The Vancouver Whitecaps came into the season with promise.

They put together a team that on paper was their best since 2015 and had more depth than they had in years. The Whitecaps looked like a team that could contend for a playoff spot. That was the goal this season, playoffs.

Last season, they were a win away from making the postseason. The biggest reason why they didn’t was because of their disastrous start. They won one out of their first eight in 2022. While they did recover, they ran out of fuel just before the playoff line.

Head coach Vanni Sartini and Sporting Director and CEO Axel Schuster both spoke about having a better start this season. That is why the Whitecaps had preseason games in Marabella, Spain against European Clubs and in Palm Springs, California against MLS competition.

It looked like we would have been in for a great season as the Whitecaps looked like a much better team in their home opener against Real Salt Lake on February 25. But that game was the one that got away as they gave up two quick goals in the second half and lost 2-1. The next one against the San Jose Earthquakes was more of the same.

Last Saturday against FC Dallas, the Whitecaps conceded the first goal but tied the game up thanks to Ryan Gauld’s ball deflecting off Alan Valasco and into the net. They had so many chances to take the lead but had to settle for a point.

At times, the Whitecaps looked like a team that could make the playoffs. Other times, (in the same game actually) they looked like the “same old Whitecaps.”

It hasn’t been an ideal start for the Whitecaps and fortunately, the season is still young but time ticks quickly. Let’s take a look at three positives from the Whitecaps season as well as three negatives.

We will only be analyzing the three MLS games not the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League against Real España where the Whitecaps won 5-0. The second leg in San Pedro Sula, Honduras takes place this Wednesday, by the way.

*Stats courtesy of MLSSoccer.Com and FotMob.*

Positive #1: Yohei Takaoka has come as advertised

The Whitecaps gave up the fourth most goals in MLS in 2022 and that was partly due to goaltending. It was not very good. The Whitecaps’ goalkeepers’ combined save percentage was 61% which was the third worst in MLS last season.

The team parted ways with Cody Cropper and it was clear Thomas Hasal was not ready for the starting role but he could be a starter one day. They needed a legitimate starter and they found one in the land of the rising sun.

Yohei Takaoka came over from J-League side Yokohama F. Marinos. He helped them win the J-League title in 2022 and was named to the league’s best eleven. Takaoka was one of the best shot-stoppers in Japan and had some winning experience which Schuster liked.

So far, it has been very good for the 26-year-old goalkeeper.

He has looked very calm between the sticks. Takaoka has made some big saves early in his Whitecaps career. His reactions are lightning-quick.

So far, Takaoka has a save percentage of 66.7% (more context on why it is higher below) which isn’t bad after three games. His saves per 90 rate is 3.3 (tied for 12th according to FotMob and has only made 10 saves which is in a three-way for eighth in MLS)

Takaoka also is very good with the ball on his feet and has made his passes very calmly and quickly That way, the Whitecaps start the counterattack from their own half. Takaoka has completed 77.2% of his passes which is sixth among MLS goalkeepers.

It’s nice for the Whitecaps to have a goalkeeper, who is not only great at shot-stopping but great with his feet as well.

Negative #1: The defending on crosses has been very poor. (So has zonal marking)

The Whitecaps have given up five goals in three MLS games and you really can’t blame Takaoka on any of them.

Let’s look at the first goal they gave up. Maikel Chang’s cross comes into the box and Justen Glad taps it into the back of the net. Now watch Javain Brown and Tristan Blackmon. Blackmon miss times his jump and frankly, aerial duels aren’t his thing. (He is in the 10th percentile in aerial duels according to FootballReference.)

It looked like Brown wanted to go after the ball as well but he completely forgot about Glad and gave him a wide-open lane. This is an example of bad zonal marking. Brown completely left the lane open for Glad to sneak in. He wasn’t so glad he did that when the ball was in the back of the net.

Again, zonal marking was a major issue below. In the game in San Jose, no one notices Carlos Akapo as they were too focused on Jeremy Ebobisse and Cristian Espinoza. Well, except Ryan Gauld who points his hand towards Akapo but Brown and Ranko Veselinović don’t see it and Luis Martins was caught ball-watching.

The Whitecaps’ defenders can’t be parting like the Red Sea all the time.

Three of the five goals they have given up have been from headers and aerials have been a big problem.

The defenders once again couldn’t win the aerial battle and Sebastian Ibeagha is given a lot of room for the header.

In fact, the Whitecaps are the third-worst team in MLS when it comes to headed duel percentage. At 38.5%, only Inter Miami and LA Galaxy have worse headed duel percentages.

Part of the reason why they give up so many headers is that they allow easy lanes for the crosses to whip the ball in and the player taking the header has a ton of space or the Whitecaps defenders simply don’t have the height or aerial ability.

Karifa Yao was signed in the offseason because he can win aerial duels. Perhaps it is time for him to get more minutes. I’m not saying Yao will stop every header but the Whitecaps as a whole need to improve on aerials.

Positive #2: Andrés Cubas, Alessandro Schöpf and Julian Gressel have been solid in the midfield

Andrés Cubas has been very consistent so far this season. He has picked off his form from last season and has displayed excellent tackling and dribbling ability. The Argentinian-born Paraguayan international has been great at forcing turnovers. Cubas is in a four-way tie for second among MLS midfielders with eight tackles only behind Aidan Morris of the Columbus Crew.

Alessandro Schöpf has looked more like the player the Whitecaps wanted to see last season. As a midseason signing, the Austrian had no preseason and limited playing time and when he did play, he didn’t stand out.

This season, he has shown some good and progressive passes and has made good defensive plays. That’s what a box-to-box midfielder does and Schöpf has shown that. He even got his first MLS goal in San Jose and he did a good running in from behind the defenders for it.

Gressel is a passer and crosser first, not a goal scorer. After all, he is one of the MLS’s best when it comes to passing and crossing. So far, Gressel has been the delivery man with two assists in three games. He currently leads MLS in big chances created with four.

“We have a very good understanding in the midfield,” said Gressel on playing with Cubas and Schöpf after Saturday’s 1-1-draw with FC Dallas. “We rely on each other to make each other which is a very good thing. We’re trying to grow and we’ll try to dictate games.”

All three of Gressel, Cubas and Schöpf have been dynamic in helping the build-up play and getting the Whitecaps scoring chances. That brings us to the next negative…

Negative #2: Whitecaps can’t finish

This one has been glaring. The Whitecaps through three games have had trouble capitalizing on their chances. They have been looking like Star Wars stormtroopers in front of the goal.

Brian White in particular has had a ton of chances but has scored no goals so far in MLS play. I’m not sure what White did to anger the soccer gods, but over the past year, it feels like he has been cursed over the past year with injuries and the chances he has missed.

But we can’t blame his struggles on so-called curses. White’s build-up play has been good but he can’t get that final touch right. He either whiffs on the crosses or passes, his first touch fails him or his shot is saved or he misses completely.

White needs to be better in the final third. He needs to find ways to create space for himself to get a scoring chance and get a good touch on the ball. So far, he is tied for second in MLS with big chances missed. He has three. I know that stat doesn’t mean too much but with White still without a goal, it is kind of concerning.

It does feel like he will score a goal soon but he just needs to seize the opportunity when it comes.

As for Sergio Córdova, it is too early to criticize him. Sure, he could be better, most notably last Saturday against Dallas when he nearly won the game in stoppage time but if only he was a second earlier to tap in Veselinović’s cross. What a first Whitecaps goal that would’ve been.

But remember, Córdova was signed less than a week before the season began and didn’t have a preseason. He is still adjusting to his new club and it feels wrong to criticize him after only seeing a small sample size.

But when Córdova is on the pitch, he looks very threatening. He is excellent at winning the ball back and is often finding space for scoring chances. Not only that, he seems to be an excellent passer too. It’s still early but with the price the Whitecaps paid for him, he’s got to score goals soon.

Goals win games and the Whitecaps need them asap.

Positive #3: Ryan Raposo and Javain Brown have looked decent at the fullback positions

Ryan Raposo, despite him being a winger, played wingback last season. The most surprising part? He did really well there.

With Sartini moving to the 4-3-2-1 AKA the Christmas Tree Formation, he moved Raposo to the left-back position. So far, that worked too.

He only played one MLS match as a left back but he looked good. Raposo was showing good vision making excellent passes and crosses, and while not the fastest guy, he has shown a good job of tracking back and making tackles.

“I need to trust myself going for the challenge and have more confidence in myself doing that,” said Raposo after Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League game against Real España. (which was his season debut)

Brown has looked shaky defensively at times, but he looks comfortable at the right back position.

His forward passes have been decent and so has been contributing offensively with a goal and a secondary assist. (Wish soccer would add the secondary assist as a category like hockey does.)

Brown has worked hard at both ends of the pitch and while there are things to work on, there are signs of improvement. 

Negative #3: Luis Martins has looked shaky defensively

Luis Martins had an excellent end to the season when he picked up three assists in three games. As a result, the Whitecaps signed him to a contract that runs until 2024 with an option for 2025.

Martins is a solid passer and crosser but defensively, he could be better. This season, with Sartini wanting the left back to move up when the Whitecaps are in possession, Martins has struggled.

He looks slow coming back and gets burned easily by opposing attackers. At the age of 30, it seems his legs are not working as they used to before. Perhaps, it is time to give more minutes to Raposo and 22-year-old Ali Ahmed.

There have lots of things to be happy about with the Whitecaps but the fact they are still without a win this season shows improvement on the pitch is needed fast.