The best way to describe Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka this season is calm.
Since the Japanese goalkeeper arrived from J League side Yokohama F. Marinos in February, Takaoka has provided a cool and calm presence between the sticks. He has been good with his feet, excellent at distribution and has made some solid saves.
His biggest save as a Whitecap so far was stopping Diego Rubio’s penalty kick late in the second half of Saturday’s 0-0 draw against the Colorado Rapids. If Takaoka didn’t make this save, it would have been much worse for the Whitecaps and you probably would be getting a very negative article from me.
The Whitecaps have now gone unbeaten in seven straight MLS games and that includes four straight clean sheets. They have also not given up a goal in 355 minutes at BC Place.
“I watched the player, which side he kicks,” said Takaoka after the game against the Rapids. “The information that (goalkeeping coach) Youssef (Dahha) gave me…that’s why I made the save.”
Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini joked after his post-game presser and before Takaoka’s that we media folks should say “ganbatte” to him. That means “Do your best” or even “Let’s go!” or “Go for it!”
Takaoka has been a huge reason why the Whitecaps have gone unbeaten in seven and have not conceded a goal in four games. (410 minutes to be exact, which is the longest shutout streak this season.) He was also named to the MLS Team of The Week for the second straight time. (He was in the Team of The Week after their 0-0 draw in Austin two weeks ago)
Goaltending was an area of struggle for the Whitecaps last season and it is clear that Takaoka has been an upgrade.
Takaoka helped Yokohama F. Marinos win the J-League last year and was named to the league’s best starting XI of the season. He was also brought in because of how good he was on his feet and had a good shot-stopping record.
According to FotMob, Takaoka is fifth in MLS in save percentage with 78.7%. He is also given up the third least goals conceded per 90 among MLS goalkeepers at just 0.8. That is behind, Stefan Frei of the Seattle Sounders and Joe Willis of Nashville SC.
Takaoka also has got a lot of help from his defenders. He went two straight games without making a save (the 5-0 win over Montreal and the 1-0 win over Portland) and players such as Tristan Blackmon and Ranko Veselinović have made things easier for him.
“Everyone is working hard, so that’s why I can make the clean sheet, so I want to say thank you to all,” said Takaoka on his team in front of him.
But where is the goal support?
While Takaoka has been great, goals or lack thereof, are still an issue with the Whitecaps. This team has been a broken record when it comes to the attack so far this season.
Against Colorado, they were suffocated by a very stingy Rapids defence in what was the soccer equivalent of the 1990s New Jersey Devils neutral zone trap. If Jacques Lemaire watches soccer, he’d be proud of what the Rapids did Saturday night.
But the Whitecaps have not scored a goal since Brian White scored against the TImbers on April 8. They have not scored in 284 minutes.
Vancouver is also fifth in MLS in expected goals at 15.4. They are behind Seattle, the San Jose Earthquakes, Philadelphia Union and FC Cincinnati.
The Whitecaps are creating chances but again, they aren’t capitalizing. Some shots are saved, others miss the net completely, while other times the final pass goes wrong. Takaoka and the defenders have been doing a good job but we all know goals win games in soccer.
“We have to be better at capitalizing on our chances,” said Sartini after the 0-0 draw against the Rapids. “That has been a little bit of our music this season, but it’s better hearing that music than the music of not even having the chances. So we just need to focus on (fixing) the last chord of the music and then go from there.”
The Whitecaps need to fix those chords and find their attacking rhythm quickly because the tempo is going to get tougher in May. They sit ninth in the Western Conference and their opponents this month are currently above them in the standings. Up next is Minnesota United (seventh) at BC Place which happens this Saturday. (May 6)
Then, they face the Timbers in Portland (eighth) on May 13, FC Dallas (Fourth) on May 17, and the Sounders (First) on May 20. After that, there is a visit to the newcomers St. Louis SC (Second) on May 27 and they welcome the Houston Dynamo (sixth) to BC Place on May 31.
Oh yeah, there is also an away game to York United on May 10 as part of the Canadian Championship Quarterfinal.
Tough opponents are coming up. Takaoka has been a calming presence in their net but the Whitecaps still need to whether the storm by putting the ball in the opponent’s net.