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Pre Match: Vancouver Whitecaps Vs. Pacific F.C

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

After almost three years of anticipation the Vancouver Whitecaps will finally face Pacific F.C in the Voyageur’s cup. Many people on twitter have been saying Pacific have the quality to give the Whitecaps some trouble. This may be a fun thing to say online with your friends but it is not likely to hold up to the harsh light of reality. They play the games for a reason, of course, so it’s possible Pacific gets an upset. But a serious analysis of the facts at hand can only lead one to conclude that is a very unlikely outcome.

This is not 2019:

Now, we should probably address something here. In 2019 I got brutally owned. I said that a floundering Whitecaps were going to easily beat a high flying Cavalry F.C side. Cavalry held Vancouver scoreless in Calgary and then snatched a 2-1 win in Vancouver. Dominick Zator, a player I specifically highlighted as an example of the disparity in quality between CPL and MLS scored the winner. Kurt Larson (before he was bashing the idea of a CPL players union but after bashing the quality of women’s soccer) brought up my tweet on the preview show and then dunked on it after the game. I think I only had about 150 followers at the time but, to be fair, that still meant there were probably more eyeballs on what I had to say then there has ever been on most punditry produced by OneSoccer.

So you might think I would be more circumspect on a matchup that has some superficial similarities to that game in 2019. There’s an MLS team that has struggled against a CPL team that’s top of the table. Plus the CPL team has no shortage of players with ties to the MLS team to potentially cause embarrassment.

But a deeper look shows that these situations are quite different. Firstly the Whitecaps are not nearly as bad as they were in 2019. The 2019 Whitecaps had the third worst expected goal differential per game of any team since 2013 at -0.8. That means that on average their opponents were expected to score almost an entire extra goal than them every single game. The result was lots of losses. The 2021 Whitecaps have an expected goal difference per game of -0.39. That’s still pretty bad but it’s a lot better than -0.8. The result has been that most games are draws with slightly more losses than wins.

Pacific are also not as good as the 2019 Cavalry. True, they are top of the table but they are the beneficiaries of huge xG over performance. They have scored 22 goals off of 18.77 expected goals. Their expected goal difference per game is +0.27. That is good but it’s not really “putting the fear into a lower 3rd team from a higher level” good. It’s good enough for 3rd in the CPL behind Forge at +0.67 and HFX at 0.33 (watch out for them to make a push in the second half of the season, they have been really unlucky).

Pacific F.C

Now that we have taken a broad overview of the relative strengths of the teams let’s dig in to what the ‘Caps will be up against more specifically. Pacific F.C, lead by former Whitecaps player and assistant coach Pa-Modou Kah, almost always come out in a 4-3-3. They have 5 players who are over 1000 minutes; Goalkeeper Callum Irving, winger Marco Bustos, fullback Kadin Chung and centre backs Lukas MacNaughton and Abdou Samake. Beyond those five guys there is a fair bit of rotation.

Let’s start back to front. In goal, Irving is a Whitecaps academy graduate who has played significant time in the USL and joined Pacific last season. American Soccer Analysis has over 6000 minutes of his career in their database and his numbers show he was a below average shot stopper in USL, conceding just under 9 more goals than expected between 2017 and 2019. It’s possible he plays the game of his life and steals three points but you shouldn’t bet on it.

As outlined above we can be fairly sure who three of the four in the backline will be. Chung is a really interesting player to me. For WFC2 he was an attacking fullback who was dangerous going forward but a bit suspect defensively. So imagine my shock when the data that the CPL provides for free shows that he hardly puts up any offence but is hardly ever dribbled past and has tons of defensive actions.

In the centre are MacNaughton and Samake. They balance each other well because Samake is a good 1v1 defender but terrible in the air and MacNaughton is a beast in the air but only average against dribblers. I think MacNaughton is really good and could probably play at a higher level.

There has been relatively little movement of players between CPL and MLS so saying with certainty what being good at defending in CPL means is difficult. But Joel Waterman, the only defender to have played in both leagues recently, saw a slight drop off in most of his stats when he jumped to MLS. He’s just one guy though, so who really knows.

I imagine Alessandro Hojabrpour will be one of the players who starts in the midfield as he was rested in mid week. Hojabrpour was once a highly though of Whitecaps prospect and he may still make his way to MLS in the end. He’s mostly a defensive player who makes a lot of interceptions. In front of him will probably be Manny Aparicio and Jamar Dixon, as Ollie Basset seems to be injured.

Based on the lineup Pacific put out against Cavalry I would anticipate a front three of Bustos, Diaz, and one other. I’m setting myself up to get Zator’d again but frankly I don’t think these guys provide much of a threat. If we assume that CPL is on the same level as USL (this has not been established but just for the sake of argument), and players would see the a 31% decrease in their scoring on average when making the jump, then these two profile as pretty fringe MLS players at the MLS level.

Bustos has over-performed his xG and xA by a huge amount. Sometimes xG over performance is a sign of skilled finishing. But in over 2500 USL minutes Bustos was not a plus finisher. So either at age 25, in his 8th year as a professional, he suddenly became a finishing god or he has gotten a bit lucky. You can decide which is more likely. That’s not to say he’s totally crap or anything, 0.41 xG+xA/90 is decent. But his MLS equivalents would be Isaac Atanga or Jon Gallagher not Carlos Vela or Johnny Russell.

Diaz averages 0.56 xG+xA per game. That’s good but if we apply the (very generous) USL to MLS conversion he would be in the bottom 25% of strikers most seasons.

The same can be said for any other player Pacific could put in that 3rd spot. They have lots of players who put up solid offensive numbers but nobody does anything that really blows you away.

So that’s Pacific. They are a good CPL team but there is little to suggest they would trouble most MLS teams.

Vancouver:

I expect we will see a strong squad from the Whitecaps. Marc Dos Santos has called the Canadian Championship “an obsession” and he did not rotate his squad against Cavalry in 2019. Plus the 2021 edition of Marc Dos Santos would rather pass a kidney stone than rotate his squad.

Soccer is a weak link game. That means that the team that does not have the worst player is more likely to win. So I tried to think of which player the Whitecaps could conceivably field who would be the worst player on the pitch. I think when you do this exercise it becomes pretty clear how big the gap between the teams is. The best candidates I can come up with are Patrick Metcalfe and Russell Teibert. Those guys may not be amazing MLS players but they still have 31 Canada caps at various levels between them compared to the 7 of Pacific’s midfield.

Perhaps Andy Rose or Evan Newton could play. They might be candidates for the weakest link but Newton was a way better USL keeper than Irving and Rose, while he is limited, still has some plus skills at MLS level.

I just don’t see it, is my overall point. There isn’t really any argument you can make for Pacific in this game except “you never know what might happen.” I suppose on a technical level that’s true but that does not seem like a very firm foundation to build your football analysis off of.

Staff Predictions:

Caleb: 3-0 VAN

Ian: 3-1 VAN

Luis: 1-0 VAN

Andrew: 3-1 VAN

Sam: 3-2 VAN