Sunday afternoon at BC Place, the Vancouver Whitecaps were eliminated from MLS Cup contention with a 1-0 loss to LAFC in the second match of a first-round Western Conference playoff matchup, dropping the series 2-0.
Despite the disappointing end to the season for Vancouver, this match was not without its drama, as a record home crowd experienced one of the worst MLS officiating performances I have ever witnessed, as well as Vanni Sartini’s on-field antics and post-match comments which have each sent shock-waves throughout the league. At the very least, Vancouver is finally getting some league-wide attention!
Jokes aside, as much as the Whitecaps can belabour the elements of the match that went against them, ultimately, you have to find a way to score a goal at home against LAFC if you want to advance – and Vancouver was unable to do so.
While we will have plenty of time to deliberate on the Whitecaps’ season as a whole, and where they should look to improve going forward, you will have to indulge me if this happens to come off somewhat like a referendum on Vancouver’s season, because in a way, it is. Alright, on to the player ratings we go:
Yohei Takaoka (7.5)
Massive credit to the Japanese keeper for showing up in the biggest match of the year for Vancouver, despite his late-season struggles. He made 6 saves, several of them in crucial moments, and kept the Whitecaps in the match when things were looking tenuous at the end of the first half. Overall, I think Vancouver has to be encouraged that Yohei will be even better in 2024 with a season of MLS experience under his belt, tightening up some of those areas he struggled with this year.
Mathias Laborda (7.0)
Sure, Denis Bouanga made him look silly once or twice, but other than that, Laborda put in a lion’s shift in this match, one where Vancouver avoided surrendering a goal from open play against one of the most dangerous attacking units in the continent. We just didn’t see enough showings like this from Mathias during the regular season. It’s safe to say his first year in Vancouver was underwhelming, so next year could be make-or-break for the Uruguayan defender.
Ranko Veselinovic (6.5)
As with Laborda, it was hard to find too much fault with any of the back three in a match where they held LAFC to a relatively limited scope of chances. Ranko had a couple of nice individual moments of intervention against LAFC, but there are still questions as to whether or not he can be the “take charge” captain of the defense Vancouver needs match in and match out in 2024. While crosses and set pieces did not bite Vancouver in this match, it’s something they have to look at in the off-season.
Tristan Blackmon (6.5)
I can’t in good conscience dock points for a challenge that should not have been a penalty, so I won’t. Outside of that moment, Blackmon showed good aggressiveness both in the air and along the floor with a number of strong challenges and was sharp as usual with his passing. Blackmon’s only issue for Vancouver in 2023 was his consistency, out of 10 performances, he’d have 7 good ones, but then he’d have 3 which were an absolute adventure. Whether it’s chemistry or form, Vancouver certainly needs a couple of tweaks defensively going into next season, even though their performance on the day against LAFC was quite good.
Andres Cubas (7.0)
Though perhaps not as notable as his showing down in LA, Cubas was very strong once again for Vancouver in this one. He won a load of challenges, and played some nice field-switching balls, even if his overall distribution on long efforts was not quite as sharp as usual, in part because of LAFC’s reasonably pragmatic approach. Overall, Cubas is Vancouver’s most important player that few talk about. When on his game, Cubas can keep Vancouver in matches and disrupt opposing attacks, even when the team is at less than their best, and if Vancouver wants to make a deeper run next year, they will need more of the same from him (though hopefully with a more stable backline behind him).
Richie Laryea (5.5)
I’ll open by saying that I thought a lot of the criticism aimed at Laryea in the final weeks of the regular season was too quick and rather unfounded. Hopefully, that grants me the legitimacy to say that the Canadian wide player was nowhere near good enough in this series, especially if he expects to be on a DP contract in Vancouver next year. I really like the aggressive way in which Laryea attacks defenders, but he often does so without an eye on the likes of Brian White and Ryan Gauld in front of goal. That may have worked on TFC, where no one could score, but in Vancouver, you have to play in a way that involves the team’s best finishers. Lareya can’t take a DP spot in Vancouver if his best way of creating offence is drawing penalties, he has to be a reliable distributor. This is perhaps Vancouver’s biggest off-season question, and one I am seriously apprehensive about.
Sam Adekugbe (7.0)
Contrasting Laryea, I thought Sam looked at his best in this playoff series. His defensive reliability and quality service were a real asset, and I think Vanni Sartini will have more time in the off-season to work on highlighting Adekugbe’s notable on-ball quality in build-up play. I’m glad that Adekugbe is the one mid-season addition Vancouver has locked up long-term.
Pedro Vite (6.0)
Many of Vite’s numbers from this match, somewhat surprisingly to me, are quite good. He won 8 of 11 ground duels and won 7 fouls. That being said, I thought LAFC mostly stifled the likes of Vite and Ahmed in Vancouver’s midfield, as they were not able to create many shooting chances, at least not until the very late going. While Pedro did not take the massive step forward this season that might have been in Vancouver’s dream scenario, he is still a very good young player with a lot of attributes to be excited about. With Ryan Gauld playing a free attacking role and Ali Ahmed growing as a box-to-box midfielder, the question of Pedro’s best fit in this team is still up in the air for 2024.
Ali Ahmed (6.5)
All of the attributes that have made Ahmed so much fun to watch this season were on display this match: the ball-winning, covering ground, taking on defenders, etc. As mentioned though, like Vite, the final product was never quite there in this match. Ahmed playing in a more advanced role, at least to start, freed up Brian White, but LAFC was swift to adjust and kept the front three’s impact limited. Looking ahead, Ahmed needs more minutes not only with Vancouver but also with the CANMNT. His progression over the last two seasons has been really impressive, so Vancouver owes it to themselves to see how big of a jump he can take in 2024.
Ryan Gauld (7.0)
First things first, what a season for Vancouver’s MVP. The second half of the year for Gauld was probably the best football played by any member of the Vancouver Whitecaps in their MLS era, which is what the Scot was brought here to do. In terms of the series against LAFC, kudos to the opponents for doing everything in their power to limit his efforts. His floating crosses which had often caught out other MLS opponents this year were dealt with systematically by LAFC, and he completed just 2 of his 12 crosses in this match. Nonetheless, Gauld’s ingenuity and work-rate was felt right up until the final stages, as he delivered a ball to Brian White directly in front of goal for Vancouver’s best look of the night, and swept away Denis Bouanga’s legs in a committed challenge right in front of the LAFC bench. More of the same next year, please!
Brian White (6.5)
Although White scored in the opening match of the series down in LA, he was probably more lively in this match overall, finding the odd space for his hold-up play and challenging LAFC’s centrebacks. Obviously, it would have been huge if White could have converted his headed chance in front of goal, but I also think Vancouver was going to need some depth contributions to go far in the playoffs, and they simply did not get that in this series. Looking back at the season, White did pretty much everything you could ask of a non-DP striker, scoring at an impressive rate, working tirelessly off the ball, and adding value in build-up through his work with his back to goal.
Neither Ryan Raposo (5.5), nor Junior Hoilett (5.5) found a way to unlock Vancouver’s attack after they came on. Raposo, in particular, really struggled from set pieces, of which Vancouver created a good number but could not capitalize. As outlined by Caleb Wilkins in a recent article, I’ll concur that Raposo is a useful MLS player, but probably one always destined for a depth role. Hoilett, meanwhile, had little impact for Vancouver, so I’m not sure why you would bring him back, even if it is on the cheap, time to give a young player a shot in that role. Simon Becher (6.5) caused some chaos in the final stages, but nothing that pushed the team over the edge, while Alessandro Schopf’s (N/A) most notable moment was his collision with the official. (Still not quite over that!)
Vanni Sartini (6.0)
I’m going to do my best to focus on the match itself here. I think that Sartini had the initial approach right for both matches in this series, although perhaps he could have done more as the games went on. Particularly this past Sunday, Vancouver didn’t do enough to adjust to LAFC’s defensive shape until they started throwing bodies forward in desperation time. While Laryea was probably the right player to bring off early, Raposo didn’t add much, and the change in shape when Hoilett entered the match around minute seventy did not seem to faze the visitors at all. At the moment, Vanni’s tactics don’t often sink the Whitecaps, but they were also not enough to help lift Vancouver over a very strong LAFC team in the first round. If Vancouver was going to get through, Gauld and White would have needed to take over on their own, and it simply didn’t happen. In terms of the end-of-match antics, I have the rather boring take that it was probably a bit much, but it’s also great to see such passion and personality from the leader of the club on the touchline. It will be interesting to see how many games Vanni has to sit at the start of next season, the league is usually pretty unimpressed by this sort of thing, but only time will tell.
Alright, that’s all from me for the time being. What did you think of Vancouver’s final match of 2023? Let me know in the comments and look out for more Whitecaps coverage on the site as we transition to the off-season!