Despite a slow start to the 2021 season, the Vancouver Whitecaps have managed to get within 1 point of a playoff spot with just 5 games remaining in their campaign. In this, we dive into some of the factors that have allowed them to be in this position at this stage of the season.
The final countdown is upon us.
After a 29-game marathon just to get to this point, the time to sprint has now arrived for the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are getting set to play the final 5 games of their 2021 MLS season over the coming weeks.
Having worked so hard just to make it this far, they now find themselves in an interesting position as they prepare for these final games, too, sitting just 1 point behind Minnesota United in the Western Conference’s 7th and final playoff spot as of writing.
And considering that they’re about to play 4 straight games against teams who sit within 7 points of them in the standings, one of them being Minnesota, that’s massive, as they’ve put control of their fate back into their own hands after a rough summer, making for some good late drama.
Thanks to some key summer signings, and an unlikely coaching change that has worked out much better than anyone could’ve ever anticipated, the ‘Caps are rolling right now, having become one of the hottest teams in MLS as of late.
Heading into this final stretch, they’re a team to watch right now, as many are wondering if they’ve got what it takes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, having assembled their best group of players since that season’s team.
Before they take on these crucial games, however, it’s important to take a step back and see what’s been working for the ‘Caps on this recent run of matches, though. Having only lost 3 of their last 20 games in MLS play, the ‘Caps have been rolling for some time now, even before the late signings and coaching change, so the question looms – what’s been working so well for this team right now?
And to put an answer to that query – it’s hard to truly know right now. Ultimately, it looks like the culmination of multiple factors, but there certainly could also be some that are more important than others, which is worth considering when chasing an answer.
So with all of that in mind, here’s a look at some of those factors, as well as how they’ve influenced the ‘Caps as of late, helping us see if this team is a contender or a pretender heading into this crucial 5-game stretch that will make-or-break their season.
Factor 1: The Gauld effect:
First, it’s important to start with the obvious, if there’s one person who is central to all of this, it’s probably the ‘Caps new DP #10, Ryan Gauld, who has done everything asked of him (and more) since his arrival in Vancouver.
After a long search for that kind of player over the years, he’s proven to be the sort of talisman that the club has never arguably had during their time in MLS, and it’s made a huge difference for them, as he’s truly helped them get their 2021 season back on track.
Just to get an idea of how much so, just consider this: since Gauld first stepped on a field for the ‘Caps at the beginning of August, when he came off the bench in a game against the LA Galaxy, his team has a record of 7W-2L-4D (25 PTS), which is 5th-best in MLS over that span.
Considering that before his arrival, they’d only picked up 15 points in their first 16 games of the season, compared to 26 in 13 since, that’s a huge difference, one that helps explain their late resurgence.
And as expected, Gauld has played a key role in all of that.
Right off the bat, the counting numbers stand out, as he has an impressive 3 goals and 4 primary assists in those 13 games, which averaged out over a full 34-game season, projects to around 7 or 8 goals and 10 assists. Plus, if you consider that he’s only actually really started 8 of his 13 games, those numbers are generous, as he’s actually doing even better when you project season totals based on his goals and assists per 90 minutes.
Just look at his percentile chart from Football Reference, for example. For those who are unaware of how one of those works, it takes his stats from his time so far in MLS on a per 90 minutes basis, and compares it to all other wingers and attacking midfielders that have played a minimum of 450 minutes this year in MLS, so analyzing it should theoretically give us a pretty idea of how he’s done compared to some of his peers.
And… let’s just say he’s done pretty well for himself.
As shown, he’s slightly lagging in the goals department, where he’s *only* in the 76th percentile among his peers, but he’s in the 97th percentile for his Expected Goals (xG), 99th percentile in shots, 93rd percentile in assists, 93rd percentile in expected assists, 98th percentile combined non-penalty xG and xA, and 99th percentile in shot-creating actions.
Otherwise, he impresses in other areas offensively, too, as he’s in the 79th percentile for progressive passes, 83rd percentile in touches in his opponent’s penalty box, and 84th percentile for progressive passes received.
Lastly, he’s getting things done defensively, too, sitting in the 86th percentile in pressures, 76th percentile in interceptions and in the 82nd percentile in blocks.
So to translate all that, it means that since he’s been in MLS, he’s been one of the best #10/wingers at creating chances for himself and his teammates, and if anything, should be finishing at a higher rate, all while helping his team progress the ball forward and defend from the front.
And what’s most impressive about all of this is that these numbers look this eye-popping despite being compared against fellow #10s and wingers in MLS, which means that he’s in theory stacked up against most of the best creators that the league has to offer, yet emerges as one of the best among them.
Because of all that, there is no surprise that the ‘Caps have been playing much better than they were before Gauld was there, as having an offensive talisman like him has allowed them to pick up results much more efficiently than they were able to before.
Even more interestingly, you can tell that Gauld is truly central to those results, too, because while the ‘Caps have been snatching points at a good rate, they’ve been doing so despite not necessarily overall being that impressive statistically, at least offensively.
Since Gauld made his debut, the ‘Caps are actually 10th-last in MLS in terms of xG for, but the difference is that they’re finally overperforming their xG (their xG-G is currently +0.08), which means that Gauld has helped them actually turn the chances that they do get into goals.
There’s a reason why Brian White has all of a sudden become one of the best strikers in MLS, why Russell Teibert is making a nickname like the ‘Kitsilano Kimmich’ not seem ironic, and why the idea of having a fully healthy Lucas Cavallini work alongside Gauld is so exciting, and that’s because he’s been that good, and the numbers back it up.
To be fair, it helps that they’ve also given up the 3rd-fewest goals over that span (compared to 1.44 xG against), so it’s not as if it’s all due to Gauld, but before, the ‘Caps were in a similar boat, yet weren’t getting the offensive or defensive results to match, so while Gauld doesn’t have much impact on the latter, what he has done on the former has been so huge, helping explain this recent push.
Factor 2: The Sartini effect:
But moving on, it’s important that we dive into what could’ve potentially impacted the latter, too, because as seen above, it’s kind of been the factor that has quietly played the biggest role in the ‘Caps resurgence, so it is important to dive into any potential factors behind that shift.
And when looking back, it looks like a key change was the arrival of Vanni Sartini as interim head coach, because since he’s arrived, the ‘Caps have been nearly impenetrable defensively.
To get an idea of how so, consider this – since he replaced Marc Dos Santos as head coach, Sartini has kept the opponent to 1 or fewer goals against in 8 out of 9 games, keeping 3 clean sheets in the process. Comparatively, they only kept opponents to 1 goal or fewer in 9 out of 20 games under Dos Santos this season, keeping just 4 clean sheets.
Despite having an injury crisis that has seen him try the likes of Jake Nerwinski and Patrick Metcalfe at centre back, Sartini has just found a way to keep things relatively tight other than a 4-goal Seattle explosion, and that’s allowed them to grind out results. Yes, the ‘Caps trade for Florian Jungwirth has papered over a few of the cracks, but even despite that, Sartini’s had a lot of experimenting to do at the back, yet as mostly got things right in his short time as boss.
Looking at the advanced stats, they seem to support that theory, as in the 9 games since Sartini’s been in charge, the ‘Caps have only allowed 0.88 goals per game, but more importantly, are only allowing 1.30 xG per game, which is a big jump down from the 1.45 goals and 1.55 xG against per game that the ‘Caps were allowing under Dos Santos.
To give Dos Santos credit, he’d started to figure something out this season, as in the 8 games before he got fired, the ‘Caps were only allowing 1.00 goals and 1.26 xG against per game, but considering that xG ballooned to 1.77 in the first 4 games of Gauld’s time in Vancouver, it helps explain how a throttling by Pacific FC in the Canadian Championship happened right when it did, as that improvement didn’t last long enough for an explosion to halt it.
So seeing this, there is certainly credence to the idea that while Sartini hasn’t turned Vancouver into an elite defensive team (only allowing 1.30 xG against barely cracks the top 12 in MLS), he’s still given them a bit more stability, and that has allowed them to overperform a bit, helping explain their good run of form at that end of the pitch.
Plus, with Gauld helping them figure things out offensively, it’s made for a recipe where they get good enough defensive results to keep teams to that 1 goal or fewer, and just try and get enough goals to get those gritty 2-1 or 1-0 wins, one that they’ve been able to employ to decent success.
It might not be the most complex formula, but it’s working right now, and considering that Sartini’s ‘Caps have actually played some pretty fun soccer by the eye test, you can’t complain, so if this team wants to continue their push, having him continue what he’s been doing tactically is a good place to start.
Factor 3: The home cooking effect:
But other than Gauld and Sartini, what else could possibly be behind this ‘Caps good run of form, one might wonder?
And the last one is quite simple: the ‘Caps return to Vancouver, as they’ve made BC Place a fortress these past 2 months, winning 6 out of 7 games in the stadium since their grand return to their home stadium.
Considering that the ‘Caps have just 2 road wins since they returned from MLS is Back over 14 months ago in August of 2020, that they’ve recently turned a corner at home has been massive, as it’s allowed them to push back into the playoff race.
So while they’ll need to probably win an away game or two in their last 5 games if they’re to make the playoffs, clearly just having some home-cooking has made a big difference, helping the ‘Caps find this nice run of form.
Returning to the question, though, it must be asked – are the ‘Caps actually playing better at home, or are the results just a mirage?
And that’s a tough one to answer. The ‘Caps are averaging 1.85 goals and 1.40 xG per game offensively, compared to 0.71 goals and 1.36 xG against defensively, so clearly, overperformance has played its part.
But at the same time, the data is slightly skewed, because the first of these 7 home games was the last MLS game that Dos Santos coached the ‘Caps in, and it was a strange one, as they somehow beat LAFC despite losing the xG battle 3.50 to 1.10, finding a way to over-perform at both ends.
When you remove that game, instead choosing just to look at the 6 home games under Sartini, the ‘Caps have had 1.83 goals and 1.45 xG for offensively, and 0.66 goals and 1.01 xG against defensively, which is still an overperformance, but fortunately much easier to maintain at a high level than before.
So it might not be as big of a deal as the first two factors, as the ‘Caps still have to play games on the road, which remains their kryptonite, but considering that 2 of their last 5 games are back at home, including their season finale, it’s nice to know that those 2 games will feel like a safe 6 points, which is a nice feeling after a few years where it felt like they’d lose as much as they’d win at home.
Plus, there’s always the chance that their strong home form can translate over into a road game, too, allowing them to pick up an unlikely away victory, so there’s also that to consider as well.
Ultimately, though, it’s clear to see that returning home has had a pretty tangible effect on the ‘Caps, and that helps explain their recent run of wins.
Honourable Mention: Maxime Crepeau
Lastly, though, it’s important that we give a shout out to an important but underrated part of this push, and that’s been the play of ‘Caps goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who has been one of the best goalkeepers in MLS all season long, and has found an even higher level of play as of late.
So while we didn’t mention him here, as his consistent play all year long makes it hard to highlight him as one of the main factors that has contributed to this late run, but make no mistake, this sort of run doesn’t happen without his play.
Before the ‘Caps went on this run, he papered over a lot of their cracks, so if anything, this run has just given him a chance to prove what he can do behind a good defence, which helps explain how the ‘Caps have been overperforming so many of their defensive metrics as of late.
Just look at his FBref percentile’s chart from this season, to get an idea.
Over the course of the year, he’s been in the 93rd percentile in saving shots he shouldn’t save (PSxG-GA) and is in the 82nd percentile in save percentage. Along with his strong sweeping numbers, as he’s in the 82nd percentile in touches and 84th percentile in defensive actions outside the penalty box, he’s been one of the best in MLS all year long, and these numbers back it up.
Plus, as mentioned earlier, he’s somehow managed to take a big step forward from those numbers as of late, too, becoming arguably the best in MLS lately.
Just consider this.
Since making his return from the Gold Cup (which interestingly coincides with Gauld’s debut) he’s the top goalkeeper in MLS in terms of goals-xG (-4.13) and goals/xG (0.59), meaning that in the last dozen or so games, there is no one in MLS who has kept chances out as he has.
So while he might be lost in the discussion surrounding the ‘Caps run at times, it’s important that he gets the credit that he deserves for helping make this run happen, as the ‘Caps are very lucky to have a goalkeeper of his calibre in their ranks.
Without him, the ‘Caps very well could be out of the playoff race, so while the arrival of the likes of Gauld and Sartini might have made sure that his talents didn’t go to waste, they also don’t have the impact that they have had without Crepeau, highlighting his importance to this team.
All-in-all, though, when looking at all of those various factors, one thing is clear – a lot has gone right for the ‘Caps to even be in this position with 5 games to go.
That’s not a bad thing, but instead just shows how much has really changed for them recently, from the play of guys like Gauld and Crepeau, to the boost of having a new head coach, all wrapped in the beauty of being able to play at home again, helping them rescue this season.
But now, the key will be for all of those factors to remain relevant for these last 5 games, allowing the ‘Caps to finish the job that they’ve started, and that’s to make the playoffs.
Having done all of the dirty work just to get within sniffing distance of the prize, the last thing that they’ll want to do now is to fall short, so they must keep the pedal to the medal now.
After a rough few seasons, they finally are on the right track, and while that will extend into next year, giving hope for the 2022 season, the ‘Caps can still make something of this 2021 season, and will aim to do so in their last 5 games.
Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Portland Timbers, Wednesday, October 20th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (Providence Park, Portland)
Data via: FBRef, American Soccer Analysis