Match Preview: Minnesota United vs Vancouver Whitecaps – going international
The Whitecaps have gone the first four MLS matches of this season without a win, tying last year for their longest-such streak in the MLS era (only behind the disastrous 2019 season where it took until the seventh match of the year to see a win). What does it say that the club’s three slowest MLS starts have all come in the last five seasons? Let’s just move on perhaps…
Of course, there has at least been something to cheer for with the club’s advancement to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, but with two clashes with LAFC on the horizon there won’t be a ton of confidence going into them if the ‘Caps can’t take down any MLS opposition.
Now the good news is that the ‘Caps are just a single point outside the final playoff spot in the West – or a play-in spot rather as the league has decided that over 60% of its teams should make the postseason. Only five teams in the entire Western Conference will not make it to at least a wildcard match so a poor season will look even worse by comparison.
The opponents for this week are Minnesota, one of only three teams in the West to not suffer a defeat yet, although this will not be a matchup of these two teams at full strength. On Vancouver’s side there is the quite notable absence of Andrés Cubas, probably the MVP for the ‘Caps this season (along with Julian Gressel), as he has been called up to Paraguay’s national team for their March friendly. Javain Brown will also be gone for Jamaica’s Nations League match against Mexico, while Sergio Córdova is out 6-8 weeks with a hamstring injury.
Mathias Laborda and Sebastian Berhalter are presumptive backups for Brown and Cubas, with Berhalter playing primarily in a number six role so far this season and Laborda playing more right-back than centre-back through the first few weeks. Given that Gressel has assisted on three of the ‘Caps four MLS goals, Tristan Blackmon was just named to MLS Team of the Matchday, Ranko Veselinović has been an ironman since the beginning of last season, and Ryan Raposo has started four straight matches, their places seem relatively secure.
Further forward, the biggest question is how the ‘Caps can get Ryan Gauld going. He’s shown flashes, and dominated play in the first leg against Real España, but he has neither a goal nor an assist yet in MLS play this year. He’s played as both part of the front three and further back in the midfield trio, but with Córdova’s absence will likely be in the former unless both Pedro Vite and Cristian Dájome get the start.
The wildcard option would be to start Simon Becher. The 2022 draft pick has only made two appearances for the first team to this point, but managed to score on both of them and will now be the primary backup striker for a number of weeks. Vanni Sartini went with a dual-striker formation against the Galaxy last weekend and while I don’t expect him to do the same on Saturday, Becher will surely get his chance to stake a claim for more minutes in the coming matches.
Looking at the hosts, the Loons have been ravaged by MLS’ decision to schedule play through the March international window. Seven of the starters from their 2-1 win over Colorado last weekend will be absent against the ‘Caps, including five who have played every minute so far this season: Dayne St. Clair, Kemar Lawrence, Michael Boxall, Kervin Arriaga, and Bongokuhle Hlongwane.
The Loons have only scored four times so far this season, but they’ve been fantastic at the back – conceding just twice and only allowing eight shots on target through their three matches combined. The ‘Caps, by contrast, allowed six shots on target in just their most recent match against the Galaxy.
Despite the disparity in record between these two teams so far, the Whitecaps have a chance to attack the Loons at their weakest this weekend. This is also the most rested they’ve been in a few weeks after quite a hectic stretch this month. Will that set up a very needed win? Well, you can never guarantee anything with this team. They’ve yet to record a win in their five visits to Minnesota, taking just two points in the process. They’ve also lost three of their last four matches there and have been kept off the scoresheet in all four of those games. They won’t get a much better chance to remedy that than this weekend.