The final part of this series on the Vancouver Whitecaps’ rebuild will cover how this team compares to the 2018 season. Is the team getting better? Are they on the right track to being the real MLS cup contender that we all crave? Well a lot of that is down to interpretation and not just yours. Read on and all shall be revealed.
Extremely Basic Numbers
After a disastrous first five games the Vancouver Whitecaps have been on a bit of a roll. Discounting the first five games they have been on a PPG pace of about 1.55. Depending on how strong the western conference is in any given year that can be enough to grab the 5th or 6th playoff spot, or it can be enough to win the conference. On the face of it, things are going great. But don’t be so hasty. The Whitecaps are on pace to score a paltry 36 goals. The only team in the past five years to qualify for the playoffs with less than 40 goals were the 2017 San Jose Earthquakes, who you may remember from getting thrashed 5-0 by the Whitecaps. Previous to that was the 2012 Whitecaps, who scored 36, so there’s a nice little narrative for you (if you’re a TSN employee reading this feel free to mention this fact a dozen or so times in the next broadcast of a Whitecaps game). If the ‘Caps are going to make the playoffs then they need to score way more goals. They probably need to add at least 15 goals to the squad. Is that going to happen? Are the Whitecaps going to have the funds available to make that happen? I have no idea. But as we’ve previously discussed there isn’t the scouting infrastructure at the moment to find a player who can do that who isn’t going to require significant investment.
The plan has been to expand and improve their own scouting department. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear something soon.— J.J. Adams (@TheRealJJAdams) June 4, 2019
However, as the saying goes: “talk is cheap, action is traction.”
Ok, that’s not the saying,
I just made it up, but the sentiment remains.
On the face of it the defence is much improved from last year. The ‘Caps are on pace to concede around 42 goals. This is 24 fewer goals than they shipped in 2018. This is a huge improvement. But the improvement mostly comes from a better drilled backline. Some of the underlying problems remain. Namely that the defence is called on far too often. The Whitecaps give up on average 17 shots a game. The most in the league and even more than they gave up last year. They’ve done a good job of limiting these shots to low percentage areas and this is the main reason that they concede fewer goals. In 2018 a full 9% of the shots the Whitecaps gave up were inside the 6 yard box. Since they were conceding 15 shots a game the other team on average got at least one shot inside the six yard box, a sure goal in most cases, every single game. In 2019, only 4% of the shots conceded are inside the 6 yard box. This is still a shot inside the 6 yard box every other game but it’s a big improvement over one or more game in and game out. The 2019 Whitecaps have actually seen a slight increase in shots inside the 18 yard box, which is a concern, but they have done a good job of keeping those shots from wide areas. In 2018, 71% of the shots the Whitecaps conceded were from the middle of the pitch. In 2019, that number has fallen to 56% (third fewest in the league). Basically the Whitecaps concede a ton of shots but they are mostly low quality. They are shots from range or wide areas where a player will need luck or a miracle to score a goal. Here’s the thing though. While limiting opposition shots to less dangerous areas is great, if you’re conceding 17 a game you’re playing with fire. The opposition may need luck or a miracle but if given enough opportunities then one of those is eventually going to manifest. As an example let’s look at the goal the ‘Caps conceded in their 1-1 draw against Toronto F.C
Here is Nick Deleon winding up for a shot (perhaps it was meant as a cross?). He’s at an absurd angle, The Whitecaps have a good block in the way and Deleon only has 11 goals in over 170 professional appearances. If you must give up a shot, this is the one you want to give up. But the ball took a fortunate bounce off of Ali Adnan and the confluence of that and the crowd in front of the goal allowed the ball to sneak past Crepeau. It was a very lucky goal, but TFC had 15 shots that game. Something lucky was bound to happen eventually.
The Whitecaps have a much better defence than they did in 2018, but to make the most of it they need to control the game more.
Controlling the game:
The Whitecaps average 47% possession, which is 4th worst in the league. This isn’t good. However, in 2018 they were last in the league with 45.9%, so at least things are trending up. One of the disappointing aspects of the 2019 season is that the fabled high press is yet to make an appearance. In fact the Whitecaps have been less aggressive than they were in 2018.
Most MLS defensive pressure profiles look pretty similar to last season, with the New York teams leading the charge. But you can see some coach effects: Vancouver's been even less aggressive under Dos Santos, while De Boer and Almeyda have Atlanta and San Jose pressing harder. pic.twitter.com/3yCe7WAuIP— Dummy Run (@thedummyrun) May 13, 2019
The Whitecaps are playing about the same amount of long balls per game this year but make on average an extra 50 short passes per game. This is coupled with going from having one of the worst pass completion rates in the league to solidly middle of the pack. So when the Whitecaps actually get the ball they aren’t giving it up as often as in 2018. There is a clear change in the way they are using the ball in possession. Well mostly. One thing hasn’t changed. For some reason the Whitecaps are hitting more crosses than in 2018 despite switching from a 6’4 striker to a 5’9 one which...
Things have kind of lazily ticked up in terms of transforming the team into one which controls the game but so far we haven’t seen the kind of revolutionary change we had hoped for. Now that’s not a disaster considering the team was torn down and there has only been one transfer window for MDS and the gang. If this is step one of a plan to transform the team then this is perfectly fine state of affairs. This leads to my next point:
How Good This Season is Depends Entirely on What They do Next:
If 2019 is only to create a foundation on which a great team is built then it’s going alright. If the timeline they’re working off is:
2019: Average team, 2020: Good team, 2021: MLS cup contender
And there is a detailed plan on bringing in difference makers both on and off the pitch, to make that happen, then I am okay with how 2019 is going. But if the Whitecaps decision makers just look at the stats I cited -huge improvement on defence, on a comfortable playoff pace, if you discount the terrible first five games- and think the job is done then god help us. Because currently this is just more functional Robbo ball. That’s a lot better than non-functional Robbo ball, but it’s still a losing proposition in the long term to not control the game more. There is a foundation on which something can be built here but it will require forward thinking and pro-activeness from a management group that just hasn’t shown much of that. Mike Martignago was recently a guest on “Real Good Show” and he said that he had heard the Whitecaps ownership was happy with the front office because the value of the club had risen significantly since they took over. This should terrify you. Because that’s exactly the kind of thinking that would lead to not making major strides forward and bringing the team to the next level. It’s the kind of thinking that is content with mediocrity. We were told when Marc Dos Santos was hired that it was time to be great. I hope we’ll see truth in those words.
Where Should They go From Here?
The first step should be to maintain the good defence they’ve built as that’s basically the only thing that’s fully functional right now. Adnan and Godoy are both on loan and their moves should both be made permanent. This may be seen as a lot of money put into defence but Adnan and Godoy are worth it. This may require getting creative with the salary cap but it is doable.
The midfield and attack have a few good pieces but they need a bit of a rethink. Jon Erice is fine but he’s going to be 33 at the start of next season so there has to be a succession plan to make either David Norman Jr or Michael Baldisimo the new #6. Both are nearing return from injury and they need to be given some minutes over the remainder of this year and the next so the Whitecaps aren’t caught in an endless cycle of bringing in veteran #6s who will likely walk for nothing at the end of their contracts. Hwang is a good player, and under the right circumstances he could even be a great one but he needs more support. I think the idea was that Hwang would be the #8 and Felipe as the #10 but for whatever reason that just hasn’t worked out. There are two directions this support can take. You can go for another player like Hwang but better (super Hwang) who has a lot of technical skill and passing ability. Or you can go for someone who compliments Hwang by providing some size, muscle, and forward dribbling ability. Ideally you’d find someone who does both. But whoever they choose there can be no half measures. It has to be someone who takes the team to a next level.
How the attack shakes out depends on if the coaching staff decide to stick with a 3-5-2 or try to rework the 4-3-3. If they go back to the 4-3-3 they need two new wingers. Bangoura has been a disaster and Venuto is at best a depth player. The Whitecaps have 0 counter attack goals. 0 folks! that’s not a great look for your pacy wingers. Furthermore the Whitecaps have pretty much abandoned the press for 2019. A big part of this was that Venuto and Bangoura just couldn’t do it. If you look at the Whitecaps players defensive actions you can see that Fredy Montero is quite high up. But Venuto and Bangoura are nowhere to be seen. The Whitecaps need wingers who work harder and have more quality. There’s Kam Habibullah and Branden Cambridge who are coming through the ranks but both are at least two years away from maybe being first team contributors.
Vancouver also need to make better use of the academy. The Whitecaps have exclusivity for youth players in the majority of Canada. They haven’t pressed this advantage nearly enough. When they have a promising player there needs to be a plan to graduate them to the first team. You can’t just keep players around who are promising and not play them. Because one day they’ll be 23 with 12 professional appearances and you’ll have wasted their talent. A perfect example is Sean Melvin. In 2017 Melvin was in his second pro year with WFC2 and was having a very good season. He was prone to the odd blunder but he was a little bit of polish away from being an MLS keeper. But WFC2 folded and Fresno didn’t play him. He was recalled and the Whitecaps didn’t play him (despite having statistically the worst goalkeeper tandem in the league). Now he’s 25 and hasn’t play a professional game in over a year. The Whitecaps can’t let that sort of thing happen with Bair, Colyn, Baldisimo etc. Marc Dos Santos has made some good noises in this direction but as fans we still need to get on them about his. Indeed a lot of the things I’ve laid out in this series are things Marc Dos Santos and the Whitecaps have said they will address. I’m a fan of MDS but, as the saying goes, trust but verify. The Whitecaps have skated by for a long time on people not paying too close attention to what they were up to. Scrutiny has increased a lot over the past year but it needs to be kept up. Because things can get better. But the Whitecaps are going to have to take steps to make that happen.