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How to Interpret the Whitecaps’ Season so Far

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

Interpreting the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2022 season is hard. First, they were the worst team in the league, now they’re the most in-form team in the league. What is one supposed to make of that? Well during the worst team portion of the season I proposed two pillars for understanding the team:

  1. The team had been very unlucky to that point, and their results were not a true reflection of the overall quality of the squad.
  2. The squad was not that good.

I still stand by those pillars as a helpful framework for Whitecaps analysis. I didn’t get to expand on why both of those things were important to understand in my previous article, goodness knows it was long enough already. So in this article, we will take a look at why it is so important to understand both points.

First, let’s look at where an analysis that is based only on the Whitecaps not being all that great will lead to. To do this it’s time to put on our “old takes exposed” hats and look at a couple of old tweets.

Since this tweet the Whitecaps have a record of 5 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses in MLS (7W-3D-2L in all competitions).

This tweet is a bit older so there’s one more win and one more loss since it was tweeted.

Both of these tweets were pithy, authoritative, got a lot of likes, and were almost entirely wrong. I have no personal beef with either of these guys. But they fell into the trap of only analyzing the Whitecaps through the lens of their squad not being that good and were made to look silly when the team started winning. It must be said, Vancouver having some kind of turnaround after their bad start was not that hard to predict (I know this because I predicted it). In any given game over half of the squad’s nailed-on starters were either unavailable or just returning from injury. Furthermore, if you looked at their xG for and against (a pretty basic soccer analytic at this point that is freely available from multiple sources) you could see that they were scoring fewer goals than you would expect from the chances they created and their opponents were scoring more. Taking these two facts into account it was a pretty easy logical jump that results were going to improve.

What this sort of analysis often misses is that even bad teams often have good things going for them. I think it’s important to recognize that even bad teams have strengths so that the club does not end up taking two steps forward and one step back. Furthermore, there are degrees of badness. Even though the Whitecaps have been bad for most of the last 3.5 seasons, they are a lot less bad than they used to be. Things can generally be said to be trending in the right direction. Time to bring back my favourite chart!

Data Courtesy of American Soccer Analysis

When you’ve watched a team be bad for years it’s easy to just flatten all of that time into being equally bad because it’s very tiring to sit through. But as you can see, while they are hardly world-beaters, the Whitecaps have improved every season since Axel Schuster became sporting director. So an analysis that paints everything about the Whitecaps as being maximally and uniquely bad is going to end up looking foolish.

It’s tempting at this point for the optimistic Whitecaps fan to declare another online argument won. I feel this temptation very strongly. I am, at the end of the day, a Whitecaps fan. I like it when they win. I especially like it when they win and prove the doubters wrong. It feels satisfying. But I am also a realist, or at least I try to be. So, reluctantly, I have to introduce the second pillar; the Whitecaps are not that good.

This recent run of form has been fun. But it’s not anymore a true representation of the quality of the team than when they were bottom of the table. It’s just their luck evening out a bit. The Whitecaps are 24th out of 28 teams in expected goal difference. They are 19th if you discount the opening day throttling at the hands of Columbus, which was a bit of a weird outlier in their season. But any way you slice it, they just aren’t that good.

As you may have gathered from the earlier section, I mostly feel positively toward Axel Schuster and the work he has done. But one thing about him that I don’t like is his tendency to spin brief windows in positive form as a sign that the team is great and everything will be fine if they just run it back one more time. Both the 2020 and 2021 seasons finished with the Whitecaps on a good run and both times Schuster has basically said that this shows the team only needs some minor tweaks. Things have improved but, if we refer back to the chart, there are signs that improvement is starting to stall a bit.

Consider also, that for the first time in years the Whitecaps have a group of DPs who are good and start every game with Cubas, Gauld, and Cavallini. If my understanding of the MLS roster rules is correct, next year Cavallini will be TAMable, creating the opportunity to add another player to this impressive group. But all are in their mid to late 20s, the point where players peak before gradually declining. So the window to win something with this group is in the next couple of seasons. This means the ‘Caps really can’t afford to spend any time messing around. If they are going to win something they cannot persist with Teibert as a nailed-on starter, the hottest debate in the Eighty-Six Forever comments can’t be which of the not-very-good goalkeepers should start when both are fit, and they can’t be relying on players who are in the bottom quartile for their position to be playing serious minutes. Things are improving but there should be some urgency to hit the accelerator a bit harder on that improvement.

Author’s Note:

The point about the current run of form being unsustainable won’t be true if it turns out Andres Cubas causes them to simply never concede again.