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New England heads west to take on Vancouver, old friend Kei Kamara

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Whitecaps FC are winless in seven of their last eight matches since March.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Houston Dynamo
Former Revolution striker Kei Kamara has found a new home in Vancouver, leading the club with four goals and three assists.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest challenges facing an international player new to MLS is the travel, and it’s generally not appreciated until experienced. This past English Premier League season saw Newcastle traverse a league-high 9,000 miles — in total — to its 19 away fixtures. By comparison, your New England Revolution later this year will fly 3,000 miles to play one away match in California. Then they’ll do it a second time. This coming weekend, though, they’ll actually travel 3,100 miles to their next match in Vancouver. That's over 9,000 miles total — for just three away fixtures. Yep, MLS is a bit different than most other domestic leagues around the world.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Record: 4-5-4, 16 pts, -8

Standing: 5th in Western Conference (3 points above red line)

Current Form: D-D-D-L-W

Fifth-year manager Carl Robinson has built the Caps — the first-ever Canadian team to qualify for the MLS playoffs — into a solid team that’s been on the cusp of being a Cup contender for the past three years. Two of those saw second and third place finishes in the Western Conference table but subsequent losses in the conference semifinals. Many observers thought this would be the year — and it still may — but, as of late, the team has been headed in the wrong direction.

Vancouver impressed early with a 3-1-1 start to 2018, including road wins at Houston and Columbus, but they’ve skidded to just one win in their last eight, gaining only 5 of a possible 12 points at home. Along the way was an ugly 6-0 loss to Sporting KC after two first-half red cards and, more recently, a humiliating 1-0 loss at Minnesota United, who were reduced to ten men at 0-0 in the 50th minute. Since then, it’s been nothing but draws, as Vancouver has been fit to be tied twice at home and once on the road. The latter, however, was a dramatic 2-2 draw at FC Dallas following a 100th-minute equalizer.

Last year’s third-place conference finish was remarkable in that the Caps were only a +1 in goal differential (50 GF/49 GA) on the season. To bolster their attack and replace their 2017 scoring leader, Fredy Montero (13 goals/6 assists), Vancouver traded for — as we all know — New England striker Kei Kamara. According to Robinson, the Sierra Leone International is the first true number nine/target forward in Vancouver’s MLS history, and the gaffer believes he can take Whitecaps FC to the next level. So far, so good, as Kamara already has 4 goals and 3 assists despite missing a handful of matches in April due to injury. He’s instantly provided Vancouver fullbacks and wingers with an aerial option for their crosses, supplementing the Caps’ ground game. Nonetheless, Kamara has been used more recently in a two-forward setup with Peruvian Yordy Reyna, who has a goal and an assist on the year.

Former US International Brek Shea, now in his second season at Vancouver, has appeared in all 13 matches (4 starts), primarily at left wing. The FC Dallas product has also seen minutes at left back and forward, and he’s already scored three goals on the year, one short of his 2017 total.

The former Welsh International Robinson has been searching for the right personnel combinations and formations all season. Incredibly, he’s already used six different tactical structures — four on multiple weeks — in his attempts to both properly use his players and better matchup vs. an opponent. He appears to be locked in on the 4-4-2 that he’s used in his past four matches, following an early season 4-1-4-1 and a mid-season 4-3-3/4-2-3-1.

His experimentation has yielded no less than seven players occupying the forward role. After Kamara, Reyna, and Shea, the group of Erik Hurtado, Anthony Blondell, fifth-year Uruguayan Nicolas Mezquida, and Cristian Techera has contributed 2 goals in 2018. Last year’s assists leader, Cristian Bolanos (7), was not retained, so Vancouver acquired Brazilian Felipe Martins from the Red Bulls to help fill the void. He currently leads the Caps with 5 assists.

Robinson is also still trying to figure out the best midfield combination/formation going forward. Here, as many as eight different players have seen minutes. Left wing has primarily been the domain of 19-year old Canadian prodigy Alphonse Davies, but Shea has recently emerged, pushing Davies to left back at times. Second-year Australian Bernie Ibini and Techera have shared the right side, although Reyna and Shea have occupied that position, as well. Attacking mid duties have generally fallen to Martins, but Robinson has also used Mezquida, Blondell, and Reyna as playmakers.

There’s been instability even deeper at holding mid. Former Mexican International and World Cup veteran Efrain Juarez was brought in during the offseason, but Homegrown Russell Teibert seems to have a firm grip on number six. Reyna, as well as Egyptian International Aly Ghazal, has also filled that post, although the latter seems to have solidified more of a box-to-box role. Juarez and Martins have been used throughout central midfield, as well.

The backfield seems to be the only part of the pitch where normalcy exists for Whitecaps FC, but even that is relative. Canadian Marcel de Jong, in his third year at Vancouver, is the primary left back, but speedy winger Brett Levis has made three starts there in 2018. Davies and Shea, a natural defender, have also seen spot duty on the left. Young Jake Nerwinski won the right back job in preseason, but he’s since lost it to MLS veteran Sean Franklin. Uruguayan Jose Aja has been solid at left center back, as has his depth piece and Massachusetts native Aaron Maund. And the physically-imposing Kendall Waston — soon headed to the World Cup with Costa Rica — has been the defensive anchor at right center back. It was his stoppage-time goal that secured a home draw for the Caps vs. Houston in early May.

Longtime keeper Dave Ousted was sent to DC United in the offseason, paving the way for last year’s backup Stefan Marinovic to assume the number one jersey. An injury he suffered a few weeks ago, though, has thrust former LA Galaxy netminder Brian Rowe between the sticks for the past three matches and probably many more.

New England Revolution

Record: 5-4-2, 17 pts, +3

Standing: 6th in Eastern Conference (3 points above red line)

Current Form: L-W-L-W-D

The Revolution dropped their second home match of the season last weekend, a 1-0 loss to Columbus on an 85th-minute corner kick goal. New England was without the suspended Diego Fagundez and injured Juan Agudelo. Their absences, coupled with Crew SC’s style of play, prompted manager Brad Friedel to utilize a 3-5-2 for the first time this season. Cristian Penilla and Teal Bunbury were up top, although Penilla appeared to be in more of a playmaker role. The five midfielders were Luis Caicedo, Scott Caldwell, and Kelyn Rowe across the middle, with rookie Brandon Bye and veteran Chris Tierney as wing backs. The three-man backline consisted of Andrew Farrell, Jalil Anibaba, and Antonio Delamea. Wilfried Zahibo spelled Rowe at halftime and moved higher up the field, while Claude Dielna came on midway through the second half for a nauseated Delamea. Forward Brian Wright entered near the end of regulation as the Revs sought an elusive equalizer.

Friedel’s tactics did essentially neutralize the Columbus attack, but the Revs were hard-pressed to generate much offense of their own. Some pointed to the missing Fagundez as a cause, while others felt the unique formation was at fault. Many observers, though, credited Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter for altering his own tactics in effectively countering the New England high press. Crew SC uncharacteristically played over the top to midfield on occasion, limiting press-induced turnovers and forcing the Revs to attack from afar, which isn’t their strong suit. Ultimately, Columbus solved the press, and New England was unable to string enough passes together, especially in the attacking half — and particularly in the final third — to seriously threaten goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

On the bright side, the match was effectively a stalemate, save for one successful set-piece opportunity for Columbus. However, Crew SC took home three points in what turns out to be a six-point swing in the standings. New England is now only three points out of danger.

Analysis

New England supporters are concerned that Columbus showed the league how to overcome the Revs’ high-pressing style of play. What may be more worrisome is that the Revolution seemed lost with their attack when the counterattack wasn’t an option. It’ll be interesting to see how Carl Robinson lines up his squad on Saturday and whether he adopts a similar approach. The Whitecaps are not Crew SC by most measures, so will New England be able to press effectively against a less-talented opponent?

The Whitecaps’ struggles of late have primarily been in the attack, as they’ve had trouble connecting passes throughout the pitch. Unbelievably, Vancouver scored twice in their most recent draw at FC Dallas despite having only one shot on goal. Many supporters believe the team is trending down since its auspicious start to the 2018 campaign. Will a home match against a vulnerable Revolution side be an elixir?

Fagundez, who leads the Revs in chances created, returns for New England following his one-game suspension. Friedel ran a playmaker-by-committee against Crew SC with nothing to show for it. Will Diego’s presence back in the number ten role be a difference-maker? Agudelo (day-to-day with a hamstring injury) and Delamea may also be available for selection by Friedel.

After a largely disappointing stint with New England, Kamara gets to face his former employers. One has to imagine the proud striker will be harboring some extra motivation to prove his time in Foxborough was atypical.

Match Facts

This is the ninth regular-season meeting all-time between these clubs. New England leads the series 4-2-2, including 1-1-1 in Vancouver. The Revs’ last trip to BC Place, in 2016, resulted in a 2-1 victory, with Rowe scoring the game-winner off a Bunbury pass.

Whitecaps FC is 2-1-3 at home this year, while New England is 1-2-1 on the road in 2018.

Neither club has lost this season when scoring first (VWFC 3-0-1 and NE 5-0-1). However, the Caps have won only once and are 1-5-2 overall after conceding first, while the Revolution are winless and 0-4-1 when initially falling behind.

Both teams have done well in inter-conference matchups, as Vancouver is 2-1 vs the East (including the road win at Columbus) and the Revs 3-1 vs the West.

Since this is a cross-conference fixture, it's the only regular-season meeting in 2018 between New England and Vancouver.

How to Watch

Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, May 26
Venue: BC Place, Vancouver, British Columbia
TV: NBC Sports Boston (Boston); TSN 1/3/4/5 (Vancouver)
Radio: 98.5 The Sports Hub (Boston); TSN 1040, TSN 1410 (Vancouver)
Streaming: MLS Live (now on ESPN+)