For the first time ever, the Whitecaps are in Missouri to take on the latest of the never-ending line of MLS expansion teams, St. Louis City! The squad from the self-dubbed “soccer capital” have been a surprise package so far this year as they are up near the top of the Western Conference, and will provide a stern road test.
Now, the ‘Caps have not been great at facing road tests this season! They’ve collected just six points from their six matches away from home this season, and have won just four of their last 40(!) dating back to the beginning of 2021.
Over the last three seasons, just 27% of the ‘Caps points have come on the road. Why is there such a chasm between their home and road performances? Well, the easiest answer is that it’s simply quite difficult to win on the road in MLS. Last season, half the league had three or fewer wins on the road. FC Dallas finished 3rd in the West despite only picking up four road wins all year!
Of course, the other issue is that the ‘Caps have not been able to impose themselves on the run of play nearly as effectively as they have at times at home, especially so far this season. There have been times in 2023 where we’ve seen the ‘Caps downright revel in possession of the ball at BC Place, but when they’re outside of that familiar turf it seems like they can do nothing but chase the play.
Might Vanni Sartini want to load up a little more in the middle of the park to try and combat this? The 3-4-2-1 that was flashed last weekend against the Sounders held up quite well and could be an option once again. Julian Gressel could slot in nicely for the injured Ali Ahmed at right wingback, although Sartini seems quite committed to him playing centrally this season.
Otherwise, the biggest question is who comes out for Ranko Veselinović at the back. The Serbian has rarely ever been a healthy scratch over the last couple seasons, but the trio of Tristan Blackmon, Mathias Laborda, and Javain Brown have all played well recently, with Laborda shining more at centre-back than he did out on the flank.
That is where the three-at-the-back formation could come into play, with Veselinović slotting in between Blackmon and Laborda. Brown could then be pushed out to the wingback slot if Sartini prefers Gressel to play centrally, providing more defensive stability and giving either Luis Martins or Ryan Raposo greater freedom to push forward on the left.
Up front, the question of who should start at striker remains an open one, with no one really solidifying themselves as a clearcut number one option. Sergio Córdova has been stuck playing in one of the two quasi number 10 roles rather than leading the line, which hasn’t worked out well so far.
If Sartini wants to start both him and Brian White up front it might make more sense to tweak the formation slightly so it’s just Ryan Gauld behind two strikers in a 1-2 setup rather than putting one of the two big forwards in behind to maintain the 2-1 structure that has been fairly rigid all season. Simon Becher, meanwhile, is playing just a few hours away from his hometown and will have a number of family and friends in the stands so hopefully he’ll see some amount of run time on the pitch.
Looking at the hosts, we are likely to see a couple familiar faces along the St. Louis backline. First, this is Jake Nerwinski’s first match against his former club! After making over 150 appearances for Vancouver, Nerwinski has started every match in MLS play so far for the expansion side. Tim Parker has also found a new home in St. Louis, and in fact scored the club’s first-ever goal back in February.
St. Louis have a record of 4-2 at home this season and are coming off a 4-0 home win over Sporting Kansas City that they managed despite having just 33% possession. They hold the ball the least of anyone in MLS at just 44% on the season, preferring to press opponents and be opportunistic when they do get their chances. They are likely to be without leading scorer João Klauss, as the Brazilian forward (who has five goals and two assists in nine matches) has missed some time with a quad injury.
A win this weekend could see the Whitecaps climb as high as 5th in the West, while a loss could see them drop below the playoff line once again. The middle of the conference remains quite congested at this stage of the season and the ‘Caps have to try and keep pace with their neighbours if they’re to fully shake off their slower start to the campaign.