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Are the Vancouver Whitecaps the Best Worst Team Ever?

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MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

At the time of writing this, the Vancouver Whitecaps have the lowest points per game in the western conference. It’s possible this will have changed by the time this article comes out but i’ve scheduled it to come out after the game against LAFC because I am anticipating the ‘Caps will lose and I want to capitalize on the two losses in a row fan freakout*.

*Author’s note: I was not expecting that. I still agree with everything I say in this article but maybe turn up the urgency a bit in the part where I talk about what they need to do to turn it around.

At face value it would seem that the team is in need of another offseason overhaul. But my take has always been that the team just needs a couple of pieces to be good again. This take is based on a few premises. Firstly that the team defends well. The Whitecaps are on pace to concede 22 fewer goals than in 2018 which is a pretty staggering improvement. Secondly that the team is making efforts to play the “right way”. They are top 10 in passing percentage and not last in possession which, again is a pretty big improvement on last season. Lastly, that while the attack hasn’t been good, players like Lucas Venuto and Fredy Montero have finished a pretty high percentage of their scoring chances. So, my theory goes, if you got them more chances then things would improve. But I think it’s worth stopping to consider if that’s actually true. On one level i’m sure it is. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out that shots lead to goals. But is it true of every bad team that all they need to do is control the game a bit more and take some more shots? Because if it is then the Whitecaps might just be legitimately bad. So this article will compare the Whitecaps to the other bottom teams this season and of seasons past. I will also examine if and how past last placed teams managed to turn things around, as well as if that turn around was sustained.

I have picked 6 areas that you would figure good teams would do well in.

Goals for/against: Pretty straight forward, you’d expect a good team to score more goals and concede less.

Shooting percentage: Are the attacking players this team has putting away the chances they are getting?

Shots for/against: As was established above, shots lead to goals. Having more of them is good (especially if they are inside the 6 yard box, inside the 18 yard box, and/or from the centre of the goal). Giving up shots from inside the 6 yard box, 18 yard box and from the centre is not good.

Possession/passing percentage: Most studies have found that having the ball a lot is correlated with success. A good way to keep possession is to play good passes. So i’ve calculated that the average sum of a team’s possession and passing percentage is 130.6. So a good team would probably be over that.

Getting a save: Once again pretty straight forward, If your goalkeeper is preventing goals then you will probably do better. This will be measured by GA-xGA which while imperfect, does the best job of taking the difficulty of the shots a goalkeeper faces into account.

Who’s the competition?

There are 15 teams that will be examined in this article. Those teams are the 2019 Vancouver Whitecaps, 2019 F.C Cincinnati, 2019 Colorado Rapids, 2019 Sporting Kansas City, 2019 Columbus Crew and the last place team from both conferences from 2014-2018.

Rather than making you read through my analysis of all of those teams (and because I know how to do tables now) here is a table to allow you to compare all of the bad teams. I prorated the goal totals of teams from this season to give you an idea of how they compare to the last placed teams from previous seasons.

Terrible teams

Team GF GA shots for (6 yard box%) Shots for (18 yard box%) Shots for (centre%) Shots against (6 yard box%) Shots against 18 yard box%) Shots against (Centre%) Team shooting% Possession%+Passing% (130.6 is average) #1 keeper GA-xGA PPG
Team GF GA shots for (6 yard box%) Shots for (18 yard box%) Shots for (centre%) Shots against (6 yard box%) Shots against 18 yard box%) Shots against (Centre%) Team shooting% Possession%+Passing% (130.6 is average) #1 keeper GA-xGA PPG
Vancouver (2019) 36 43 4 56 53 4 55 57 9.9 129.6 -1.22 1.05
Colorado (2019) 53 68 6 58 68 9 63 69 11.2 122.5 0.71 1.06
SKC (2019) 50 64 6 54 64 8 56 69 11.6 137.6 -1.59 1.06
FC Cincinnati (2019) 28 79 7 55 66 9 59 62 8.2 126.5 5.01 0.61
Columbus (2019) 29 50 10 48 65 4 51 64 7.9 132.1 -1.71 0.89
Orlando (2018) 43 74 6 50 56 8 56 68 9.7 131.9 2.41 0.82
San Jose (2018) 49 71 4 53 68 9 55 63 11.2 128.7 6.79 0.62
DC (2017) 31 60 6 61 66 7 55 64 7.7 129.2 -4.83 0.94
LAG (2017) 45 67 8 48 68 6 56 56 11.3 121.3 6.63 0.94
Chicago (2016) 42 58 6 58 60 6 51 63 10.7 120.5 410 0.91
Houston (2016) 39 45 4 57 66 7 58 68 9.2 122.5 -5.35 0.91
Chicago (2015) 43 58 6 57 58 7 57 68 9.2 126.6 -2.6 0.88
Colorado (2015) 33 43 6 47 59 5 54 64 8 123.3 -0.68 1.09
Montreal (2014) 38 58 4 51 63 7 47 65 9.7 125.6 3.31 0.82
San jose (2014) 35 50 5 50 68 6 47 63 9.04 127.8 -6.23 0.88

The Whitecaps stack up fairly well against the terrible teams of recent years. They are first in 3 of the 12 categories and top 5 in 6 of 12 categories. Unsurprisingly they are terrible at pretty much any attacking category. Their 36 goal pace only beats out legendarily bad teams like 2017 DC United who lost 20/34 games and first ballot hall of shame teams like 2019 F.C Cincinnati. It turns out I wasn’t quite correct about the Whitecaps having a high shooting percentage. It’s not as bad as some of the bottom feeders but it’s also nothing special. I was curious about this so I investigated. Turns out Ali Adnan and In-Beom Hwang, who are second and fourth in shots respectively, are both shooting at less than 4%. They lead the team in shots from outside the box and are both underperforming their xG so a combination of poor shot selection and bad luck is probably to blame. But they aren’t the only ones shooting from bad areas. The Whitecaps have the fewest shots from the centre of any of the bad teams. This means that they are shooting too much from sharp angles. If you cast your mind back to previous games then i’m sure you can recall many examples of them doing just that. That’s the thing about stats. Once you’re looking for what they tell you is happening, it often makes itself very apparent. Too many shots from sharp angles is consistent with what Marc Dos Santos has said about his team rushing things too much while in possession when they should remain calm and wait for better options.

The Whitecaps score much better in defending and ball movement. This, again, isn’t very surprising if you’ve watched them at all this season. Maxime Crepeau has also been doing an above average job of keeping out goals (big ups to some of those keepers who stopped 5 or 6 goals more than expected only for their team to still finish last).

Overall I wouldn’t say the Whitecaps are clearly the best bad team of the past 5 years but they are definitely above average.

Ah but Caleb, you Whitecaps front office shill, how do we get out of this hell world where we’re taking solace in not being literally the worst ever?

Well what did these teams do? Did they turn it around? If so, then how? Let’s go through each one in this article that’s already 1000 words long. Are you even still reading? I know a bunch of people don’t read all the way through from the last article I wrote because there were a bunch of people who were like “Hah, I knew Felipe was bad!” even though I came to the conclusion that being on for goals against was basically meaningless. So if you’re still here, welcome to the cool kids club. The forbidden knowledge of how to turn bad MLS teams around will be yours and yours alone.

2014 San Jose Earthquakes:

Did they turn it around?

No. Missed the playoffs again the next year, though finished slightly higher.

2014 Montreal Impact:

Did they turn it around?

Yes. They came 3rd in 2015 and made the playoffs again in 2016 reaching the semi finals.

How did they do it?

They brought in impact (heh) players. Ignacio Piatti was signed late in 2014 and Didier Drogba joined in 2015. On defence the added Laurent Ciman and Ambroise Oyongo. Ciman was signed from Belgian giants Standard Liege but Oyongo was plucked from Coton Sport in Cameroon (giants in a local context but minnows in world football). Dominic Oduro was also quite effective for them scoring 8 goals. Getting rid of manager Frank Klopas also helped.

2015 Colorado Rapids:

Did they turn it around?

Uhhh...kinda? They finished 2nd in 2016 and then 2nd from the bottom in 2017 and haven’t really bounced back since.

How the hell did that happen?

They added Shkëlzen Gashi and got very lucky. When Gashi wasn’t fit the next year they didn’t have the scoring depth to make up for it and they regressed to the mean defensively.

Chicago Fire 2015:

Did they turn it around?

No. They finished last place again in 2016

Houston Dynamo 2016:

Did they turn it around?

Sort of. They made the playoffs the next season and went on a bit of cinderella run but then missed the playoffs in 2018. But they remained quite competitive considering they have the consistently the lowest budget in MLS.

What happened?

They added a lot of attacking talent. They brought in Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto and Tomas Martinez. The rising tide lifted all ships and the two additions helped Erick Torres (hadn’t scored a goal in 2 years) and Mauro Manotas (6 goals the previous year) both hit double digits in goals. MLS veteran Vicente Sanchez also helped the attack improve. I think it’s worth remembering that, although Quioto and Elis are top players now, at the time they were unknowns. Both were stars in the Honduran league but had washed out in their first attempts to move abroad (Elis in Mexico and Quioto in Poland). So it is possible to find these guys but you have to know where to look and be willing to take an educated risk when you do find them.

In 2018 the attack was still very good, Houston actually scored 1 more goal than they did in 2017. But unfortunately they let in 13 more goals. This can be attributed partly to bad luck as they were actually 10th in xGA but it was also because their defence was getting old and they didn’t replace those players before their decline became precipitous.

Chicago Fire 2016:

Did they turn it around?

Sort of. They came 3rd in the east in 2017 and were back out of the playoffs in 2018.

What happened?

They signed a guy you may have heard of called Bastian Schweinsteiger. They also added future MLS golden boot winner Nemenja Nikolic. The Fire scored 61 goals in 2017. But in 2018 they conceded 61 goals and their offence couldn’t keep up with conceding so many. This season they are once again scoring a lot of goals but conceding far too many.

Part of Chicago’s bad defending has been down to bad goalkeeping. There was no clear starter in 2017, Richard Sanchez wasn’t great in 2018 and Kenneth Kronholm hasn’t been very good in 2019. They have a somewhat resurgent David Ousted but aren’t playing him for reasons that are beyond me. But that doesn’t completely explain it as those guys while below average haven’t been completely awful. The continue to insist on Schweinsteiger as a centre back which may have something to do with it. They also concede a lot from set pieces and on the counter so poor organization may also be at fault.

LA Galaxy 2017:

Did they turn it around?

Yes, but not immediately. Despite adding Zlatan the Galaxy missed the playoffs in 2018. But they only missed out by a point and are currently second in the west.

What happened?

Well obviously adding Zlatan Ibrahimovic helped quite a bit. But in 2018 they conceded far too many goals. In 2019 they are on pace to concede only around 40 goals which is excellent. Honestly i’m having trouble figuring out how they did it. Their only major addition on the back end was Diego Polenta and most people agree he’s been pretty bad. David Bingham has had a resurgent season going from one of the worst GA-xGA goalkeepers in the league to being in the top 10. This has represented around a 7 goal swing in the Galaxy’s favour. But mostly it seems to be down to an improved defensive system under new manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The Galaxy have cut the percentage of shots they concede in the 6 yard box by 23.

DC United 2017:

Did they turn it around?

Yes. Despite a dreadful start to 2018 DC made the playoffs and currently sit second in the east in 2019.

How did they do it?

DC scored almost no goals in 2017. Luciano Acosta and Patrick Mullins lead the team in scoring with 5 each and after that the next highest scorer was Deshorn Brown with 2. In 2018 they conducted a global search for a striker to rectify this problem and came to the conclusion that Darren Mattocks was their man. Mattocks actually did alright, scoring a career high 10 goals but DC had to start the season on the road due to the construction of their new stadium. Then they added Wayne Rooney, played some games at home and things turned around. Rooney formed an effective partnership with Acosta who went from 5 goals and 4 assists to 10 goals and 15 assists. But Rooney was not the only addition. Paul Arriola (7 goals 6 assists), Yamil Asad (9 goals 5 assists), and Zoltan Steiber (5 goals 6 assists) also bolstered the attack.

DC reworked their defence too, bringing in MLS veteran Fredrick Brilliant, Oneil Fisher who hadn’t been given much of a first team chance in Seattle and Costa Rican left back Joseph Mora. Most important was the return of goalkeeper Bill Hamid who has been one of the best keepers in the league for the past two season.

San Jose Earthquakes 2018:

It’s to early to tell if San Jose have turned things around but I think they are worth discussing (the other last place 2018 team, Orlando, has decidedly not turned things around). A lot of people are saying that San Jose turned their season around despite no major signings and this has been contrasted with the Whitecaps’ offseason overhaul and used to suggest that perhaps the Whitecaps were wrong to undertake it. But I think the notion that San Jose didn’t make major acquisitions is a bit silly. It’s true that they haven’t brought in any flashy DPs but the additions they did make have made a big impact. Goalkeeper Daniel Vega has had two high profile errors but he is first in the GA-xGA standings. last season they had the worst goalkeeper in this category, Andrew Tarbell. The change from Tarbell to Vega has represented an 11 goal swing in San Jose’s favour. But even with this upgrade they are still on pace to concede nearly 60 goals and miss the playoffs. They are on pace to score 5 more goals but again a player they added has been at the root of this. Argentine forward Cristian Espinoza is on pace for 4 goals and 12 assists which is a pretty impressive. So just because they haven’t added anybody super flashy doesn’t mean they haven’t made important additions. Also worth noting, like with Houston, the players you bring in don’t necessarily need to be household names to make a big impact (though those players definitely help).

What have we learned?

Alright now that we’ve gone through all that what have we learned? Well to turn a last place team around you need to make serious additions. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise. But the type of addition is also important. The only teams to go from last place to making the playoffs two years in a row added designated players who were not only very good but helped the players who were already there to reach their full potential. The Whitecaps already have two non TAMable DPs in In-Beom Hwang and Ali Adnan. So they don’t have much room to maneuver on this front. But both of those players are good (don’t @ me, this article is already long enough) so as long as that 3rd DP is a slam dunk it should be workable. I’ve argued in the past that it should be a #8 partner for Hwang but a not wholly unreasonable argument could also be made for a striker. Whoever that DP is they need to compliment the players already in place and help them to be the best they can be.

Every team that finished last, made the playoffs the following year, and then missed out again the year after that has had a terrible defence. Fortunately the Whitecaps have a pretty good defence. Most of it is 25 or younger so they don’t risk having key players regress in a major way like Houston did. If they make Erik Godoy’s transfer permanent, Jasser Khmiri recovers from his injury (fingers crossed), Doneil Henry is retained and Maxime Crepeau continues to be at least above average then I don’t anticipate a defensive collapse happening (though you never know). So they are well positioned to prevent a collapse after a bounce back season. The problem is getting there.

In addition to that 3rd DP slot the Whitecaps are also going to have to find some value. This can be done as demonstrated by the Dynamo in 2017 but you need to know what you’re looking for and when to take that risk. The scouting department which is supposedly materializing at some point should help with this. Montreal, Houston and DC all added an MLS veteran to supplement their younger imports. The Whitecaps kind of already have that in Fredy Montero but another MLS proven player in the attack couldn’t hurt, especially if they’re going to be relying on finding diamonds in the rough. The Whitecaps already have 2 of 3 DPs in place so getting good value on that supporting cast is going to be absolutely vital. It will be a huge test of not only the coaching staff but also how serious the front office is about transforming the way this team operates when it comes to scouting and player acquisition. Only time will tell.