As always, the early stages of the Major League Soccer season have been hectic, and 2021 has been no exception.
While by no means is the first seven to eight games of a season fully indicative of a team’s overall performance, it’s also a big enough sample size to draw some conclusions - just ask Axel Schuster and Marc Dos Santos about their “successful” stretch at the end of last year.
With this in mind, we’re going to take a look at where the Vancouver Whitecaps stand in a wide variety of statistical categories through seven games.
The Whitecaps are currently 10th in the Western Conference standings, averaging 1.0 points per match, with 2 wins, 4 losses, 1 draw and a goal differential of -3. While not terribly impressive, that haul of points has been enough to keep the Whitecaps just two points out of 6th in the West, so all things considered, this isn’t the end of the world. At the same time though, the Caps are just a single point away from sharing the bottom of the Western Conference standings with FC Dallas.
This dichotomy brings us to an important question: are the Vancouver Whitecaps better or worse than their record currently indicates?
We’ll start with expected goals. Generally, this gives you a pretty good indication of how the quality of finishing, and just general luck, may have affected games in relation to the quality of chances created and conceded.
For example, Minnesota United, who simply couldn’t catch a break defensively at the start of the year, has an xGD (expected goal difference) of just -1.6, despite having an actual goal difference of -5. To paint in broad strokes, it stands to reason that the gap between these two figures will decrease if Minnesota keeps defending in a similar way.
So how do the Whitecaps stack up so far? Well, it’s not great. Currently sitting at an xGD of -4.3, only three teams in MLS are worse off. Additionally, when you adjust the stat to reflect a per 90 result, only Austin and Cincinnati currently sit below the Whitecaps.
Despite the fact that many of the Whitecaps’ goals against so far this year have seemed easily avoidable, the Whitecaps are still outperforming their xGD right now by a margin of 1.3. I don’t necessarily think this means the Whitecaps are going to get worse defensively, especially if Erik Godoy is back and fully healthy, but it also doesn’t feel like there’s room for monumental improvement.
Another area worth considering is goalkeeping. While Max Crepeau generally has looked pretty good so far this year, with a few standout performances, I actually think this is one of the easiest areas for the Whitecaps to improve. In coming back from injury, the Canadian shot stopper has had a few uncharacteristically shaky moments, in the Toronto FC and Houston games in particular.
The Whitecaps are currently 6th from the bottom in Post Shot Expected Goal Differential (a reflection of shots stopped in comparison to the quality of chances) at -1.1.
This is a metric which would have been severely affected by a moment like Crepeau’s handling error in Houston. The good news is that the Whitecaps probably don’t need to do anything explicit to “fix” this. Max is a quality MLS keeper and as he shakes off the rust from nearly a year off, these kinds of moments will become less frequent. There isn’t necessarily a massive payoff for the Whitecaps here, but it could earn them an extra point or two somewhere down the line.
This takes us to the Whitecaps’ passing, as well as shot and chance creation. What’s interesting about these stats is that Vancouver is no longer the statistical anomaly they were in terms of woeful possession numbers.
While they are still slightly below league average, someone like Nashville SC, who’s been one of the most dangerous offensive teams in MLS so far this year, compares very similarly. What those two teams are doing with their possession though, is a completely different matter.
If being a successful team means that you get the most out of your best players, then the Whitecaps have not been doing a very good job, especially with someone like Lucas Cavallini, who should be thriving off passes made to him in dangerous areas.
Currently, only two teams have made less passes into the final third than Vancouver, at 156. On the other end of the spectrum, Sporting KC, who leads the league in this category, has more than doubled Vancouver already with 313 such passes.
Then, when you look at completed passes into the 18-yard box, things become even more dire for Vancouver. So far, the last place Caps have made just 24 successful passes into the opposing area, while league leaders SKC more than triple the Whitecaps in this category with 86. Even the league average of 55 such passes is more than double the Whitecaps’ current output.
Similarly, the Whitecaps have completed a league low of just 4 crosses into the 18-yard box from open play all season, and currently, there are only three teams in MLS with less than 12 such crosses.
This is the most blatant area the Whitecaps have to improve. While the club is no longer bottoming the charts in terms of possession, or even in areas such as progressive passes (thanks Baldi and Caio), the lack of clinical balls played in and around the opponents’ areas is quite frankly astonishing.
This, in turn, has also led to low shot attempts and low overall shot creating totals. Similar to the above passing categories, Vancouver, Cincinnati and Columbus stand out as outliers in many of these respects.
Vancouver has recorded less open play passes which led to a shot attempt than any other team in MLS so far this year (50 where the league average is about 100), and overall, Columbus and Vancouver are in a category of their own when it comes to limited shot creation.
I will give the Whitecaps credit in terms of their efficiency though, as they currently sit 7th best in shots on target % at 36.5 percent - at least they’ve got that going for them!
All of this brings us to back to the initial question: Through seven matches, are the Vancouver Whitecaps better or worse than their record currently indicates?
On the whole, I would say that the performance to date has a pretty fair reflection of their play, albeit with some incredibly concerning underlying creation numbers. Even the current pace seems unsustainable if you can’t eventually create a bit more from open play.
That being said, if Marc Dos Santos’ team still believes that they can be a “legitimate” contender for the playoffs in the Western Conference (as he promised prior to the Houston match, and much to the chagrin of Tim Parker), something dramatic is going to have to change in the final third, and this most likely comes down to improved tactics.
The manager has yet to demonstrate that he can deliver on the exciting, creative and free flowing football he prognosticated upon his arrival in Vancouver almost three years ago. If he can’t deliver on this promise, or at least show meaningful improvements with this roster throughout the next ten to fifteen matches, then I have to think that Axel Schuster and ownership would be inclined to look in a different direction this offseason.
As much as recruitment (and adding someone like Nikos Overheul to the fold) can be incredibly important, much of this work goes to waste when players best traits are not maximized, and a play style ends up limiting, rather than promoting the growth of its players.
That’s what this Whitecaps team feels like right now. A solid MLS roster that lacks the cohesion and direction on the pitch that’s required to get the most out of their potential. Even if Russell Teibert says this is one of the best locker rooms he’s ever been a part of.
What will make these next few months so interesting is not only how this team might progress, but also how they’ll handle the pressure of something that hasn’t properly been felt in well over a year now - their supporters.
At this point, it seems as though it’s just a question of when the Vancouver Whitecaps will return to BC Place this season, but what kind of reception will they be greeted with?
Will it be to rapturous applause, or a smattering of boos? Will the Whitecaps be the hottest ticket in town, or will you be able to pick up a seat for 10$ on stubhub?
This kind of pressure has not been felt by the organization in some time.
As much as social media can keep us connected in some respects, there’s always a muted sense of distance in those interactions. In many ways, the team has been out of sight and out of mind, protected from the revealing spotlight.
Nothing can ever replace the direct, emotional connection between a team and their supporters, and that’s why the games that lead up to this moment will be so important.