Phase 1 of the MLS’s return-to-play kicks off this week for the Vancouver Whitecaps, who head to Toronto to play Toronto FC twice, with the first match coming this Tuesday. Here is our preview from that Tuesday match, in which both teams will kick start what is expected to be an exciting Canadian series between Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
MLS is Back, this time with a Canadian twist.
After a short hiatus with the culmination of the MLS is Back tournament down in Orlando, in which the Portland Timbers triumphed over the hosts Orlando City, MLS teams have returned to their home markets, in which they’ve started phase 1 of their regular-season return.
For the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, phase 1 will be a bit different, as they’ll play each other 3 times each over the next month, with the points counting towards both the regular-season standings and the Canadian Championship, in which the best team after phase 1 will play in the final of.
So starting this week, the 3 Canadian teams will get real familiar with each other once again, with some high-stakes matches awaiting all of them.
Up first? The Whitecaps and Toronto FC, who do battle at BMO Field twice this week, starting this Tuesday.
“These are exciting games, I always enjoy playing these games, these are rivalry games for us,” Whitecaps midfielder and Ontario native Russell Teibert told reporters last week. “These are championship games for us, and we all understand and know the importance of these games and what it means for all teams, you know they’re going to be a battle, regardless of the date and the occasion.”
“These are games that you want to play in, you want to have the bragging rights to be the best team in Canada and have that claim. So, we’re all looking forward to it. There’s no better way to kick things back off than this.”
But while these games are a return to a new normal, in a sense, they’re far from the normal that teams are used to.
Usually, whenever these teams meet, there is a strong fan presence, which will unfortunately not be the case this time, as teams must smartly play behind closed doors.
Also, when these sides play, it’s either in MLS action, or in the Canadian Championship, but not in both, making this a rare chance for teams to one-up their counterparts in two different competitions.
For the Whitecaps, in particular, it’s huge. In MLS play, they’ve been constantly embarrassed by Toronto FC, who have made 3 MLS Cup finals in the past 4 seasons, a far cry from Vancouver, who’s yet to even make the conference semi-finals.
Vancouver has done well against Toronto in MLS play, winning 2 and drawing 1 of their last 4 meetings in the league, but no doubt that seeing Toronto consistently triumph in league play has left a sour taste in the mouth of the ‘Caps.
In Canadian Championship play, it’s been much of the same for Vancouver, who have been piled on by both Toronto and Montreal in that competition, of which the Impact has won 10 times and TFC 7, compared to Vancouver’s measly 1 triumph in 2015.
So for Vancouver, who desperately wants to win the Canadian Championship, both for the glory that lifting the trophy provides, as well as the CONCACAF Champions League spot, these games are their chance to push towards that.
“At the same time that we’re playing for a Canadian championship spot as finalists, we’re also playing for points that count in the MLS standings, so that’s a big difference,” ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos noted last week .”But it has all been an adjustment this year, and now the adjustment is that your playing for the Canadian championship, but also the points count for the MLS standings.”
“So our approach is that we have to make points as soon as possible. We have to make good use of this tournament, these games, not only to add points to our standings so that we could keep that playoff spot still, but at the same time also get points to be the highest-seeded team that would allow us to play in the Canadian Championship finals. This has huge importance for the club, we want to be in the Champions League, we want to do that. We haven’t been in Champions League enough, so we want to do that, it’s a dream that we have, and hopefully, we can put ourselves in that position.”
Heading into these matches, the ‘Caps have gotten a big boost roster-wise, after a rough MLS is Back tournament, of which they were missing 10 regulars by the end of it.
Everyone is back and fit except Janio Bikel, who will be unavailable until at least September, and Max Crepeau, whose thumb injury is expected to have him out for most, if not all, of this phase 1 return.
But on the plus side, that means a return of DP Lucas Cavallini, veteran strikers Fredy Montero and Tosaint Ricketts, midfielder/defender Andy Rose, and the young Georges Mukumbilwa, who all missed out on MLS is Back for various reasons.
It also means the return of Erik Godoy, who’s been battling injuries since the beginning of 2020, as well as Jasser Khmiri and David Milinkovic, who picked up little niggles at MLS is Back, forcing them to miss out on the last game against Sporting Kansas City.
For Marc Dos Santos, it’s been huge to have everyone back in the fold, as for the first time in a while, he’s been able to do full training with nearly everyone, with no group size limitations, as was the case back in May and June due to the pandemic.
“It’s going how it should be,” Dos Santos admitted. “Because it was really hard to train with such a limited type of group (before), and it’s just good to have the full team together and it’s been good. It changes the environment in training and mentality.”
“Teams should be like that, a team should be together, and it was hard the last few months where we were separated in training by groups and not everyone together so it’s very positive to have everybody together.”
But aside from Bikel and Crepeau, there is one huge absence ahead of these games, and it’s a permanent one, as Hwang In Beom was officially sold to Rubin Kazan this week, putting an end to a week or so worth of speculation.
While In Beom’s move comes as no surprise, it certainly will leave a hole in the ‘Caps roster, at least until they bring in a new DP, which is expected to come before 2021.
And no doubt, the ‘Caps will miss the South Korean midfielder, even if his time in Vancouver was seen as a bit lacklustre, at least from a footballing perspective.
He was well-liked in the dressing room, and he was definitely one of the most talented players on the team, even though he wasn’t always able to translate that into results in MLS, a league that just hasn’t seemed to fit his playstyle.
For Teibert, one of In Beom’s best friends on the team, it was sad news, even though he, along with everyone else, knew this day would one day come.
“I can tell you how I’m feeling, first of all, he’s a great friend, and I think that’s how I’ll always remember him,” Teibert said. “He’s just a great person, a great friend. It’s sad to see him go, but you know it’s something that he wanted. He’s excited for the next chapter. You’re gonna miss a friend, and he’s a great teammate for all the guys, but that’s just the nature of the business we’re in, and you just wish him the best going forward, try and stay in touch as much as we can and hopefully see each other soon, maybe someday back in Vancouver.”
But despite that, the ‘Caps will feel confident heading into these games.
For the first time in a while, they’ve got something resembling a full roster, so they’ll feel confident enough to head into Toronto FC territory and snatch some points in this match, before trying to repeat the task again Friday.
It won’t be easy, but after showing resiliency while shorthanded at MLS is Back, this group will be feeling confident in their chances.
BTSVancity Player to Watch: Lucas Cavallini
As Vancouver’s marquee signing, of which the club broke its record transfer fee for, no doubt Cavallini will have eyeballs on him whenever he plays for the ‘Caps.
But after opting out of the MLS is Back tournament for personal reasons, with COVID-19 having impacted some of his close family members, Cavallini is back for this Canadian series, and he’ll certainly be hungry to score after not having played for 5 months.
He’ll also be looking to open his MLS account, after hitting a post and missing a penalty in his first two games of MLS play, so look for him to try and break his zero at BMO Field, a pitch he knows very well from his time with the Canadian National Team.
Can the ‘Caps Canadian contingent cause chaos? Among Canadian MLS teams, the ‘Caps certainly lead the way in terms of Canadians playing a key role in their side, with Canadians Thomas Hasal, Derek Cornelius, Cristian Gutierrez, Russell Teibert, Theo Bair, Tosaint Ricketts, Ryan Raposo, Georges Mukumbilwa and Lucas Cavallini all candidates to start against TFC.
Compared to TFC, who usually only has 2 or 3 Canadians in its 18 man roster, and the Impact, who usually have between 4 and 7, the ‘Caps could have as many as 5 starters and 10 Canadian roster players in total on Tuesday, which is an impressive number.
While it doesn’t mean much from a global standpoint, in these types of games pitting two Canadian teams against the other, you have to feel that having Canadian players who understand the scope of these matches could give the ‘Caps a leg up in the intensity department.
Hasal and the defence get another stiff test: After doing well to deputize the injured Max Crepeau down in Orlando, Thomas Hasal gets his next stiff test in Toronto FC, who have some lethal attacking weapons at their disposal, including Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Pozuelo and Jonathan Osorio.
No doubt, Hasal helped turn a struggling ‘Caps with his entry, but after doing well not to concede any goals in 220 minutes of action against SKC, the Chicago Fire and 40 minutes of the Seattle Sounders, no doubt that Toronto is the stiffest test that he’s had to date.
If the ‘Caps are to have any chance to win, they’ll need to be solid at the back, with Hasal and his defenders expected to play a key role in any possible ‘Caps victory.
Can the ‘Caps find some offence? But while the defence is hoping to build off of a solid end to the MLS is Back tournament, the offence is looking to jumpstart itself, starting with this TFC game.
It’s important to note that after scoring 3 times against the San Jose Earthquakes during their MLS is Back opener, the ‘Caps only scored twice, coming in a less than 10-minute span against Chicago, over the course of the next 3 games. That’s essentially 260 minutes where they struggled to score.
With Cavallini, Ricketts and Montero back, that should help the cause, but no doubt, this ‘Caps team will have to find a way to be more consistent in how they generate offence against TFC, who can be very shaky at the back lately.
Heading into this one, Vancouver’s main concern will be its offence, which as mentioned earlier, struggled in the last 3 games of MLS is Back.
That’s why the ‘Caps had the 3rd worst Expected Goals per game in the whole tournament, as they only generated a measly 0.87 xG a game, compared to TFC, who was top 10 with their 1.44 xG per game.
Defensively, the ‘Caps also struggled, with a tournament-worst 3.15 xG Against per game, but a lot of that did come from the first 2 games, in which the ‘Caps got shelled by San Jose and Seattle, to the tune of over 10 xG.
Toronto wasn’t much better, though, as their 1.74 xG against per game was 7th-worst in the tournament, showing their struggles at keeping chances down at MLS is Back.
So for the ‘Caps, it’ll be interesting to see how their defence holds, and if Lucas Cavallini, who was an xG monster in his first two ‘Caps games, can help the offence find more life.
On the other end, we’ll keep an eye on TFC’s offence, which can be electric, but also their defence, which hasn’t lived up to the same standard.
Head Coach: Marc Dos Santos
Regular Season Record:
Head Coach: Greg Vanney
Regular Season Record:
Vancouver Whitecaps 1-1 Toronto FC
So all-in-all, it’ll be interesting to see what this doubleheader has to offer, starting with this match on Tuesday.
TFC has a lot to prove after a quiet tournament for their lofty standards, while the ‘Caps will want to show that the fight they demonstrated in the second half of their MLS is Back tournament is a sign of things to come.
In a sense, if this was a boxing match, it would be the grizzled veteran vs the young upstarts, so it’ll be intriguing to see who can land their punches, and who can manage the bout and get the result they desire.
At the very least, games between these teams are never boring, especially when the Canadian Championship is involved, so in this dual MLS and Canadian Championship round-robin of sorts, expect fireworks.
With lots at stake for both teams, they’ll want to avoid giving even an inch to their rivals, especially given what each game could mean in the standings.
Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Toronto FC, Tuesday, August 18th, 2020, 17:00 PST, 20:00 EST (BMO Field, Toronto)
(All stats taken from American Soccer Analysis)