After a one-year absence, the Vancouver Whitecaps are back in the MLS playoffs, as they officially clinched a spot in the postseason with a 3-0 win over Western Conference leaders, St. Louis City, at BC Place on Wednesday.
With that, they also snapped a four-game winless run, while allowing them to climb back up to 5th place in the West in the process.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 5, 2023
Yet, it was a much-needed performance for Vancouver, who ticked most of the boxes that they’ll have looked to hit in this game, including a strong start, persistence in their attacking play and a clean sheet.
Because of that, it was a fitting way to clinch for Vancouver, who booked their spot courtesy of Minnesota United’s heavy loss away to LAFC, as they showed why they can be one of the best teams in MLS on their day with this win.
They’d show that from the very start of this game, too.
In what we’ll have to call a “Reverse St. Louis”, given City’s proficiency at forcing turnovers high up the pitch this season, Vancouver had the first good look of the game off a big Tim Parker turnover in the 9th minute. There, Ryan Gauld first tried to play in Ryan Raposo, but his pass would be blocked, instead falling to a wide-open Brian White, but his curled low shot just slid past the far post.
Then, having not learned their lesson from the first turnover, St. Louis got caught in possession in the final third once again in the 10th minute. This time, that would lead to a Gauld shot, as he received the ball in a dangerous position after some good link-up between Raposo and Alessandro Schöpf, but Gauld’s chipped attempt would sail just wide of the goal.
Soon after, the Whitecaps had a big breakthrough, as a VAR check was initiated after Brian White appeared to have been fouled in the box, in what looked like a likely penalty given the amount of contact on the tackle. Despite that, however, the VAR check ultimately yielded nothing, much to the frustration of the ‘Caps players and supporters.
Continuing their strong start, Gauld had yet another shot, as he lined a drive from distance after some nice combination play, but his shot would curl just over, continuing his team’s hunt for a shot on target.
Turns out, Gauld’s desire to (ironically) be the one Whitecap to shoot instead of search for that killer final pass would pay off in the 37th minute, as he found the ‘Caps’ breakthrough. Or so he thought.
After he turned in a deflected Javain Brown shot with an acrobatic finish, a VAR check was initiated for a possible offside, as he’d appeared offside by the time the deflection had occurred, which had come from his own teammate. Eventually, it’d be ruled out, as it was determined that Gauld was offside when Brian White, who was the one to deflect the shot, got his foot on the ball.
Finally, to end the first half, Vancouver had their last big chance of the first half, as Raposo found Gauld in behind the defence with a perfect through ball. There, Gauld did well to try and pick out his usual preferred running mate, White, but his pass would be just out of the reach of the sliding ‘Caps striker.
Having done well to survive all of the first-half Vancouver pressure, St. Louis would come out strong to start the second half. As a result, half-time substitute, Aziel Jackson, nearly found the back of the net with a powerful volley from the edge of the box, forcing a strong save out of the ‘Caps Yohei Takaoka.
That pressure wouldn’t last long, however, as Vancouver then opened the scoring at the other end in the 58th minute. Fittingly, it’d come off a St. Louis mistake, too, as White caught their backline asleep while chasing what seemed to be an innocent long ball from Ranko Veselinvoic, creating a breakaway for himself.
There, he’d make no mistake with the finish, chipping it home for his 15th MLS goal of the season, and 8th in his last 11 MLS games.
FIRE MAN, F-F-FIRE MAN! 🔥
— x – Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) October 5, 2023
Eager to add to their lead, Vancouver continued to push, as well. They’d come close to scoring in the 70th minute, too, as Gauld found Tristan Blackmon with a perfect corner, but Blackmon’s header would be nicely saved by St. Louis’s Ben Lundt.
Then, White had another great chance just minutes later, as Sam Adekugbe found him with a perfect ball over the top, but Lundt once again stood tall to that shot attempt, too.
That’d be a precursor for the next goal, however, as the ‘Caps chased for a second to warp up the game. After Gauld did well to find an open Sebastian Berhalter outside of the box with a pass, Berhalter managed to open up on his left foot and stroke it into the top corner, for a rare Whitecaps goal from distance.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 5, 2023
Not done there, either, the Whitecaps then capped off a perfect night with a much-needed goal from Richie Laryea on the last kick of the game. There, he did well to cut inside and slam home a powerful shot on his left foot after a nice cutback from Adekugbe, as two of the ‘Caps new CanMNT players linked up on a goal that will do wonders for both of their confidence after some quiet performances.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 5, 2023
From there, the Whitecaps would cruise the rest of the way, allowing them to confirm their return to the playoffs in emphatic fashion.
After a rough couple of games, it was a much-needed return to service for Vancouver, showing what they can do on their day.
On that note, here are some other tidbits that stood out from this match, one that the Whitecaps sorely needed.
Shoot your shot:
For a minute, it appeared the Whitecaps were refusing to shoot inside of the box to start the game.
Despite generating a few clear-cut opportunities, ones where they should’ve taken a shot, they chose to pass it off, much to the frustration of those watching.
As a result, they finished with five shots inside the box in the first half, as it felt like they could’ve had many more with the number of looks they were generating.
Unsurprisingly, they came out eager to change that. To their credit, it worked for them – they finished with seven shots inside of the box, and two of their three goals came from those attempts.
Yet, that’s not that surprising to see the Whitecaps want to filter their chances into the box – there’s a reason why they have the shortest shot distance in the league, as they don’t often like to shoot unless it *is* the perfect opportunity.
While that’s not a bad thing – in fact, it’s encouraged given that it’s the best way to generate xG (which helps explain why the ‘Caps have led MLS in that category for large chunks of this year) – sometimes there is value to putting your boot through a ball when the opportunity presents itself.
Thankfully, Sebastian Berhalter showed why in this game, as he had a rare goal outside of the box, the second time he’s done that this year, showing why it can be okay to line up some shots from outside, and he helped explain why afterwards.
“It helps make the defence think and want to step out a little, and that creates more spaces in behind,” Berhalter noted. “I think we’re still getting good areas and creating enough chances to score goals, but having long shots just adds to that.”
Brian White’s red-hot form:
He’ll be in tough to win the Golden Boot, especially after Denis Bouanga’s hat trick from this matchday, but Brian White is certainly making a push for it right now.
8 goals in his last 11 games show that, pushing him up to 15 on the season, good enough for third, and just two behind Bouanga for the lead.
Most impressive about that, too? He’s yet to score a hat trick this season, only has one brace on the year, and has yet to take a penalty.
Given that strikers are usually quite erratic in their goalscoring, often scoring in bunches, that White has remained as consistent as he has, especially without the help of penalties, certainly deserves to be applauded.
Even if he doesn’t win the Golden Boot, this stretch is one to remember, as he continues to push his name into the conversation of being one of the best strikers in Whitecaps history.
An important clean sheet:
Clean sheets have been hard to come by for the Whitecaps this season. In fact, heading into this game, they’d kept just six of them, tied for fourth-worst in the league.
Not only that, but they’d only kept two clean sheets in their last 22 games, and entered this game having conceded 10 goals in their last four games.
Because of that, the clean sheet from this game will feel extra good. The three goals were nice, but those haven’t been an issue given their ability to generate xG, whereas this sort of defensive performance will feel much appreciated.
The ceiling of this team in the playoffs won’t depend on their ability to score, but on their defending, so that they were able to avoid any defensive mistakes in this game while holding St. Louis to just 0.3 xG was a big plus.
“It’s been a few games now (since we had a clean sheet),” Gauld said afterwards. “So I think the defence and you’ll and Yohei Takaoka will feel good about that. Whenever we create a strong base in the back and, we’ve got a lot of quality going forward, and that puts us in a good position to succeed.”
That was the return to form that #VWFC needed, as they put up a nearly perfect performance
3 goals, a clean sheet, and control of the game from minute 1 to 90, and that allows them to book a playoff spot
Now, they'll look to push up the table: they sit tied for 4th in the West
— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) October 5, 2023
It hasn’t been the start to his Whitecaps career that Richie Laryea would’ve wanted. Through nine games, he’d only put up one assist, as he’s struggled to have the offensive impact many would’ve hoped for given his past history with Toronto FC.
Especially as he was slotted into a wing back role in this Whitecaps system, giving him the sort of freedom he hasn’t always gotten at TFC, where he played as a full back and even a centre back, it felt like he could be due for an offensive break in a new role.
But with just one assist and one penalty won through nine games, that hadn’t materialized yet. Despite getting into the right areas on the pitch, he just hasn’t been as sharp with his final third decision-making, and it seemed to be affecting his confidence.
Because of that, his goal could prove to be huge, as it could lift that weight off his back.
A confident Laryea could be a game-changer for this attack, lifting the weight that has been on the shoulders of White and Gauld, giving the Whitecaps something different out wide.
Now, of course, the important thing will be to build off this, but it was certainly a good start.
“He’s such an intense guy,” Sartini said of Laryea. “And he knows that he’s an important player, he knows that he can be the best player in MLS at his position, so he feels the responsibility, and he even sometimes puts over-importance on the fact that he missed a couple of chances, saying it’s his fault.”
“And that’s not true, in this team, the important thing is to do the thing that you’re supposed to do for the team, and then if you have the quality to score goals and deliver, sooner or later you will do it. So in the the end, being selfless pays off big time, and I’m really happy that he could do that.”
Andres Cubas injury:
Thankfully, it didn’t sound too bad post-game, but it was a big worry to see Andrés Cubas leave the game holding his arm.
Given the Whitecaps’ desire to push numbers forward, he’s done a lot of heavy lifting in transition, giving the Whitecaps other midfielders the freedom to roam forward.
To be fair, Sebastian Berhalter has shown that he can fill in admirably for Cubas, but there’s no doubting the Paraguayan’s importance to this squad, so they’ll hope he can return in time for the playoffs, even if he misses this upcoming game against Seattle.
(Image Credit: Beau Chevalier)