The Vancouver Whitecaps begin their 12th season in Major League Soccer on Saturday, February 25 when Real Salt Lake visit BC Place. The Whitecaps will look to come out swinging in their opening game like how Killswitch Engage opens their 2016 album Incarnate with the bombastic track Alone I Stand.
The signings have been made, and the new kits and sponsor have been revealed. Before you know it, the Southsiders and many other Whitecaps fans will be marching down Robson Street with flags and blue smoke bombs.
After a disappointing 2022 season which saw the worst start in MLS club history, missing the playoffs on Decision Day and their second Voyageurs Cup title, the Whitecaps will hope 2023 will bring better fortunes. Sporting Director and CEO Axel Schuster as well as head coach Vanni Sartini have emphasized on making the playoffs is very important and do believe the club is better than last season.
Let’s start by looking at the current roster.
The roster and thoughts
Yohei Takaoka, Thomas Hasal, Isaac Boehmer and Max Anchor
Tristan Blackmon, Ranko Veselinović, Mathias Laborda, Karifa Yao, Luis Martins, Cristian Gutiérrez, Javain Brown, Ali Ahmed, Chris Lee
Ryan Gauld, Andrés Cubas, Julian Gressel, Alessandro Schöpf, Cristian Dájome, Déiber Caicedo, Pedro Vite, Ryan Raposo, Sebastian Berhalter, Russell Teibert, Matteo Campagna and Kamron Habibullah, JC Ngando
Sergio Córdova, Brian White, Simon Becher
Overall, this is a better roster than last season. This is also the strongest Whitecaps side on paper since the 2015-2017 days under Carl Robinson.
Takaoka upgrades the goalkeeping position. The Whitecaps had a save percentage of 61% last season and which was the third worst in MLS only above CF Montreal and Atlanta United. They are going to need Takaoka to take his J-League winning experience to MLS as soon as possible.
While Laborda and Yao are decent acquisitions, I still believe depth is quite thin on the back line. If one of Laborda, Blackmon or Veselinović goes down for any length of time, there is not a lot of depth. Yao needs to prove he can handle the style of MLS. Brown has played as a centre-back before and has done fine in that position but he is naturally a right-back.
At the left back position, Martins looks to be the better option right now as he hopes to build on his late-season form. But there is a lot of competition at that spot as Gutiérrez tries to stay healthy and Ali Ahmed and Chris Lee have signed MLS contracts from Whitecaps FC 2. Let’s also not forget that Raposo has been playing as a left-back in the preseason and was solid as a wing-back last season both offensively and defensively. We’ll see if this experiment works as well.
Ahmed is the name to watch. He was WFC 2’s best player last season and looked very good in the few games he did play in MLS last season
In the midfield, there are a lot of options. Gauld is easily the team’s best player and biggest difference maker while Cubas is good at tackling and interceptions, he is like a dog with a bone but replace the bone with a ball: he just wants it back and gets it back.
Gressel and Schöpf were midseason acquisitions and were brought in because they provide service. Gressel is one of the best crossers in MLS while Schöpf and his passing ability impressed in the Bundesliga. With both of them having a full preseason and time to adjust to a new environment, they need to be at their best, plain and simple.
The Colombians, Cristian Dájome, and Déiber Caicedo hope to have bounce-back seasons. Caicedo expected to train with the team in two weeks after recovering from his knee injury that ended his 2022 season. It’s hard to believe he is only 22 because it feels like he’s been around for a while. Caicedo still has a ton of room for growth in his game.
As for Dájome, the wing-back experiment failed last season and him playing up front should benefit him. As a wing-back, he was forced to run up and down the pitch and that limited his ability to be a creative playmaker which we saw in 2021.
Teibert is still here. He has been the whipping man among Whitecaps fans. Frankly, he isn’t going anywhere and at this rate will retire a Whitecap and then join the coaching staff. Coaches like him because he can run pretty much everywhere throughout the game, which is a great asset for a box-to-box midfielder to have. But he lacks the tackling, interceptions and passing abilities a box-to-box midfielder needs to possess. While Teibert should remain the captain of this team, I’m sure Whitecaps fans will be fine if his role was reduced this season and plays half of the games of last year and be a depth guy.
Pedro Vite is the breakout candidate for this team. Vite’s speed and creativity were put on display in the final month of the season and those were glimpses of the player he could be. Having him play alongside Gauld is probably the best thing to help him develop. That happened near the end of last season as they were deployed as the two 10s and that seemed to boost Vite’s confidence. That seems to be the plan in 2023 and a confident Vite will benefit the Whitecaps greatly.
Sebastian Berhalter was quietly solid last season. He was good defensively and was decent at moving the ball up the pitch. Berhalter seems like the perfect depth option and hopefully, he can take a few steps forward.
As for the attack, I already wrote about Córdova here. Just getting double digits in goals in MLS would be a successful first year for him. There is no excuse not to, he has plenty of service in Vancouver compared to Salt Lake.
Brian White needs to bounce back. No, that does not mean he needs to go on a goal scoring tear like he did in 2021 but he needs to prove he can be a reliable striker for the Whitecaps. White had his share of injuries last season but when he was healthy, he didn’t look clinical in front of the net as he only managed four goals in MLS all season. A successful season for White would be to get goals in all competitions.
The roster is good. Not great, but good. This looks like a team that can make the playoffs but there are so many questions.
Can the team stay healthy? Is Córdova the right man up front? Will Schöpf live up to expectations? Will the Raposo at left-back experiment work? And so on.
Better starts and multiple competitions
The Whitecaps need to start their season and games better. Last season, they won one out of their first eight but from May onwards, they were the second-best team in the Western Conference. It was a late push to the playoffs once again and after the final home against Austin FC, it felt possible. But like the Jedi and Republic’s victory over Darth Maul in the Siege of Mandalore, the euphoria and hope were short-lived.
That’s the story of the Whitecaps, (and the Vancouver Canucks too) always giving hope but it slips away fast. Hopefully, this time it will be different.
The team has started slow in games and has come back to win in dramatic fashion. Now that is entertaining but at the same time, can cause heart rates to rise and it is not sustainable. The Whitecaps need to find a way to get ahead and stay ahead in games.
Another storyline is the number of competitions they have to play in. It will be tough to start the season off on the right foot with CONCACAF Champions League action. There is also the task of defending the Canadian Championship as well as the League Cup, a competition where MLS teams face Liga MX teams AKA the Apple TV Marketing Cup.
It is going to be a grind of a season and making the playoffs won’t be easy, especially with LA Galaxy and LAFC still being good teams, the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers looking to bounce back after missing last year, and Austin FC looking to build off last year.
Vancouver only won two road games last season, which is very poor. I know Vancouver has probably the toughest travel schedule out of all MLS teams and it is very hard to win on the road in MLS because of the travel. That should be an excuse, however.
Winning road games will be crucial in the playoff push and winning just two last season was another big reason why the Whitecaps missed the playoffs. This season, road woes cannot happen and they need to find ways to get as many road points as they can.
Predictions and Hot Takes
I know I’m terrible at predictions but let me make some.
Canadian Championship: Winners.
I know Toronto FC is the best Canadian team on paper, especially with them acquiring Matt Hedges and Sean Johnson and it will be a full year of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. The Whitecaps will have the easiest path to the final and should they make it, it will be at BC Place. Now if they do, they will want the crowd to be just as big or even bigger than last season. I do think it will be Whitecaps vs TFC in the final again and home-field will advantage will prevail once again for Vancouver.
CONCACAF Champions League: Quarterfinals
The Whitecaps should get by Real C.D. España of Honduras but this team is known for surprising, good and bad. However, I think they won’t get past LAFC, should they face them. (LAFC should be able to beat Alajuelense) LAFC will be a problem for the Whitecaps this year and that includes MLS play too. I have them to win the Supporters Shield again.
Leagues Cup: Group Stage
The Whitecaps will be in a group with LA Galaxy and León. We all know how good the Galaxy can be. As for León, they are currently seventh in LIGA MX. They have been good in the past but I do think they could cause trouble for the Whitecaps.
MLS: Sixth in Western Conference, knocked out in first round
The Whitecaps with the talent they have should fight for a playoff spot all season. The Western Conference is competitive and they should be competitive themselves.
I see them getting knocked out in the first round to a team like Seattle or LA Galaxy in three games in the new best of three. I hate the new playoff format, the single-game knockouts were better. If they wanted to add more games, they should’ve just brought back the two legs in rounds two and three.
But if the signings come as advertised and last summer’s signings gel, they could finish higher and go further in the playoffs. However, that is a big ask.
I’m going with three. Firstly, Gauld will be an MLS All-Star. He will be the first Whitecaps All-Star representative since Alphonso Davies in 2018. Thankfully, the MLS All-Star game only features the best players not one from every team. It is a lot harder to make but Gauld has the capabilities of being one.
The next will be Ahmed being the starting left-back by the end of the season. The 22-year-old has a lot of potential and I believe he can take a big step forward next season.
My third is Gutiérrez will be sold in the summer. Nothing against him but I feel like Raposo, Martins and Ahmed will be ahead of him in the left-back pecking order. He has had trouble staying healthy over the past year or so and the Whitecaps will probably offload him due to that.
This Whitecaps team on paper is the best one they had in years. But soccer and every other sport are not played on paper so we shall see how they do. Fans could be singing Stand By Me after the match on Decision Day as the team has clinched a playoff spot or we could see an empty BC Place that day with a different coach in charge.