There are a few ways to look at the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 0-0 draw with the Colorado Rapids at BC Place on Saturday.
If you’re a glass-half-full type of person, you’d be encouraged that it was the seventh league game in a row where the ‘Caps picked up a point, as well as the fact that it was their fourth straight clean sheet. Plus, you’d be encouraged that they controlled most of the play, and probably should’ve won the game.
For those who are more of the glass-half-empty type, however, it’s a lot more gloomy – it’s a second straight game being shut out, it’s the fifth time they’ve dropped points during that seven-game unbeaten run, and it was a third home game this season where they dropped points.
Safe to say, it’s a conflicting time to watch the Whitecaps. By the eye test and underlying numbers, this team is quietly playing the best they’ve arguably ever played in their time in MLS.
This has got to be the worst (negative) performances-to-results ratio in Whitecaps history. #VWFC
— Caleb Wilkins (@wilkins_caleb24) April 30, 2023
For example, look at the Expected Goals (xG). A stat that they’ve typically struggled with the past few years, as they’ve often been quite permissive defensively, and reliant on moments of magic offensively, they’ve been elite in that category this season.
After this match, they’re now second in MLS in xG for per game with 1.76, and eighth in xG against with 1.12. As a result, they’re second in MLS in expected goal difference with 0.59 xGD, only behind the mighty LAFC.
In particular, there’s a lot to like defensively, as the ‘Caps have really stepped up that side of their game as of late. They’re not earning those clean sheets through flukes, as over their last five games, they’ve allowed just 3.96 xG, and that’s including a penalty.
Led by Ranko Veselinovic and Tristan Blackmon at the back, and supported by Andrés Cubas in midfield and Yohei Takaoka in goal, the Whitecaps have finally got some stability on that side of their game, and it’s showing.
“They’ve got leadership, and I’m really comfortable when they’re in front of me,” Takaoka said of his teammates after the most recent match. “This relationship will only get better, so we will keep building on this.”
As someone once said, it’s important to defend as a team, and the Whitecaps have certainly got that memo.
“I’m really happy about that, it’s been our whole defence, not just me,” Takaoka continued. “Everyone’s been working hard, and that’s allowed us to keep these clean sheets.”
“It’s another (clean sheet) for us, that’s the biggest thing,” Blackmon added. “We had a bunch of individual performances that came together for the clean sheet. It’s not just me, everyone in the backline plays a part. Obviously, we’ve got stuff to work on individually, but I’m happy with the performance and looking forward to getting more games with this backline.”
From there, players are stepping up when needed. Against the Rapids, Blackmon put his body on the line twice to snuff out dangerous chances, before Takaoka made a huge penalty save with the score still 0-0 in the 79th minute.
Takaoka keeps this game level with just minutes to go. pic.twitter.com/sBLaUjzA8k
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 30, 2023
Plus, the team is doing a good job of also alleviating the load they put on themselves defensively, as they’re holding onto the ball a lot more, and are pushing up the field.
Before, part of their defensive struggles before came from the fact that they’d often spend large chunks of the game defending. Now, however, they’re spending a lot more time on the front foot, and that’s played a big role in their defensive boost.
“In the last seven MLS games, we’ve conceded three goals, and it’s not because we defend, but because we attack much more than the other team, so we just need to capitalize on our chances,” Sartini explained.
Yet, for all of the joy they’ve had defensively, the questions remain on the attack, something they’ll need to figure out, and quickly.
Other than a five-goal outburst against a CF Montréal side that was down to 10 players, they’ve got just six goals in the other eight games, which is less than ideal.
They’ve had the chances, but are lacking conviction in front of goal, especially when it comes to key moments.
Therefore, that’s the next big task for Sartini – to get his team humming on offence.
Mathematically, goals should start falling eventually, as Brian White isn’t going to underperform his xG forever (right… right?), but even then, tweaks should be made to find a magical formula.
Be it by starting two strikers up front, getting a bit more width, trying out three #10s or anything else, all should be on the table for Vancouver as they try to fix this problem.
Once the goals come, they’ll be flying, but until then, they’re left to try and take off without wings.
The good news? It’s easier to move without wings versus not having an engine, but at a certain point, something’s got to give.
For Sartini, he’ll continue to plug away, as he tries to avoid seeing this defensive success go to waste.
“We have to be better at capitalizing on our chances,” he admitted. “And that has been a little bit of our music this season, but it’s better hearing that music than the music of not even having the chances, so we just need to focus on (fixing) the last chord of the music and then go from there.”
(Image credit: Vancouver Whitecaps)