Match Preview: Vancouver Whitecaps welcome Club León

Friday night at BC Place, the Vancouver Whitecaps will host the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League winning side Club León in their first match of the new Leagues Cup competition.

After two straight home wins over Austin FC and LA Galaxy in MLS play, Vancouver will be looking to carry their positive momentum right into the start of the new competition. In a group stage with only three teams per group, Vancouver has a real advantage by hosting the first game at home. If Vancouver is able to secure three points at home, they will all but guarantee passage to the elimination round, with two of the three teams coming out of each group. If they are able to pull this off, it takes most of the pressure off going down to LA next weekend.

In terms of their opposition, the headline stat is the fact that Club León won the CONCACAF Champions League this year, taking down LAFC by a combined 3-1 result over two legs back in early June. Interestingly, the winner of the previous year’s competition does not receive a birth in next season’s competition, which is very dumb. Nonetheless, you have to think León will be looking to use this tournament as an opportunity to buy themselves a ticket to defend their title.

In league play, things have been far more mixed for León. Vancouver’s opponents were 10th in the Apertura and 6th in the Clausura last season, and currently have one win and two losses through their first three matches of the new season. Back on July 11th, León beat Pachuca 4-0 at home, but that victory was sandwiched by losses to Guadalajara and Tigres. It’s a brand new season, so obliviously the sample size is pretty small, but needless to say León has not set the world on fire domestically.

Something to watch out for on Friday night is León’s distinctive style of play. As Vanni Sartini described on Thursday, the Mexican side looks to suffocate opponents with immense pressure and a very high line off the ball, chasing opponents deep into their own half of the pitch. On the ball, they play much the same way, as they are very direct and vertical in attack from their 3-4-3 formation. Despite this style, they still end up holding a good amount of the ball, they are tied for first in Liga MX at the moment with 60% possession through their first three matches of the season.

One might think that this style of play would indicate that León is a very young team, but that’s actually not the case. Their average squad age is 27.5 and they only have one regular starter who is under the age of 25. I think what we can expect from León then is a team that is incredibly disciplined and tactically mature, despite their aggressive style of play. We saw this in the Champions League final, where LAFC, one of the best teams in the region, was completely outmatched and overwhelmed by the Mexican side. Vancouver will have to be very sharp on Friday, and perhaps use the slow home turf to their advantage, if they want to secure points.

In terms of the Whitecaps specifically, the big news Thursday afternoon was the imminent departure of Julian Gressel. After the club could not agree to terms on a new contract given Gressel’s desire to be on the east coast, Axel Schuster elected to facilitate a move for the German-American. As I posed on twitter, I do wonder what the trade-off would have been if the club had decided to retain Gressel for the rest of the season and then allow him to walk at year’s end. Unless the return initiates a move for a replacement in the next few weeks, I feel like Gressel’s value for the rest of the season may have been higher than any cash considerations they were able to acquire in return.

Anyhow, Vancouver will be without Gressel on Friday, but after a week off, all the other regular contributors should be available. Vancouver is playing well at the moment, but I think that León’s imposing style could pose real challenges for a defensive unit that has been suspect recently. As such, I’ll predict a hectic 3-2 León victory.

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