faltered at times down the stretch last season, but forward Octavio Rivero and wingers Kekuta Manneh and Cristian Techera have proven they can be scorers at the MLS level.

So it’s no wonder Adekugbe, who is eagerly looking to increase his starts (seven in 2015) this season, flashes a big grin when asked how excited he is about the prospect of tearing down the left flank and picked out targets for his crosses.

“It’s almost scary because we have so many different qualities,” he said after the Caps fell 3-2 to Chicago on Sunday in a pre-season contest at Providence Park. “This is probably the biggest squad (in terms of depth) we’ve had since we’ve come into MLS.

The Caps haven’t been truly scary since the very dangerous Camilo was piling up an MLS-leading 23 goals in 2014.

Oh sure, Manneh can make defenders quiver when he gets on full gallop on the counter attack. And Techera, or the Bug as he’s known, can be as elusive as a fly on a window evading a futile slap of a rolled up paper. But too often last season, the Caps lacked the creativity to break down defences, and didn’t have a rugged aerial ball winner to truly trouble the opposition.

Bolanos, whose calm head and distribution was noticeable against the Fire, and a healthy Pedro Morales should provide some of the former. Perez, a bang-and-crash force, will supply the latter.

“You look at Bolanos today, you can see how wonderful he is on the ball,” said Adekugbe. “Masato didn’t even play today ... but there’s so many different possibilities for each match. It’s dangerous and scary.

“There’s so many different qualities that we have that it just comes down to finding the right path in the right game.”

Adekugbe, 21, showed his quality with a couple of terrific, low and hard crosses in the first half. One skipped untouched through the box, but a second — after a nice little run and lay off by Manneh — was drilled behind the Fire defence along the six-yard box and was easily tapped in for a goal by Techera.

Give his ability as a crosser, it’s a little surprising that Adekugbe, the London-born, Calgary-raised product of the Caps’ residency program, has yet to record an assist in 14 MLS regular-season games over three seasons.

He started seven of the first nine games last season at left back when veteran Jordan Harvey struggled out of the gate. But Adekugbe’s play tailed off a bit and after he severely injured an ankle in a Canadian championship game against Edmonton, he never got another start the rest of the way.

While Harvey isn’t quite the threat Adekugbe is going forward, he’s a solid and reliable defender. Adekugbe is still prone to the odd positional miscue and he and Manneh mis-fired a couple of times Sunday trying to connect on the left side.

Just who gets the most starts at left back this season will be interesting to watch as head coach Carl Robinson, whose club has been one of the best at preventing goals over the last two seasons, looks to make another step forward by trying to up its goal count. Activating the fullbacks even more will be a big part of that.

“At the moment, I’m not thinking about (who starts), but I want there to be fullback battles,” said Robinson, who has an intriguing one on the right side as well where another young Canadian, Fraser Aird, is in a tussle for the starting job with Costa Rican Jordan Smith.

“I’ve tried to assemble a squad that’s got competition for spaces. If I’ve done that, then it brings out the best in the players.”

It was a lofted Aird cross that accounted for the Caps’ first goal, the ball ricocheting off two Chicago defenders and into the back of the net for an own goal.

After apprenticing for parts of three seasons behind Harvey, Adekugbe says he desperately wants to see more MLS action in 2016.

“I’ve had some bad luck with injuries, but injuries happen. It’s about being mentally strong and proving to the coaching staff each training session that you belong in the starting 11 and you do want to keep playing.”

When he does, it shouldn’t take long for him to rack up that first official assist.

gkingston@vancouversun.com

A work in progress

PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s the MLS pre-season, so the occasional sloppy play is a given. The officials are sometimes in pre-season form, too.

The Chicago Fire scored twice on penalty kicks in the second half Sunday — both on fouls called on Whitecaps’ centre back Kendall Waston — to claim a 3-2 victory.

The second call looked legitimate, Watson’s extended leg appearing to clip a Fire player, but the first one was dubious. Referee Allen Chapman seemed to miss the fact that Chicago striker Gilberto slid rather easily to the ground with Waston doing little more than standing beside him.

The six-foot-five Waston, whose physical presence seems to often get him into trouble, also picked up a later yellow card for a harsh tackle.

ROBBO EXPERIMENTS: With holding midfielders Matias Laba (back in Argentina as wife Camilla gives berth to the couple’s first child) and Russell Teibert (calf injury) not available, Caps’ head coach Carl Robinson abandoned his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation for a 4-1-4-1 lineup.

Deybi Flores, 19, acted as the lone holding midfielder, with Pedro Morales and Cristian Bolanos manning the centre spots in an attacking midfield that included Kekuta Manneh and Cristian Techera out wide.

“I think at times we did quite well at it,” said Robinson. “It takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight. We haven’t worked at it at all. Playing Deybi in there in that role on his own is always going to be difficult, but I thought he did a decent job.”

NEXT UP: The Caps face Portland on Wednesday night, before closing out the four-team tournament on Saturday against NASL side Minnesota.

gkingston@vancouversun.com

 
 
 
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Fullback Sam Adekugbe started seven times for the Vancouver Whitecaps last season and has played 14 games for them over three seasons.
 

Fullback Sam Adekugbe started seven times for the Vancouver Whitecaps last season and has played 14 games for them over three seasons.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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