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Expectations Dashed: Caps fall to Real Salt Lake 2-1 in opener

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Those hoping for a winning start to the 2023 season will be disappointed, with the Caps falling 2-1 to Real Salt Lake at BC Place Saturday.

Things initially looked promising, as the Caps turned in a dominant first half, capped off with a Javain Brown goal. But not getting a second goal hurt Vancouver and they let things get away from them over a 15 minute period in the second half, undone by a quick fire RSL double.

The formation and personnel will be familiar to anyone who tracked the preseason — it mirrored almost exactly the starting XI rolled out for the final friendlies in Palm Springs. It marked a full debut for Yohei Takaoka, while other new arrivals Mathias Laborda and Sergio Cordova started on the bench.

Last year, the team rarely controlled the majority of possession and rarely started matches well. Both of those things, however, were true in this match. Their best moments came in transition and the Caps had some liquid football at times but the attacking band (Brian White especially) were struggling to gain their sea legs in the box.

A year after having very few corners, the Caps made their set pieces count. A well worked cross from Julian Gressel was met with the head of Javain Brown, who would not be denied for the first goal of the season.

Cristian Dajome could have made it 2-0 moments later, finding himself 1v1 with former Caps man Zac MacMath but the keeper cut down the angle well. Andres Cubas was dominant in the first 45 minutes and he sprang a couple more chances before halftime as well, not just with his ball-winning skills but his passing as well.

RSL definitely got back into the match as the half wore on and the halftime whistle came at the right time to give the Caps a chance to regroup, as the away side mainly got into the match on the back of a couple of individual defensive errors.

As the second half kicked into gear, the Caps were more content to sit back and absorb pressure, seeking to find counter attacking opportunities. Some poor passes out of the back from RSL did more than anything to power the attack

Takaoka made his first big save to deny Anderson Silva on a diving header off a corner and followed it up with a second big stop moments later. It was a welcome development for the Caps, as the new keeper was largely unharried previously, but it was a sign that the Caps were letting their opposition gain some real momentum.

Perhaps his finest stop, however, came shortly after the half hour mark, when Takaoka denied Jefferson Savarino and made a nice punch on the ensuing corner.

Another giveaway in midfield from RSL should have allowed the Caps to bury the game and go ahead 2-0 but Brian White couldn’t pull the trigger to polish off the 3-on-1 break. White had some nice facilitation on the counter but he was far from sharp in the box and this was the most glaring example of that.

They were made to pay a few minutes later, when a beautiful curling ball to the back post from a short corner froze Takaoka and Justen Glad slid it into the net for an equalizer.

The painful second half was compounded when Savarino sliced through the Caps defense to find Damir Kreilach to complete the turnaround. Savarino has long been a Caps killer and his dribbling certainly helped make this goal.

The introduction of Sergio Cordova and the Caps’ increased desperation helped them regain control of the match, but the ability to get clean looks at goal still seemed to elude them, leaving them unable to salvage their opener.

Stray Thoughts

  • This game was basically the fear of what this team would be entering the season: A lot of good work and build-up play ruined by a lack of goals and poor coaching and some defensive miscues catching up with the team.
  • It is easy to armchair quarterback coaching decisions but one wonders what this match would have looked like with Sergio Cordova in for White from the start. Vanni was always gonna start White and his passing was pretty good but it was a painful match in front of goal for him. A more fluid striker for the liquid counters the Caps mounted would have been much welcomed.
  • That wasn’t even the most egregious coaching error. After a first half where the Caps’ midfield three dominated RSL, Sartini largely opted to have his players sit back and invite RSL in, presumably hoping to spring counters the other way. But it quickly became obvious that this was just begging for a goal and, when that happened, the tactics couldn’t be adjusted quick enough.
  • A few clips of Yohei Takaoka playing comically, Manuel Neuer-like up the pitch surfaced and I was curious whether that was an oddity or a feature of his game and, well, those clips didn’t lie. Takaoka added a lot from a distribution standpoint and he helped make building up out of the back a less heart-stopping proposition.

And Takaoka’s shot stopping was excellent. Sure, you could say he might’ve been able to do more on the first RSL goal but his defenders let him down even more. And, even in his debut, he was making saves that were generally beyond Thomas Hasal and Cody Cropper last year. A really promising sign.

  • The good news? The Caps looked genuinely dangerous at times and were excellent in the first 45 minutes. Andres Cubas remains that guy. Javain Brown looks like he is building on an excellent preseason. Ryan Gauld had seven key passes and surely the team will start finishing them eventually, right? ... right?

Man of the Match

Cubas certainly would have been the choice had the match ended in the first half but his dominance faded in the second 45. I thought Brown was quite good, though his evening ended early as Sartini opted for Ryan Raposo when they were chasing the game.

Gauld was the most dominant attacking player from a statistical standpoint but you have to give the honors on this one to Takaoka, who was responsible for keeping the team in things as long as they were. If he keeps that up over the season, he will be responsible for earning the team points — he nearly did enough to do so tonight.