In MLS, teams often live or die by their records on the road, due to the strength of most teams around the league at home. While there are some historically porous teams that can buck that trend, any team in the thick of the playoff race can be usually expected to provide a tough challenge at home. The Vancouver Whitecaps of this season are a prime example of this, as they hold a 3-3-2 (11 points) record at home, including a 3-1-1 record in their last 5 matches at BC Place after a slow start to the season. Where things have gone sour for the team has been away from home, where they sport a 1-3-3 record (6 points), a lacking return for a team looking to compete for a playoff spot. While it is positive to note that all their games away from home have been 1 goal affairs, their lack of execution in those matches may come back to haunt them if things go down to the wire for a playoff spot.
It leaves the all-important question: what has plagued the Caps away from home this season? Is it a problem with how they set up their team? Have they been really unlucky? Is it due to poor travel scheduling? It boils down to a combination of things, some of which can be rectified going forward as some big road trips still loom. If the Caps aim to maintain any hope of making the playoffs, these changes will play a big role.
The first big thing that has plagued the squad has been one of the hardest elements to control, luck. While every team always has a reason to feel like luck seems to evade them, the Whitecaps have taken it to a whole new level. From poor refereeing decisions to untimely woodwork and everything in between, the Caps have not been devoid of entertainment when they’re away from home. By count, it appears that Vancouver has lost around 4 points due to VAR, which would have had them currently tied for 4th in the Western Conference, a far cry from the 9th they occupy.
While that swath of poor refereeing decisions that cost them those few crucial points are seemingly behind them, some of their bad in-game luck can be attributed to poor decisions made by the Vancouver crew. While they can point to the bad luck and bemoan the referees as an excuse, they have for whatever reason struggled to establish themselves away from home.
At first, it seemed that one of the main reason for this would be formation, as the Caps had a penchant for switching up personnel for the first few matches of the season. While the reasoning behind the switches would be sound, it would often backfire, as the team looked relatively uncomfortable in the unfamiliar 3 at the back formation. Despite looking good with their preferred 4, they looked uncomfortable with the 3, as they did not look good as a unit despite strong individual performances.
That’s why it seems to be the lack of cohesiveness that seems to be the stem of the issue, as the mentality has not always been there away from home. Under Carl Robinson, the Caps had developed to a squad that was known to bunker down, feed their speedy wingers and play directly both home and away. While the approach was often questioned due to its lack of visual appeal, it was consistent and provided some spectacular results, especially away from home.
Now, as the Caps transition to a more attractive style of play, the results have been a lot more mixed on the road as they experience the growing pains expected to come from a squad comprised nearly entirely of new players trying to play a different brand of soccer. But, as the results continue to improve at home, they remain inconsistent on the road, as they often struggle to force the issue and push the initiative, a hallmark of great MLS teams in this era. If they are expected to become a top MLS team, they should be able to go away and not only pick up a result, but impose their style of play as well.
One prime example of this would be the most recent away match, away to the New York Red Bulls. While they do get a bit of a pass, as picking up a point despite their travel woes and lengthy injury list, to see them sit back and let New York dictate the game was frustrating at times. If this were the era of Robinson-ball, where the Caps were built to pick up results away from home that way, it could be easier to stomach, but playing “Robbo-Ball” with a midfield comprised of Felipe and Jon Erice with PC and Brett Levis on the wings seemed a pointless exercise at times. While there is value in being flexible in formations in personnel, playing to your strengths may be the better option while the team continues to grow and gel.
Going forward, it should become less of an issue as their squad builds up and they become able to execute different formations. A good example of what we should come to expect was displayed Saturday vs Dallas, where they came out with a 3 at the back for the first time at home, defending well and picking up chances on the counter, while still playing to their strengths. They pushed the initiative, being the better team overall despite conceding possession.
They got a few weeks to prepare for their next road test, but it isn’t going to be easy as they will likely go through what will be their toughest road trip to date with Dallas, LAFC and Seattle being the opponents. If they are to play like they did against Orlando or New York, they will probably get burned, so they will need to be prepared to bring their game and avoid sitting back and resorting to tactics that do not necessarily suit their personnel.
Until then, a good test with Toronto FC looms, so stay tuned as we lead-up to that crucial Friday night clash with cross-continental rivals.
19:00 PST, vs Toronto FC, BC Place