How far are the Whitecaps from being MLS Cup Contenders?

With the Whitecaps finally having an off week, we’ve had a chance to catch our breath and evaluate the team. Normally there is a 3000-word essay by me about everything that’s going wrong at this point. But this year things are going pretty well. The Whitecaps have already won a trophy, are fairly comfortably in a playoff spot, and are playing the most exciting style of soccer in their MLS history. So the real question to ask is not so much if the Whitecaps are good but rather how good they are. 

Things have evened out somewhat but the ‘Caps are still running marginally behind their underlying numbers. American Soccer Analysis model suggests Vancouver ought to have 26 points instead of 22. Fbref is not quite as high on them but still shows them being a tad hard done by. So we can probably conclude that the Whitecaps are probably a little unlucky to be where they are but are nevertheless still short of being a genuine cup contender. This is territory the Whitecaps have not been in for quite some time. When you’re thinking about how to improve the squad, you aren’t talking about replacing bad players with good ones. You are talking about replacing good players with elite players to squeeze the last little bit of juice you can out of the MLS roster rules. 

You may recall that we have discussed the benchmarks that championship teams usually hit in the past. To refresh your memory, the average MLS champion scores approximately 58 goals (approx. 1.7 per game) and concedes approximately 38 (approx 1.13 per game). The Whitecaps average 1.6 xG for per game and 1.27 xG against per game. So they need a small swing in their favour on both attack and defence. 

Let’s look at the attack first, because it’s easier to measure in general and because I see one pretty obvious spot where they could make gains. Brian White and Ryan Gauld are near the best at their position when it comes to direct shot creation. They are in the 95th and 88th percentile respectively for non-penalty xG+xA for their position. It would be hard to do better than they have done this season (at least in terms of underlying, obviously they have had some bad finishing luck). But finding them a third musketeer has been a challenge. Cristian Dájome accomplished little before he was traded, Sergio Cordova has been an unmitigated disaster, and we still don’t really know what Deiber Caicedo’s level is post-injury. Pedro Vite is probably the best option but he is more of a distributor than he is a direct goal threat. Vite sits in the 35th percentile for non-penalty xG+xA but is off the charts in pretty much every passing stat. His best position, in the long run, will probably be as an attacking #8, a role Vanni Sartini seems to be more comfortable playing him in. 

So, if the Whitecaps can find themselves a 3rd player who can deliver over 0.5 goal contributions per 90 then they could legitimately lay claim to having the best attack in the league (if they are able to keep Gressel, inshallah). In terms of style I think the ideal player would be someone who likes to be on the ball (White already fills the poacher role very well), but is also comfortable running in behind and is a goal threat themselves (Gauld already fills the final 3rd playmaker role). 

In defence things are a bit trickier. But one area that has stood out as a weakness this season has been conceding headed goals both from open play and set pieces. Now, as far as weaknesses go, this is a great weakness to have. Headers are a low-percentage way of scoring goals. But when you give up a ton of low-percentage chances some of them are going to go in. Vancouver concedes the 5th most successful crosses into the box per 90 in the league. They are also below average in the percentage of aerial duels they win. Combine this with a goalkeeper who’s a little undersized and you have a problem. Not a big problem, I have to stress, but a problem nonetheless. Vancouver’s narrow formation is naturally going to invite a lot of crosses so there is only so much that can be done to reduce the danger from crosses. But that’s ok, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here, we just need a slightly sturdier defence. 

The thing to do, in my view, is to try and stop crosses at the source. I think by most measures, qualitative and quantitative, left-back is the weakest spot in Vancouver’s lineup. Luis Martins looks very shaky in defence and his attacking contributions are not quite as high as you would hope. The numbers confirm that your eyes do not deceive you. Ryan Raposo is fine and should be the first choice in my opinion, but he’s not going to be an MLS all-star. So, a left-back who is a stronger 1v1 defender and can give you a little bit more offensive kick would help the Whitecaps quite a bit. Another possible solution would be to find the next Kendall Waston and stick him in the centre of defence. But this might be a move that creates more problems than it solves. Ranko Veselinovic and Tristan Blackmon might not be the most aerially dominant centre-back pairing of all time but we have to remember they are still effective overall. An aerially dominant centre-back might mean you concede fewer goals from set pieces but if he then causes you to concede more goals from open play then the move isn’t worthwhile. Certainly, another centre-back is needed. Confidence in Karifa Yao seems to be extremely low (understandable as his appearances in a Whitecaps shirt have not been reassuring) and Matias Laborda is clearly seen as more of a right-back. But I’m not sure I would be rushing to break up the Veselinovic-Blackmon partnership as the go-to. 

Of course, it’s easy to say all of this but there are logistical challenges. The Whitecaps have 12 international players under contract. They will have 9 spaces by default and Canadian teams are allowed to count three internationals who have been on the team for at least a year as domestics. So in order to make any additional international signings, there will need to be outgoings. There also isn’t a huge amount of money coming off the books. The Whitecaps are fully off the hook for Cristian Dájome’s eye-watering 965k contract next year. Russell Teibert’s 450k contract also comes off the books and all signs point to this being his last year. But Julian Gressel and Ranko Vesleinovic will need new contracts so some of that money is going to get eaten up. You also have Sergio Cordova eating up a DP slot and providing almost nothing. If that DP slot were open then the additional attacking player I described would be a great use of it. But getting that sort of player under the TAM threshold is a bigger challenge. 

It’s probably too early to start getting into specific targets for any of these roles. But we can start thinking broadly about how to solve the logistical problems. There have been recent reports in The Athletic that there is interest from abroad in Javain Brown. As long as they are being offered fair value, I think the Whitecaps should take those offers. I think they should also explore sales for any of their non-essential international players if they can get good value. The squad is going to have to contract a little bit in order to create the space for major improvements. There is probably also a need to orient the squad slightly more towards domestic players. A lack of reliable Canadians almost hurt the team in the Canadian Championship so it would be good to have a few more from that perspective. But it would also give the roster more flexibility (something that it seriously lacks right now) when it comes to building towards a title charge in MLS.

4 thoughts on “How far are the Whitecaps from being MLS Cup Contenders?

  1. What a thoughtful and useful analysis. I agree with your wing-back comments. Caps need higher quality for these poisitions, especially on the left side.

    One of the reasons wide opponents have time to put dangerous crosses into the box involves slow recoveries made by the wing-backs. You need a high fitness level and the mental toughnes to urge yourself back behind the ball after losing possession–something on the level Gauld at his best demonstrates further up the field. The Caps lack players who fit that description, and Martine in particular rarely wins a tackle.He often seems satisfied to tuck his hands behind his back and provide only loose pressure on the ball.

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