Leading up to Tim Parker’s return to Vancouver, with New York Red Bulls, The Province highlighted how the Whitecaps defense has floundered since losing Parker. I would be lying if I said that the team’s defense is better without Parker, but I don’t feel that the issues this season can be directly linked to the departure of Parker.
The Vancouver Whitecaps have given up 51 goals this season. Only Minnesota (52), Chicago (52), and Orlando City (59) have given up more. In their last 16 Major League Soccer matches, the Caps have conceded at least two goals in 13 of them. Finally, the club has just two shutouts this season, with the last coming on April 27th against Real Salt Lake. That’s correct, it has been FOUR MONTHS since the Caps have kept a clean sheet. Their other clean sheet was a 0-0 draw against LA Galaxy on March 24th.
When Tim Parker and Kendall Waston ruled the center of defense for the Whitecaps, it was well-known that you don’t cross the ball in, as the pair would quickly clear the ball out. No surprise that the Whitecaps led the league in clearances in 2017. However, you may be surprised to learn that the Whitecaps also lead MLS this season. Now, we do see a difference in crosses-blocked. In 2017, the Caps were first in MLS, averaging 2.3 per game. In 2018, that number has dropped to 1.6; good enough for 5th in MLS. It is worth noting that Parker’s new team were 9th in crosses blocked in 2017, at 1.5, and are 11th in 2018, at 1.3. Translation: The change in crosses-blocked cannot easily be attributed to Parker.
Vancouver is conceding around the same number of shots this season (15.5) as last season (15.0), so it isn’t like Stefan Marinovic is under more pressure than David Ousted was. However, there is a slight difference in where those shots are coming from. In 2017, 6% were within the 6-yard-box, 51% within the 18-yard-box, and 43% from outside the box. This year, the numbers are 7%, 54%, and 39%. Certainly a slight difference, but nothing major.
Examining shot direction, the absence of Tim Parker has not led to much of a change in the direct shots are coming from either. In 2017, 19% came from the left, 63% from the middle, and 18% from the right. In 2018, those numbers are 18%, 62%, and 20%. In other words, the presence of de Jong instead of Harvey has not led to more ventures down the left from opponents, nor has the presence of Franklin at times on the right. Put another way, teams have not altered their attacking style against the Whitecaps now that Tim Parker is not there.
Looking at possession, the Whitecaps are actually better in 2018 than they were in 2017, 45.3% versus 43.3%. In both years, they are dead last, but still...better in 2018. This year, their Aerials Won are better (16.5 compared to 10.9) as is their passing (78.3% versus 74.9%). They spend the same amount of time in their own third (31%) this year as last, and (almost the same) in their opponents third (26% versus 27% in 2017).
These numbers beg the question: Why are the Whitecaps giving up so many more goals this season?
When I interviewed Carl Robinson after the San Jose Earthquakes match, he said that the club has tried to be more offensive. When you do that, you open yourself up more to being scored upon. On the surface, that makes sense. However, many other teams are WAY MORE offensive than the Whitecaps and don’t concede nearly as many goals.
The number comparison to last season does not point to any obvious cause. Maybe it is just bad luck then? While the shots and possession numbers do not show it, the types of goals the Caps are conceding is very different than last year. In 2018, they have already allowed more penalty goals (six versus four) and own-goals (three versus zero). Interestingly, not having Tim Parker in the middle of defense has led to fewer set piece goals. In 2017, the club allowed eight, while 75% of the way through 2018, they have only allowed four.
While I am not skilled enough to look at quality of shots matrix, I suspect that we will find that the shots from the top of the 18, and outside the box, are better quality than last year. The argument Robbo made about pushing players further forward, leading to more goals, may be supported by this. I don’t have the exact numbers, but it appears like the Caps are conceding way more goals from open looks at the top of the 18. There appears to be a significant gap between the defensive four and the midfield. Last season, and season’s prior, the Whitecaps played with two defensively responsible midfielders. This season, Felipe has occupied one of the two positions. However, it isn’t like Felipe is a poor defender. But maybe we are seeing less tracking back by the defensive midfield tandem because they are trying to be more offensive. This is leaving a huge gap in front of the defense.
If the problem is a gap between the defense and midfield, then who is to blame? At this point in the season, it needs to be something that the coaching staff needs to have already addressed, so I would lay some of the blame at their feet. However, if the defensive midfield is going to play higher up the pitch, then the defensive line needs to tighten up. More importantly, the midfield needs to drop back when defending to close down that hole. Why they are not, I am not sure. As I noted, it is something the coaching staff should have addressed. It is worth noting that the past five to ten games, Felipe has been playing much deeper, hence why he is not getting any assists. It would appear that some steps have been taken to address the problem, but clearly not enough.
At the end of the day, the Whitecaps are leaking goals at a record (for them) pace this season. For a team that has touted itself as a defensive stalwart, with a defensive-first coach, they have not really shown that on the field. In fact, they have gotten worse in each season! But, their goal scoring has improved from 1.47 in 2017 to 1.65 in 2018. Maybe the extra goals is a cost of that. Of course, the answer to all of this could simply be luck. They have conceded three own-goals and more penalties this season, compared to last. While there can be some valid reasons behind those two, one possible reason is simply luck. Against San Jose, if de Jong was just a few feet forward, San Jose doesn’t earn (and score) a penalty.
What do you see as the main culprits to the goal leakage this season?