Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Vancouver Whitecaps put up complete performance in statement win over LAFC

In our day-after column, we look back at a big Vancouver Whitecaps victory, as the ‘Caps avenged a heavy defeat in a rematch with LAFC on Wednesday. 

The wild ride continues. 

After seeming down and out a week ago, in the midst of a 4-game losing streak, the Vancouver Whitecaps have jumped back to life these past 2 games, picking up back-to-back wins and throwing themselves right back into the thick of MLS’s Western Conference playoff picture. 

Thanks to some good defending, clinical finishing and solid spells of possession, 3 things that the team has struggled to consistently do at the same time this season, they’ve left things wide open heading into the last 5 games of their season. 

All of a sudden, with 4 of their last 5 games coming at their ‘home’ base in Portland, with the other one being a trip to a struggling LA Galaxy side this weekend, they have a real chance at winning some more games and truly inserting themselves in the playoff conversation. 

They might not be considered favourites, but if they continue to play as they have these past 2 games, they wouldn’t be an easy out, either. 

Of course, they’d have to make it to the dance, first, and as head coach Marc Dos Santos said after their victory over LAFC on Wednesday, his team is still far away from where he believes they could one day be. 

But at the same time, you do have to acknowledge the steps forward they’ve taken these past 2 games, and while the sample size is small, you do feel like they could use this to take a big leap here.

On the other hand, it was only a few weeks ago when the ‘Caps had won back-to-back games for the first time in 16 months, before falling into that 4 game slump that saw them fall back to earth, so expectations do have to be tempered a bit. 

Despite that, this little run does feel different, however, as the ‘Caps did take advantage of their opponent’s inability to keep all 11 players in the pitch in that streak, something that they’ve not had the luxury of facing this time around. 

Now, they’ve beaten opponents by outplaying them in key moments in the game and capitalizing on their chances, something a little more sustainable than, say, hoping someone gets a red card and then taking advantage of that extra space. 

Throwing that all aside, however, let’s take a step back and analyze their latest victory, the aforementioned win over LAFC, seeing what stood out from a surprise win over a team the ‘Caps so desperately owed one to. 

A dish best served cold:

For the Whitecaps, the win is huge, on a multitude of levels, especially given the context of the season, but even if you were to remove it from that, they had every reason to want to grab all 3 points against LAFC. 

Exactly 3 weeks ago, the ‘Caps took a heavy beating from LA on the road, in which the ‘Caps saw their Californian foes break the MLS record for the fastest 4 goals in a game, before tying the record for the fastest 5, all part of a 6-0 rout that tied an MLS record for biggest margin of victory. 

So while the victory meant a lot in the standings, the ‘Caps were more than happy to avenge that loss in this one. 

Even though LA was missing some important players, considering they still had the likes of Eduard Atuesta, Francisco Ginella, Latif Blessing, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Eddie Segura, and that they’d beaten the current Western leaders Seattle with this same group of players only a few days prior, this victory was big for Dos Santos and his charges. 

“When we scored the 2-0, I felt that we were closer to the 3-0, than the 2-1 happening,” Dos Santos said of the win. “We just suffered for nothing. But at the end of the day, we played LAFC four times. We won twice, one at BC Place, the other one in Portland, and then we lost two away. It’s just that the two away were heavy.”

“You have to work with the group of totally forgetting the last game. It was a different game, different players on the field, different scenario. They have to fly in and out. It shows that when I go back to that game in LA, I just felt that the first 15 minutes, it’s not normal. I was never involved in it as a coach in 15 minutes like that, that I had to go to halftime and say to the guys, ‘now you know it’s 5-0, let’s stop the bleeding and defend.’ It was very awkward and long game, that one.”

He continued: “But then, it was very clear that that game had nothing to do with this one here. This one was a different day, it was reset, let’s go again. And I think that we were very mature mentally to accept it, to understand it, and to do something about it. We went against a team that has a lot of quality and a team that when everybody comes back, it’s the team that I think could be there for the MLS Cup.”

A return to preseason: 

But while this win was big for Vancouver, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the ‘Caps are playing much better soccer these past 2 games. 

In back-to-back games at their ‘home-away-from-home’, Portland, the ‘Caps played probably their best cumulative 180 minutes of the season, using a strong second half against Real Salt Lake and a strong first 60 minutes against LAFC to snatch 6 important points. 

Now, with the victories, their record in Portland against non-Portland opponent’s improved to 4W-0L-0D on Wednesday, as through preseason and now the regular season, they’ve been yet to lose in any of these games where the usual hosts, the Timbers, are not present. 

And while the victories are important, it’s how they’ve played when they won that stands out, as they played some excellent soccer in those 4 games, dispatching the New England Revolution and Minnesota United at the ‘Rose City Invitational’ in preseason, before taking out RSL and LAFC in these last 2. 

For Dos Santos, that’s huge, as he feels like his team is finally returning to the level of play they showed in preseason, something they’ve only really done in small flashes in those 8 months since they first left Portland. 

“I saw a lot of flashes of what I saw in preseason,” Dos Santos said on Wednesday. “I don’t know if you guys had the opportunity of watching the exhibition games in the tournament in Portland especially and I saw a lot of flashes of that. One of the things that helps a lot is the fact that we’re able to add consistency. We’re able to the core, we’re able to build an identity. You don’t build an identity with changing the system and changing the players.”

“Unfortunately, MLS is Back in Orlando put us back five months. We had to start over again. It was hard to get going, but now we’re starting to find consistency and there’s a lot of principles of what I want to build and we’re still not even close to what I think we could become in the sense of some areas are going to become better.”

Now, considering that they play 4 of their last 5 games in Portland, including a 4-game stretch to close out the season, you have to feel good about your chances at making the playoffs if you’re the Whitecaps. 

For whatever reason, they’ve really taken to playing at Providence Park this season, and as the record shows, it’s paid off. 

The ‘Caps like Portland, but Lucas Cavallini REALLY likes Portland:

Lucas Cavallini scores one of the 6 goals he’s scored at Providence Park this season (Craig Mitchelldyer/Vancouver Whitecaps)

But while the ‘Caps have a whole have probably played their best overall soccer whenever they’ve been in Portland, there is arguably no one person that likes playing in the Rose City more than Lucas Cavallini, who scored his first brace of the season against LAFC Wednesday. 

Now, if you include preseason, he’s got 6 goals in 6 games in Portland, and has scored in 5 of those 6 games. 

And while the goals versus LAFC were very well-taken, as he did well to find space in the box and finish in both instances, it’s his overall play that has taken a big step forward these past 2 games. 

After looking frustrated for a better part of a month as chances failed to settle for him, racking up yellow cards in the process, he looked his best self on Wednesday, avoiding any disciplinary issues while also making his presence felt on both sides of the ball. 

For whatever reason, the game-winner he scored against RSL on Saturday did him a world of good in this one, as he finally started to look like the Lucas Cavallini people have been expecting ever since the ‘Caps made him their record signing this offseason. 

“I’m seeing the normal Cava,” Dos Santos said of his striker. “Maybe many people didn’t believe in him, but for me it’s normal. We always believed in him, I know what we got. Cava is a player that when he is involved without the ball, it’s like something in his brain clicks, then he’s even more aggressive in the box, and he’s more engaged with the game.”

“In the games that he’s disconnected without the ball, he loses connection even with the ball. He’s a player that needs to be involved both in the defensive side and the offensive side and when he does that, he’s very alive in the game.”

If he can continue to build off of this performance, for a ‘Caps team who could certainly use some timely finishing, seeing Cavallini find some form would be huge. 

Considering that he’s got a team-leading 0.55 Expected Goals per 96 minutes, good for 10th in MLS among all players who’ve played 250 minutes, it feels like if he can continue to generate and finish these chances, he could have a lethal end to the season.

The 3 amigos combine for some offensive magic:

But while Cavallini stole the headlines with his 2-goal performance, it wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Cristian Dajome and Fredy Montero, who each had a primary assist and secondary assist on Wednesday. 

Dajome had probably his best offensive game as a Whitecap against LAFC, and Montero continued his late-season push for team MVP, as he and his Colombian partner-in-crime, Dajome, showed what they can do whenever they play together. 

This season, a lot has been made of that partnership, as well as the relationship between Cavallini and Montero, with the two strikers forming a close bond off of the pitch. 

You throw in the budding partnership that Cavallini has shown with Dajome, with the ‘Caps even putting out a video of the pair dancing at a recent training session, and it’s clear that these three all get along well together.

So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see all 3 of them factor in both goals on Wednesday, as they had some great moments as a trio in this win over LA. 

Starting with Cavallini and Montero up front, with Dajome making dangerous runs behind them on the right wing, the 3 attackers made life difficult for the LAFC defenders, allowing the ‘Caps to grab the victory. 

“Fredy found pockets in certain areas that created a lot of things. I think he had an excellent game,” Dos Santos said of Montero and Cavallini. “How Fredy and Cava pressed together, midfielders can back off. We recovered in the first half six or seven balls in their half, it’s very hard to do that against LAFC.”

But while Cavallini and Montero had strong games, Dajome arguably had his game of the season against LA, as it felt like he was everywhere in the final third whenever the ‘Caps got the ball.

All part of a recent run of games in which Dajome has played his best soccer all year, the Colombian winger has quickly turned into a key member of this attacking corps, and he showed that in this one. 

And even though his play on the field has been a bright spot, a lot has to be said about his story off of the pitch, too, as it’s no coincidence that he’s played his best soccer not long after his wife and kids finally got out of Colombian bureaucratic limbo and moved up to Canada in early September. 

“Cristian is a player that we’ve watched at Independiente del Valle, we watched him a lot in the Sudamericana where they won against Colon in the Final,” Dos Santos said of Dajome. “His workload, his speed, his humility, Cristian, if you ask him to play right back, if you ask him to track a player, if you ask him to make runs in behind, it’s always ‘yes, coach’. Incredible humility that kid has. But when he arrived and he went to preseason, the documents for his wife and for his three daughters didn’t arrive. It was a process, then we went to MLS is Back, he was seven months without seeing his three daughters and wife, and he stayed strong.”

“Now they’re in Vancouver, I think as soon as they arrived, a couple of days later he had to go to Portland and stay in a hotel, so it’s not easy but what I think is happening with Cristian is settling in. You see a lot of stories of players in MLS that have a tough time right in the first year, in the first six months. Some are able to come in and make a difference right away, others, it takes a little bit more. I just think that Cristian right now is slowly settling in and creating good connections on the field.” 

So even though the play of Cavallini and Montero has been a big boost for the team in these 2 victories, having strong support play from someone like Dajome is key, and considering the partnership this trio has, don’t be surprised to see them connect for more goals in these next 5 matches.

A quick look at the numbers: 

Last bit on this game, but while the victory was important for the ‘Caps, how they got it was equally as important. 

Against an LA team that likes to dominate possession, the ‘Caps did well to hold 50% of possession for a good chunk of the game, as they had some good phases of play with the ball.

While LA eventually won the possesion battle 59-41, it’s worth noting that LA’s late possession push came when the ‘Caps were up 2-0 and 2-1, making the shift a score effects-related one. 

Even more important than possession numbers, however, was the fact that the ‘Caps had the same number of shots as LA, with 13, and had more shots on target, winning that battle 4-1. 

As a result, they won the xG battle for only the 6th time out of 18 games this regular sesaon, 2.39 to 1.74, against an LAFC team who is top in MLS in xG for per game, to boot.

And when you factor in the fact that LA had a penalty, the ‘Caps actually defended pretty well, keeping LA below 1 non-penalty xG, making this a solid performance. 

So while the victory is key, how they played is even more important, so it’ll be interesting to see if the ‘Caps can build off of this game with a few more performances like this in these last few matches here. 

Looking Forward:

But even though this victory is a big one for Vancouver, they’ve got little time to savour it, as they’ve got a very big game with the other LA team, the Galaxy, on Sunday. 

Considering that the Galaxy come into this game on a 6-game losing streak, the ‘Caps actually enter this one as favourites, as the Galaxy have struggled massively so far in 2020. 

If the ‘Caps are to dream of making the playoffs, this is the exact sort of game they need to take care of business in, because despite the Galaxy’s struggles, they’re only 6 points behind Vancouver, with 2 games in hand. 

Therefore, a win for either side stands to massively boost their chances, as a Vancouver win would likely all but leave the Galaxy out of their way in their hunt for the playoffs, while a Galaxy win would see them thrown right back into the playoff mix. 

So for Vancouver, they’ll need to be sharp in this one, as they look to do something they haven’t yet done under Marc Dos Santos – win 3 games in a row. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs LA Galaxy, Sunday, October 18th, 2020, 19:30 PST (Dignity Health Park, Los Angeles) 

Expected Goals data provided by American Soccer Analysis.

Cover photo via Craig Mitchelldyer/Vancouver Whitecaps

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