A Step Forward: Their 10-game MLS unbeaten run might be over, but have the Vancouver Whitecaps actually been playing better as of late?

The Vancouver Whitecaps might have just gotten their 10-game unbeaten run in MLS play snapped this past weekend, when they lost to the Portland Timbers, but in this, we dive into a key question – was that run indicative of the ‘Caps actually improving after a slow start to the season, or was it just luck?

After a tough start to the summer, they’ve found a bit of life ahead of the fall. 

They may have just snapped a 4-game winning streak and a 10-game unbeaten run this past weekend by losing to the Portland Timbers, but even despite that loss, the Vancouver Whitecaps have been one of the hottest teams in MLS as of late. 

As a result, they’ve gone from a wooden spoon candidate to a genuine playoff hopeful, currently sitting just 1 point off a Western Conference playoff spot as of writing. 

Thanks to that 10-game unbeaten run, which came part of a series that saw them lose just once over a span of 13 games, the ‘Caps have made something of what was slowly starting to look like a lost season, giving something to play for. 

So although they’re still reeling from a surprise Canadian Championship loss to Canadian Premier League side Pacific FC in the middle of that good run, as that loss not only denied them a chance at silverware, but also contributed to the firing of head coach, Marc Dos Santos, they’ve managed to carry on despite that, winning 2 of their 3 games since that disaster. 

With a new head coach, Vanni Sartini, who is currently in charge on an interim basis, the ‘Caps have managed to carry on despite all the outside noise created by those events, finding a way to keep their heads up and pushing forward. 

Thanks to the arrival of a new DP #10, Ryan Gauld, who has given the team new offensive life, along with some big improvements defensively, this ‘Caps team has turned into quite the solid unit, which has them believing that they’ve got what it takes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. 

Even though their unbeaten run has come to an end, that was bound to happen eventually, so they’ll be looking to get back on track this weekend when they take on the Colorado Rapids. 

Before then, though, it’s important to look back at that run and pose a simple question – are the ‘Caps actually playing better, or did they just get a bit of luck? Can they expect to go on another streak, or might they be doomed to come back to earth?

Let’s dive into some key numbers to find out. 

(A few weeks back, we dove into some of the numbers surrounding the ‘Caps first half of the season, so if you haven’t read that yet, check that out here) 

The key numbers from the streak:

First of all, it’s important to look at the raw numbers from the streak, just to get an idea of how it went. 

Over their 10 match unbeaten run in MLS action, they won 5 games and drew 5, picking up 20 of a possible 30 points, amassing points at a clip of 2 points per game. Compared to their first 12 games, where they won just 2 games, drew 3 and lost 7, picking up a total of 9 points at a clip of 0.75 points per game, it was a pretty drastic change. 

In terms of their production on the streak, they scored 17 goals and gave up 10 goals over the 10 games, meaning that they were scoring 1.7 goals per game, and conceding just 1 goal per game. 

Defensively, it’s pretty interesting to note that among those 10 games, the ‘Caps only kept 2 clean sheets, but never gave up more than 2 goals in a game, as they were relatively consistent in their defensive approach. 

Offensively, there was much more variance, as they scored more than 2 goals 7 times, but were also shut out twice, which luckily for them coincided with the 2 games where they kept clean sheets. 

Interestingly enough, they won 5 of those 7 games when they scored 2 or more goals, which makes sense considering that they never gave up more than 2 goals in a game, giving an idea of what’s sparked this ‘Caps streak, especially when you realize that the result that ended this run was a 1-0 loss to Portland. 

Considering that they gave up 22 goals in their first 12 games, compared to just 11 in the 11 since, that math checks out quite nicely, as it shows how much of a defensive turnaround they’ve had as of late, which appears to be the main contributing factor to that run. 

Despite that, though, there were some other factors that stood out, too. 

They did only score 12 in the first 12 games, as well, showing that their struggling offence did also play a role in their slow start, which demonstrates that multiple factors contributed to them stumbling out of the gates.

Because of that, it should be not surprising that when the ‘Caps started to figure things out defensively, they started their unbeaten run, and when they started scoring, they then went on that 4-game win streak, showing how lethal that they can be when those 2 parts of their game come together. 

It sounds obvious – if you defend well, and score goals, you’ll win games, but early in the season, the ‘Caps were doing neither, and struggling, so as obvious as it may sound, it’s important to highlight how big them figuring things out at both ends has been to their success. 

Ryan Gauld celebrates a goal vs RSL earlier this season (Keveren Guillou)

Diving even deeper:

But moving on, that takes us to the main question from the beginning – are the ‘Caps actually playing better and deserving of these results? 

So to help answer this question, let’s dive into the ‘Caps Expected Goals (xG) statistics from this season, and how they’ve been trending as of late. 

To start, it’s worth noting that the ‘Caps sit 21st in MLS (out of 27 teams) with 1.23 xG for per game, and 18th with 1.47 xG against per game. In terms of actual goals, they sit 15th with 1.22 goals per game, and 17th in goals against with 1.35 goals against per game. 

What that shows that they’re not actually horribly underperforming or overperforming their xG numbers (although clearly some other teams are given their variance in their rank in the xG and goals for section), which indicates that if their play has indeed improved during this streak, it’d be pretty accurate. 

And when looking at the numbers, they clearly have. 

Offensively, in the first 12 games of the year, the ‘Caps generated 1.15 xG per game, but in the 10 games that followed they improved that to 1.28 xG per game, which is a significant jump. 

To get an idea of how big of a jump it is, as it stands, they’ve gone from a bottom 5 team in MLS in terms of generating xG to a top 15 team, which is not a bad improvement at all. 

Moving on, though, it’s then important to check out the defensive numbers, because if there was no improvement there, the offensive jump probably wouldn’t be enough to indicate improvement. 

And when looking at the defensive numbers, they tell the same story. In the first 12 games of the year, the ‘Caps were giving up a whopping 1.7 xG per game, compared to only 1.24 xG against during the 10-game run that followed, which is a significant improvement. 

In fact, it’s such a big jump that the ‘Caps went from a bottom 2 team in terms of xG against to a team that was on the cusp of the top 5, which is a massive jump. 

So not only is the streak pretty reflective of how they’ve been playing, they could’ve almost played better, as their middling offence let down their stingy defence on a few occasions. 

Looking Forward:

So considering that they’ve been playing like a middling offensive team and a top 5 defensive team as of late, their streak all of a sudden makes a lot of sense, because while their improved offence has been a nice plus, their defence has been the true gamechanger. 

That bodes well going forward, because they actually played nearly all of the streak without their star striker, Lucas Cavallini, who was out injured, and without Gauld, who arrived partway through the streak, meaning that improvements could be in order offensively. 

As long as they can keep up whatever they’ve been doing defensively, and continue to find improvements at the other end, that should put them in a pretty good position going forward. 

Yes, they’ve suffered that most recent 1-0 loss, but it’s worth noting that in that game, the ‘Caps actually won the xG battle 1.4 to 0.68, which shows that they actually had a pretty good performance statistically, sticking to the trend they’ve recently shown during the streak. 

If they can keep doing that going forward, there’s no reason why they can’t go on another streak, especially considering that 5 of their last 10 games will be at BC Place, where they’ve won 3 out of a possible 4 games since returning from their American adventure that saw them set up base camp in the US for the first few months of this 2021 MLS season. 

After a brutal start, partly fuelled by being away from home, they’ve slowly been moulding themselves into a decent team as of late, one that can start to dream of the playoffs again, which should make these last 11 games pretty entertaining to watch.

If they can keep up the form that they’ve shown as of late, no reason why they can’t make the playoffs, especially considering that they sit just 1 point off of writing, which may make for one of the more entertaining run-outs to end an MLS season that we’ve seen from the ‘Caps in recent years.  

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Colorado Rapids, Sunday, September 19th, 2021, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (Dick’s Sporting Good’s Park, Commerce City)

All numbers via: American Soccer Analysis

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