Halfway There: Analyzing what we know (and what we don’t) about the Vancouver Whitecaps through the halfway point of the 2021 MLS season

Having now played 18 games out of 34 so far this MLS season, we’ve gotten a good idea of what the 2021 edition of the Vancouver Whitecaps looks like. In this, we dive into the numbers behind their first half (and a bit) of MLS action to date. 

Having crossed the halfway point, you’d like to think you have a better idea of who they truly are. 

But in the case of the Vancouver Whitecaps, it almost feels like the opposite, as through 18 games of this MLS campaign, they’ve gone through 3 different phases, of which you wonder – which of those phases is closest to the final form of the ‘Caps?

Is it the one that started out hot, picking up 7 points in their first 4 games? Or is it the team that went on a 5-game losing streak right after? What about the team who has picked up points in 8 of the 9 games that followed that streak?

And arguably, the answer is none of those, as some new midseason acquisitions, including the crown jewel of that lot, DP #10, Ryan Gauld, are expected to completely alter the course of this team, giving them a new and final form. 

That doesn’t mean that the first 18 games of this season are useless, however – far from it. While Gauld will have a big impact on the team’s offence, with him being a player that will be played higher up the pitch, other important details matter. 

For example, is the ‘Caps defence good enough? Do they push the ball up the field enough to get the most out of Gauld? Are there enough quality finishers on the roster to get on the end of those chances?

Those are all questions for ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos to assess now. 

With his team finally set to return home next weekend to Vancouver, where they’ll play their first home game at BC Place in just under 11 months, and their first in front of fans in over 18 months, they’re important questions to answer, as they’ll be the difference between the ‘Caps flopping or rising in the 2nd half of this season. 

While the fact that they will have played the first 19 games of their season away from home certainly hasn’t helped them in their quest towards finding their identity, with 9 of their last 15 games being at home, everything is set up for them to at least have the possibility of going on a run. 

So with all of that in mind, let’s dive into some of the numbers surrounding this ‘Caps team, and try and see what we might expect from them in their long-awaited homecoming. 

The overall picture: 

And to start, it’s important to see where they stand through 18 games, as they find themselves at an interesting crossroads. 

Sitting 12th out of 13 teams in the Western Conference with 17 points, 23rd out of 27 teams total, the ‘Caps certainly have a lot of digging to do if they’re to push up the standings in the 2nd half of the season. 

The good news is that the West is so congested that as of writing, they’re still just 6 points out of a playoff spot, showing that they can reverse their fortunes with a good run, but it is always demoralizing to have to look up at so many teams ahead of you when you remain stuck at the bottom. 

Diving a bit into the numbers, though, one can ask – is the ‘Caps position in the standings warranted?

And the answer is probably, yes. 

By most metrics, the ‘Caps have struggled statistically over the course of the season, helping explain their results. 

Just to get an idea of how so, here’s how they fare in some of the key statistics. 

First, they’re 4th-last in goals for with just 19 goals, and 7th-last in goals against with 28, leaving them 4th-last in goal differential with -9. 

Offensively, they don’t generate a whole lot, sitting 2nd-last in shots per game with 9.5, last in shots on target per game with 3.1, 2nd-last in open play goals with 9, and are 5th-last in the percentage of their possession spent in the opponent’s final third. 

But what’s interesting is that they’re not actually as bad defensively as they are offensively, showing where their biggest worry lies. They sit in the middle of the pack (16th) in shots against per game with 13.8, and in Expected Goals (xG) against per game (19th) with 1.48, which is certainly not bad. 

There’s a reason why they’re actually underperforming defensively as per the numbers, as they’ve given up an average of 1.5 goals per game, compared to 1.48 xG, and their xG numbers have been dropping every week. 

That’s undone by the fact that they’re just averaging the 4th-fewest xG per game with 1.1, and are even underperforming that by scoring just 1.06 goals per game, but it gives an idea of what their problem is. 

Basically, to sum up their start to the year, they’re overall defending like an average MLS team, but are scoring like a bottom-feeder, which unfortunately isn’t a recipe to getting many wins. 

A look at their record backs that up, as through 18 games, they have just 3 wins but a whopping 8 draws, which is tied for 3rd in the league. 

So for the most part, they’re doing enough to pick up points, as they’ve got points in 11 of their 18 games, but not a lot of them are wins, mostly stemming from their offensive woes. 

That’s why the addition of someone like Gauld is so key, because even if they continue to underperform their xG, if he can help them generate more xG, the goals should follow, theoretically giving them a better chance at winning. 

The ‘Caps train ahead of the start of the 2021 season (Keveren Guillou)

A decent run as of late: 

But while the overall statistical profile paints an interesting picture of this 2021 Whitecaps team, it’s worth noting that they’ve actually been on a pretty good run as of late, one that might actually give a better idea of what to expect from this side in the 2nd half of the campaign. 

As of writing, the ‘Caps are in the midst of a streak that has seen them draw 5 straight games, and they’ve picked up points in 8 of their last 9 games, even though 7 of those games were draws. 

It’s hard to say if a streak like that is hot or cold, but at the very least, they’ve been competitive, although they’d ideally need to turn those draws into wins sooner rather than later. 

What’s interesting about this streak, though, is how they’ve gone about getting those results. Not much has changed offensively, as they’re averaging 1.12 xG for per game over that 9 match span, but the big change has been defensively, as they’re averaging 1.44 xG against per game. 

Plus, that number is a bit skewed, as other than a 2.97 xG and 2.55 xG shellacking from Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders, respectively, they’ve only allowed more than 1.4 xG in a game two other times, as they’ve mostly held their opponents to anywhere from 0.34 to 1.4 xG in the other 5 games. 

To get an idea of how decent that is, it’s worth noting that 1.32 xG against per game is the threshold to be among the top 10 in MLS, showing that the ‘Caps are on the right path with how they’ve defended recently. 

So if they could keep that up, but score some goals, they’d be in the promised land, allowing them to finally get their season back on track. 

Say, imagine if they’d turned, say, 3 or 4 of those 7 draws from their recent run into wins. 6 points puts them right on the edge of a playoff spot, and 8 points puts them firmly in, showing how costly this run of draws has been. 

But removing that connotation, however, it’s been a good run for the ‘Caps, setting themselves up nicely for this return home. 

What does it all mean?

So considering those numbers, the question remains – what can we expect from the ‘Caps on this late run? 

Based on what we’ve seen from them to date, they’re on pace to finish with 32 points, which is just unfortunately nowhere near close to good enough to make the playoffs, especially considering the current team in the 7th spot as of writing, the Portland Timbers, already have 23 points. 

Even if they were to maintain their form from the last 9 games, that’d get them up to 35, which is also probably not enough, as they’d likely need to get more than 45 based on past standings. 

To get there, they’d need to pick up points at a pace of 1.75 points per game, which is a significant jump up from the 0.94 they’re currently plugging away at. 

That would mean picking up 9 wins and 1 draw in their last 16 games, or any other combination that gets them the 28 points needed to crest that 45 point mark, and even that might not be enough. 

It’s not impossible, especially if they keep defending at the same rate as they have, but goals would have to come thick and fast here, and pronto. 

A ‘Gauld’en lining?

But from there, the next question emerges – can Gauld do enough to help make that possible?

That’s going to be the golden question, one that might be the difference between the ‘Caps making the playoffs or missing out horrendously. 

To start, he’ll need to get the ‘Caps shooting more, which could be a big difference-maker.

Through 18 games, they’re averaging 0.12 xG per shot, which is actually pretty good, as they’re just let down by the fact that they’re only generating 9.5 shots. 

If they increased that shot number to a league-median number of 12.9, for example, they’d be averaging closer to 1.66 xG per game (assuming their shot quality stayed the same), which is a top 3 number in MLS. 

So even if Gauld could help them just get up to 11 shots per game, which is still bottom 5 in MLS, but keep up the quality of those shots, that’d put them at 1.32 xG per game, which is 14th in MLS, smack in the middle of MLS. 

And considering that he averaged over 2.3 key passes and 2.4 shots per game in Portugal, just that output alone should push the ‘Caps up from 9.5 shots to well over 11, which does mean that’d be possible. 

It’d be a big task, no doubt, but if he can help make it happen, and the ‘Caps keep defending as they have as of late, it’d certainly open up the door of possibility. 

They’d have to improve in their ball progression, as they’re 2nd-last in MLS with 462 progressive passes (1st place LAFC has 811), but if they can get Gauld the ball more, it’d appear that they’ll certainly be on the right path. 

If they can start averaging around 1.3 xG for and against, it’ll certainly make it easier to win than if they continue averaging 1.1 xG for and 1.3 xG against, especially considering they’ve already found themselves in ‘draw’ purgatory with the latter numbers. 

As seen here, getting the ball to Gauld often and letting him do his magic might be the way to cure that, though, at least based on what the numbers have shown, which is promising.

Looking Forward:

Overall, however, it’s hard to know exactly how well the ‘Caps will do in the 2nd half of the season, but it’s promising to note that they’re setting themselves up to make a late push. 

It’s going to take a massive push, one that might be too big for them to complete in time, but with the swath of home games, maybe finally playing in front of home fans can help make it possible. 

With Gauld in the fold, and the ‘Caps seemingly having figured things out defensively as of late, it wouldn’t be that outlandish, even if it might border on the edge of impossible for now. 

Because of that, it’s going to make this 2nd half of the season so interesting to watch. This is going to be a big one for ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos, whose job security certainly seems to depend on how he does in this playoff push (and during the Canadian Championship, which will also be happening), as well as for some players who need new contracts. 

So either way, these next few months promise to be intriguing, although we’re not yet sure how fruitful they might be for the ‘Caps. 

But with a return home, some new faces and a good run of form as of late, Vancouver will believe in their chances, and if they can find that right formula, things could align for them here. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Austin FC, Wednesday, August 18th, 2021, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (Q2 Stadium, Austin)

All stats via: Fbref, WhoScored and American Soccer Analysis.

Join the Conversation!