The Vancouver Whitecaps’ long-standing battle for consistency raged on this past Saturday, as they fell 3-2 to the Seattle Sounders in a topsy-turvy Cascadia derby.
Despite taking a 2-1 lead in the 72nd minute, the Whitecaps were unable to hold on for all three points the rest of the way, as the Sounders nabbed two late goals to grab the win.
Vancouver’s first home loss in 10 league games, it was also their third straight home game in which they dropped points, as they fell to ninth in MLS’s Western Conference with the result.
Because of that, they continued what has been an enigmatic campaign to date. With this game, their 20th of the season, they now sit with a record of 6W-7D-7L for a total of 25 points.
Not only that, but they’ve now remained yet to win three games in a row this season, but are also yet to lose three in a row either, summing up the sort of campaign it has been for them to this point.
For better or for worse, consistency has remained elusive for them, which leaves them stuck in MLS’s mushy middle at the moment.
And this Seattle game was a perfect reflection of that seesaw battle with consistency that they’ve faced.
On the positive side of that ledger, they came out brightly, scoring an early goal off a well-worked set piece to go up 1-0. Then, they continued to push for a second goal despite that, even if it didn’t come all the way until after Seattle scored an equalizer of their own.
Then, in even better news, Ryan Gauld maintained his red-hot form, as he continues to play at a dominant level for Vancouver right now.
With a goal and one assist in this game, Gauld now has five goals and four assists in his last six MLS games, as he’s arguably playing some of his best soccer in a Whitecaps shirt, as shown in his commitment to his team on both sides of the ball.
“Ryan’s doing very well,” Whitecaps head coach, Vanni Sartini said afterwards. “It’s good to see him not just get the goal and the assist, but to be there attacking and defending, attacking and defending all game long.”
— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) July 9, 2023
Unfortunately for Vancouver, however, they’ve been wasting that sort of top-level production – over that stretch, they’ve had a fitting record of 2W-2D-2L, picking up eight of a possible 18 points.
Yet, that ties nicely into the negative side of the ledger that they also faced in this game – they allowed three goals for a second straight game and a fourth time all season, and for a first time at home. Plus, even more frustratingly, they allowed all three goals off set pieces, an area of concern they’d previously struggled with but had seemingly cleaned up.
That proved costly, as that wasted just the sixth time they’ve scored two or more goals this season, the first such time that they’ve dropped points while doing that.
Vanni Sartini says his team were "naive" and "too" casual on the Sounders goals. Was satisfied with the performance but wasn't happy with the defending. #VWFC
— Joshua Rey (@JoshuaRey00) July 9, 2023
Now, that has left them in an intriguing position with 14 games to go. Still in a playoff position (technically a play-in position with the new format), and with games in hand on everyone in front of them, they remain in a good spot despite their inconsistency.
At the same time, their biggest battle looms – of those 14 games, eight of them are on the road, including a stretch of seven consecutive road games that kicks off in late August.
Given that they’ve only won one road game in MLS in the past 12 and a half months, and sit with a record of 1W-3D-5L on the road this year, that looms as a big obstacle in their quest to make the playoffs.
And, even if they were to make the playoffs at this stage, their road record would be a big concern, as their projected seeding would put some road playoff games in their future.
Yet, that’s the frustrating thing about Vancouver’s middling record – the rest of the Western Conference remains in a similar position to them, begging for a team to go on a run and climb up the table.
Other than St.Louis City at the top of the table, and Seattle just underneath them, the only two teams with double-digit wins in the West (there are already five such teams in the East), the rest of the West has found winning to be a tough task, reflected in an 11-point split between third and 13th.
Of course, that’s good news for the Whitecaps’ playoff hopes – they should be able to make it if they return to their usual home form, which has been one of the best in the league over the last few years, but they sit with a good chance to push up the table.
Now, however, they must make the most of it, especially at home, where they can’t afford to be dropping many more games as they did versus Seattle.
For what it’s worth, Sartini is not worried, when asked about his team’s recent home after the game, and what lies ahead.
“We will make the playoffs,” Sartini confidently noted. “You can make the headline now, no problem.”
“We’ll make the playoffs, so you can make the headline, no problem.”#VWFC's Vanni Sartini asked by @AlexGangueRuzic about any concern not getting maximum points in the last three home games. #MLS pic.twitter.com/SKsr5RE3MG
— Har Journalist (@HarJournalist) July 9, 2023
And to be fair, he’s fair to have that belief, as the ‘Caps continue to play entertaining soccer by the eye test, while the numbers continue to point to a team that should be scoring much more than they have so far.
Yet, as the results have shown, something will have to give – this is a results-based business, after all, and those have continued to be elusive.
That’s the battle this Whitecaps team now faces, as they look to prove that they can take that step forward that their performances seem to suggest they deserve, allowing them to leave that mushy middle behind.
With two big home games this week versus Austin and the LA Galaxy, anything but two wins from two will feel like a failure, further hurting their chances to get out of that mushy middle.
“The pressure now is higher,” Whitecaps defender, Ranko Veselinovic, said afterwards. “It’s still tight, and it’s going to be tight until the last game but we need wins, especially as we know that we have the stretch later in the season with seven away games, so these games are really important.”
Image Credit: Vancouver Whitecaps