Match Preview: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Real Salt Lake – retooled for the new season
2023 is gonna be a busy one for the Vancouver Whitecaps. For the first time since 2016 they are back in the CONCACAF Champions League. The first-ever Leagues Cup will take place in the summer, adding at least three matches and potentially more in a month-long MLS break. And of course, the ‘Caps will try and defend their crown in the Canadian Championship beginning in May.
That’s four different competitions, making it at least 39 and up to as many as 60 matches between February 25th and December 9th. Are the ‘Caps going to play close to the maximum? I doubt it! But it just shows the strain that the ever-expanding MLS puts on its clubs.
How are the ‘Caps attacking this season? Well, the squad doesn’t actually look too different from the last season’s team. 2022 was a year of mid-season acquisitions trying to get integrated quickly, some more successful than others. The 2023 offseason was a time of tinkering more than wholesale changes, adding just three new presumptive starters to the side (with only two likely to start on Saturday).
Those two are Mathias Laborda, a defender who played in every position along the backline during the preseason, and Yohei Takaoka, a new number one goalkeeper who arrived just in time to play in the final preseason match. Given that the ‘Caps ended 2022 tied for the second-most goals conceded in the Western Conference, both of these additions are going to be counted on to help turn the ship around on that end of the pitch.
Joining them at the back will likely be the trio of Ranko Veselinović, Tristan Blackmon, and Luis Martins. The ‘Caps primarily employed a 4-3-2-1 formation during preseason although with the personnel out there it can morph quite quickly into more of a 3-4-3 with Martins pushing high and the right-back (Blackmon or Laborda) back.
That adaptability is shown by the fact that Julian Gressel lines up as a central midfielder, as he continues to meander around the pitch and play nearly every position available to him. Joining him in the midfield is Andrés Cubas, one of the two more important players on the team, and Alessandro Schöpf, who struggled in his seven appearances last year but Vanni Sartini has raved about him in the build-up to this season.
If Schöpf can be the type of player he was billed as when he was brought in that would be a big boost to Vancouver’s attack, which has swapped out its old DP striker for another, bringing in Sergio Córdova to lead the line. Ironically enough Córdova played at RSL, the ‘Caps’ opponents on opening day, last year, although being the newest addition it will likely be Brian White starting on Saturday.
Behind White is the talismanic Ryan Gauld and the man who will hopefully be the team’s breakout player of the season in Pedro Vite. Vite definitely showed flashes by the end of last season and if the young Ecuadorian can begin to grow into his potential the ‘Caps will be able to begin to dream of finishing closer to the top of the West.
Looking at the visitors, RSL snuck into the playoffs four points ahead of the ‘Caps last season. They then lost in the first round of the playoffs on penalties to Austin FC. The Utah side haven’t brought in a huge number of players, but they did break their club’s transfer record to sign 20-year-old Colombian winger Andrés Gomez and also brought in fullback Brayan Vera who has played in both Italy and Colombia.
The Whitecaps have been strong at home under Sartini with a record of 16-5-4 in MLS play at BC Place. RSL have beaten the ‘Caps here in Vancouver just once in the last decade, with the ‘Caps holding an 11-2-1 all-time record against RSL at home. With three of their first four matches here at BC Place to start 2023 (including the first leg of their Champions League tie), let’s hope that this new season brings similar results!