Although it came about in rather unsavoury circumstances, MLS’ return is on the horizon. The league will play a 3 game round robin tournament followed by a knockout round in Orlando. The details are not fully available yet but the tournament is expected to begin in early July. After months we finally have something new to analyze. How well suited is this Vancouver Whitecaps team to a closed door tournament? It’s something i’ve been thinking about so let’s dive into it.
A Review of Where the ‘Caps Were Before the Pandemic
Like every other MLS team the Whitecaps had only played two games and, several key players like Leonard Owusu, Ranko Vaselinovic, and Erik Godoy had yet to play a major role, so our picture of them is very incomplete. But some trends had emerged. They still employed a defensive style that limited the opposition to low percentage shots from range and difficult angles. They had the third fewest xGA (1.4) in the western conference and their opponents shots had an average xG of 0.06. They are also conceding about half the number of shots they did in 2019 so all in all they were quite defensively sound. If they had kept this pace up over a whole 34 game season they would only be expected to concede around 24 goals. Obviously it was only two games and you shouldn’t assume they would be able to keep that up but there were positive early signs.
On the other side of the ball the Whitecaps were in about the middle of the western conference for xG (2.9). They still did not get very many shots through their first two games but the quality of these shots improved significantly from 2019. The team only took 21 shots in the first two games of 2020 but those shots had an average xG of 0.13. The three biggest contributors of the xG were Lucas Cavallini (who at 1.6 xG was the player to have the most xG without scoring an actual G. his total was boosted by a penalty though), Jake Nerwinski (0.8 xG off a single shot) and a tie between Jasser Khmiri and Tosaint Ricketts (both 0.2). The main creators were David Milinkovic (1.0 xA), Ali Adnan (0.6 xA), and then a tie between Yordy Reyna (0.2 xA) and In Beom Hwang (who’s 0.2 xA was exclusively from set pieces). If they had maintained their xG pace over a 34 game season they would have been expected to score around 49 goals. In most MLS seasons 49 goals for and a +25 goal difference would put a team comfortably in the playoffs. So, again, it was only two games and you can’t draw any hard and fast conclusions but there were some very positive early signs.
Return to Training:
MLS lifted its moratorium on team training on June 4th. Individual training for many teams started on may 6th. However some teams were prevented from doing so by local government restrictions. Vancouver was able to start individual training on May 13th, so they were somewhat delayed. But they were not the worst delayed as the Montreal Impact weren’t able to begin individual training until May 25th and the San Jose Earthquakes still are not able to use their facilities. Bet against San Jose! Sporting Kansas City and Atlanta United got the chance to start training in small groups earlier than anyone else so they probably have an advantage. The Whitecaps do not have an advantage from returning to training earlier but they also shouldn’t have a large disadvantage.
One very noticeable aspect of leagues that have returned to play behind closed doors is a sizeable increase in the number of goals scored from free kicks and corners. This is likely because of teams loosing familiarity with their defensive systems. We also see an increase in set piece goals in international tournaments where players are less familiar with each other and spend less time training together so once again we can see how teams who have gotten more opportunities to train will have an advantage. With this in mind, I think Jasser Khmiri can be a real weapon for Vancouver in this tournament. While he was not the most dangerous player in the league in terms of xG from set Pieces he was in the top 20. He Also won 75% of his aerial duels through the first two games and is just generally a unit. If MDS et al. can find a good way to use him then he can potentially be a menace from corners and free kicks. Similarly In-Beom Hwang ranked 12th in the league in xA from corners and free kicks. With the opposition more disorganized he could become more dangerous from set pieces. I am willing to predict we will see these two combine for at least one goal during the tournament.
As a team Vancouver was not super impressive in their pre pandemic games, ranking 9th/13 in the Western Conference in xG from set pieces but it could certainly be worse. Where they may have an advantage is in defending set pieces. In the two games played before we entered the ‘Rona zone the Whitecaps were tied for first in the Western for fewest xG allowed from set pieces. Now it’s hard to say if that will carry over for the reasons outlined in the previous section but we do at least know that these players have it within them to be good at defending set pieces.
Style of Play:
Something else that has been observed in leagues that have come back is that teams who dominate possession have been successful, whereas teams who have the ball less and focus on physicality have struggled. I’m not sure if this is objectively true but they talked about it on Football Weekly so I figured I would cover it. The Whitecaps averaged almost exactly 50% possession over their first two games, which is pretty good by the standards of the entire MLS history of the team, but it wasn’t exactly penetrating. The ‘Caps spent the 2nd most time in their own 3rd in the entire league through the first two games. this was in part because they often cycled the ball around their centre backs and a deep lying midfielder without really penetrating further up the field. They will have to be hoping that Ranko Vaselinovic and Leonard Owusu, players who were excellent at breaking lines in Serbia and Israel respectively, will make a difference for them. But overall the Whitecaps don’t really fall into the category of being a possession team or into the category of being a purely physical route one team. They are a sort of hybrid of the two. In their first two games the Whitecaps style was pretty clear. They limit the opposition to a small number of bad shots and aim to be ultra efficient at creating good shots when they do break into the opposition half. That’s the sort of set up that might work out well over a 34 game season but in a short sample like a three game group stage shit happens. You get results like Vancouver quadrupling Sporting KC’s xG only to lose 3-1. Over the course of a season unlucky results like that even out but in a three game round robin there isn’t the chance for that equalization to happen. I suspect that teams who are more dominant and get more shots are going to be in a better position for this tournament. That being said, they are in a much better position than a number of previous editions of the Whitecaps would have been.
The Whitecaps are not uniquely well suited to Caronavirus football but neither are they uniquely disadvantaged. There are some elements of the team that could potentially be leveraged into being very effective but there are other teams who do those things better. I’m guessing you all probably assumed this was the case already but now at least we can say we investigated it.