3 key storylines as the Whitecaps get set to begin second half of 2023 MLS season

The Vancouver Whitecaps capped off a four-game homestand last week, as they drew Supporters Shield leading FC Cincinnati 1-1 at BC Place, after a late Ryan Gauld penalty cancelled out a Lucho Acosta wondergoal just minutes earlier. 

With that, the Whitecaps also reached the halfway mark of their MLS regular season, as they played their 17th of 34 games. 

Along with a further three in the Canadian Championship, and four in the Concacaf Champions League, that’s more than enough time to give a pretty accurate reflection of what this team is, and where they could stand to improve. 

Ultimately, sitting sixth in the Western Conference, and 16th in MLS play, at the conclusion of their last match, they’ve overall had a middling run of results, and the latest draw is a reflection of that. Yet, that doesn’t feel accurate to the performances and underlying numbers the team has put up so far this season, as they’ve felt better than what the standings tell them.

They’ve shown that in glimpses – such as in May home wins over the Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders and Minnesota United, as well as their recent triumph in the Canadian Championship, but have also been left frustrated in several of their other matches, with this Cincinnati game being another example of that.

“How many teams in MLS can say that they already won a trophy this year? And are we in a playoff position?” head coach Vanni Sartini pondered after the Cincinnati match when asked about where he thought his team was at the halfway point. “We’re in sixth tonight, we’re not even in the play-in, we’re in the playoffs, so if we do the second half of the season like the first season, we’ll win another trophy and we’ll be in the playoffs.”

“Of course, that’s asking for a lot, but I think the first half of the season has been very good. We just need to be a little better in bringing those contested games where it has been 51-49 in our favour, to turn those into three points (instead of draws).”

With all of that in mind, here’s a look at a few key storylines that Vancouver’s carried with them into this halfway mark of the campaign, which just happens to perfectly coincide with an international break, giving them a bit of rest before resuming action on June 21st. 

Ryan Gauld comes alive at perfect time for Vancouver, as Pedro Vite keeps shining: 

Heading into this four-game homestand, Ryan Gauld was sitting in a frustrating position.

He’d been playing relatively well, but had been snakebitten statistically, sitting with no goals and three assists in 16 games in all competitions. Not only that, but he’d not fully looked like himself – he was still making things happen in the final third, but still had another gear to hit the dominant levels he has in him.

Now, with four goals in his last four games in all competitions, going along with a well-taken assist, that production has started to come, in a big way. 

Not only that, but he just looks like the Ryan Gauld he can be, able to completely take over a game with his performances. 

This Cincinnati game was a prime example of that. Just days removed from a dominant performance in the Canadian Championship final, he started this game on the bench after going 90 minutes in that game. 

As a result, he didn’t make his entrance until the 73rd minute. 

Despite that, he ended up completely changing the game after his insertion. Immediately, he got onto the ball in some dangerous spaces, and had some fantastic actions on the ball. 

Then, as his team went down in the 83rd minute, he found another gear, seemingly intent on willing his team to a result. Therefore, when they won a penalty just minutes later, it was a foregone conclusion that he’d step up and convert it, having already done so twice in just the last week alone. 

He did that, capping what ended up being a very bright showing despite the limited minutes, as he continues to play his best soccer of the season. 

For the Whitecaps, it has come at the perfect time for them, too, as they’re now getting some pretty good performances from across the board. Julian Gressel has arguably been the team’s MVP given his consistency offensively all season long, Yohei Takaoka has been immense in goal, and Brian White has rounded into form, but when Gauld’s at his best, he just has this way of dragging them along in a way no other player can. 

And the biggest winner of all that? Pedro Vite. 

Lately, he’s completely come into his own, scoring three goals in a stretch of four MLS games in May, while starting the last nine games in league play after starting just three of the first eight of the season. 

Not only that, but he’s been really starting to show an ability to take over games with his skill, especially now that he’s been putting in performances off the ball to match it. 

But while Vite has started to show an ability to do that on his own even without Gauld, he’s looked at his best when he and Gauld share the field, as they often are the only players who can play on the same wavelength in possession. 

When they do, it can be fun to watch, such as when the pair went supernova in that recent win over Houston, a 6-2 offensive outburst from the hosts. 

In a league where attacking midfielders are the bus drivers, it’s been clear that the Whitecaps have two pretty good ones, and when they get them clicking together? It’s usually led to good things. 

“It’s been fantastic, Gauld has been getting into his top condition now, and tonight, even if he only played 25 minutes, he was decisive,” Sartini said. 

“We are pleased that he’s doing very well, as we know it’s gonna be a hard month, we’re going to lose some players because of the Gold Cup, but we have plenty of players to replace those who will be gone (as it stands, Julian Gressel, Ali Ahmed, Javain Brown). 

Underlying numbers continue to paint a good picture – but dropped points loom large:

At the midway point of the season, the trend has remained true for the Whitecaps – their underlying numbers continue to be very strong. 

In particular, they’ve remained an elite chance-generation team, sitting second in all of MLS in Expected Goals (xG) per game with 1.60 as of writing, and first in non-penalty xG with 1.51 per game. 

Typically a team that sits a lot lower in those rankings – last year, they sat third-last in MLS with 1.13 xG per game – it’s been a huge improvement from this team. 

Yet, it shows what the eye test has continued to also prove – this team can play some pretty aesthetic soccer, especially when it comes to funnelling the ball into the final third. 

Despite that, however, they continue to also deal with another big problem – an inability to put those chances away. 

They’re sitting in eight in all of MLS with 1.41 goals per game, but that’s still 0.2 less than what their xG suggests – over 17 games, that’s over three goals they’ve missed out on, a total that was even much worse before recent matches such as the Houston clash. 

It might not seem like much, but it’s costing them in games – they’ve now tied seven games and lost five, and of those five losses, three of them were decided by one goal. 

If they’d finished their chances in those games, they could have had a huge swing of points in their favour and would be fair value to be a top 10 team in MLS at the bare minimum, instead of sitting where they are in the middle. 

READ MORE: How far are the Whitecaps from being MLS Cup Contenders?

Especially given that they’ve been a middling team defensively – they sit 16th in xG against with 1.28 per game, although they sit 11th in goals against with 1.18 thanks to goalkeeper Yohei Takoka, which is solid if not unspectacular. 

What that means is that unless they tighten up the ship defensively in the second half of the season, they’re going to need to be a team that scores their way to victories on most nights, instead of grinding out 1-0 and 2-1 wins. 

They’ve been able to do that on a few occasions, sitting with four victories in which they’ve scored two or more goals in a game, but as shown with their five 1-1 draws and two 0-0 draws, those are games where they’ll look back and feel like they left points on the table. 

Because of that, watch that trend in the second half of the season. If they keep playing well and generating those chances, that should pay off for them, especially if they tighten up defensively.

But that’s not going to come just like that, either, as it’ll be up to their attackers to be sharp in those decisive moments, helping them get the goals that it feels like they deserve, but haven’t gotten. 

Road form remains a worry: 

Lastly, there remains one big hurdle between the Whitecaps and becoming a top team in MLS – their road form. 

Given that 10 of the last 17 Whitecaps games will be on the road, some tough games await them, where they’ll need to be getting far more points than they have so far. 

Sitting with just three points from seven road games, the Whitecaps have accumulated the fewest road points of any team in MLS, and are one of just three teams that are yet to win a game on the road. 

But while that trend is already less than encouraging, it’s even worse when one realizes that the Whitecaps haven’t won a road game in MLS since June 18th, 2022, over a full calendar year ago. In the 15 road games since, seven points is all they’ve been able to accumulate, which is less than ideal. 

The good news is that the Whitecaps remain very good at home. After averaging 1.94 points per game at home in 2022, which was top 10 in the league, they’re averaging 1.9 points per game, which is just outside the top 10, and only have one loss at home. 

Plus, it feels like they could take a step forward at home, as they’ve had four draws, several of which they felt they could’ve won. 

Now, however, the road form needs to change. With 13 points in their last 23 road games in MLS, that’s been clear for a while now. 

If they’re to finish as a top-four team in the West, 50 points is a fair bar to hit, while 40 to 45 is what’s needed to make the playoffs. 

To hit 50 points, however, 1.47 points per game is the bar, slightly above the 1.29 points per game the Whitecaps are currently at. 

Assuming the Whitecaps keep performing similarly at home (which could actually be low balling it), they’ll pick up around 13 or 14 points of the 21 that remain up for grabs. 

That means to hit 50 from there, it’ll require them to nab 14 points from their 10 road games, an average of 1.4 points per game. For context, that would’ve been the eighth-best road record in MLS in 2022. 

But if the Whitecaps are to make that jump toward being a top team in MLS, the road form is what’s holding them back. 

Plus, the better they do on the road between now and the end of the season will allow for the possibility of fewer road games in the playoffs. 

Better to learn how to get wins on the road now versus in the playoffs, so no better time than the present for the Whitecaps to find that next gear there. 

With the new playoff format, the Whitecaps should make the postseason, but seeding will be a huge factor with those tweaks, and with just 10 points separating first and 12th, it’s time for them to push up the table, which will only come with road wins. 

“At home, we are more than a playoff team, at home, we are like a top three team in the league,” Sartini noted. “We’ve been very good. On the road, we’ve been okay in most of the games, we’ve been bad in only two games, in San Jose and in Portland, so we cannot allow any more of those bad games, because as the team that we are, we need to play well in order to win.”

“So we now have three games in a row away, and think we need to have an objective to make sure that our first win on the road comes in one of these next three games.”

Cover Photo via: Vancouver Whitecaps

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