The Vancouver Whitecaps will find themselves in a do or die match against LAFC. It’s a match-up that feels like a microcosm of the Whitecaps as a whole. On the one hand, the gap between the Whitecaps and LAFC is a lot smaller than it used to be. The Whitecaps, thanks to their home field advantage, are probably slight favourites to win this particular game. For the first time in their MLS history they’ll be opening the upper bowl of BC Place. The times are changing. At the same time though, the Whitecaps just aren’t quite as good as LAFC. The two teams have faced each other 5 times this season and LAFC have won 3 of the matchups. They, of course, finished higher in the standings and their underlying data is better. They could very well send Vancouver crashing out of the playoffs in the first round, again, and the number of MLS playoff wins I’ve seen between the ages of 12 and 25 could remain firmly at 1. Maybe the times aren’t changing that much after all.
But let’s try and be optimistic, shall we? After all, the Whitecaps winning their next two and getting past LAFC is still very much within the realm of possibility, even if it isn’t very likely. So, where are the weaknesses in this LAFC juggernaut? Well, one thing that has stood out to me in Vancouver’s recent matches against them is just how many players they commit to their press. Often you’ll see five LAFC players pressed right against the Vancouver defensive unit. Now, obviously this press is very disciplined and hard to get through, that’s a big part of why LAFC is so good. But it seems to me that if you could find a way to reliably play through it or bypass it then you could find some joy.
Another possible angle of attack might be pressing Ilie Sanchez more aggressively. Vancouver managed to turn an an errant pass into a goal for in the first game of the series. If you could cut off the buildup at the source you might be able to create more of those. Perhaps you could use Andres Cubas to press the opposing teams #6 as we saw earlier in the season. Of course, this would carry a significant risk as if LAFC bypassed Cubas (which they definitely could do, they are really good) the ‘Caps would be left in the lurch. Maybe Ali Ahmed could also be pressed into service in this role, though he’s not as reliable a ball-winner as Cubas.
Of course, the elephant in the room is Vancouver’s ability to defend set pieces. Obviously, set pieces were a major factor in the first leg and have been all season for Vancouver. Whoscored.com credits Vancouver with having conceded 14 set pieces goals, almost 1/3 of the total goals they have conceded all season. Interestingly, American Soccer Analysis only lists them as conceding 7 from set pieces and free kicks, which is kind of a big difference! Definitions are important. I don’t know to what extent LAFC exposed problems with Vancouver’s defensive system. I mean, as far as I can see a lot of those goals were a result of fortuitous bounces or individual breakdowns. But the ‘Caps will have to be a lot sharper in any case.
How are you feeling about the Whitecaps’ chances to extend their playoff run? Let us know!