Caps Still on Upward Trajectory

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

By nature, and after more decades than I'd care to admit to, I'm more of a glass half-empty guy when it comes to Vancouver-based sports franchises. In the curious case of the Vancouver Whitecaps, however, I may have found some uncharacteristic reason for optimism - the proverbial needle in the haystack, or perhaps I'm just clutching at the very straws making up that giant heap.

The graph below takes a look at performance (points) within the Major League Soccer Western Conference over the past three seasons. For 2013, which at this point, is all but finished, I've taken points earned to date, and extrapolated to account for a full 34-game season.

It's a simple representation, and on account of Vancouver's limited existence in MLS, it's a very limited dataset indeed. But, it's all we've got to work with.

If you've got a photographic memory, this won't help you much, but for folks like me it's kinda useful to have a visual representation of how each team has performed year-on-year, and in relation to their western counterparts.

There are a number of ways that we can approach analyzing the data, but let's take the Oreo approach, ignoring the superfluous chocolate cookie bookends in order to get right to the creamy white filling at the center.

Interestingly, the Vancouver Whitecaps are the only club in the MLS west to show sustained improvement (again, in terms of points) over the last three seasons: 28, 43, and a projected total of 47 for this year. Considering the Caps were so dismal in year one, it's no great surprise to see improvement, but when we compare the degree to which teams improved or regressed from 2011 to 2012, we see that only the San Jose Earthquakes turned in a better showing than the Whitecaps (a 74% improvement, and 54% improvement respectively).

And this comes against the backdrop that shows six of the nine Western Conference teams performing more poorly in 2012 than they did in 2011. Of course, a significant portion of the puzzle there is the fact that San Jose took only 13 points off western foes in 2011, but a colossal total of 51 points off them in 2012. Behind Chris Wondolowsi's 27 goals in a monster '12 season, the Quakes were a major force last year. The Caps and the Quakes met three times in 2012, with the Caps winning two of those matches, and losing the third.

In 2011 Vancouver was last in the west, and indeed the entire league  - some 21 points below the Western Conference median of 49 points. In 2012 they finished fifth in the West, occupying the conference median of 43 points. Projected to finish with 47 points this year, the Caps appear headed for a 7th place finish in the west, only 4 points off the probable median value, and just a shade more than 10 points behind the conference winner.

The good news is that Vancouver has improved year-on-year, and is also in the thick of things relative to their eight Western Conference competitors. If there's any tarnish on the sheen, it's that the improvement has flattened out a little this year. Three of the four teams that finished below Vancouver last year look to have moved past  them, though by no more than a handful of points. Chivas remains on their downward slide - accompanied by the LA Galaxy - the only MLS West sides to show a steady decline from 2011-2013.

In the case of the Vancouver Whitecaps, it appears that "slow and steady" has been, and will continue to be the philosophy behind the club's MLS odyssey. While that approach was good enough to scrape the Caps into the playoffs last season, it's questionable at best if it will suffice in 2013. Both the Portland Timbers and Colorado Rapids have shown great improvement over last season. Vancouver will need to show a similar upward spike in 2014 if they're to keep up with rest of the west.

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