2016 ASA PREVIEW: VANCOUVER WHITECAPS / by Benjamin Harrison

PPG: Points per game (PG), Poss: possession percentage, TSR: Total Shot Ratio, GF: goals PG, xGF: expected goals PG, GA: goals against PG, xGA: expected goals against PG, GD: goal differential PG, xGD: expected goal differential PG, Touch %: percentage of total team touches while on the field, Duels Won: failed tackle against, successful dribble, aerial 50/50 won, xAssists: expected assists per 90, xGoals: expected goals per 90.

By Benjamin Harrison (@NimajnebKH)

On September 19th, 2015 the Vancouver Whitecaps led the race for the MLS Supporters’ Shield. From then, the team fell victim to an almost-comical trend of league leaders performing like cellar dwellers, collecting five points from their last six games and backing into the playoffs (inasmuch as a second seed can back into anything). Vancouver bowed out of the playoffs on their own turf, losing 2-0 against Portland to follow up on a scoreless draw down south, landing only 5 of 22 shots on target over the two-leg series. At their best, the Whitecaps are a dangerous counterattacking team that overwhelms opposing defenses with an athletic attacking midfield and aggressive passing (note the high total shot ratio of 0.532). At their worst, the team looks much the same… but wastes the ball with poor shot selection and lost possession (note the possession ratio at 0.469, third worst in the league).

2015 in Review

Drew’s 2015 ASA preview called attention to a young and promising attack, but raised questions concerning Vancouver’s defensive strength with a new pair of centerbacks. Ultimately, the Whitecaps defense significantly improved from 2014, ranking second in goals allowed and first in xGA, on the strength of Matias Laba, Kendall Waston, and an outstanding year from goalkeeper David Ousted. Waston and Laba together account for roughly 34-35% of the team’s defensive actions (excluding recoveries and fouls), reflecting the former’s physical dominance (particularly in the air) and the latter’s exceptional activity rate in the defensive midfield. No individual attacker stepped up as a consistent scoring threat across the full season, with streaky production from forward Octavio Rivero and midfielders Kekuta Manneh, Pedro Morales, and Christian Techera.

Goalkeeper and Defense

Young Canadian Fraser Aird appears to have won the starting right-back job to replace the departing Steven Beitashour. Aird is described as offensively-minded, which should fit as a like-for-like replacement for Beiashour, but this is likely to be a positional downgrade in the short term. Tim Parker takes the full-time centerback role alongside Waston after collecting 16 respectable starts in his rookie season. Jordan Harvey at left-back improved in duel wins and chance creation over his 2014 performance, and looks to feature regularly on the flank for the sixth straight year. Overall, the adjustment of Aird and Parker will determine whether Vancouver can maintain or even improve upon its strong defensive numbers from last year. The return of Ousted, Waston, and Laba likely ensures a solid performance.

Midfield

Fewest expected goals (xG) per shot in 2015
PlayerTeamShotsxGxG/shot
Roger EspinozaSKC200.850.043
Andrew JacobsonNYC261.250.048
Stefan IshizakiLA251.270.051
Marco PappaSEA341.760.052
Kyle BeckermanRSL251.410.056
Darwin CerenORL281.60.057
Nicolas MezquidaVAN271.570.058
Luis GilRSL231.360.059
Laurent CimanMTL342.070.061
Kellyn AcostaFCD261.640.063
Martin Perez GarciaSJ271.740.064
Chris TierneyNE251.620.065
Harrison ShippCHI493.210.066
Darlington NagbePOR402.640.066
Lucas PittinariCOL281.840.066
Luke MulhollandRSL241.590.066
Benoit CheyrouTOR261.740.067
Kekuta MannehVAN745.210.070
Steven GerrardLA221.570.071
Rodney WallacePOR332.380.072

*minimum 20 shots

With Vancouver’s 4-2-3-1 so strongly reliant on Laba’s defensive activity rate, his partner is relatively free to enter the attack. Chilean veteran Morales offers strong creativity and a deep scoring threat, but is defensively weak. Russell Teibert offers good defensive activity and pass accuracy, but hasn’t yet bloomed offensively. The Whitecaps will likely continue to rotate personnel to match their needed offensive/defensive balance, even with the departure of long-standing defensive midfielder Gershon Koffie. Costa Rican veteran Christian Bolaños joins the team from Saprissa, and will likely take up a fair share of responsibility in attacking distribution, with Morales. Vancouver will hope for further development from young attackers Manneh and Techera.

Manneh, in particular, could benefit from continued MLS experience. The 21 year-old Gambian has outstanding pace, good success on the dribble, and is a strong shooter. For players taking at least 20 shots in 2015, he ranks 18th worst in xG/shot, in the company of players who lack his natural ability to penetrate deep into the penalty area. Long shots could be a valuable asset to his game, forcing defenders to close, but his recklessness in shot selection is one of the key traits that separates Manneh from, say, a Fabian Castillo.

Forward

Newcomers Blas Perez and Masato Kudo join Rivero up top, but neither seems expected to start. Perez is familiar with (and successful in) similar attacking setups with FC Dallas. Kudo has a solid scoring history with Kashiwa Reysol in the J League. The main benefit from both new forwards may be to take pressure off of Rivero and offer a different skillset where he struggles. 2016 offensive success nevertheless rests on greater consistency from Rivero.

Coach

Carl Robinson’s recent success with a young team speaks well for his ability to take the Whitecaps further, but he has struggled to adjust to tactical limitations of the attack. A very good coach, his reputation and the team’s success will be tested by how Manneh, Techera, and Rivero develop, and how he utilizes the select veterans on the roster.

2016 Expectations

Vancouver is very likely to be a playoff team once again, even in the strong West. A significant step up from the youngsters could once again lead to a Shield challenge and a better performance in the playoffs. The depth of the defense may, however, be tested more than was the case in 2015.