The Vancouver Whitecaps have concluded another season and it’s time to look to next year. For a long time, especially after hitting rock bottom in 2019, the Whitecaps have gone into seasons with making the playoffs and winning the Canadian Championship set as the bar for a successful season. Now both of those goals have been achieved it feels like things have plateaued a bit. Ok, ok, I grant you these goals have not been achieved in the same season but after two seasons in a row where they needed a result on the final day to get in, I think the Whitecaps are firmly established as a member of the mid-pack who might get in or might not based on how many things go their way. But to alleviate that slightly melancholy feeling I think it’s time for a new goal for the club. I think that goal should be to win the MLS cup.
Why should that be the goal? Well just having a home playoff game feels like too small of a goal and winning the extra 25-30 points that would be needed to win the supporter’s shield feels like a step too far for one season. But winning another 15 or so points that would be required to be a genuine cup contender feels like the right balance between ambitious and attainable. So, in this article, I would like to speak in extremely broad terms about what benchmarks the Whitecaps would need to hit next season to have a genuine chance at winning the MLS cup. Strategies for achieving those benchmarks are another discussion, one I hope to have over the coming months, but I think it’s worth laying them down so that we can assess what the team does this off-season.
There is sometimes a sense in playoff leagues that all you need to do is get in and then anything can happen. I think this would be a very misguided approach. True, the best regular season team does not always walk away with the trophy but history is very clear that the average MLS champion is very good. You might be able to “anything can happen” your way through a round or two. But going all the way with a team that just barely made the playoffs is very rare.
The average MLS champion, since the Whitecaps joined the league, has earned 59 points, scored 57 goals, and conceded 38. Obviously, there’s some variation in there but I think those are good numbers to aim for. So the 2023 Whitecaps would need to, approximately, score 17 more goals, concede 19 fewer, and win 16 more points. Now, you might say that this is a Herculean task that is impossible to achieve in just one season. Maybe you’re right, hypothetical skeptical reader. But believe it or not, there is some good news.
The Whitecaps’ 57 goals conceded this season is a bit of a mirage. This is because their goalkeepers collectively conceded about ten more goals than expected. So if whoever is playing in goal for Vancouver next season just performs exactly even with expected goals then you’re already halfway there on defence. Even if Thomas Hasal plays every game and doesn’t improve at all you would still get about 15% of the way to your target (30% if you don’t count the disastrous and anomalous first game against Columbus according to ASA). Furthermore, the defence improved significantly, at least in terms of underlying numbers, with the arrival of Andres Cubas. If we prorated the xG against per game from Cubas’ first start over a 34-game stretch then the Whitecaps would only be expected to concede 44 goals. All of this is without even touching any of the outfield players that everyone hates or the formations that everybody loves to complain about. So with an average goalkeeper and some minor personnel tweaks, I think the Whitecaps could have a championship-level defence next year.
But this good news also comes with a dollop of bad news. Vancouver’s attack was exactly as bad as it looked. There is no hidden answer in the underlying numbers or time period where things were looking more positive. The ‘Caps just kind of sucked at scoring goals all the way through. Even in the tiny sample of home games where they played a slight variation on their regular formation and everyone thought they had finally figured things out, the xG really didn’t pick up all that much. A lot of people want a new DP striker to replace Lucas Cavallini and that would certainly help but it most likely would not be enough. To solve the problem by himself, a DP striker would have to score 24 non-penalty goals (17+the 7 to replace what Cavallini scored). A healthier Ryan Gauld and a more MLS-savvy Pedro Vite would probably cut into this total somewhat but no matter what way you slice it you’re looking for someone to blow the achievements of every other Whitecaps striker out of the water. Guys like that are hard to find. Even with a home run of a DP striker the Whitecaps would need significantly increased goal-scoring from the rest of their team. That or they need to simply never concede another goal. It will certainly be a challenge but anything worth doing is.