Match Preview: Whitecaps look to put expansion St. Louis City in their place

The Vancouver Whitecaps will take on St. Louis City SC for the first time in club history, tangling with the upstart expansion side on Saturday in Missouri. St. Louis has more than surpassed the modest expectations most had for their inaugural season, riding a hot start to third place in the Western Conference. The bulk of that success came before losing playmaker Joao Klauss to injury, a blow that sent Bradley Carnell’s tactics into flux and caused them to go over a month without a league win.

They got things back on track in a big way last week, however, entering the derby match with Sporting KC with a new intensity that saw them batter their regional rival 4-0. Carnell’s side was dismissed by the more cynical in MLS as being merely the beneficiary of a few lucky bounces that helped them get off to a hot start. And, in truth, the underlying numbers did show some room for regression. St. Louis leads the league in goals per match and has 26 tallies this year on only 15.6 expected goals. But Carnell’s gegenpressing style was also to credit for forcing some of those mistakes. St. Louis doesn’t want the ball, holding possession less than nearly every other team in the league. They combined this with Klauss, an inspired playmaker, to catch many of their early opponents out.

The good news for the Caps is that Klauss is unlikely to return to face them. His absence has left Carnell a dilemma, though he finally seemed to hit on something in terms of playing midfielder Eduard Löwen a bit deeper, freeing up Nico Gioacchini.

Their defense, meanwhile, has been a bit boom or bust, not something totally unexpected for a high pressing team that likes a somewhat higher line. Here again, underlying numbers show a bit of a path towards regression — they’ve conceded a respectable 13 goals on 19 expected goals. Old friends Tim Parker and Jake Nerwinski feature but it’s been Jared Stroud who has been their most impactful defender to date. Still, it will be interesting to see how the Caps respond to such a high pressing side. Vancouver is officially now a possession team but has had some moments where they’ve struggled on the ball in their own defensive third, gifting some chances to the opposition in the FC Dallas match, a trend that continued (but was not punished) against Pacific FC.

The loss of Ali Ahmed will also mean a loss of a useful tool to break the press, upping the pressure on Tristan Blackmon and the fullbacks to ping accurate balls and bypass the midfield if need be. Andres Cubas is hopefully back on track after a couple errors and will be vital as well. The Caps will be hamstrung by the simple fact that they will have to go to City Park, which has quickly become one of the toughest venues in MLS and a fortress for the home side. They’ve only twice lost at home this season and getting a result will be a tough task for Vancouver.

That being said, I think it’s eminently possible the Caps can at least come away with a draw, if they can limit the mistakes that have plagued them in recent matches. The room for error is slight, but the creative players in this side can punish a team caught out of position. This feels like one where they can control enough of the match to grab a 1-1 draw and retreat to BC Place.

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