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The Numbers are Absurd: An Examination of the Success of the Vancouver Whitecaps

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This may shock you! It probably won’t, but maybe you’re easily impressed.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

I mentioned in my match review for the game against the Columbus Crew that, considering the underlying stats of the Vancouver Whitecaps, it’s absurd that they are currently in first place in the Western Conference. I thought it would be a good idea to expand on that thought.

I want to start by giving a huge shout out to the guys at American Soccer Analysis. This article is based almost entirely off of the stats they provide so check out their website, follow them on twitter, and just generally send them some love. Anyway, back in 2014 they did an analysis of the areas in which Major League Soccer teams excel.

I think you can see where this is going, but let’s forge on and see how the ‘Caps do in these categories

1. Slightly More Possession

The Whitecaps have the worst average possession in MLS. Not a great start to the list. I know that possession isn’t everything and the lack of it, in isolation, is not necessarily a problem but bear with me here as I am building a case.

2. Have Better Passing Accuracy

Back in July AtlantisB wrote an article on the Whitecaps’ passing. At the time they had the worst passing accuracy in MLS. Sure that data is a tad out of date but I doubt it’s improved much. To their credit the Whitecaps have tried to improve this area of their game with the acquisitions of Aly Ghazal and Nosa Igiebor. However, moving up from the worst in the league, even just to being average, is a tall order.

3. Have More Patience in Penetrating the Final Third

The Whitecaps are doing alright here, considering their woeful rankings in the previous two categories. The Caps are mid-table when it comes to long balls. Unfortunately, their passing accuracy detracts from this area of relative strength.

4. Take Slightly Fewer Shots

A win! sort of. The Whitecaps certainly take fewer shots, but it’s a lot fewer. They are currently 3rd from the bottom in the West for total number of shots. They are not exactly in good company down there either. The only two teams with fewer shots are Minnesota United and bottom feeders the Colorado Rapids.

5. Put More Shots on Goal

The Whitecaps are 4th from the bottom in terms of shots on goal with 111. However that’s 33% of their total shots on target which is not awful. In comparison, 39% of Toronto FC’s shots are on target while rival Portland Timbers have about 32% of their shots hit the target. So, while the total number of shots on goal puts the Caps near the bottom, their ratio of shots taken to shots on target is comparable to the tops teams in the East and West.

6. Score More Goals

The Whitecaps have 45 goals, which is 3rd in the West. Not too bad. However, this statistic might be a bit misleading as they are one of the biggest over-performers in terms of expected goals.

Of course, we must consider that these categories were chosen in 2014, when the footballing landscape was a little different. Everyone was trying to play possession football so naturally the best teams bought the best players for that kind of system. These days a pressing counter attacking style is more en-vogue and so possession may not be as important as in the past. AtlantisB’s series on what leads to success in MLS supports that potential change. That being said I doubt you can be abjectly failing in four of six ‘traditionally’ key categories and maintain any kind of long term success.

Some More Reasons For Alarm:

The Whitecaps have given up more shots then everyone else in the West except for Minnesota United. You could say that the Whitecaps’ low block forces other teams to take shots from distance, but the stats don’t really bear that out. Only 57% of shots against the Whitecaps are from inside the box. A cursory glance at other MLS teams suggests that this is about the average.

American Soccer Analysis also keeps track of a stat called PDO. PDO is “The sum of a team's finishing rate and save percentage, scaled so that 1000 is typical.” There is some good news here. The Whitecaps are first in the West and second only to TFC. However, only four teams in the West are above 1000. In contrast only three teams in the East are under 1000. This suggests to me that the Whitecaps are benefiting from a down year in the Western Conference.

Conclusions:

I’m not saying the ‘Caps are a terrible team. Their underlying stats may not be great but I think, on paper, this squad is stronger than the other teams down at the bottom. I also think that some of these numbers were probably skewed by the terrible start to the season. If they were over say, the last ten games, then I think the ‘Caps might fare a bit better (I don’t know for sure this is just speculation); And of course as Norwegian Would pointed out the Whitecaps play a lot of “fast breakout passes that are lower percentage.” The thing is though the numbers defy every one of the usual success indicators. So, unless the ‘Caps are about to revolutionize the tactics of world football (which, ya know, I kind of doubt) then this level of success may not be sustainable.