We have now reached the midway point of the 2023 MLS season, and the Vancouver Whitecaps have had, arguably, an above-average season so far compared to the previous few. The Whitecaps find themselves in 6th place and inside the play-off spots, having already faced some tough teams. But when you stack it up to other teams in the conference and in the league, how well are the Whitecaps doing, and how well should they have done? To answer all that and more, here is my Whitecaps midseason review.
OVERALL TEAM PERFORMANCE
Let’s Look At The Stats
You can’t do a midseason review without breaking out the ol’ Expected (X) stats, especially for the Whitecaps. But let’s first start with the solid numbers.
In terms of team performance at this stage, the Whitecaps have 22 points with 27 goals for and 21 goals against, resulting in a +6 goal difference. In terms of goals scored, the Whitecaps are 2nd only to St. Louis in the Western Conference, who have 33. On paper, this looks incredibly good, but if you take away the five goals vs Montreal and the six goals vs Houston, that has the Whitecaps scoring 16 goals across 15 games. Averaging just over a goal-per-game isn’t the worst, but it’s in the lower third of the entire league. What makes it better is when you consider that they have only failed to score in two matches in the MLS so far.
In terms of goals against, Whitecaps are smack-dab in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference, placing 7th overall. Even though they started a little shaky, conceding seven goals in five games, the Whitecaps then went on a team-record shutout streak of 443 minutes, the longest in a single season. Their worst performance was conceding three goals away from home twice, once against Portland and once against St. Louis. The good news is that they haven’t really been blown away (at least in MLS) this season.
But how does this compare to their Expected stats? Well, the Whitecaps are actually pretty on par with what is expected of them. They have an xG (Expected Goals) of 27.3 and an xGA (Expected Goals Against) of 20.6. So you could say that they are perhaps slightly underperforming in these categories, but it’s not a massive differential. Compared to last year at this stage, where the Whitecaps had 21 points with 18 goals for and 28 goals against, it’s an improvement, albeit just slightly in some areas.
Let’s Dive a Little Deeper…
While Expected (X) stats are all well and good, to the untrained eye, it’s hard to gather what they say about how the team is actually performing on the pitch. So let’s use some more specific stats to illustrate how the Whitecaps have been getting on.
Since the beginning, what has impressed most people with the Whitecaps this season is the passing and patterns of play from them. They are no longer the low-possession, low-block, counter-attack team of old. They are now a dynamic, direct and, at times, dominant side. In terms of possession, the ‘Caps are 8th overall and 4th in the Western Conference with 51.8 average possession per game, and average 415.9 completed passes per 90, which is 7th overall and 4th in their Conference.
What has been a joy to see is how they use the ball to attack. With progressive passes (passes that progress the attack by at least 10 yards in the opponent’s half), the Whitecaps are 4th overall and 3rd in the Conference with 46.5 per 90, only behind Seattle and LA Galaxy. Major players for this have been Julian Gressel, Ryan Gauld, Pedro Vite, and Andres Cubas (more on them later).
But it’s not just the number of passes, it’s also the quality of passes. The Whitecaps have been much more successful in being direct this season, leading them to rank 2nd overall in through balls attempted, and 1st overall in through balls succeeded. They are also much more effective in their build up, creating better opportunities through intelligent and decisive passes, hence why they are 1st overall in key passes per 90 (passes that create goal-scoring opportunities) with 4.03, and 1st overall in deep completions (a non-cross pass within 20 yards of the opponent’s goal) with 10.05.
What has been letting them down slightly, as previously mentioned, is being clinical in the attacking third. Even though the Whitecaps rank 4th overall in shots per 90 (14.3) and 6th overall in shots on target per 90 (4.65), they aren’t capitalizing on all the chances that they are creating. Avid fans will recall the various missed chances by the likes of Brian White, Ryan Gauld, and other forwards throughout this season, and understand why they are slightly underperforming their xG.
And while there are a bunch of defensive stats that we could go into, the Whitecaps are pretty average across the board in those categories, and I’d rather save some of the defensive stats for the individual analyses.
Best Performers So Far
You don’t really need to get too deep into the stats to acknowledge who have been the best performers for the Whitecaps this season. But for this piece, we’ll look at who have been the Top 3 in my books.
The 29-year-old German-American is having the season of his Whitecaps career currently, with 5 goals and 7 assists across all competitions. Ever since coming into the midfield as an 8 in this new 4-3-2-1 formation, he has thrived in the attack. In MLS, he is 6th overall and 2nd in the Western Conference for assists with 5, 3rd overall and 1st in the conference for Expected Assists, 2nd overall and 1st in the conference for big chances created with 12, and in the top 20 overall for progressive passes.
For all the chances that Vancouver have created this season, he has been integral to most of them. He can provide pinpoint crosses when he roams to the right, or slide players in with slick through balls. He has been stellar so far this season, and the Whitecaps will do well to tie him to a new contract before his current one runs out this year.
The 27-year-old Scotsman has shown glimpses of his best in the past couple of seasons, but it feels like he is finally coming into his own in 2023, especially in recent games. Gauld has 4 goals and 4 assists in 2023 so far, which is decent haul on its own, but when you consider the number of goals and assists that he should have had, it should be even better. In MLS, where Gauld has 3 goals and 2 assists, he has an xG of 4.84 and xA of 2.78. In xG, he is 5th overall compared to other attacking midfielders, and 1st in the Western Conference!
And while had a slow start to the season in terms of end product, he has been essential to the passing play that the Whitecaps are starting to become known for. He ranks in the top 25 overall in progressive passes with 94, just four shy of Gressel’s count. And in recent games, he has shown his dazzling dribbling ability that was what he was known for since his early days in Scotland, averaging 1.18 successful take-ons per 90. All we can hope is that he continues to show his best long into the play-off season.
Arguably my Player of the Season for the Whitecaps, Andres Cubas has been immense in so many ways. In defence, he is 8th overall and 4th in the Western Conference in tackles won with a success percentage of 71%, as well as 6th most interceptions for midfielders overall, and 4th in the conference with 25. In possession, he is in the top 20 for passes completed for midfielders, taking a more of a “regista” role this season, switching the play from side to side.
What has been the most impressive is his ability to detect danger, and close down his opponent. He is like a bloodhound when the opponent has possession, and it’s how he is able to win the ball back so many times for the Whitecaps. One of the most underrated players in the league, don’t be surprised if he gets a call-up to the MLS All-Star game later this summer with how crucial he has been as that destroyer in the middle.
There is always the debate of whether you can properly capture the true state of the game with just stats, or by just watching the game. The truth is that both are important and necessary to try to best represent how a team/player is performing in a game, and across the season. And on both fronts, the Whitecaps have been impressive. While they may not be the best team in the Western Conference, they are arguably the best of the rest outside the top three of Seattle, LAFC, and St. Louis.
They are creating plenty of chances, constructing beautiful plays, and at times truly showcasing some champagne football. What is ailing them is concentration and composure in front of net, especially away from home. If they can hone that same confidence and quality that they exude at home in their road matches, they not only will state a case to make the play-offs, but to challenge in them.
All things considered; the Whitecaps are in a good spot right now. It’s just about continuing their form at home and improving it away from home. And who knows? Maybe we can see a Western Conference semi-final or even a final in the future.
One can hope!