The Vancouver Whitecaps were eliminated from the playoffs on Wednesday. In this piece, we look at why that could be a good thing for them, as they now have a chance to keep building their identity this offseason.
With 1 game to go, the dream has ended.
They’ll be no Decision Day drama for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season, as they were officially eliminated from the 2020 MLS Playoffs on Wednesday, as the San Jose Earthquakes picked up a crucial win over LAFC to secure a spot in the postseason.
That means for the 3rd straight season, the ‘Caps participation in the quest towards MLS Cup will be via flicking through their TV remotes at home, leaving them to enjoy the festivities from afar.
While this certainly isn’t a surprise, at least considering what the ‘Caps have gone through since MLS is Back, to see Vancouver narrowly miss out this late does leave a case of ‘what-if’ on one’s lips.
At the same time, missing out on the playoffs could be a blessing in disguise for this Whitecaps side.
In a year where a whopping 18 of 26 MLS teams made it into the postseason, missing out does hurt, yes, but for a team still rebuilding itself, this will provide a crucial opportunity for the club to re-evaluate themselves on the sporting side.
Heading into the first full offseason with Sporting Director Axel Schuster at the helm, he and Marc Dos Santos have a chance to work together to try and fill some of the holes in this roster, allowing them to compete next season.
That’s not to say that with a few waves of the magic wand, they’ll be Supporter’s Shield champions next season, but as they showed this year, they can be competitive in flashes, they just need to ensure that they fill those holes and plug some gaps this offseason.
So while it would’ve been nice to at least head into Decision Day this weekend with a chance to make the playoffs, their time to start evaluating for 2020 starts now, giving them a bit of a headstart ahead of what promises to be a jam-packed offseason for all MLS teams.
We’ll have more on said offseason later down the road, as well as more in-depth coverage of the season that just was, but before we do, here are some thoughts on the ‘Caps elimination ahead of then.
Go big or go home approach dies hard:
Impressively, the ‘Caps head into their last game of the season without having picked up a draw through 22 matches, as they’ve amassed a topsy turvy record of 8W-14L-0D.
So while they matched their 2019 win total in 12 fewer matches, they’re also only 2 losses away from matching their 2019 loss total, as they’ve really been a ‘boom or bust’ side in games this year.
Of their 14 losses, 9 of them were by 2 goals or more, as well, meaning that in 17 of their 22 games (77%), they either brought home all 3 points or lost by 2 or more goals.
That shows a few things.
First, this team clearly has talent, as the 8 wins indicate. While 3 of those wins came over non-playoff teams, 2 against 11th-placed Real Salt Lake and 1 against 10th-placed LA Galaxy, 5 of those wins did come against teams that sit in the playoff picture as of writing, including the Montreal Impact, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC, LAFC and the San Jose Earthquakes.
At the same time, they did also lose 6 times to the top 3 teams in the Western Conference, the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Sporting KC, getting outscored 13-2 in the process.
And while that win over Toronto FC was big, especially considering that it could cost them the Supporters Shield, they did also get battered by a combined score of 4-0 in their two other meetings, with the ‘Caps only mustering 2 shots on target over the course of those 180 minutes.
Those results shouldn’t be that surprising, as the ‘Caps aren’t yet a team that should be expected to beat 4 of the top 8 teams in MLS much through the 9 games they played against them, but if they really wanted to be a playoff team, getting more than 3 points in those games could’ve gone a long way.
And ultimately, that’s where the biggest struggle lied – their inability to claw out points.
In MLS, it’s imperative that you grab points wherever possible, especially away from home. So when we see that the ‘Caps only picked up 6 points from 10 away matches (MLS is Back not included), it is no surprise that they missed the playoffs, even despite picking up a modest 15 points from 9 home games (Portland games included).
To overcome an away record like that one, you need to be dominant at home, and while picking up 1.67 points per game at home is decent, it’s just not enough when you only pick up 0.6 points per game in away games.
So even though the ‘Caps could be excused for their struggles away from home, especially considering that they only ended up playing 4 of their games in Vancouver, spending most of the season away from their usual home, they just didn’t get the points they needed to make the dance.
So what to fix?
And there’s no easy way to fix that, so the ‘Caps may have to get creative.
The experience they gained this year will surely help, especially if next season ends up looking anything like this one.
Maybe they could consider adding a bit of veteran experience to a team that was one of the youngest in MLS this season, helping them grind out more points in those tough games away from home or against top teams.
Without knowing who’s going to stay and who’s going to leave, it’s hard to project a roster, so we’ll save that for another time, but the ‘Caps do appear to have a solid nucleus of players in their mid-20s such as Maxime Crepeau, Erik Godoy, Derek Cornelius, Ranko Veselinovic, Jake Nerwinski, Janio Bikel, Leonard Owusu, Cristian Dajome and Lucas Cavallini.
Depending on what happens with Ali Adnan and David Milinkovic, you could add them to the list, so they at least appear to have a lot more building blocks than they did at the start of Dos Santos’s first season, which is positive.
And considering that they have at least one DP spot open, with the potential for a second depending on what happens with Adnan, that gives them the opportunity to add some top-end talent to this team, hopefully in midfield.
Along with the addition of 3 new Young DP spots, the ‘Caps will have the chance to add some game-breaking talent, provided that they hit right on their targets.
With no head of recruitment officially in place, you do wonder about their ability to do that, but at the very least, they’ll have a full year of Axel Schuster putting together a plan to lean on, and from what it sounds like, a reshuffling of the scouting department has been going on for a while now, as well.
It’s unfortunate that fans will have to live on the promise of new players to fill holes once again, but at least a core group of guys is being built up, which along with the growth shown by youngsters Michael Baldisimo, Theo Bair, Ryan Raposo, Thomas Hasal and Patrick Metcalfe, gives them a good future to look forward to.
So now, it’ll be all about quality over quantity this offseason, as the ‘Caps priority has to be getting a game-changing player with their DP spot, find some veterans in key positions, and round off the roster with some quality Young DPs and other TAM signings.
Finding an Identity:
And to do all of that well, they just need to focus on continuing to build on an identity.
In MLS, to do well, you have to know exactly what you want to do, and execute that plan, both in how you play and how you recruit.
Take a look at the expansion side, Nashville, for example. They loaded up on MLS veterans, as well as some really solid players in their spine (Goalkeeper, Centre back, Midfield), and have committed to a no-nonsense, defensive style of play.
It might not be the most exciting brand of soccer, but they’ve picked up points at a strong rate for an expansion side, allowing them to compete in the playoffs during their first season.
So while the ‘Caps won’t want to replicate the Nashville model, at least in terms of the style of play (even though they should take notes on how the Music City side defends), it shows the importance of having an identity and sticking to it in this league.
That’s why of the top 6 teams in the West right now, as well as the top 2 teams in the East, their managers have been there since 2018 or before, as they all have an identity that’s allowed them to prosper.
While the ‘Caps have shared ideas of what they want their identity to be, with free-flowing and high-pressing offensive soccer often seen as the goal they’ve strived for, they looked more like a team trying to play ‘Catenaccio’ than they did one trying to play ‘tiki-taka’ this year.
Had they made the playoffs playing this way, it could’ve created a false sense of identity for this team, so at least now, they can continue to restructure their identity.
And to give credit to Schuster, he’s at least been consistent with how he envisions the ‘Caps playing in the long-term, as exemplified by his constant referencing of the ‘4 cornerstones’ as what he looks for in ‘Caps signings. His signings have shown that, as well as some of the players he’s shipped away, so he just needs to stay on that course when making decisions this offseason.
No matter what Vancouver ends up doing this offseason, as long as they make their decisions with their long-term identity in mind, they should be on a good path.
Once they sort out their scouting department, hiring a director of recruitment, they can hopefully put years of haphazard transfer windows behind them, as they seemed to start to do in this past offseason.
So while the ‘Caps will miss out on the fun of the playoffs, as Sam Rowan of 86Forever said last week, making them would’ve changed nothing, anyways.
Now, they can have a critical evaluation of what they need to be better in, allowing them to have a strong third season.
While that’s easier said than done, and is going to require patience, something a lot of ‘Caps supporters are understandably short on, at least the Whitecaps are putting together a long-term plan, something they haven’t done for much of their MLS existence.
We’ll have a lot more and what specifically the ‘Caps will need to work on later this offseason, but when looking at things as they stand, as we explored in this one, this playoff heartbreak could prove to be a good thing for this team.
Now, the ‘Caps will have to roll up their sleeves and get to work, starting with their game against the LA Galaxy this weekend, before diving into the offseason headfirst pretty much right away.
It won’t be an easy one, but they’ll know what they have to do, setting up one of their most important offseasons in history.
To be fair, it’s not the first time that we’ve heard that statement before, but with the ‘Caps at a crossroads, it rings truer than ever heading into 2021.