Following the San Jose Earthquakes victory on Wednesday night, the Vancouver Whitecaps have missed the playoffs for the third season running. I may be alone in this but the whole thing seems awfully unfair to me. Perhaps not unfair by the letter of the law, they did fall short on points per game and they had to have known that change was a possibility, but unfair in a karmic sort of way. The Whitecaps have kept their players safe from Covid, faced one of the most difficult schedules in the league and in the end may be punished for it. If the Whitecaps had been able to get some of their games cancelled they might have made the playoffs comfortably but they didn’t and now they are out.
I’m not under any impression that they would have done well in the playoffs but I think it would have been nice for players who had to live out of a hotel in Portland for months, leaving their families behind and risking their long term health, to be rewarded with a modicum of sporting success for their sacrifices. Oh well, the whole season is fake anyway.
My fellow Eighty Six Forever writers all feel that it’s a good thing the Whitecaps will not make the playoffs because it won’t let the team hide from their failures. They can’t now say “see we made the playoffs, we’re improving.” I am fairly certain the Whitecaps know that they have a lot of work to do but just in case they don’t let me be very clear about where they stand (I’m sure they always read my blog posts).
With one game remaining the Whitecaps sit last in expected goals against. They are 5th from the bottom in expected goals for. They sit last in American Soccer Analysis’ expected points model. They were not a good team in 2020. So how did they get so close to making the playoffs? It all has to do with how their goals were distributed.
In Vancouver’s eight wins in 2020 they scored two goals or fewer six times. In their fourteen defeats they conceded three goals or more eight times. Normally a team that conceded 44 goals in 22 games would be firmly planted to the bottom of the table but because the Whitecaps conceded goals in games when they got killed and scored goals in games where the just barely won, it gave them more points than their overall play actually deserved.
Now, just because the Whitecaps were bad this season does not mean all hope is lost. One area that they improved in significantly was the quality of the chances they created. In 2019 Vancouver limited to their opponents to terrible shots but they gave up so many shots that eventually something went in. Their shots for were about as bad, but they had much fewer and thus the team was terrible. But in 2020 the Whitecaps are 2nd in xG per shot for and 8th in xG per shot against. What this means is if they could just get to a situation where they were playing their opposition even in terms of possession, final 3rd time, and shots they would probably win more games than they lost. Unfortunately they had the worst average possession in the league, the least time in the final 3rd and the fewest shots per game. Fortunately for the Whitecaps, if they do things properly, they are going to be able to change that.
As I have outlined in previous articles, there is something that can be built upon here. I would much rather try and build a successful team starting from Vancouver’s 2020 roster than the 2019 one. The 2020 squad is younger and has a lot more worthwhile players. But they still need more top end talent. Axel Schuster will have his first full offseason as sporting director, he says he has scouts putting in work, and he’s going to potentially have a lot of roster flexibility to bring in top end talent. If he isn’t able to turn this into a playoff team next season it’s going to be on him.