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What Does it Take to be an MLS Champion?

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2021 Campeones Cup - Deportivo Cruz Azul v Columbus Crew Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

The last couple of years I have written articles on if the Vancouver Whitecaps were good enough to make the playoffs. They managed to make the 2021 playoffs so now it’s time to aim our sights higher. What does it take to win it all?

Sneaking In Isn’t the Way

There is a perception that anything can happen in the playoffs. Indeed many Whitecaps squads seem to have been built on this principle. Just get in and anything can happen! But an analysis of who wins the MLS cup shows this isn’t true. I mean, I suppose on a technical level anything can happen in the playoffs- It’s technically possible for me to win a fight against Israel Adesanya- but it’s not very likely to happen! The average MLS champion since the Whitecaps entered MLS in 2011 amassed 60 points in the regular season. Usually, 50 points are enough to be assured of a playoff spot. So the average champion wins about 16% more points than the average team that sneaks in. The “worst” champions of the past decade have been the 2016 Toronto F.C team and the 2015 Timbers but even they clocked in at 53 points.

Most Champions Scored a Lot of Goals

It probably isn’t that surprising in a league with MLS’ reputation- that most champions scored a lot of goals. On average they scored 57 throughout a season. The highest scoring champion was the 2017 Toronto F.C team who came in with a whopping 74 goals in 34 games. Only two of the last 10 champions scored less than 1.5 goals per game (51 goal pace).

During Vanni Sartini’s time in charge- Brian White, Ryan Gauld, and Deiber Caicedo collectively averaged 0.96 expected goals per game. That’s almost 2/3rds of the way there from just three players! The bad news is, everybody else produced almost nothing. So some goalscoring threat from the other 7 outfield players on the pitch might be a good way to improve the squad this offseason. Also, Caicedo should be a more nailed-on starter. He’s a lot more dangerous from open play than Dájome (and playing Dájome at wing-back is a great way to add scoring to the midfield 4!).

You Can’t Neglect Defence

The average champion conceded 40 goals. So they weren’t exactly air-tight but solid. Defensive juggernauts were relatively rare. The 2011 Galaxy, one of the lowest scoring champions, conceded just 28 goals in 34 games. The least defensively solid champion was the 2019 Sounders who gave up 49.

bringing this back to a Whitecaps perspective, if you prorated Vanni Sartini’s time over a full season they would have given up only 34 goals. That’s great! However, this was largely driven by the best football Maxime Crepeau has played in his entire career. Their expected goals against total was a lot higher and would have worked out to conceding about 51 goals throughout a full season. That’s too high. As much as we all love Crepeau, him saving the day every single game probably isn’t a viable strategy in the long term.

Goal Difference

The average MLS champion had a regular-season goal difference of +18. If you prorated their expected goals for and against over a full season the Vanni Sartini Whitecaps would have had an expected goal difference of -12. That means there would have to be a 30 goal swing for them to be a championship-level team next season. The 2022 season starts in 96 days. This should be fun.