With a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake on Saturday afternoon at BC Place, the Vancouver Whitecaps vaulted themselves within one point of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.
After a dreadful start to the season, this team is back within the realm of what was expected of them. Following a miraculous push to get into the playoffs last season, the playoffs were set as a realistic expectation for 2022, with many hoping that this team could take a step forward beyond that, although expectations of just how good they could be, understandably, varied to some degree.
Now that we are 14 games into the MLS season, three games away from the halfway mark, I find myself asking if we should still feel the same way about this team?
Is this a team that can go beyond simply scrapping and clawing their way into the playoffs with no real chance of contending, or is this their ceiling?
In essence, can the Whitecaps be legitimately good? Or is it just a mirage?
Specifically, something has changed since the Whitecaps were dismantled 3-0 by Austin FC at the end of April. Since that loss, the Whitecaps are 4-1-1 in MLS play with two clean sheets and three multi-goal performances. In short, the Whitecaps, despite having their depth severely tested, have looked like a much different team than the one who couldn’t score, nor keep the ball out of their own net at the start of the year.
What’s particularly perplexing about this change in fortunes is that the Whitecaps really haven’t done all that much differently. They still hold very little of the ball, averaging just over 40% possession, and after a brief flirtation with four-at-the-back, Vanni Sartini has gone back to his tried and true three-at-the-back system, even when the team basically had one healthy centre back.
So what the heck is going on? Why are the Whitecaps winning all of a sudden?
The answer, I think, is that it truly is a game of fine lines, and this has been particularly true of MLS so far this season, where there’s been very little to separate teams across the league. (We might be seeing the endgame of the current designated player system, but that’s a topic for another day.)
For one, The Whitecaps being at home has certainly helped. Just ask Ryan Gauld about the turf. But in all seriousness, visiting teams, outside of San Jose, haven’t been very bold in their approach, often just looking to eek out a point, and this cautious style has played right into the Whitecaps’ hand. Vancouver is alright defensively so long as they don’t get stretched too thin, and visiting teams have failed to do that with any consistency at BC Place this season. Salt Lake’s timid approach, especially in the first half on Saturday, was a great example of this.
Secondarily, the Whitecaps have found their shooting boots. Unlike last season, where the Whitecaps were getting caved in on the xG chart every game, Vancouver was actually quite unlucky to start this season, and eventually, that’s caught up with them - in a good way.
Lucas Cavallini finding his form was obviously a big part of that, but really, it’s been unexpected fringe contributors finding goals on a regular basis that have turned draws into wins. The likes of Tosaint Ricketts and Ryan Raposo finding multiple goals, in addition to some goal scoring from the centre-back position have been the kind of goals-added contributions the Whitecaps simply couldn’t find at the start of the year.
Cody Cropper, who’s been valiant in his relief of Thomas Hasal, has proven that goalkeeping is probably not a position you should spend a lot of money on in MLS, and has made enough notable saves over this stretch that there might be some tough decisions by the time Hasal is fully fit.
Finally, despite sticking with three-at-the-back, there have been some subtle defensive tweaks that have really helped. Overall, the way the system plays now asks a lot less of the wide centre-backs in space, and this is where Vancouver was getting torched at the start of the year.
The addition of a proper number six in Florian Jungwirth, in particular, has been a revelation as it’s helped provide defensive cover for wing backs which was often lacking earlier in the season. Obviously, Jungwirth is not the ideal fit there long term, but it’s clear Sartini has addressed the points of weakness in his preferred defensive structure.
Now, that’s not to say that it’s all good news. As much as the Whitecaps have improved defensively, they’ve still conceded at least 1.0 xG against in every MLS match since Austin. While they are not making as many blatant defensive errors, this is still a team at times that is forced to outscore their mistakes.
Equally, while low possession football can win trophies, the Whitecaps will only survive so long with a metaphorical black-hole in the middle of the park. While this mantle was first Russell Teibert’s, it’s been passed on to Leonard Owusu in recent matches, who has done shockingly little to affect matches in a meaningful way.
Overall, it looks like the absolute best the Vancouver Whitecaps could do with those currently available is 7th or 8th in the West, and even that might be a stretch. They just don’t do enough in the middle of the park to recycle balls and take the pressure off of their defence where they can consistently stifle the opposition, especially when they have to go on the road against good teams.
That being said, could this all change with Andres Cubas and Caio Alexandre?
This is what we still don’t know for certain. Even if the Whitecaps can get league average play from their central midfield it would be a huge step in the right direction, and I do think that Cubas and Alexandre are capable of that standard at the very least. If you add onto that the idea of a fully healthy Ryan Gauld, Lucas Cavallini in top form, and the return of Tristan Blackmon, you might even start to get excited about the Whitecaps’ chances come playoff time.
Yet, I think you can make an argument that the Whitecaps will need all of that just to stay in the playoff race. What the Whitecaps’ recent run of form has done is erase the brutal luck they suffered early in the year, but we should be hesitant to think that additions to the squad will only improve on the Whitecaps’ current impressive run: to sustain the unsustainable, you need to get better.
This is a concept, evidently, the Whitecaps already struggled to grasp this off-season. If the Vancouver Whitecaps are going to earn more points on the road the rest of the year and rely on fewer last-minute thrillers at home, they’re going to need every new addition and healthy body they can get their hands on, as well as hope they can shake the injury bug.
That being said, I do think there’s reason to be encouraged about what the Whitecaps will look like as we head into the summer months, we’re a long way from the dread and despair of a couple of months ago.