The 2023 edition of the Vancouver Whitecaps is different from the teams of the past.
For many Vancouver sports fans, (mainly Canucks fans) the Whitecaps have become a symbol of mediocrity. Many Whitecaps fans themselves have checked out in recent years. BC Place isn’t as full for Whitecaps games as it was before. There have been many reasons which you probably know of already.
The on-field play from the club hasn’t been great in recent years. They have only one playoff game since coming into MLS.
The Whitecaps have had an up-and-down season so far. They are currently ninth in the Western Conference with a 6-7-5 record. In the MLS’ new playoff format, that is the final spot for the play-in round.
However, the Whitecaps are better than what their record shows. With 25 points, Vancouver is just four points behind the fourth-place Houston Dynamo and four points behind the third-place Seattle Sounders.
The Whitecaps got themselves their most impressive win of the season on Saturday night against defending MLS Cup champions LAFC. That game displayed what the Whitecaps can be if things click: A high-pressing and quick-passing team that plays with a lot of intensity.
“We showed today that no team in the league is better than us,” said Sartini after the game. “We need to have this awareness when we go away, at home because, again, we are still ninth, of course now because we have played two less games than other teams and everything. But we need to aim for the sky because this team is really good.”
There are a lot of stats to prove that the Whitecaps are good.
They are tied for second in MLS with LAFC in expected goals at 28.8. The Whitecaps are also second in MLS behind the Seattle Sounders in non-penalty xG at 27.3.
Vancouver averages 5.1 shots on target (third in MLS) and 5.9 crosses per match (leading MLS in that category.) They are also tied for second with Seattle in big chances created with 34 and are sixth in the league in tackle percentage at 47.3%.
As good as the Whitecaps are, there are areas in need of improvement. The big one is the goal-scoring department. There have been games this season, where they should have won. Notably, the 2-1 opening-day loss to Real Salt Lake, the 0-0 draw in Austin and the 0-0 draw against the Colorado Rapids.
In those games, one more goal from the Whitecaps would have been different. They have a goals per 90 rate of 1.42 which is ninth in MLS. The win Saturday against LAFC and the 6-2 win against the Houston Dynamo in late May have likely inflated the Whitecaps goals per 90 rate but it is refreshing to see them in the top ten.
Simon Becher has cooled since his hot start but is showing a lot of promise. Sergio Córdova has improved in recent matches and is getting scoring chances. With the way he is playing, the goals will come. It is hard to not be impatient with Córdova but if he gets going, it could propel the Whitecaps up the standings.
Brian White was snakebitten before the season but now he leads the Whitecaps with seven goals in MLS. After a tough year last season, where he had only four in MLS, it is nice to see his start scoring more consistently. White has had an excellent season in terms of his build-up play too.
Another area that needs improvement is the backline. As good as Tristan Blackmon and Ranko Veselinović are as a duo, they can’t be overworked. (Blackmon was out for the game against LAFC) With Karifa Yao being stapled to the bench (he seriously needs a loan) and Mathias Labora mainly playing as a right-back, another centre-back is needed.
What kind of centre-back do they need? I have said on Terminal City FC, he should be an experienced veteran, that is ideally good in the air and if possible, left-footed. The backline has shown moments of brilliance but at the same time, there were some frustrating moments. Saturday’s win against LAFC was the prime example.
The Whitecaps are playing exciting soccer. There hasn’t been one game this season (except for maybe the 0-0 draw against Colorado and the two CONCACAF Champions League legs against LAFC) where they haven’t looked at least somewhat exciting.
Ryan Gauld. Julian Gressel, Andrés Cubas, White, Veselinović and Yohei Takaoka make up a good group of players. This is easily the best Whitecaps squad since 2015 and there is a depth. A few years ago, depth was pretty much non-existent.
This team has the potential to finish higher in the Western Conference and go on a deep playoff run. They showed it Saturday night against LAFC. But as Sartini said, there is more work to be done.
“I told you guys this year is special,” said Sartini. “This team is good and more to come. We need to work, but more to come.”
The Whitecaps have many road games coming up from now until the end of the season and we all know playing away from BC Place has been a challenge for them. The win against LAFC is a perfect catalyst for some momentum.
With the transfer window opening in a few days, it is a great opportunity to turn this squad from good to great. There also needs to be consistency on the pitch as well.
This year is different for the Whitecaps. There is already a Canadian Championship title but fans want to see more. It is up to them to give the fans more.