The Vancouver Whitecaps are now one quarter through the 2017 MLS season. It is hard to believe the quarter mark is already upon us, as it only now seems the team is putting its game together. A rash of injuries coming out of preseason, combined with balancing squad rotation between four CCL games has made the team stutter into their season with some early dry spells and a few highs.
It is interesting to compare this season’s first quarter with the same period from in 2016. At this point, before the Colorado game both seasons share an identical 3-4-1 record, both seasons saw one away win in four road games, and one PK goal each.
I am trying to peer beneath these identical stats to see if this year’s team is actually any better than last year’s. In 2016 the team saw a full complement of strikers start the season: Octavio Rivero was about to begin his sophomore resurgence, we hoped: and we were excited to add Kudo and Pérez, proven scorers in their respective leagues, to the familiar depth of Mattocks and Hurtado. The off-season hype generated around the beefed up striker position didn’t produce early dividends. In fact, after 8 games 2016 only produced 9 goals for with 11 goals against. It should be noted that three of those goals were scored from the penalty spot and it took forever for a goal to come from open play. This year, Montero, Hurtado and Greig are the only true strikers on the team and currently Montero is the only one healthy enough to make the game day eighteen. And yet in MLS, the ‘Caps have 11 goals for and 14 goals against. It is still a negative goal differential, but goals are going in and Montero has four of them.
Look a little deeper and we see the 2016 team with 1 in game, red card ejection to 2 ejections so far in 2017. But we know that last year’s red was accompanied by a rash of reds throughout the season along with, numerous DISCO suspensions. The two reds in 2017 looked worse by Techera’s red in the CCL quarterfinals and we feared the team was carrying their undisciplined play forward into this year. But, Shea’s red in Toronto was the team’s last and they have shown discipline and composure on that front. The team’s reputation may slowly be changing in the front office as well, because there is no way Waston’s kick to the leg of Jackson-Hamel in last week’s game is looked over in 2016.
The biggest difference between the two years has been four CCL quarter and semi-final games, plus thousands of corresponding air miles crammed into the same amount of time. This has undoubtedly affected the team’s ability to gel and find its starting eleven, and it’s likely the reason the team is currently carrying eleven injured players.
Is this team better than last years? It is too soon to say, but it somehow feels that way. Which is surprising to admit. In 2016 expectations were high after such a strong finish in in 2015, and expectations only grew after the off-season signings. So, when the team faltered and stumbled out of the gate, hampered by international duty and suspensions, the hand wringing began to build. We have seen our fare share of handwringing this season as well, but expectations wilted after a poor 2016 season that saw very little change in the team come opening day. No one was predicting a serious challenge for MLS cup, and truthfully I doubt anyone is right now.
But, do you agree that there is some cause for optimism? If you go back to the LA game on April 1st and if you account for a respectable loss against Tigres at home followed by an atrocious romp in the snow by the B team, the ‘Caps have actually put together three wins. And more than that they are growing into a style of play that is improvingly effective. We now have a striker in Montero that will score goals and players like Shea, Reyna and the new acquisition that may or may not signed before Monday with all that TAM in Robbo’s pocket that will join the team in the next few weeks. Plus, I think Tchani will turn out for the good once he settles in. I know what you’re thinking, based on what? But he is a type of player this team didn’t have previously.
Quantitatively, you can say this team is no better than last year’s. But qualitatively, there is a feeling that things may not be as dire as I previously thought. Will they win the cup? Probably not. Will they make the playoffs? I think, for the first time this season, I can see that happening. At the very least we will see a team that should be able to score and compete for wins, and football will be fun to watch again.