The Vancouver Whitecaps got the help they needed last week and a win over Austin FC at home. All they had to do was win one more game and they would be in the MLS Cup playoffs for the second straight year.

The opposite happened.

The Whitecaps left Allianz Field with a 2-0 loss to Minnesota United and that ended their season. After three straight wins, it was a very disappointing outcome.

The Whitecaps could not beat Dayne St. Clair and the urgency wasn’t there. In a big game like that, it was concerning.

So Vancouver has not made the playoffs seven times in their 12 MLS seasons. That is not good at all.

There cautious optimism heading into the 2022 campaign. The Whitecaps were forced to trade star goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau to LAFC and decided young Thomas Hasal would be the starter going forward. They brought in Tristan Blackmon and Sebastian Berhalter to strengthen the backline and the midfield but other than that, nothing.

The cautious optimism died when the Whitecaps were blown out 4-0 on opening day against the Columbus Crew. Vancouver started the season with one win in their first eight matches. After that, they kind of turned things around. The arrival of Andrés Cubas helped and the Whitecaps even won the Canadian Championship for the first time since 2015 but it wasn’t enough.

The Whitecaps winning three straight and then bottling it on the final day is so Vancouver sports. Fans knew it was likely gonna happen but it was a punch in the gut.

What went wrong

From the first game in Columbus, it was clear that the three at the back system was not working anymore. However, Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini decided to stick with it for most of the season. He did change to a back four for about 45 minutes on May 8 against Toronto FC and for the last four games of the season. Sartini called it a “three and a half.” The 4-2-2-2 played in the last four matches is technically a hybrid version of the 3-4-1-2 formation due to the wingbacks.

While Hasal and Cody Cropper have made good saves, the loss of Crépeau between the sticks was felt. Hasal and Cropper weren’t making the big saves that kept the Whitecaps in games the way Crépeau did. Cropper made some unreal saves but let in some easy ones while Hasal displayed some growing pains.

The defending looked woeful many times this season. To put that into perspective, let’s get some stats from FootballReference.Com. The Whitecaps gave up 57 goals this season and that was the fourth worst in MLS. When it comes to defensive pressure, they were tied for last in MLS in pressure percentage (with the Houston Dynamo) with 26%.

When it comes to tackles against dribbers, Vancouver is third last in MLS at 37.6%. The only teams that are worse are the Chicago Fire and DC United.

What about some goalkeeping stats you ask? Well, the ‘Caps keepers post-shot expected goals is at 49% (based on how likely the goalkeeper is to save the shot including penalties) which is 13th in MLS. But when you take post-shot expected goals minus the actual goals allowed, the Whitecaps are third worst in the league at -8.0.

The attack was a problem all season. The build-up looked slow at times and the final pass in the final third eluded them. Part of the reason why the attack looked poor was the lack of service. That is why the Whitecaps traded for Julian Gressel and signed Alessandro Schöpf.

But the Whitecaps finished 2022 with 40 goals which is tied for the third worst in MLS with Sporting Kansas City. Vancouver was fourth last in MLS in goals per 90 minutes with 1.18. They were second last in assists per 90 with 0.68, and third last in goals and assist per 90 with 39.0. The Whitecaps were also third last in expected goals per 90 with 1.15.

So yeah, the attack looked lacklustre and goals were hard to get.

It also doesn’t help that the Whitecaps were dealing with injuries and COVID-19 throughout the season. While it sucks, they shouldn’t be excuses.

What also was appalling from this season was the road record. While the Whitecaps were fairly decent at BC Place at 10-4-3, they were bad in away matches with a 2-11-4 record. The Whitecaps, Toronto FC and Atlanta United are the only teams in MLS who had only two wins on the road this season. The San Jose Earthquakes only had one road win this season.

The future of head coach Vanni Sartini

Enough about what went wrong, let’s look forward to the offseason which has technically started for the Whitecaps.

I’ve said this on Twitter but the Whitecaps need to take a long look at themselves in the mirror and decide what kind of team they want to be. In the final month of the season, it looked like the Whitecaps decided to be a counter-attacking team.

Let’s start with Sartini here. He knows his job is on the line and has said that he is always under pressure. Sartini even said that after the Whitecaps lost 3-0 in Austin in late April, he thought he was going to get fired. 

But he has survived the season but the question remains: Will he be back next season?

Sartini signed a two-year contract last November. If he does come back next season, it is make or break for him. I would assume if the Whitecaps have another bad start, Sartini will be shown the exit door.

Perhaps, that could come earlier and it is possible a decision is still being made on Sartini’s future. Maybe Whitecaps CEO and Sporting Director will once again get burgers from Uber Eats and go to bed at 4 AM and make his decision on Sartini when he wakes up.

A lot of fans are frustrated with Sartini and it is understandable As mentioned he has consistently stuck with the back three even though it wasn’t working anymore. For a large chunk of the season, it seemed the Whitecaps had no tactical identity. It was hard to see what Sartini’s system is. There is also the fact that Sartini plays certain players over players that deserve to the start. (Whitecaps fans, you will know who I’m talking about here.)

So if Sartini is given a pink slip in the next few days or weeks, they need someone who is knowledgeable tactically and has coaching experience in MLS or any high-level league. The question is who would that be? I don’t know.

But there is one guy that kind of fits what I mentioned. That is Caleb Porter who was fired from his position as Columbus Crew head coach on Monday two years after guiding them to the MLS Cup. Porter also won the MLS Cup with the Portland Timbers in 2015 and was named MLS Coach of the Year in 2013.

Would he be willing to come to Vancouver is the question.

Back to Sartini. One could argue, that he needs more time and doesn’t have the right personnel for his tactics to work. But he doesn’t have a lot of time since his contract runs out next year. So Sartini would need to find ways to adapt.

However, it does look like Sartini may be sticking around judging from this quote from Schuster.

What the Whitecaps need to improve on

The Whitecaps have a lot of questions surrounding their players this offseason.

The biggest is Lucas Cavallini whose contract is up this year but has an option for next year. Cavallini finished the year with nine goals and nine yellow cards. That also included a red card for stomping on Alex Muyl’s head.

Cavallini had a tough start to his career in Vancouver. He dealt with injuries and struggled to score. This past season, he managed to find his form.

The Whitecaps have to decide if Cavallini is the striker they want going forward. If they let him go, that opens a designated player spot. However, they can still keep him if they downgrade him to a Total Allocation Money player which means Cavallini’s salary will count against the cap.

That’s the option I would go with. Cavallini might be a hot head but this year he has proved he can score goals and one extra year wouldn’t hurt. If they do let him go, I wouldn’t be too upset either.

Here is a list of each Whitecap’s contract situation heading into next season by the way.

What the Whitecaps need, I’ve said this before, is a pacy striker. Not only does that certain striker need pace but needs a proven track record of scoring goals. I’m not sure who that might be, but I’m sure the people at 86Forever could probably name a few.

The Whitecaps also need a proven starting goalkeeper. Hasal and Isaac Boehmer are two great options for the future but they aren’t there yet. The goalkeeper they could bring in does not have to be elite per se, but he has to make the big saves.

One or two more centre-backs need to be brought in. They particularly have to be guys similar to Tristan Blackmon and Ranko Veselinović as they are good at tackles, clearances and passing the ball forward to start the counterattack. Derek Cornelius has enjoyed a great loan spell with Panetolikos in Greece but it seems likely he will stay there.

A new left-back is also needed. They need one who can defend well and is a good passer. That may be tough to find, however. Nothing against Marcus Godinho and his defending is fine, but he is better offensively and has played as a winger. It also doesn’t seem likely Luis Martins will be back despite three straight games with an assist.

The Whitecaps on paper have the makings of a playoff team but one that loses in round one. They are also a team that isn’t bad enough to blow up and do a full rebuild. They need to bring in some more pieces and let some of the ones they currently have go.

It is easy to write about but harder to do. I don’t expect the Whitecaps to fill all the player needs I listed above in the winter window, though that would be nice.

Lack of ambition and spending are two big criticisms of the Whitecaps. However, there has been a bit of it in the last year with Schuster as CEO and Sporting Director. They have brought in Gauld, Andrés Cubas, Gressel and Schöpf (On a free) who aren’t big names but quality players. Those are players you build around and make a good core.

Despite his disappointing 2022 campaign, you could also make the case for Brian White being a good acquisition as well.

So the Whitecaps do spend money and have some ambition.

“We want to sign the right one, not the first one,” said Schuster on signing new players back in July during Gressel’s introductory press conference. “We want to add pieces that we think this team needs to become a winning team in the league, slowly, carefully and right.”

The club needs to show some more ambition, however. They don’t have to spend money on a European star to become a contender. Look at the Philadelphia Union right now, they don’t have any huge names but are one of the best teams in MLS.

Will ownership be willing to splash the cash though? They have shown they can recently but remember how they handled the money from Alphonso Davies’ transfer to Bayern Munich? It didn’t go well.

They got to spend wisely this winter.

It does look like Schuster has ambitions of turning the team into an MLS Cup contender but do the owners? They haven’t shown that. Incompetence is also a word used by many fans when describing ownership.

In the decade-plus the Whitecaps have been in MLS, it has been a very bumpy ride. Ownership is driving the bus but the bus has worn-out tires, very little fuel and broken windows. The bus is skidding down the road and it has reached a big hill. It is a hill that the bus cannot climb because they don’t have the parts to do so and the drivers won’t acknowledge it. Many of the bus passengers have jumped off and decided to find a different journey to get to their destination

The Whitecaps have a lot of work to do to become one of the elites in MLS. They have the pieces to do so but there needs to be more.

It is going to be an interesting offseason for the ‘Caps and next season will start a week earlier as they will play in the CONCACAF Champions League due to their Voyageurs Cup victory. They will be competing with other MLS teams, Mexican teams and teams from Central America. It will be a gruelling schedule next year with the CCL, MLS and the task of defending the Voyageurs Cup.

Conclusion

So to wrap things up, big decisions are going to have to be made with the club. The Whitecaps have a good core to build around but if they want to get to new heights and since they are in the CCL, they better have that drive to reach those heights and make the right decisions Certain players will leave but will they? Will they sign the players they need to improve the team? We shall see.

It is depressing scrolling through Twitter and seeing apathy and empty seats at BC Place. The constant mediocrity and off-the-pitch stuff have made people lose interest in the Whitecaps. Plus, Vancouver’s CPL team based in Langley starts up next year and the ‘Caps will have competition in their own market.

If they want to win back some fans and gain new ones, this winter is a big opportunity to start getting the bus up the hill.

By joshuarey

I am the head blog editor at the Area 51 Sports network. You can find me writing about the Whitecaps and other sports here. I also host the Terminal City FC Podcast with Nathan Durec I am also a site expert at The Canuck Way and a graduate of Langara's Journalism program When I am not writing you can find me surfing the internet, watching movies, listening to rock and rap music or eating pizza.

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