“They’re a very good team”: Vancouver Whitecaps eager to tackle solid Columbus Crew side in unique 2022 MLS Season opener

The Vancouver Whitecaps are getting set to kick off their 2022 MLS Season on Saturday, when they’ll take on the Columbus Crew in Columbus. Here’s our preview ahead of that one.

After a short break, the journey is about to begin again. 

Just 98 days after their 2021 MLS season ended at the hands of Sporting Kansas City in the 1st round of the playoffs, the Vancouver Whitecaps are getting set to kick off their 2022 campaign this Saturday, when they’ll take on the Columbus Crew in Ohio. 

Faced off against the 2020 MLS Champions, the Crew, in a city the ‘Caps last visited just under 4 years ago back in 2018, it’s a good test for Vanni Sartini’s team, who are looking to build off of a 2021 season that saw them snap a 4-year playoff drought thanks to an electric second-half run.

And with several key protagonists from that run back for this season, including the dynamic duo of Ryan Gauld and Brian White, as well as the likes of Cristian Dajome, Javain Brown, Leonard Owusu and Ranko Veselinvoic (among others), all led by Sartini, who removed the interim tag this offseason, there’s a lot to be excited about. 

Along with the introduction of some new faces, such as Sebastian Berhalter, Tristan Blackmon and Pedro Vite, who are all looking to make their MLS debuts this weekend, there’s overall a lot to like with the Whitecaps project heading into this 2022 season. 

Because of that, the ‘Caps have every right to feel confident in their ability to come out of this game with a result. 

In the dozen-plus games that they got to play last year under Sartini, they quickly proved to be a team that tries to press high, defends stoutly and plays quickly, riding that combo to a record of 7W-2L-5D (26 PTS) in just 14 games under Sartini, a big improvement over the 23 points they picked up in the first 20 games of the campaign. 

So as they get to tackle the Crew now, their priority is to continue building off of that, no matter how tough the challenge. 

“I want to show our attitude and our way of playing,” Sartini said of his expectations for this game. “We want to show that from game #1. I don’t think that we are at 100%, to be honest, we’re still growing, but I don’t think that even Columbus will be 100%.”

He added: “The thing that we need to improve compared to last year is that we were very good at pressing, but every time that the pressure was broken, we weren’t that good in resetting and having our set defence as quick as we want to, so that’s something a change I’m going to see this season.”

And speaking of the Crew, there’s no doubt that they present a pretty good challenge for Vancouver. 

Of course, it’s important to note that Columbus didn’t exactly deliver the best title defence last year, missing out on the playoffs, but they did so by just 2 points despite dealing with a litany of injuries and key absences, giving an idea of what they were up against. 

So heading into a new season, there’s no doubt that this team can improve on what they showed last year. As Vancouver supporters will know, a Caleb Porter-coached team is always going to be a well-oiled machine, as there’s a reason why he’s got 2 MLS Championships to his name as a coach. 

Led by some of their usual suspects such as Lucas Zelarayan, Gyasi Zardes, Darlington Nagbe, Pedro Santos and Jonathan Mensah, and supplemented by some new faces such as Yaw Yeboah and Milos Degenek, there’s a nice mix of firepower and solidity in this Crew squad. 

As a result, they’re a team that many are projecting to do well this season, especially as they enjoy their first full year in their new stadium, Lower.Com Field, hopefully giving their fans plenty to cheer about at their new venue. 

Sartini is wary of that, especially seeing that his team will be the first team to inaugurate the building in regular-season action this season, so he’s ready for whatever challenge might await him there. 

“They’re a very good team, they’ve got quality, especially in the front 4,” Sartini admitted. “What we’ll try to do is to try and be as simple and effective as (possible) in the build-up play, try to move that ball quickly, to try and play behind their midfield, and when we don’t have the ball, try and be as effective as we can with that pressure, because if we’re going to concede too much space, they’re going to break us down”

So seeing that firepower, it’ll be important that the ‘Caps are able to find a way not to get hit too hard here, especially considering it’s their first game. 

As Sartini mentioned, they’re going to really want to try and focus on their pressing game, as well as their ability to react to the second phase of play, but that’s also easier said than done against someone such as Zelarayan, for example, who scored 12 goals and added 7 assists in 2021. 

Because of that, it feels like that while the ‘Caps defence will look to hold strong, building off of some of the growth they showed at the back last year. 

And one name that’s going to be especially key to watch in that area? Thomas Hasal, the 22-year-old ‘Caps goalkeeper, who after serving as a backup these past two years, is going to start the year as the team’s #1 after the surprise trade of Maxime Crépeau to LAFC as the CanMNT international asked out for ‘personal reasons’. 

It’s no secret that while the ‘Caps are high on Hasal, Crépeau was one of the best goalkeepers in MLS last year, which is reflected in the fact that he was ranked 4th in the league in G-xG (goals-Expected Goals) with -4.61, a far cry from Hasal who sat in 47th with +1.88 G-xG. 

Considering that the ‘Caps defence was quite permissive last year, no matter who was coaching them (they allowed 1.5 xG a game under Marc Dos Santos, 1.48 xG under Sartini) it’s going to be a big ask for Hasal to fill Crépeau’s shoes, especially if he has to face the same barrage of shots that his predecessor often faced. 

The good news is that Hasal is up for the challenge. There’s no doubt that long-term, he’s going to be a very good MLS goalkeeper, and has shown that in flashes so far in the dozen or so games that he’s played in. 

So while his opportunity to be the #1 maybe came a bit sooner than some might’ve expected, he actually has more MLS experience than Crépeau did when he came to the club, which is a bonus as he looks to follow in his footsteps and help bring the ‘Caps back to the playoffs. 

And with a chance to make Canada’s World Cup squad later this year a possibility with a strong campaign, adding further incentive on top of any potential success with the ‘Caps for the young goalkeeper, the sky’s the limit for Hasal this year, only adding to his desire to have a big season.

“I approach it the same way,” Hasal said of the step up to the #1 role. “Even when you’re the #2, you’re thinking about it, you know that you could be called upon at any minute, so you’re preparing, doing the right thing off the field and on the field.”

But in a sense, that’s just the story of this ‘Caps team heading into this season. There are a lot of fun pieces, but they’re also banking on a lot of potential bets manifesting into big payouts, much as they did in the second half of last year. 

So while it feels easy to suggest that they’ll be back in the playoffs at the end of the year, the reality is that there are a lot of moving parts still yet to fall into place here.

And that’s almost exciting in a sense. For the first time in a while, there’s a lot of continuity at the club, and the roster looks as deep as ever, so led by Sartini’s coaching and penchant for rotation, there’s no reason why the ‘Caps can’t make the most of what’s available to them. 

As they look to build off of what they showed last year, getting off to a strong start here in Columbus would set the table nicely for what they hope is to come, and they’ll look to be full value for it on Saturday. 

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Ryan Gauld 

And likely to be a central figure in any of those efforts? The ‘Caps DP #10, Ryan Gauld, who is getting set to start his first full MLS season in Vancouver after arriving part way through the last season. 

Which for the ‘Caps, is pretty exciting, as in just 18 games (13 starts) last year, Gauld was electric, scoring 4 goals and adding 6 assists in MLS play (along with 2 goals in 1 game in the Canadian Championship), quickly showing why the ‘Caps made the move to bring in the 26-year-old Scottish attacking midfielder.

The offence looked completely different when he was on the pitch, as he just seemed to know how to pull the strings when on the ball, and with his work rate, he also found a way to influence matches in many ways, too.

As a result of that, with a full offseason and preseason under his belt, it’s expected that he comes out flying this season, building off of what he showed last year. 

And considering in that short time, he helped drag the team to the playoffs and almost won MLS’s Newcomer of the Year for his efforts, that’s exciting, just showing why many are going to be keeping an eye on the ‘Caps #25 this year. 

Gauld celebrates a goal against the Seattle Sounders last season (Keveren Guillou)

The big question: 

After a strong end to 2021, will Brian White get off to a hot start in this game? 

Otherwise, one thing to watch out for in this game will be Gauld’s usual partner in crime last year – 25-year-old American forward, Brian White, who is also getting set for his first full campaign with the ‘Caps. 

And much like Gauld, his offensive success played a big role in the ‘Caps late playoff push, as he led the team with 12 goals, 9 of which came in that 14-game stint under Sartini. 

Because of that, having that sort of form from White would go a long way towards the ‘Caps success, hence his inclusion in our first ‘big question’ segment of 2022. 

Stat to watch:

The Vancouver Whitecaps have never opened an MLS season officially designated as the road team, making this the first time they’ve had to do so in their 12 years as an MLS franchise. 

With it still being early in the season, we’ll keep the stats relatively tame here, but thought it’s worth noting that this game being on the road represents a first for the ‘Caps. 

Of course, they did technically start last year on the road, too, as they opened the 2021 season with a 1-0 win over the Portland Timbers in Utah, but that of course was the ‘Caps home stadium at the time as they found themselves forced to relocate to the US due to the pandemic. 

So seeing that, we’ll count that one as a home game, making this Crew game the first such road opener the ‘Caps will have had in their MLS history, adding to the intrigue of this match. 

Last meeting: 

Gyasi Zardes opened the scoring early before Fredy Montero tied things up late in a late-season 2019 clash between these two sides. 

Projected XIs:

Vancouver Whitecaps:

Record: 0W-0L-0D (0 PTS)

Head Coach: Vanni Sartini

Columbus Crew:

Record: 0W-0L-0D (0 PTS)

Head Coach: Caleb Porter

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Columbus Crew, Saturday, February 26th, 2022, 12:00 PST, 15:00 EST (Lower.Com Field, Columbus)

Join the Conversation!