Ahead of the Vancouver Whitecaps pivotal knockout round matchup vs Sporting Kansas City at MLS is Back, we take a look at some ‘Caps statistical storylines to monitor, as they get set to make a run down in Orlando.
It wasn’t textbook, but they did what they had to do in order to survive.
Despite losing their first 2 games at the MLS is Back tournament down in Orlando, the Vancouver Whitecaps mustered up a 2-0 win in their last group stage match against the Chicago Fire, giving them enough points and goal difference to qualify for the next round.
By qualifying as one of the 4 best 3rd-place teams, the Whitecaps have now ensured that they’ll live to play at least another game at MLS is Back, which is probably the last thing anyone following the tournament would’ve predicted a few days ago.
With an absence list that will soon rival the team’s best 11 at the rate that it’s been accumulating names, the ‘Caps were just expected to play their 3 games, maybe pick up a point or two along the way, and then head home to pick their wounds ahead of a potential 2020 regular season restart later in August.
Instead, they did just enough to progress, keeping their dreams of potentially lifting the MLS is Back crown, along with the pay bonus and CONCACAF Champions League spot that would come with it.
Their path to that glory won’t be easy, as they got drawn with one of the best teams in the league right now, Sporting Kansas City, who has won 2 of 3 games at MLS is Back, and 4 in 5 total if you include their 2020 regular season matches.
Ahead of that matchup, the ‘Caps will have a lot to prepare for, as it will take a huge team performance to take out SKC, who have been firing at all cylinders so far this season.
So with the group stage now over, here are 3 statistical storylines to watch for ahead of that game for the ‘Caps, who will look to look and upset Kansas on Sunday.
Leonard Owusu shines, but he needs support:
Through the first 3 games at MLS is Back, one big positive was the play of midfielder Leonard Owusu, who quickly emerged as one of the standouts on this Vancouver Whitecaps side.
Deployed as a #6, he found a way to make a difference on both sides of the ball, as he is both tidy in possession and tenacious defensively, making him a good two-way asset for the ‘Caps to have in the middle.
As his fellow central midfielders, Russell Teibert and In Beom Hwang, both struggled with inconsistent form throughout this tournament, Owusu was steady and consistent in his play, even despite carrying a hamstring injury that looked to nag him during the last 2 games.
Even though he’s only played 4 games now with the ‘Caps, he’s quickly shown himself to be one of the key long term pieces in this Vancouver midfield, with his play so far playing a big role in helping the ‘Caps fix their woes at both ends of the field at times this tournament.
But he needs support. It was hoped that he and In Beom Hwang could form a devastating partnership in midfield, but for whatever reason, the South Korean international has often looked disconnected from his Ghanian counterpart.
Maybe that’s where the absence of someone like Janio Bikel plays a role, as having a defensive midfielder like Bikel could’ve freed up In Beom and Owusu to wreak havoc together in more of an offensive role, but even then, you would’ve thought that they could’ve done that anyway.
When you take a look at the statistical profile of Owusu, In Beom and Teibert this tournament, you can get an idea of how good Owusu has been compared to his fellow teammates, who have struggled to influence the game in the same way that he has.
Despite playing in more of that defensive role, Owusu is significantly ahead of In Beom and Teibert in Expected Goals (xG) and Expected Assists (xA), even though he’s played way fewer key passes than the pair of them, while also taking way fewer shots than In Beom, who’s played further forward as a creator this tournament.
What that indicates is that when Owusu plays the ball forward, he often makes sure it counts, even from deeper positions. He can pass the ball forward, and do it well, as his assist numbers indicate, which suggests that he’d probably have a higher key pass rate if he were deployed further forward, like In Beom has.
And what’s so special about Owusu is that he can progress the ball in different ways, as indicated by his dribbling numbers, which are significantly ahead of his two teammates.
It’s not a surprise to see them way ahead of Teibert, who prefers to play passes and do more of his running off of the ball, but it’s a surprise to see him so far ahead of In Beom, who showed himself to be an excellent dribbler last season.
If anything, that statistic is a sort of confirmation of what many onlookers have noticed about In Beom this season, which is that he looks a lot less confident on the ball now than he did a year ago. He’s lost his flair, his penchant for 40-yard diagonals and aggressive efforts from outside of the box, and that shows in both his low dribbling rate and shot rate, which you’d at least expect to be both above 1 a game based on his talent level.
A look at the goals added stat sort of confirms that in a way, as it finds a way to categorize 6 actions (dribbling, fouling, interrupting, passing, receiving and shooting) into goals added, a stat that shows how much impact different players can have towards their team scoring.
That means a defender who makes a lot of vital tackles and interceptions can be rated similarly to a midfielder who makes a lot of good dribbles and passes, and vice versa, giving you an idea of the value of players across different lines.
Owusu has 0.13 goals added/96, only behind Ali Adnan on the ‘Caps, while In Beom has a -0.10 and Teibert has -0.15, indicating that their play is actually hampering the team’s ability to score goals.
Surprisingly, In Beom has struggled to turn his dribbles (-0.06) and passes (-0.02) into goals, which gives you an idea of where he’s struggling right now, which is surprising considering how good he’s supposed to be in both areas.
So while Teibert has certainly been an imperfect match with Owusu and In Beom as a trio, more due to what he can’t do and less because of what he can do, you just feel like there’s way more to give with In Beom, who just hasn’t looked anywhere close to the player that he can be.
In the long run, a midfield trio of Owusu, In Beom and Bikel looks more favourable by the match, but considering the uncertainty around Bikel’s status for the rest of the tournament, as he remains day-to-day with an adductor problem, the ‘Caps need more out of In Beom and Teibert.
If they’re to have any chance against SKC, whose midfield trio of Gadi Kinda, Ilie Sanchez and Roger Espinoza has been among the best in MLS this tournament, the ‘Caps need to be better, on both sides of the ball, to ensure that A) the defence doesn’t get swarmed, and that B) the forwards get the support they need to score.
A tale of 150 or so minutes at the back:
Defensively, the Whitecaps have been all over the place so far at MLS is Back, and that’s reflected in their statistical profile, which has seen an interesting pendulum shift over the course of this competition.
In the first 150 minutes or so of the tournament, the ‘Caps allowed 7 goals, as they lost 4-3 to the San Jose Earthquakes in their opener, before falling 3-0 to the Seattle Sounders in their 2nd match.
But after the 51st minute of the Seattle game, when Raul Ruidiaz scored the Sounders 3rd goal of that game, the ‘Caps just stopped conceding goals, as they’ve since gone on a run of over 140 minutes without letting in a goal.
So what gives? There is a multitude of factors at play here.
Firstly, the play of Jasser Khmiri left a lot to be desired on some of the tallies in the first 2 games, as he was directly involved in 5 of the 7 goals, and in the 2 he wasn’t, you can make the argument that he could’ve certainly played a role in helping them not go in.
It’s frustrating, as overall he wasn’t a bad defender over the 2 games, but he was bogged down by individual errors, with his concentration not always being there over the course of the full 90 minutes.
In a sense, it wasn’t surprising to see the ‘Caps pick things up defensively once Khmiri exited in the 73rd minute against Seattle, but at the same time, he did start the next game against Chicago, and put in a much-improved 45 minutes of play before leaving with an injury, so it isn’t as if he’s solely responsible for the struggles.
While in that 3rd game he was helped massively in a 3 at the back, he was also a lot more concentrated, making for a composed performance.
Secondly, the midfield really struggled to put pressure on their opponents in the first game and in patches in the second, making it easy to play through them, hence the high shots against and xG against numbers the ‘Caps put up.
There’s no coincidence that when In Beom and Teibert started to get more engaged defensively, the ‘Caps fortunes changed, as they were key in helping the team be more organized at the back.
Thirdly, the play of Derek Cornelius in the last game and a half was also massive, as he made a huge difference once re-inserted into the lineup, first as a sub against Seattle, and then later as a starter against Chicago.
He was a clearance magnet, as shown by his 6.5 clearances per game, good for 4th in MLS, as he’s helped the ‘Caps settle things down at the back. Theoretically, that stat isn’t positive if you’re judging Vancouver wanting to play as a possession-based team, but considering the struggles that they had in the first game and a half without Cornelius, having him help tidy things up played a big role in their defensive turnaround.
But lastly, and maybe most importantly, the biggest change may have been the insertion of Thomas Hasal in goal, which happened against the Sounders, as star goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was forced to exit with a fractured thumb, one that will keep him out for the rest of the tournament.
No doubt, losing Crepeau is a tough blow, as his ability to play with the ball at his feet and his elite shot-stopping are huge for how Vancouver wants to play, but inserting Hasal may have been a stylistic match made in heaven for these shorthanded Whitecaps.
Crepeau is more of a goalkeeper that relies on his excellent reflexes by letting the game come to him, which is an attribute that can both help and hurt him at times, as he can sometimes get stuck on his line at certain moments.
Hasal, however, is as aggressive as they come, as he prefers to chase the ball and help push his defence forward, which much like Crepeau’s best attributes, both help him and hurt him at times.
For the ‘Caps, having Hasal has really helped their defence sort things out, as they’ve stepped up massively to help protect him, something Crepeau didn’t get the luxury of having.
There’s a reason that Crepeau faced 17 shots on target in 168 minutes of play versus the 6 that Hasal faced in 141 minutes, and part of that comes down to the improved defensive play of the ‘Caps.
While Hasal’s aggressive forays off of the line also played a role in the reduced shot count, it’s also worth noting that Crepeau faced an MLS-high 8.82 xG in his 162 minutes, whereas Hasal has only faced 1.01 in his 141 (they’ve both technically faced more, but the shots that didn’t hit the target don’t count here).
So the big takeaway here should be that the ‘Caps defence has stepped up with Crepeau gone, setting up Hasal to shine, so if Vancouver wants to have any hope of beating SKC, they’re going to need Hasal and his backline to keep up a similar level of play on Sunday.
Figuring out the forwards:
Moving towards the front of the pitch is where things get interesting for Vancouver, who face no shortage of questions about their offence heading into this match, as they have all tournament.
Given the absence of key attackers Lucas Cavallini, Tosaint Ricketts and Fredy Montero, many expected Vancouver to struggle in the goalscoring department, but despite that, they’ve somehow scored 5 goals in 3 games, which is a pretty solid haul.
Even more surprisingly, the ‘Caps have actually gotten really good finishing from their forwards, which is why they’ve found a way to score 5 goals despite only generating 2.95 xG, as they found a way to make the most of their limited opportunities in front of goal.
So despite somehow only getting 6 shots on target over 3 games, Vancouver scored the 3rd-highest total of goals of any team in the West, only behind LAFC (11 goals), SKC and San Jose (6 goals).
But despite those 5 goals, which were scored by Cristian Dajome (x2), Yordy Reyna (x1), Ali Adnan (x1) and own goal (x1), it feels like Vancouver could be getting so much more out of their forwards.
And at the same time, it’s hard to judge their output. You look at the numbers of the starters AT MLS is Back, such as David Milinkovic, who has put up 0.24 xG/96 and 0.14 Expected Assists (xA)/96, Yordy Reyna, who has an impressive 0.42 xG/96 and 0.16 xA/96, and Cristian Dajome, who has 0.28 xG/96, and you can see that they’ve been solid at generating output.
On the flip side, their numbers do need some context. Before that third game, the numbers of Reyna and Dajome were way down, but because they each scored in a short timeframe against Chicago, and Reyna added an assist, things look better, as they did their damage off of the bench.
You look at the numbers of someone like Theo Bair, who had 0.23 xG/96 and 0.15 xA/96 in the first 2 games off of the bench, before dropping to 0.12 xG/96 and 0.08 xA/96 after starting against the Fire, and you do start to wonder.
How should Dos Santos align his charges against SKC?
Bair and fellow youngster Ryan Raposo’s numbers both looked a lot better when coming off of the bench, but the same can be said for Reyna and Dajome, who you’d theoretically want to start the match.
Should Dos Santos just use the legs of Raposo and Bair to start against Sporting KC, and then bring in Reyna and Dajome to feast against a tired defence, or should he go for his big guns from the get-go, and bring on Raposo and Bair to shine, as they have shown to be able to do off of the bench throughout 2020?
It’s not an easy question to answer, but hey, it’s not the worst problem to have. He has 5 solid forwards, who are all quite flexible and work hard off of the ball, so at the very least, no matter who he starts, he’ll get a good work rate defensively, and then as the game opens up, he’ll know that the guys who come on will be able to stretch tired defences.
Aside from that, one thing does remain clear: If he’s fit, David Milinkovic needs to start. He was miles and away the team’s xA leader when starting, but with his quiet performance against Chicago, which saw him touch the ball 5 times in 30 minutes, his numbers dropped, so you’d prefer his electric impact to start.
The big question will then be, who to start beside him?
We don’t know yet, and it’ll be a tough question for Dos Santos to ponder ahead of Sunday.
Either way, Dos Santos will be happy to have all of these storylines to ponder ahead of the clash with SKC, as it means that his team is still alive and playing meaningful soccer at MLS is Back.
After looking likely to flame out of the tournament after 2 games, his team is still kicking, and that’s all he can really ask for at this point, as they push on without several of their key players.
And while they’ll certainly be underdogs against SKC, he’ll know that his team does still have a good chance.
The beauty of tournament soccer is that games are about as unpredictable as they come, so that if his team can continue to show some of the fighting spirit that they showed in that big 2-0 victory over the Fire, they can dream of maybe moving on.
It’s too early to say what can happen, at least until we see things play out on the field, but for now, he’ll be confident in his side, who have one of the most dangerous things a team can have in their favour, which is having nothing to lose.
If they can swing in that in their favour, who knows what will go down in Orlando on Sunday, as the ‘Caps and SKC renew allegiances once again in MLS action.
Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Sporting Kansas City, Sunday, July 26th, 2020, 20h00 PST
Image credit: Matthew Stith/MLS
-All stats are from MLS is Back only, unless otherwise indicated
-Stats taken from Whoscored and American Soccer Analysis