With less than a week to go before the Vancouver Whitecaps’ season opener at BC Place, the core group of players for the upcoming season is beginning to take shape. While Vanni Sartini and Axel Schuster have not made many additions in the off-season, this is also a roster that has been mostly preserved from the end of 2022.
It was clear near the end of last season that Schuster & Sartini discovered a philosophical path forward for the club that they thought could lead to success. Ultimately, the goal for 2023 is for this club to be a competitive playoff team in the West that can make some noise in the postseason if things go the right way. Overall, given the group of players assembled, this seems like a realistic proposition. Equally though, anything less than such a result will be a resounding disappointment. With a number of their key players now in their mid to late 20s, this roster is designed to win over the next two to three seasons, so there’s no time like the present.
All of what I just outlined indicates that this could be one of the most consistent, best structured starting XIs we’ve seen from Vancouver in recent years. However, as is always the case in MLS, the margin for error will be incredibly small. Not only will the Whitecaps need their best players to play at or above their expected level in 2023, but they’ll also need some impactful depth contributors if they want to make a deep MLS Cup run.
To break this all down in a little bit more depth, I am going to run through the expected starting XI for opening day by lock percentage. By lock percentage, I am indicating the likelihood the starting player on opening day holds down that spot consistently for the season to come.
GK – Yohei Takaoka – Lock: 65%
The Japanese goalkeeper will step into the no.1 spot in Vancouver looking to solve what was perhaps their biggest issue in 2022. After the Maxime Crepeau debacle, the Whitecaps were left with little time to formulate a plan at GK last season and the results were very poor as a result. This was not helped by shambolic defending during the early weeks of the MLS season which did not flatter the likes of Thomas Hasal. The young Canadian, for what it’s worth, did look much better later on in the year once Vanni Sartini had improved some of his early season defensive issues.
Nonetheless, Vancouver will be hoping Takaoka represents a big step forward between the sticks in 2023. As we have pointed out on this site previously, if the Whitecaps receive league-average keeping this season, it could represent a +10 boost in goal difference by season’s end. In that sense, expectations for the new keeper are not set too high. Something else to watch out for is Takaoka’s ability with the ball at his feet. Scouting reports indicate that this is a real strength of his game. Thus far, Vanni Sartini’s teams have struggled to retain possession, but if Takaoka can help start and retain possession with the ball at his feet, this could help the club take a major step forward in that department.
Because of multiple competitions and Hasal’s notable shot stopping quality, I do think we will still see a good amount of Hasal this season – especially if Takaoka struggles to adapt to his first experience playing outside of Japan
CB – Ranko Veselinovic – Lock: 95%
Barring injury, I would imagine that Veselinovic will be a minutes leader for Vancouver in 2023. Now with more stability around him in terms of both teammates and tactical identity, I expect Ranko to take another big step forward. With clubs already showing their interest this past offseason, I’m sure that Ranko will also be looking to show that he’s ready for the next step in his career. In the meantime, the Whitecaps will ideally have one of the best 1v1 defenders in MLS. Unlike the other presumptive starters at the back, I don’t expect Veselinovic to play much in wide positions and he should be the centrepiece of the back three when in possession. I will also give a shoutout to Karifa Yao here in terms of depth, as he’s had a great preseason and would be the next man up as a central defender if need be.
CB/FB – Mathias Laborda – Lock: 90%
Despite the fact he’s yet to suit up for a regular season match, the Argentine defender already feels like a veteran of this Whitecaps squad. The Whitecaps have been very stingy throughout the preseason and I think Laborda deserves a lot of credit for this by bringing a second reliable presence, alongside Ranko, to the backline. Vanni Sartini has noted on several occasions that Laborda can play all four positions at the back for Vancouver so we’ll see how much that plays out as the regular season develops.
CB/FB – Tristan Blackmon – Lock: 75%
Like the other two defenders previously listed, Blackmon has enjoyed a great preseason. When fit, Blackmon showed his quality for Vancouver last year, and like Laborda, he provides tactical flexibility on the backline. The reason his lock percentage is lower than Laborda and Veselinovic is that he would be the first of those three to come out of the starting XI if they made a tactical change – say if the Caps went to a more traditional back four with someone like Cristian Gutierrez at fullback. Equally, his defensive attributes and ability to stay fit are the least proven of that group. Overall though, if the Whitecaps have a great season, I would expect to see a ton of Laborda – Veselinovic – Blackmon at the back.
FB – Luis Martins – Lock: 20%
The hybrid fullback/midfield role Vanni Sartini created near the end of last season is probably the most widely contested position within the current squad. Luis Martins likely provides the most experience, but he has defensive question marks and less dynamism to his game than others. Conversely, Ryan Raposo and Ali Ahmed are young Canadians with offensive upside but limited experience at the position. Then there’s Cristian Gutierrez and Javain Brown who fall somewhere in between those two groups. Who will win the starting spot? I have no idea!
Honestly, I think it will depend on matchups. When the Whitecaps feel like they can go aggressive, we might see Raposo. When the Whitecaps need to bunker in defensively, we might see Brown. When the Whitecaps want to play a lot in transition, we might see Ahmed. When the Whitecaps want to play patiently in possession, we could see Martins and Gutierrez. All of this will equally depend on how many “true fullback” spots are available, and this could be altered by injury or the play of Tristan Blackmon as the season unfolds. There’s only one way to find out.
CDM – Andres Cubas – Lock: 95%
There’s not too much to say here in the sense that Cubas will be relied upon heavily to hold down the defensive mid spot. Like Veselinovic, I would assume he will be one of the minutes leaders for Vancouver this season. That being said, looking at depth, there’s a lot to like about Sebastian Berhalter’s game (who is still just 21) and he should be able to provide quality substitute minutes in the midfield, especially at CDM where needed.
CM – Alessandro Schopf - Lock: 75%
It looks like Vanni Sartini is intent on playing an attacking mid and a fullback as his dual central midfielders this season. Bold strategy.
The quality and football IQ of someone like Alessandro Schopf is undeniable, and Vanni Sartini has been very effusive in his praise for Schopf this preseason. The manager is confident that we will see a much improved version of the Austrian this season, who was underwhelming when featured near the end of last year. Despite this praise, Schopf is already 29, so I think there could be some concern that his best playing days are already behind him and that the physical nature of playing midfield in MLS could limit his effectiveness. I say this not because I doubt Schopf’s ability to be a good MLS midfielder even if this is true, but because if the Whitecaps want to push for an MLS Cup, the Austrian will have to be putting in top performances match in and match out. The question is one of how the Whitecaps can put him in a position to thrive and I’m not 100% confident this is the right spot.
CM – Julian Gressel – Lock: 80%
I have similar but less acute concerns about Gressel playing out of position. He looks like he can handle the defensive load of a more central role without issue and physically he is very much up for the task. The only question is if you lose some of his tremendous crossing ability in the process. I think with both Cubas and Gressel in the midfield this will make life a lot easier on Whitecaps defenders than we have seen in seasons past.
One concern overall about the midfield is depth. Beyond Sebastian Berhalter, Russell Teibert is your only other traditional midfield option. This is less than ideal. So, despite being pencilled in starters right now, I do wonder if a change of tactics like dropping Ryan Gauld deeper could force Gressel and Schopf into different roles, or maybe even to the bench. This is why their lock rating is slightly lower.
AM – Ryan Gauld – Lock: 95%
This one is pretty self-explanatory, Gauld is the kind of player for the Whitecaps that will start so long as his fitness allows it. The only problem with a player like Gauld is that you wish there were three of him. One to play deeper in the midfield, one to play at the 10, and one to play at striker. I do wonder if the Whitecaps struggle with Schopf and Gressel if they’ll have to drop Gauld deeper in order to accommodate. Oddly, attacking mid is perhaps the Whitecaps’ deepest position on the squad right now.
AM – Pedro Vite – Lock: 75%
The promising young attacker showed enough at the end of last season that he could be set for a real breakout in 2023. That being said, the form and progression of young players are challenging to predict so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, hence why his lock percentage isn’t a bit higher. The nice thing about Vite though is that he can thrive in a variety of systems so long as he has room to roam freely, but this free role could be sacrificed if the Caps do not have enough structure to allow it. Ideally though, with Ryan Gauld to help create spaces and a striker who can get on the end of crosses in transition, the Whitecaps could be set for a big step forward offensively, and Vite could be a big part of it.
In terms of competition, with Cristian Dajome back in form and Deiber Caicedo coming back from injury, there will be some eager players to fill Vite’s spot should the opportunity present itself. I’ll also give a shoutout to Kam Habibullah and Antoine Coupland (both AM types) who could make the MLS Next Pro team very fun to watch this season.
ST – Brian White – Lock: 25%
Despite the fact that I’m projecting Brian White to start against RSL, I think it’s unlikely he’s the primary starter for Vancouver this year. While not official yet, Sergio Cordova has already been seen at the Whitecaps’ facility so it looks like a matter of formality as to when the deal is officially announced. Cordova is in the middle of his German season at the moment, so he shouldn’t take too long to get up to speed.
After the departure of Lucas Cavallini, the Whitecaps needed to bring in a different type of frontman from what they’d had previously. While in terms of physical build Cordova looks pretty similar, the profile is much different. Instead of hold-up play, Cordova will run in space behind defenders and create passing lanes for Vite and Gauld. Equally, his presence in the air is one of his best attributes and the Whitecaps should be able to take advantage of this with service from wide areas. The prospect of a more dynamic striker opens up the possibility for the Whitecaps to maximize their transition football in a way they simply can’t with White or couldn’t with Cavallini. While those two are good finishers, they are a bit too lumbering to really create space on the break. We’ve seen this impact already in the preseason with Cristian Dajome up front, who’s been able to unlock different types of chances, ones we did not see often last season. If all goes according to plan, it will be nice for the Whitecaps to have a greater variety of attacking threats this season.
Alright, those are my projected opening day starters and some thoughts about the roster going into 2023. But what do you think? Let me know in the comments!