The Vancouver Whitecaps are heading to the playoffs, as they wait to host a playoff game for the first time in franchise history. It means Eighty Six Forever has some time to dole out our thoughts on the Whitecaps season, and what we can look forward to during the post-season.
We asked our writers to identify the club's strengths, weaknesses, and just how far they'll go during these playoffs. Answers are below.
Are the Whitecaps Deserving of Their Second Place Finish in the Western Conference?
Mark Dailey: Yes, the Whitecaps did deserve their second place finish. Sure, the squad has been decimated by injuries, suspensions, and untimely international call-ups, but their final position in the table was based on their body of work for the entire season, not a cross section of six rather forgettable weeks in the autumn of 2015.
James Bufton: Undoubtedly. This team has proven its worth on numerous occasions throughout the regular season, and have overcome a great deal of adversity along the way. Although ultimately unsuccessful after being disrupted by the recent injury plague, the Caps were bonafide Supporters' Shield contenders with FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls. This success feels even more exhilarating when considering the immense strength of today's Western Conference.
AtlantisB: Of course! Granted, if the Whitecaps had lost to Houston they would have finished in 6th. But, they won, so... Look, Portland went on a great streak at the end of the season to get 3rd; Seattle looked done halfway through the season, but crawled back to 4th; LA play well at home but won only twice on the road; Sporting had games in hand on everyone down the stretch but failed to capitalize. Were the Whitecaps the second best team over the last month? No, but they were one of the top teams in MLS earlier in the season. Overall, that meant that the Whitecaps ended up second; a deserving finish.
Alistair Ogden: Of course they are, inasmuch as any team in MLS can be deserving of their final resting place. This league is incredibly tight throughout the season, so second in the conference is not so much a massive achievement as it is a testament to the Caps' ability to win points in the right places. Only two points separated second from sixth in the West this year. The Whitecaps just happened to end up on the top of the pile.
Rituro: Yes. The Whitecaps got where they did by doing something that strong teams in Major League Soccer do: win on the road. They played, they smashed, they grabbed, they won. Heck, they even got a Voyageurs Cup (finally!) before kicking off on their traditional summer swoon, albeit delayed into the fall. (Er... yay, progress?) Vancouver showed marked improvement up and down the pitch and only an injury epidemic derailed their exciting, counter-attack style of play
What are the biggest strengths of this team?
Rituro: Vancouver's biggest strengths are literally its biggest players. David Ousted has silenced all doubters (self included) about his value to this team, putting in a season of work that managed to surpass his fine work from 2014. In front of him, the "Towering Tico" Kendall Waston continues to show he is arguably the best signing to date by Carl Robinson, serving as a dominant force in the air and in the tackle - harsh reputation be damned. (Diving reputation, on the other hand... c'mon, Kendall. You're 6'4", or 1.98m if you prefer metric. No diving.) Matias Laba is the destroyer of the midfield that makes teams think twice about challenging Vancouver in the middle of the park. When those three are healthy, on their game and not suspended, Vancouver is an imposing brick wall to break down. Couple that with Vancouver's other asset - speed, speed, speed for days - and you have the makings of a lethal counter-attacking team.
AtlantisB: I am going to ignore the obvious defense and speed and go for 'road record'. The Whitecaps tied with Portland for the most road victories in MLS. In the home-and-away playoff format, the effectiveness of playing on the road, coupled with their strong defensive play and counter-attack, could prove important to playoff success.
Mark Dailey: I believe that one of the biggest strengths this team has is their mental toughness and the ‘spirit' that they have as group. The coaches and players believe in one another and what they can achieve together as a team. The Houston win last weekend was huge for their battered confidence, and this looked like a group that may have found their mojo just in time for the playoffs. The team also has a very strong spine starting with the goalkeeper David Ousted and moving up the pitch from there. If they can get healthy at the CAM position before the conference semis, and find a way to get Rivero scoring, then this team could make a run deep into the playoffs this season.
How About Weaknesses?
James Bufton: Inexperience stands out as the biggest of few causes for concern regarding the Blue and White at the moment. While the agonizing result in Frisco, TX during the 2014 postseason will stand the group in good stead, the knowledge that comes with success in the playoffs cannot be understated. With that being said, there should be a fearless mentality to the players that no opponent can match. Fulfilling the role of the underdog has served the club very well since Carl Robinson arrived two years ago this December.
Alistair Ogden: There's an easy answer after watching the last few weeks of the season: injuries. It could be argued that along with those injuries a lack of depth was exposed, but only so much depth can cover the losses of key players like Pedro Morales and Cristian Techera, and the two attacking midfield backups, Mauro Rosales and Nicolas Mezquida.The other seemingly obvious weakness for the Caps is the lack of a true goal-scorer up front. Octavio Rivero has been hit and miss (mostly miss, unfortunately) this season, but he's still young and full of potential. Who knows, maybe he'll start the post season the same way he started the regular season.
AtlantisB: Again, going away from the obvious of failure to score, their weakness is that the Whitecaps are fairly one-dimensional on offense. Throughout the first half of the season, it was stressed that the Whitecaps had to have a backup plan (e.g., different formation). It seems that the Whitecaps never came up with the backup plan. Even within game. Do you know how many times the 'Caps won when they gave up the first goal? NONE! Once the Whitecaps were down, they were down for good. That is not a good record to hold. The Whitecaps were unable to show that when things did not go their way they were able to adjust effectively.
Will this team win the MLS Cup?
Mark Dailey: No, not this year. I think this team still needs a few pieces here and there, and needs more tactical flexibility (i.e. the ability to effectively deploy a formation other than the 4-2-3-1 every week) before they become a regular and legit contender. However, we know how good this team can be when they are enjoying a good run of form, and we've seen how can beat some of the best teams when they are rolling.
James Bufton: It's very much possible, however it will take an awful lot of hard work to go the full distance. Vancouver arguably boasts the best balance of talent - spread across the entire roster - in all of Major League Soccer. Robbo can surround the league's best goalkeeper, centre-back, and defensive midfielder with a plethora of dynamic individuals, capable of going toe-to-toe with any opponent at any time. The biggest obstacle that threatens to obstruct the road to the MLS Cup is health. If previous absentees can return to fitness and complement those building momentum there will be no ceiling on what can be achieved. It's time to exceed expectations even further.
Alistair Ogden: It's incredibly hard for me to override my fan bias in saying this, but no, I don't think so. A team that has stumbled so drunkenly into the playoffs can't expect to win the whole thing now, even with a knockout bye. The style of play changes in the post-season and it tends to favour more experienced teams. If the Caps come up against the supercharged LA Galaxy or their current Achilles heel, the Seattle Sounders, I can't see them making it past the first round. That being said, if the Caps can somehow make it to the MLS cup final, I'll change my prediction. There's no way an Eastern Conference team will win the cup this year.
AtlantisB: No, but that is okay. Do they have a shot? Sure. Why they won't win? Too young, too one-dimensional, no one to score, FC Dallas. Why they could win? great counter-attack, defense wins championships, strong road record.
Rituro: Vancouver will win MLS Cup because nobody outside of Cascadia knows they exist. Yes, some baseline scouting exists regarding Octavio Rivero and Kendall Waston, which explains how teams have been playing better against the 'Caps. Outside of that - especially in the media, both league-run and otherwise - Vancouver doesn't register on anyone's radar. Heck, go back through the #DecisionDay Post-Game Show and guess which match wasn't mentioned. Seriously. It's a joke how little anyone seems to think the 'Caps matter to the league. The joke will be on them when Vancouver goes ham on Portland, then Seattle, then Montreal to make a lot of so-called "analysts" look very, very stupid. By the by, should this wild prediction actually pan out, the over-under on well-known pundits claiming they liked/knew anything about Vancouver all along is 7.5. I'd take the over.
Vancouver will not win MLS Cup because they don't have enough healthy pieces to survive a deep playoff run. Look, Vancouver limped into the playoffs with a shoestring roster in the league and a comically small roster to close out CONCACAF Champions League. Depth is all well and good when it's healthy; Vancouver's simply isn't. Without reliable pieces in place at key positions on the field - looking at you, #10 - Vancouver will be shut down, exploited and defeated in short order. Getting into a track meet for that "score one more than you" mentality is fine assuming you can, y'know, score goals. The Whitecaps simply haven't done that with the tools they have in the run-up to the post-season. It's hard to believe they'll suddenly snap together like LEGO bricks in the next few days.