The Vancouver Whitecaps kick off their 2023 season by hosting RSL. The Match kicks off at 7:30 Pacific Time and it’s probably worth making sure you figure out Apple TV ahead of time. The game itself presents an interesting litmus test for the ‘Caps. RSL look set to be solidly in the middle of the pack so if the Whitecaps are serious about finishing in the top 4 in the Western Conference they should beat them fairly comfortably.
Real Salt Lake
Real Salt Lake finished 7th in the Western Conference last season. They conceded only 45 goals but also only scored 43. The player who was best at scoring goals for them, Sergio Cordova, now plays for Vancouver and they have done little to replace him. So it’s hard to predict that they will discover a new offensive flair this season. Their only major off-season addition was Colombian winger Carlos Andrés Gomez. Gomez’s numbers are almost exactly on par with Deiber Caicedo’s the year before he made the jump to MLS from Colombia. That is to say, his potential is quite high but he is unlikely to single-handedly turn around a floundering offence in year 1.
RSL typically plays with a 4-4-2 with quite a low block. only the Whitecaps themselves allowed more passes per defensive action last season. But this block can be quite challenging to break down. Despite their lack of pressing and fairly low possession numbers, RSL conceded a below-average number of shots, goals against, and expected goals against. Vancouver will be hoping that their 4-3-2-1 formation will give them numerical superiority in the middle of the park and allow them to overwhelm the two central midfield players.
Although RSL does not score that many goals, Jefferson Savarino is an exciting player for them. The Venezuelan winger is a threat 1v1, shoots a lot, and creates a lot of chances.
So, that’s RSL, a tough nut to crack but one that any team with serious ambitions ought to be cracking.
It’s always dangerous to draw too many conclusions from pre-season. Studies have been done and there is no correlation between pre-season results and the results of the following season. That said, certain themes have emerged from the little bits and pieces the general public has been able to see of the games the Whitecaps played in pre-season. The main one is that not a lot happened in most of the games. In a lot of the highlights packages the ‘Caps’ social team seems almost desperate to fill the three minutes with something. We have been treated to a lot of clips of somewhat dangerous crosses that nobody connected with.
In some ways, this is a good thing. There have been some games where it appears the ‘Caps’ opponents failed to register a shot inside the 18-yard box. Against MLS competition only Toronto F.C. seemed to have any sustained success in breaking the ‘Caps down and even then they were mostly limited to shots from difficult angles. The ‘Caps already made significant defensive strides last season after Andres Cubas joined the squad. The additions of Matias Laborda and Yohei Takaoka should only accelerate that improvement.
But the ‘Caps have not shown a great deal of attacking guile themselves. They beat the brakes off the TFC second XI and got some good looks against Minnesota in their final pre-season outing but that was about it. This was also a serious problem last season, even during periods of relative success. Theoretically, there should be enough firepower in the team to overcome this problem but they have not proven they can do it in practice yet. Ryan Gauld is an elite MLS player and toward the end of last season, Pedro Vite showed he has the quality to be just as good. Julian Gressel and Brian White are proven MLS commodities. Alessandro Schopf was bad last year but his pedigree suggests he should be better with a full pre-season. Sergio Cordova, who I suspect will start from the bench in this one, is a bit of a wild card but there is some evidence to suggest he has more to offer in his sophomore MLS season. But will it all click? If it does, the ‘Caps are really rolling. Their seemingly strong defensive game paired with an attack that’s slightly above average would lead to a strong season. But I don’t see how you can be confident in the attack coming together at this stage. It could happen, but I would be very nervous if my life depended on it.
With all this in mind, I think the absolute best-case scenario for this game would be one in which the Whitecaps create a few big chances, generating somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 xG and RSL is limited to almost nothing. If the ‘Caps can pull that off, I’m feeling pretty good about the season to come. Even if something weird happens and they lose. But if it’s an ultra-low event slog where they with xG at, like 0.9-0.7 then I’m not feeling good, even if they snatch a win. Well, I guess the actual best and worst-case scenarios would be an 8-0 win or loss but I don’t think those outcomes are particularly likely.