There’s no doubt that the Vancouver Whitecaps will want to improve on a disappointing 4-0 loss on opening weekend of their MLS season against the Columbus Crew, especially as they get set to take on the defending MLS Cup Champions, New York City FC, at home this weekend. In this, we look at some of what they will want to change ahead of that game.
It was a humbling experience.
Heading into their season opener against the Columbus Crew, the Vancouver Whitecaps had high hopes for that game, and understandably so, as it was one that they hoped could get their 2022 MLS season off on the right path.
Instead, they were left reeling after a 4-0 loss, one where the Crew got their licks in early and often en route to a pretty dominant performance in front of their home fans at Lower.com field.
Not only that, but the ‘Caps hardly had a sniff in the game, either, as the result was fully deserved, which is almost more concerning considering where the ‘Caps are at as a team right now.
Be it through the tactical battle, which the ‘Caps lost handily, to the overall compete battle, where the ‘Caps just seemed to get overrun, it was an afternoon to forget on many fronts for Vanni Sartini’s side.
The good news, however? It’s still early in the campaign, as there are still 33 games out of 34 left to play, so it’s very likely that this result won’t end up defining the ‘Caps season. Plus, based on Sartini’s post-game comments, the scope of this result isn’t lost on him, nor are the reasons why his team lost the game.
At the same time, this does also increase the ‘Caps need to win their home opener this weekend, when they’ll take on defending MLS Cup Champions New York City FC at BC Place.
Again, with it still being early in the season, and this being an intra-conference MLS matchup, it isn’t a must-win game from the standings standpoint (is there such a thing as a must-win this early on in the campaign?), to be fair. But at the same time, given how their performance in the opener was a throwback to the Marc Dos Santos era, something we didn’t see often under Sartini in his 14 game spell as interim manager last season, that is a bit of a cause for concern.
Especially after what was seen as a pretty strong preseason, one of the better ones in recent memory, it would be a bit concerning to see the ‘Caps take a step back to an older version of themselves through their first few games of the campaign.
So now, the ‘Caps will look to learn from what they saw transpire out on the field in Columbus, and try and bring that back home to BC Place, where they’ll look to keep that stadium a fortress after finishing with a record of 7 wins, 1 loss and 1 draw in the 9 games they played since returning there in August of last year.
And seeing that, here are some of those things they’ll specifically want to highlight from when looking back at that opener, as they get set to really get their season going in a big way in their second match.
What did the stats say?
So naturally, when diving back into that game, you can lead with an opening question – were the ‘Caps really full value for the loss they suffered?
From an eye test standpoint, it certainly felt like it. They hardly had a sniff at goal, so the zero they put up offensively felt deserved, and defensively, it just felt like they were subject to an endless stream of Crew chances, making the four feel deserved, if not a tad bit harsh.
But when looking at the stats, are those sentiments validated?
And the answer is a pretty easy yes, too. Not only was the possession strongly in favour of the hosts, sitting at 56.5%-43.5%, but the shots were also similar, sitting at 21-7 (with shots on target 7-0 for Columbus).
Plus when looking at the advanced stats, they paint a similar picture, as the Crew obliterated the ‘Caps in the Expected Goals (xG) battle, where they had 3.4 xG to the ‘Caps 0.4, showing that not only were they generating a good quantity of chances, but good quality chances, too (for further reference, the Crew had 5 big chances to the ‘Caps 0 per SofaScore).
So overall, it’s safe to say that the stats back up the eye test, and let’s just say it isn’t pretty.
Not only did the ‘Caps struggle defensively, but they didn’t make up for it with much at the other end, either, which is a bit of a worry.
Because of that, it really makes you wonder what version of the ‘Caps we’ll see in their home opener now. You certainly would expect their offence to improve, as it’s hard for them to do much worse than they did, but the big question mark is the defence.
Of course, they probably won’t give up 3.5 xG again (and if they do, there’s a big problem), but there is no secret that they weren’t always that great defensively last year, either.
Because of that, while it felt like the defence improved a lot under Sartini, the numbers were quite similar under him as they were under Dos Santos, as the ‘Caps gave up 1.5 xG a game under Dos Santos, and 1.48 xG under Sartini.
The big difference, however, was that Sartini got a lot more timely scoring from his charges, which along with Maxime Crépeau, one of the top goalkeepers in MLS, papered over a lot of those cracks. You combine that with some timely scoring, and their home dominance, and that led them to qualify for the playoffs.
But now, with Crépeau gone, the ‘Caps were going to have to find a way to defend better, because while his replacement, the 22-year-old Thomas Hasal, is expected to be a good goalkeeper in MLS one day, he’s young and still has to grow into the position.
So to see the ‘Caps struggle as they did defensively in the first game is a worry, as it just further exacerbated the idea that they need to be better on that side of their game.
Therefore, they’re going to have to be a lot better in that area going forward, especially as Hasal grows into the starting role.
To end on a positive note, however, it’s worth noting that the defensive performance wasn’t all bad. For example, while the Crew had a lot of xG, the ‘Caps actually kept them to 1.5 xG before they lost centre back, Jake Nerwinski, to a red card, which is where the floodgates really opened.
Plus, when you look at the goals themselves, there were a lot of individual errors, of the likes you’d like to hope would be ironed out as the ‘Caps find their game rhythm here.
So now, the ‘Caps will just have to find a way to work through those pains as they ease into the season, because if they’re going to compete, they need to be much better at both ends, and what we saw on Saturday is a big example of why.
Ryan Gauld’s role:
And part of those changes will be to just find a way to get more out of the players that the ‘Caps available. There’s no doubt that the ‘Caps have a good roster, but they need to find a way to get the most of what they have.
They did that on their run last year, but didn’t do a very good job of repeating that in this opener, as it felt like a lot of players looked out of place in their roles.
One of those players, for example? Ryan Gauld, the ‘Caps DP #10, and main difference-maker up front.
He didn’t have a bad game, as he was arguably one of the only ‘Caps who seemed to get anything going at both ends, but it felt like he just wasn’t able to fully influence the game in the way that he wanted to.
Deployed as more of a #8, a bit of a change from the out-and-out #10 role he occupied last year, he had to track back a lot more than usual, and while he was actually pretty good at doing that, finishing with 3 tackles and winning 11/16 of his duels, the ‘Caps sacrificed a lot of his offence in that role.
It’s no coincidence that in a game where he wasn’t able to get as many touches in the final third as usual, the ‘Caps offence struggled, and a look at his heat map shows as much.
So for the ‘Caps, they have to find a way to change that. While they’re going to need a lot more from everyone in the lineup, they won’t win many games where Gauld has just 1 shot and 1 key pass, a far cry from the 1.9 shots and 2.4 key passes a game that he averaged last year.
And because of that, it might make sense for them to consider moving Gauld up the pitch.
Yes, you do have to admire the shift that he put up defensively, and you can only wonder if the score could’ve been even worse if he wasn’t doing the work that he did, but the ‘Caps need his offence more than his defence.
The more touches he can get in the final third, the better, and while it didn’t help that the ‘Caps were against a very sturdy Columbus midfield, which pushed Gauld back even further, deploying him higher up the pitch is a way to fix that.
As seen earlier, the ‘Caps relied a lot on timely scoring, and while they’ll want to improve their offensive structure so that they don’t have to do that, either way Gauld will be key to their success at doing both of those things.
There’s a reason why he almost won MLS Newcomer of the year despite showing up late, and the ‘Caps need to make sure that they don’t move away from what made him successful, making it imperative that he returns to more of a familiar role.
But while Gauld’s deployment was certainly one of the more high-profile cases where you felt like the ‘Caps could’ve gotten more out of a player, he wasn’t the only one that felt like he was a bit out of position.
Because of that, it opens up questions on if the ‘Caps should continue to run with this 3-1-4-2 formation that they’ve employed throughout preseason and into the opener.
From the back 3, that looked quite stretched out, to the wing backs, who were all over the place, as well as the gaps in midfield, the team just overall didn’t look comfortable in that set-up.
As a result, it makes the shift from more of a 3-4-1-2 to this 3-1-4-2 a curious one, as while there isn’t much difference between the two set-ups, the former just seemed to suit the team more than the latter.
Especially when you consider that this formation switch moved someone like Gauld from an out-and-out #10 role to a box-to-box #8, all just to get a #6 on the pitch instead of a #10, which is a curious move on its own when you realize that the ‘Caps best #6 is currently on loan in Serie B, and of course when you consider Gauld’s new position.
Yes, the ‘Caps also didn’t do themselves any favours by leading key leaders Erik Godoy and Florian Jungwirth off the pitch, as well as 2021 standout Cristian Gutierrez, but even beyond the individual personnel changes, everything just felt off.
Because of all that, you can only wonder how long the ‘Caps will stick with this formation switch, or if they might return to the 3-4-1-2, or even more of a traditional 4-3-3.
But no matter which of those two they pick (the 3-4-1-2 would seem to be more logical, for now), there are definitely going to need to be adjustments no matter what formation ends up being used.
Yes, it’s early in the season, so it’s possible that things change, but with a lot of players played out of position, or in roles they didn’t look their best in, it also feels like change might be a little harder to come by than if, say, some of the players were in a formation that suits them.
And that looks to be the 3-4-1-2, especially as it puts Gauld in a position to succeed, while also giving them more of a natural look in midfield, especially if last year is something to go off of.
Either way, though, one thing is clear, and that’s that the effort needs to be better no matter the set-up, but what we saw in this game does open up the question.
And because of that, it’ll now be interesting to see what version of the ‘Caps we see in their home opener, both in terms of how they set up, but also their compete level.
Overall, as seen by the numbers, this game wasn’t pretty, and while there are many factors that contributed to that, it also reflects the effort that the ‘Caps put in, which no matter what changes, needs to be better.
So at the very least, if they do that, you’d like to hope for a better performance. Especially against a solid NYCFC team, one that will be hurting after losing 1-0 late to the LA Galaxy in their opener, the Champions come into this game with a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
As a result, the ‘Caps are going to need to come out a lot stronger in all sorts of areas in this game, because if not, they might risk disappointing their fans, especially after what we saw last week.
But based on what we saw last year, and what we know about the roster, there’s a lot more to give, so while the question will be asked of if they have enough more to compete, a good performance here would go a long way towards proving it.
Therefore, the ‘Caps will have every incentive to want to put the stink of that opening match behind them, allowing them to get their season going, pushing them back towards where they want to be right now.
Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs New York City FC, Saturday, March 5th 2022, 15:00 PST, 18:00 EST (BC Place, Vancouver)