By Aaron Nielsen (@enbsports)
Bucking most analytical trends, last season was an unexpected success for the Whitecaps. Beyond a new starting striker, they haven't changed much for 2018, so will hope their luck continues.
2017 in Review
My view going into the season last year was that Vancouver was not a playoff team. They surprised me and many others by finishing third in the Western Conference, only a point behind Western Conference leaders Seattle and Portland. The Whitecaps went on to beat San Jose 5-0 in the first round of playoffs, and finished the season with a disappointing conference semi-finals loss to Seattle. After they tied nil-nil at home, they went to Seattle and never looked like a threat, losing by two.
My concern for Vancouver going into last season was that after losing Pedro Morales, they didn't have anyone to maintain possession. Despite their final record, this was accurate, as Vancouver only had 39.2% possession, lowest in MLS. They also took an incredible 131 fewer shots than their opponents, a disparity better than only Colorado and Minnesota. Furthermore, their expected goal differential was -5.95, 16th in the league. Their PDO was 1089 (3rd highest in MLS), suggesting they got lucky in their offensive productivity. In sum, this team defied nearly all the analytics that tell us if a team is good or not.
So why was Vancouver as successful as they were? The simple answer is that their key players were very effective. The now departed Freddy Montero was involved in 19 goals. Wingers Christian Techera and Yordy Reyna were also effective in converting chances, with six goals each. Centerback Kendall Waston could of had consideration for Defensive Player of the Year with his four goals and 7.5 clearances per game. The Whitecaps also got strong performance from lesser players such as Marcel De Jong, Jakob Nerwinski and new starting goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic.
The Whiecaps lost 16 players over the off-season, although outside of Montero the players leaving didn't have a major impact on the team by the end of the 2017 season. They have eight new players, with former New England player Kei Kamara and Venezuelan prospect Anthony Blondell hoping to fill Montero's shoes.
The Whitecaps have been in the market for an attacking midfielder, but return with Techera, Reyna, Nicolas Mezquida and Brek Shea. These players, while somewhat inconsistent, did provide a handful to opposing defenders with their willingness to challenge opponents 1v1. They combined last season for 22 goals both in total and expected. In 2017 the Whitecaps were least likely team to take low xG shots from distance, and one can assume a similar strategy this season.
Kei Kamara has scored 73 goals since 2011, including 12 for the Revs last season. During his career, Kamara has scored almost exactly as many goals as expected and has taken close to 600 shots, fewer only than Chris Wondolowski (who also has 36 more goals). A more unproven prospect, Blondell scored 24 goals in 39 games in the Venezuelan Primera last season after scoring only 10 in his first 62. They'll expect a combination of Kamara and Blondell to give the same type of production Montero provided last season. If not, they also have Bernie Ibini-Isei and Erik Hurtado for forward depth.
By virtue of their lack of possession, Vancouver puts a lot of pressure on their defense. Gone is DP Matias Laba, who after a season ending injury signed with a Estudiantes de La Plata in Argentina. Missing Laba's defensive work rate will be a loss, although the combination of Aly Ghazal and Tony Tchani as the holding midfielders should plug that hole. Still, their styles are more effective for stopping attacks than keeping possession. That fact was highlighted by the Whitecaps having the worst output in terms of total player expected buildup from the midfield (Tchani led the team with only 3.65 xB, which was 102nd in MLS). New signing Efrain Juarez and prospect Alphonso Davies could make the Whitecaps more dynamic if they're played in the midfield, as both are much more gifted on the ball than Ghazal or Tchani.
Juarez and Davies may also be asked to play with Shea in fullback role, which will provide added attack from wide area. For this to happen it would mean replacing current full backs Nerwinski on the right and Canadian de Jong on the left. Marcel de Jong is not as athletic as most fullbacks in the league, but he has a good left foot and can provide a threatening cross into the box. Nerwinski has good speed, but is sometimes predictable in his style of play.
Vancouver could have the strongest center back duo in the league in Waston and Tim Parker (for now). Both are defensive minded center backs who are maybe lacking the distribution ability wanted from a modern center back, but are very committed defensively and can cause havoc on set plays. The two combined for almost 12 defensive actions per 90 minutes while scoring six goals and adding four assists. New signing and former Toronto FC player Doneil Henry joins Aaron Maund as depth in this role, and will provide a similar style of play. Henry has the bigger upside after an injury plagued time in the Premier League, and if he shows he's fit the Whitecaps could experiment with three at the back. That would allow Juarez, Shea and Davies to play as wing backs.
New Zealand international keeper Stefan Marinovic took over from former keeper David Ousted late in the season and performed well, making 21 saves out of the 26 shots he faced. He'll be backed up by Spencer Richey and former LA Galaxy starting keeper Brian Rowe who is coming off a season where he struggled in net. In the past the Whitecaps have relied on Ousted to earn them points, so a lot is expected of Marinovic if the Whitecaps are still looking to surprise teams this season.
It didn't happen last season, but my expectation again is that they will struggle. The consistency of coaching staff and player personal means they know who they are and willing to play that system as a team. They have allowed players to come into their own, especially in terms of the defensive line. But analytically the Whitecaps are an ugly team that depend on individual performances, general determination, and luck. If they can keep that up, they may find themselves fighting for one of the top four seeds in the West again. The question that always remains is if they can maintain this success, or if the predictive stats will eventually catch up with them. I think they're going to have a harsh return to the mean, and likely end the season in the 7th or 8th place in the West.