How To Avoid A Slow Start: A Whitecaps tactical feature

How To Avoid A Slow Start: A Whitecaps tactical feature

Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2023 home-opener against Real Salt Lake was a mixed affair. At half-time, fans and journalists alike were surprised by just how well the Whitecaps were playing. The team were 1-0 up over RSL and should have been two or three goals to the good. There was a sense of electric optimism in the air for what this might mean for the season, despite it coming from only one half.

However, come full-time, that buzz was replaced by a bitter sense of confusion and disappointment as the Whitecaps surrendered their 1-0 lead to a 2-1 defeat in just five minutes half way through the second half. It was not the way the script was supposed to go, and it unfortunately set the tone for the next five games, where the Whitecaps went 0-2-3. It was yet another slow start under Head Coach Vanni Sartini, after going 1-1-6 in the first eight matches in 2022.

At least in 2023, they turned some of those losses into draws, but the slow start cost them dearly come the end of the season, where those missed points made them have a tougher draw in the playoffs against eventual MLS Cup Finalists LAFC. The question for 2024 is how do the Whitecaps buck this trend, and start on the front foot starting against Charlotte FC on Saturday? That is what we’ll try to unpack below!

Step 1: Diagnosis of 2022’s & 2023’s Slow Starts

“In the last two seasons, we didn’t achieve a better objective… solely because of the lack of points in the first games” admitted Sartini in his pre-match availability on Wednesday.

If the slow starts are what has stunted the Whitecaps’ growth and success in the last two seasons, then the first step avoiding that slow start is to uncover what they did wrong to earn that slow start in the first place. There will be less emphasis on 2022 since that team and its style was very different from the team and style of the Whitecaps going into 2024, but there are still some nuggets of wisdom that can be gathered from it.

2022 Season: Lapse of Judgement & Concentration

In 2022, the Whitecaps were playing way more defensively, relying on quick counter-attacks and conceding possession for quick breaks to score. Tactically, their issues were that their defensive structure was not that great, and their attack wasn’t primed to score on quick counter attacks. This was evident in the opening match against Columbus Crew where they lost 4-0. Columbus’ opening goal was unlucky on the Whitecaps with the wicked deflection, while the second was a complete lack of defensive awareness and structure.

They did well to keep it at 2-0 despite going down to 10 men thanks to a Jake Nerwinski double yellow, but what killed them was the lack of concentration in the last 10 minutes that made it go from 2-0 to 4-0. Oh, and also the fact that they did not have a single shot on target in the entire game.

The Whitecaps now are much more structured, rely less on quick counters, and play more with direct attacks with possession rather than without it. They’re creating many more chances and getting more shots on goal, while their defensive structure has improved greatly. So many of the issues that were prevalent in 2022 have been dealt with. But perhaps the biggest constant that can still be seen with the Whitecaps up until today is the lack of concentration and sharpness throughout the 90 minutes.

Of course, it was the team’s opening game, so there is bound to be some kinks. However, that remained for a large part of the next nine games for the Whitecaps in 2022. Lapse of concentration, poor decision making and mentality were one of the biggest parts of the ‘Caps’ plight in 2022, and it’s something that still tends to haunt them up until today. It is something that has needed to be addressed, especially in their defensive set-up.

2023 Season: Lack of Killer Instinct

As mentioned at the beginning, in the 2023 home opener was a mixed bag. They lost the game in virtually less than five minutes as new-Cap and then-RSL player Damir Kreilach scored three minutes after Justin Glad’s equalizer, once again highlighting the issues of concentration and resiliency in parts of the game. Aside from that however, there was the issue that the game should have been long dead by then.

Ryan Gauld and Alessandro Schöpf had half-chances, Cristian Dàjome missed essentially a one-on-one, and there were many promising attacks that fizzled out all in the first half. The game ended with the Whitecaps outshooting RSL 18 to 11, matching their shots on target with seven, and having a greater xG with 1.99 to 1.28. However, it was the side from Utah that came away with all three points.

One might think that, since it was just the first game, you can excuse the team for it. There are always games that you lose that you should have won. However, similar to 2022, that set the tone for the Whitecaps in their next four matches. Against San Jose, Whitecaps had a strong start with an early Schöpf goal, but did not capitalize on it and were soundly dominated by the Quakes for the rest of the match. Against Dallas and LA Galaxy, the games were relatively even affairs where both teams missed some big chances. Striker Brian White was a primary culprit for some of those big missed chances, but they always look easier to score on the sidelines than in the moment.

However, the biggest example of that lack of killer instinct came in the away game against Minnesota United. The Whitecaps had an incredible 23 shots to Minnesota’s eight, five shots on target to the home team’s two, and had a massive xG of 2.04 to United’s 0.67, but yet they still had to wait until the 90’+8 minute to get their equalizer through the now-sold Simon Becher. White hit the crossbar, Gauld and ex-Cap Julian Gressel had big efforts saved, and it was Minnesota that almost came away with the winners.

And while, as aforementioned, you will have those games where you lose or draw against a team that should have lost, by the laws of averages, you should also be on the receiving side of a win that was perhaps not quite deserved. But throughout the season for the Whitecaps, and especially at the beginning and end of it, they didn’t get that. And a large part of it is because to get a “smash-and-grab” win, you need to “smash” in the first place. That was the missing piece, and it cost the Whitecaps dearly by the end when it came down to the playoffs, after having to come up against a strong LAFC side that came into form right in time to go all the way to the MLS Cup Final.


If you look at what I’ve laid out from 2022 and 2023, you have a lack of concentration and a lapse of judgment, as well as a lack of killer instinct as the Whitecaps’ biggest issues. Those, you could argue, are exactly the issues that the Whitecaps need to treat and improve upon to be able to avoid their habit of starting the MLS season slowly. The next part is to find out how exactly they might be able to achieve that!

Step 2: Identify The Strengths to Avoid The Weaknesses

Dealing with Problem of Concentration & Judgement

Let’s start with the problem of concentration & judgment.

A large part of why this seems to be a glaring issue falls less on the players abilities per se, and more on the system that they are trying to play in. Sartini, as many Whitecaps fans have come to realize, is a huge proponent of zonal defending. Rather than relying on a man-marking system, he puts his trust in his players that they can defend the zone rather than the man, in any given situation. And it doesn’t fall on just the defenders. Sartini’s philosophy (in football and in life) demands that the entire group come together to help. All 11 players have their part to play.

That means all 11 players have to be ready for anything, at any given moment. That demands a huge amount of concentration, sharpness and focus from his players throughout the season. For a side that two years ago was nowhere near this level of commitment to this style of play, it is understandable that there are some hiccups in games, especially when it is early and/or late in the season.

“Our North Star [this year] has to be our defensive stability, that defensive compactness when we defend,” explained Sartini on his keys to avoid a slow start this year. “We never had that good statistical defending basis as we are having in this pre-season.

That is the good news. Vanni Sartini has had a couple of years to really instill his philosophy into a group that has undergone relatively little turnover, and now his players are getting it. They have had more time to understand the nuances of their roles, and the expectations that they need to rise to, to be able to perform in the games, especially from the start.

“We know that making points at the beginning of the season is important,” explained Sartini on Wednesday. “So we put a lot of emphasis… in enhancing the preparation of the first games and to try to have a better start than the previous seasons.”

And so far this pre-season, there are signs that it’s working. A prime example of this is Mathías Laborda.

He was a player that was signed early in 2023, and sometimes struggled to match the pace and intensity of the situations that were placed before him in this system. Now with a full year under his belt, he looked to be a renewed player for the Whitecaps in his feature against Tigres. His reading of the game was sharper, his decision-making was on-point, and his actions were crisper than the year before. If he can keep that going into the MLS season, he will be a huge boost for the Whitecaps’ defense, which was their Achilles heel in 2022.

But it’s not just Laborda. All the players from 2023 have had more time to be able to acquire a deeper understanding of the inner mechanics of this highly-complex system, and that will allow them to manage their performances better in games. Even new players like Kreilach and Picault are seemingly syncing up well, but don’t be surprised if the other newbies need some time for adjustment. It will take time to get up to speed.

“We need to continue that [defensive structure], because that is the basis to get points and to reduce the risk to even have undeserved defeats like last year”, Sartini feels.

Hopefully all this means that, as Vanni says, with even more time and practice on the training ground, we will see less of those five-minute windows of lapsed judgment that surrenders valuable points early on in this upcoming season.

Dealing with the Problem of Killer Instinct

Pep Guardiola once famously said that all he can do is train his players to get in front of the goal; the rest is up to them. Vanni Sartini of last year must have been crying out at that quote, after all the chances gone by at the start of last season.

Despite both having career years last year, Brian White and Ryan Gauld are guilty of contributing to the Whitecaps slow starts, by having a slow start themselves. Up until May 31st, Gauld had zero goals and one lone assist in MLS play, despite having an xG of 2.42 and an xA of 3.08. While the former you can say is on him, the latter is on the players he is passing to, which includes White. In the same timeframe, White had a decent goal tally of five goals, but had an xG of a whopping 8.15, one of the highest in the league at that point.

Once both players started getting hot, the Whitecaps’ season completely turned around and got them close to where they wanted to be. But it was that slow start of the two of the main attacking focal points of the team that contributed to the slow start for the Whitecaps in 2023.

Now, it may seem harsh to blame it just on both of those players. And rightly so. A good team should consist of many players that can pitch in to score goals, not just one or two. The issue for the Whitecaps is that last year they had to over-rely on White and Gauld to get them across the line in games. And when the pair didn’t have that killer instinct, the Caps’ fell flat.

A killer instinct for an individual player is not something you can necessarily improve as a coach. It is something that you either naturally have as a player, or it’s something you can develop over a long time by constant practice and dedication. But you can definitely improve the overall killer instinct of the team as a coach by bringing more proven attackers into the squad that can score goals at this level.

Sartini has seemingly learned that lesson by bringing in two more veteran MLS attackers that know how to score goals in this league in Kreilach and Picault. Both have different profiles from White and Gauld, meaning Sartini has even more liberty to get the best out of his attack by mixing and matching them depending on the situation. That allows more attacking combinations for the Whitecaps, which allows more goals to come from different players, and eventually means less pressure for Gauld and White to have to carry their side to the win.

Of course, if all four of them have a slow start, then this point is mute, but at least now the Whitecaps have brought in more support for their attack. That hopefully means that if ever White or Gauld are having an off-day (or an off-period), the others can pick up the slack and carry the team together, as a unified group; exactly how Sartini’s philosophy of life would want it to be.

Step 3: Pray it All Comes Together vs Charlotte FC

While everything I mentioned might be good enough to sway you to believe that the Whitecaps have turned a new page and have left these issues in the past, what really matters is what happens in 90 minutes on Saturday against Charlotte FC.

Some may feel like Charlotte have a slight advantage given that they’ve already played a home match last weekend where they won 1-0 against NYCFC. However, the Whitecaps have themselves a unique advantage in that they’ve already played two matches against one of the best teams in Concacaf in Tigres.

“I think so,” replied Sartini when asked whether the games against Tigres were an advantage going into this first game. “But I am also curious to see, because of the structure of the games during the pre-season, we trained less but we played more.

“There was more intensity overall but less intensity at training because we had to prepare for games, so I am going to be very curious to see how that translates to the start of the season”.

Both of the legs against Tigres showed the issues that I outlined earlier, with missed opportunities and lapses of judgment.

“We need to convert our chances,” admitted Sartini when asked about how to avoid the same slow start as last year. “Against Salt Lake [last season’s home-opener] we played well for 70 minutes, and got lost for 20 minutes, but we should have been 4-0 when we were just 1-0 up.

“That is also the lesson that we have to learn from both legs against Tigres, where we had a lot of chances and we didn’t convert.”

That may ring alarm bells for some fans, but one could also view it as them getting that early season rust out of the way before the start of the season. Before this year, they needed the first few games to get up to speed of the league and compete across 90 minutes. With this year, they’ve had a couple games to get up to speed beforehand, and against top opposition.

And while they did have to go back to “pre-season” mode afterwards at Coachella in late-February, that series against Tigres should still be fresh enough in their minds to prep them for Charlotte on Saturday. Or so one would hope.

Will This Be The Year?

The biggest concern for fans and journalists alike is that the Whitecaps’ will struggle to set the tone for the season with a bad first result, as it has plagued them the last two years. That’s why this match against Charlotte is so important.

In an ideal world, the Whitecaps have learned their lessons from previous years and have rectified them in time for this opening match, thanks to the additions they’ve made, the time they’ve had on the training ground to further learn their style, and a pair of quality warm-up matches to boot. Obviously, we don’t necessarily live in an ideal world, and we could see this year start just as last year had and the year before. But on the other hand, the Caps’ are coached by an idealist. Perhaps it will be all part of the plan.

“I wanted to say a joke that in the three years before, we won the first game [of the MLS season], but then the coach got fired in the middle of the season,” joked Sartini with the media on Wednesday. “So maybe it’s better that I lose and get to keep my job!”

You never know what may come from the ever-charismatic and enigmatic Vanni Sartini. But you can only dream that it continues to be good, regardless of the results.

Authored by: Felipe Vallejo

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