The Vancouver Whitecaps haven’t won a game yet. This makes it tempting to do some kind of intense statistical analysis to try and figure out what the problem is. But four games of data doesn’t tell you very much so doing so would be kind of a waste. But an article that just said “I dunno, I guess we’ll see where they’re at after 10 games” wouldn’t make for very good content. So what follows is an analysis of the ‘Caps’ first four games based purely on vibes and a little bit of video.
Firstly, a general observation, the Whitecaps have faced a very difficult schedule. Three of their four games have been away from home and in MLS the away team loses over 50% of the time. Two of those away games were against teams that were widely expected to be very good last season but weren’t due to extenuating circumstances (injuries for Columbus and legendarily bad xG luck for LAFC). The other was against the Houston Dynamo, who are not good but are a very long road trip away. Vancouver’s only home game was against the defending MLS champions. So they were always going to be up against it in these games. The magnitude of their task was not helped by injuries to Brian White, Caio Alexandre, Erik Godoy, and Ryan Gauld. This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything to be concerned about in these first four games but you do have to grade on a curve a little bit. The ‘Caps are (probably) not as bad as their record suggests because their schedule has been very difficult.
Starting with Thomas Hasal in goal-I think he has been fine. He is near the bottom of most goalkeeper metrics but if you discount the first game then he’s near the top (a prime example of why the numbers mean very little at this point). Considering the team has been outshot 75-41 over their first four games I think you’d be hard-pressed to say his play is the reason the team hasn’t won, I doubt it would even crack the top 10 reasons. But he is not the best goalkeeper in the league. During the ‘Caps 2021 run, Maxime Crepeau was the best goalkeeper in the league and that papered over an awful lot of cracks. Whenever I poke my head into various forums I see a lot of complaints that the Whitecaps didn’t try and replace Crepeau. But for me, the much greater failure is they didn’t do more to change up a team whose success was so reliant on having the best goalkeeper in the league.
In defence, I think Tristan Blackmon and Ranko Veselinovic have looked excellent. But they are under constant pressure (more on that later) and they can’t beat those odds forever. Also, they have not had a reliable 3rd member of the back 3 to play with. Jake Nerwinski looks like he has been passed a bomb every time he receives the ball and his attempts to get rid of it can lead to cascading effects that cause a lot of problems. Erik Godoy has calves made of glass and, while he is good, you probably don’t want to have to rely on 33-year-old Florian Jungwirth to play every game. If Godoy can’t get fit then it might be time to think about adding another centre-back, though I would not necessarily make it a top priority.
But if the defensive players are doing so well then why have they conceded 9 goals in 4 games? Well, I have made a compilation that I think sheds some light on the situation.
As you can see, the Whitecaps’ midfield is really easy to get through. Notably, a lot of these sequences are ended by a good intervention by Hasal or one of the defenders. But it’s way too easy for the opposition to get to that point. This problem has attacking ramifications as well. It makes things a lot harder when all of your possessions start within 20 yards of your own goal.
Vancouver’s ultra permeable midfield was also a problem last season but Maxime Crepeau went on one of the craziest runs of his careers so they got punished for it a lot less frequently. You can go back and watch some of those highlights from the run at the end of last season and you’ll see tons of opposition chances that start like this! Fortunately, the Whitecaps seem to be aware that this is an issue. During the offseason, the Athletic reported that they were one of the teams in for MLS veteran defensive midfielder Sean Davis. Axel Schuster has said in interviews that they have come to terms on a pre-contract with a player currently playing in Europe, but have to negotiate with his current club to see if he can join before his contract expires. I would be willing to bet that player is a midfielder. Given the track record of the new recruitment team, I feel good about their ability to find a difference-maker in that position.
Speaking of the recruitment team, I think it was a mistake not to lean on them a bit more this offseason. Here is a list of players acquired since Nikos Overhuel joined the club (who have played at least one game): Marcus Godinho, Sebastian Berhalter, Florian Jungwirth, Javain Brown, Tristan Blackmon, Pedro Vite, Deiber Caicedo, Brian White, Caio Alexandre, Ryan Gauld. Safe to say they know what they’re doing. Axel Schuster talked a lot in the offseason about the importance of keeping the group together, because of the strong bond that existed between the players. But the problem with that is that the group’s on-field performance was not actually that good, they just had a few players turn into gods for a few months in a not particularly sustainable way. I think Schuster should have been a little bit more ruthless in turning over the squad. Obviously, you don’t want to shake things up too much but look back at that list of players. If you have the choice between keeping an average player or trying to find somebody new then you should back the recruitment team to find somebody who’s better. This is especially true with Vanni Sartini as manager. Sartini rotates his squad a lot, so if a player is available to him then that player is going to get used. So it’s important to find those undervalued players to fill out the squad and make sure the low end of your squad is never that low.
This brings us to the anemic offence, with only two goals in four games. To a certain extent, I trust the attacking players to figure it out. Ryan Gaul missed the LAFC game with an injury and I would not be at all surprised to learn he had been struggling with that injury for a while. He did not look himself at all in Vancouver’s first 3 games. But he’s Ryan Gauld and we know he is good so I’m not really worried. Brian White has also barely played and we saw last season how he was an important reference point for the team. Speaking of reference points, how about another compilation?
Lucas Cavallini just goes wherever he wants and it has serious implications for the structure of the team. When White plays he holds his position as the team’s most advanced player. This means there is always a forward outlet or somebody in the box to aim for. But Cavallini is always trying to dribble opposition defenders (which he is bad at) or cross the ball to one of his fellow attackers, all of whom have the physical traits of being short and small. This is not a recipe for success. I would still say the midfield is a bigger problem but when your lone striker is just wandering around it certainly doesn’t help matters. Hopefully, the return of White will improve things. He may not be the most technically gifted or the fastest but at least he plays his role.
One last point on the attack-There has been a few times where Gauld or Vite have been in a position to play a ball in behind but haven’t had anyone with the pace to take advantage to pass to. I never thought I would be pinning for Darren Mattocks but there have been situations where he definitely would have been able to get a shot away (if he wasn’t offside). A striker with a bit of speed might do quite well, or at least give the team another look. Of course, quick strikers tend to have inflated prices so maybe it’s not the best use of resources. But the team is said to be interested in another striker so I guess we shall see.
Overall the team looks middling. They have had a tough start to the schedule but they haven’t shown anything to suggest they will be one of the top teams without more additions. Exactly how good or bad they are remains to be seen but the general issues seem to be forming. We will return to this at the ten-game mark when we can make more definitive statements.