Despite the overwhelming odds against them, the Vancouver Whitecaps will control their own destiny on Sunday afternoon in Minnesota, as they’ll take on Minnesota United with a shot at booking their place in the 2022 MLS Cup playoffs.
Things couldn’t have turned out much better for the MLS schedule-makers on decision day, as the four teams battling for the final two playoff spots in the West are condensed into two head-to-head matchups, with Real Salt Lake hosting the Portland Timbers alongside the Vancouver/Minnesota fixture.
Last weekend, the Whitecaps needed four different results to go their way in order to facilitate this scenario, and in each case, they found the result they needed. If Vancouver is able to win on decision day and claim a spot in the playoffs for the second season in a row, it will truly be two of the most miraculous late-season surges I have seen since the Whitecaps have been in MLS.
While fortune has undoubtedly favoured them, the Whitecaps also deserve a lot of credit for the way they have played over the last month. Finally, Vanni Sartini decided some tactical tweaks were in order, and those subtle changes have made a world of difference. By defending in 4-4-2, the Whitecaps have looked less anxious off the ball, and equally, the change in shape has allowed Vancouver the licence to push another body forward in and around the box in attack. This extra man has helped them find some quality team goals from build-up that they weren’t getting for much of the season.
Credit also has to go to the individual players for stepping up. Ryan Gauld has been in his best form in a Whitecaps shirt and has looked unstoppable on the ball at times. Pedro Vite has enjoyed a late season breakout to the extent that he looks like he could be a star player for this team going forward. Julian Gressel and Andres Cubas have continued to stack up quality performances, Jake Nerwinski and Thomas Hasal look to have found a renewed confidence. The list goes on.
I don’t think there’s much debate this roster at present is good enough to be a playoff team, however, it has taken the whole season for them to finally get the most out of it. Admittedly, this is for a multitude of reasons: some of them in the team’s control and some of them not so much. The question now is how long they can ride this wave of confidence and form?
This brings us to Minnesota. The Loons have been one of the streakiest teams in MLS this season. As such, they are difficult to pin down. Prior to their recent losing streak, the Loons were the hottest team in MLS and had won eight of their last eleven matches with only one defeat. Since then, Minnesota is winless in their last six, with five outright losses, and they’ve only scored two goals over that span. Crazy.
In terms of season-long trends, when you look at things like expected goal difference, a fringe playoff team seems like a fair reflection of their quality. Obviously though, this side has the ability to be either extremely good or extremely bad without much consistency, but that won’t matter in a one-off match.
As for individual players, Emanuel Reynoso continues to lead the way with ten goals and five assists. Much like Vancouver though, there has been a problem in Minny with the lack of depth scoring, as only four players have scored more than two goals on the season.
Defensively, Canadian Dayne St. Clair is having a really good season between the sticks although the back-line in front of him is aging, with most of their regular starters on the wrong side of thirty.
As much as goal scoring has been a problem recently, the defence is where I think the lack of consistency for Minnesota really shines through. Michael Boxall and Brett Kallman have settled in as the Loons go-to centre-back pairing after some mid-season injuries, and those two are noticeably a couple steps slow every time you watch the Loons play. This has been most glaring in transition where teams have been exploiting the space between lines Minnesota provides.
For a team like Vancouver who doesn’t mind letting the other team hold possession and pouncing on the break, this looks like a dream match up. Added to this, Minnesota hasn’t exactly been dominant at home this season, with a 7-5-4 record. That said, the Whitecaps still have just two road wins, so make of that what you will.
In terms of the lineup for Vancouver, I can’t see them going very far away from what has worked over the last three wins. Perhaps the only area where they could consider a tweak is in the striker spot after Lucas Cavallini scored off the bench against Austin. I know Sartini has valued the underrated work Brian White has put in despite his lack of scoring touch in recent matches, so that will be an interesting decision come Sunday.
Ultimately, I think the recent form of these two teams will be more powerful than the home-field advantage. Given this, I am picking the Whitecaps to book their ticket to the MLS Cup playoffs with a 3-1 win in Minnesota.