Vancouver Whitecaps show good growth, but revert to old habits in season-opening loss to RSL

The Vancouver Whitecaps opened their 2023 MLS season with a 2-1 loss to RSL at BC Place. Here’s a look back at what went wrong for them in this one.

It was a tale of two halves for the Whitecaps. 

During the first stanza, you’d be excused if you took a double take. Or rechecked your match program. Certainly most of those watching the game seemed to be on the verge of wanting to pinch themselves based on what they were seeing in front of them. 

But then, an old, familiar face returned in the second half, leaving many to groan at the sight of a sight that many thought they left behind in 2022. 

Yet, that sums up what kind of evening it was for the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place on Saturday, as they fell 2-1 to Real Salt Lake to kick off their 2023 MLS season. 

In a game that many expected them to win, allowing them to build off a strong preseason, they instead fell back into the trap of some old habits, especially on the defensive side of things. 

Not only that, but they essentially threw away what looked to be a sure win, too, as they actually started the game fantastically, but then completely hit a wall in the second half.

And that’s what was most frustrating about the result if you’re the Whitecaps. It would have been one thing if Vancouver came out flat, and just overall lacked the rhythm and pace required to start an MLS season. They certainly wouldn’t have been the first team in MLS history to have done that, as sometimes you just need a game or two to find your legs in MLS, a league that certainly doesn’t lack energy and pace in most games. 

But that was not a problem for the ‘Caps to start this game, who looked in midseason form in the first half, playing like a team that genuinely looked ready to make that next step that many are wondering if it’s time for them to finally take. 

So for them to go from playing like that, to throwing away a result in the span of 10 minutes in the second half, that’s where the frustration lies, a feeling that was certainly felt by the team post-game. 

“It’s hard to say (what happened),” Whitecaps captain, Ryan Gauld, said afterwards. “In the first half, we were passing the ball really well, pressing quite high. For one reason or another in the second half, however, we weren’t doing that and they started pressing a little bit higher and it was harder for us to build out.”

“It should have been more than 1-0 in the first half because we played really well,” head coach, Vanni Sartini, added. “Unfortunately we didn’t capitalize on the work that we did, in terms of build up and arriving in the final third, and then we got punished. The meaning of today is that playing well is not enough – we need to be also more clinical inside the box.”

Yet it was just that kind of night for Vancouver. 

They got off to a dream start to the game, immediately grabbing control of proceedings and dictating the flow of play, and were instantly rewarded for their initiative, as Julian Gressel found Javain Brown with an inch-perfect corner to make it 1-0 in the 24th minute. 

And from there, with their lead in their back pocket, they then took another step forward, too, looking like a team that really wanted to go out and win the game. As a result, a couple of strong chances soon followed, including a point-blank Cristian Dajome chance that probably should’ve ended up in the net, leading them to reach half time feeling rather good about themselves.

So although they might’ve felt that they should’ve been up by more, they certainly had a lot to be content about, as unlike in 2022, where they often started slow in games, struggling to control matches, that couldn’t have been further from what they showed in this game. 

But then, things started to slowly unravel. RSL came out with some jump in their legs in the second half, and really started to push the initiative, forcing a couple of nice saves out of new Whitecaps goalkeeper, Yohei Takaoka. 

To be fair to Takaoka, he then responded brilliantly, making some excellent stops, some that Vancouver might not have gotten last year, but it was a worry, as you just felt that the Whitecaps’ lead was too thin for them to have to be over-relying on Takaoka that early.

Those concerns then proved to be correct, too, as RSL then scored two goals in two minutes in the 70th minute, and that’d be all this game had to offer, as while Vancouver had a strong push to end the game, RSL did well to limit any clear cut chances from the hosts. 

Because of that, what was supposed to be a dream home opener turned into a familiar sight of a frustrating self-inflicted wound, leading many to wonder if this new Whitecaps side just isn’t quite as far ahead in their growth cycle as some anticipated.

At the same time, it’s not all gloom and doom for Vancouver. Of course, the three points they dropped could loom large in a few months’ time, but they did learn a few key lessons in this game. 

First, they need to be far more clinical with their chances. For them to have out-possessed RSL 56-44, outshot them 18-11, and have won the xG battle 1.99-1.07 (per the American Soccer Analysis model), yet to lose 2-1, that just can’t happen.

Of course, it’s positive to see them put up those sorts of numbers, as they should win most games where they play like that, but it served as an important reminder that while a game can be dominated in the middle, it is mostly decided in the boxes. 

Secondly, they’ll need to be far more responsive in matches. Not only did RSL come out strongly in the second half, but the momentum shift actually started in the last three minutes of the first half, even if it was lost in the shuffle of all the early Vancouver dominance. 

Yet, despite that, Sartini, who usually isn’t shy in turning to his bench to make changes early, didn’t make his first sub until the 66th minute, when he brought in Pedro Vite for Dajome.

That change nearly paid off almost immediately, too, as Vite helped create a 3v1 that Brian White should’ve done far better with, before RSL went up and got their equalizer on the subsequent attack. 

Seeing the energy that move brought, that can only make you wonder what other changes could’ve been made earlier on, such as at full back or up front, two areas of the pitch where Vancouver were really starting to fade. 

Lastly, they’ll need to find a way to stay disciplined defensively. For the most part, they did well to keep RSL mostly away from their goal, as the numbers show, but there’s still a frailty that seems to exist within the team’s ranks defensively, as evidenced by the two breakdowns on both goals. 

For example, in a game like this, a strong defensive would’ve probably avoided conceding in the way that Vancouver did, finding a way to bend, not break at the pressure. 

But for Vancouver, it just felt like they were destined to concede once the chances started coming, and while part of that might be confirmation bias following their 2022 season, that just shows the mental hurdle that they need to get over in that regard. 

As seen during preseason, where they had some good results, a lot of that came off the back of good defending. Games weren’t being won 4-1, or 3-2, but instead 1-0 or 2-1, with the ‘Caps defence giving them a chance in games, and not vice versa. 

Because of that, they’ll need to avoid games like this RSL one, especially as this offence finds their legs this season, mainly in terms of figuring out who will consistently score the goals. For now, this isn’t a team that’s going to be winning many 4-3 games anytime soon, so until they find that offence, they’re going to need to be at their best defensively. 

The good news is that there are some tweaks that should help them there. Takaoka certainly looks to have some magic in his locker, and the ‘Caps did leave out new signing Matiás Laborda from this game, a move that backfired and will likely not be repeated given that the team seemed to defend well when he played in preseason. 

And from there, if they can continue to build on the other parts of their game, such as their much-improved possession game, which was patient, direct and incisive for most of the match, results should soon follow. 

But as this game reminded many, that process is ongoing, and won’t happen overnight.

Now, the team will need some of it to come quickly, as some big games loom, but the next step in that process will have to wait until they travel to San Jose next weekend, as the games start to come fast and thick here. 

“We need to be proud of our attitude and our way of playing, but also we need to be pissed and disappointed and critical with ourselves, because we need to be better,” Sartini accurately mused post-game. 

Cover Photo via: Vancouver Whitecaps

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