Two statements made by Vancouver Whitecaps’ sporting director Axel Schuster during the end of season press conference drew ire from Whitecaps fans. The first being that the team as currently could make the playoffs next season even if he made no changes whatsoever, and that the team improved significantly in their last 12 games. He also said Vancouver are a team that other teams hate to play against but that one is kind of hard to measure. I think it is worth asking; Are these claims actually true?
Both Schuster and Marc Dos Santos emphasized that towards the end of the season the team showed significant improvement. This seems to be the main basis for the idea that the team could make the playoffs in 2021 even with minimal changes. There is some truth to the idea, though the claim that they were good enough to make the playoffs is Heavily exaggerated.
In the last 11 games of the season (I assume Schuster and Dos Santos would agree that the 6-0 loss to LAFC was not part of the turning of the tide) Vancouver did perform much better than they they did earlier in the season. If you prorated their performance in these games over a 34 game season then they would have 44.2 xG, 46.58 xGA, and 39.1 expected points according to ASA’s model. That is definitely a lot better than their 2019 performance but not quite playoff form. It varies from year to year but usually playoff teams score at least 50 goals, concede less than 50, and get at least 50 points.
During this time period Vancouver saw a big decrease in the number of shots conceded per game which contributed to much better xGA per game compared to their overall season average. In fact over the last 11 games of the season Vancouver was a very respectable 12th out of 26 teams in xGA.
They did not, however, see a big increase in their attacking stats during the games in question. Vancouver mustered an anemic 8.7 shots per game and 1.08 xG per game. They did however, have 0.12 xG per shot (that’s quite high) so the few shots they got were of good quality. This is also the case in their overall average though.
During the last 11 games of the season Vancouver did show improvement in defence but their attack remained pretty much about the same as it has always been. This improvement would not be enough to make the playoffs but the improvement definitely did happen.
Players Getting Settled?
One of the other pieces of evidence Schuster offered that the team was well positioned to make the playoffs even with minimal improvements is that players are getting more used to MLS. If this were the case we would expect players in their first MLS season to see significant improvements over the last 11 games. This was the case for some players but not all.
The player who most stands out as showing big improvement in the last 11 games is Lucas Cavallini. He averaged a monstrous 0.55 xG per 96 minutes and was 5th in the entire league in goals added above replacement during that time period.
Janio Bikel and Ranko Veselinovic both saw mild increases in their goals added, rising to the dizzying heights of “basically average.”
Leonard Owusu, Cristian Gutiérrez and Cristian Dájome, however, did not see an increase of note in any of their stats in the last 11 games. Dájome did see an increase when his family were able to move too Vancouver.
One player who was not in his first MLS season who saw a big increase was Theo Bair who saw a sizeable increase in his xG/96.
So while there were some first year MLS players who’s performances improved, it was only really significant for Cavallini.