New Year, New Team: Vancouver Whitecaps looking to build off of ‘competitiveness’ shown in preseason in 2021 MLS season opener versus the Portland Timbers (Preview #1)

The Vancouver Whitecaps kick off their 2021 MLS season on Sunday versus the Portland Timbers. Here’s our match preview ahead of that one. 

The big day is finally upon us. 

Over 150 days since they last played a competitive game of soccer, the Vancouver Whitecaps will take the field in a competitive setting on Sunday, when they’ll take on their Cascadian rivals, the Portland Timbers, in their 2021 Major League Soccer season opener. 

After an up-and-down 2020 season, one in which they faced several unique circumstances brought about by the pandemic, the ‘Caps will hope that they can put all of that behind them to start 2021, a year in which they’ll feel they have the potential to accomplish some big things. 

They’ve still got some challenges to work through, as they’ll start the year at their new home-away-from-home, Sandy, Utah, very similar to how they finished their season last year, where they played out of Portland, Oregon to end the season. That doesn’t mean that everything is completely the same, however, as they’ve been able to make their Utah home base much more of a favourable environment, with a lot of the players’ families making the trek down to join the team, something that they weren’t able to do last year. 

Anyways, shifting our attention to on the field, the ‘Caps will be hoping that there is where they see the most change, though, as they come into this season hoping to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017, something they haven’t been really been all that close to reversing in the 3 seasons they’ve played since. 

Heading into their 3rd year under head coach Marc Dos Santos, buoyed by a squad filled with returning players, complemented by some solid new acquisitions, they feel that they can finally end that drought, however. They do lack a final piece to their puzzle, an ever-elusive DP #10, but aside from that, they’ve mostly finished building their roster, giving Dos Santos as complete of a team as he has had to work with since coming to Vancouver. 

But coming into this first game, Dos Santos does face a pretty monumental challenge, as he will be without 7 players against the Timbers due to a mix of injury, quarantine and visa issues. With no Ali Adnan (visa), Erik Godoy (injury), Leonard Owusu (injury), Derek Cornelius (injury), Caio Alexandre (quarantine), Bruno Gaspar (quarantine) and David Egbo (quarantine) in their lineup, the ‘Caps will be in tough against a Portland team fresh off of a big win over Honduras’s Marathon in the round of 16 of the CONCACAF Champions League. 

It won’t be easy for the ‘Caps to snatch a result, but they’ll believe that they’ve got what it takes to battle and make things difficult for Portland, setting the tone for when they do have their full squad back at their disposal. 

“Yeah no, I think you can’t be afraid to talk about facts, what is happening now,” Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos told reporters this week. “And right now, the facts are, they (Portland) didn’t have visa issues, they didn’t have players that were not in, they were able to have a preparation where they played Phoenix, Sporting Kansas City, Seattle twice, they had two games of Champions League. They have the same team as last season, apart from the two changes at fullbacks, so we have to go into this one knowing that our opponent right now with the fact that they’re in a different stage than us.”


“But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to start the game on the front foot, we’re not going to start the game pushing, and playing with all the weapons we have, without being too much frustrated with the guys that are not here, because it also brings a level of excitement when we think about all the players that are going to join and help our team become better.”

As for the guys who are available, Dos Santos is quite confident in their ability to come together ahead of this game, something they did well across limited minutes together in preseason. 

In their lone exhibition matchup in training camp, a clash last weekend with the Chicago Fire, they scraped out a solid 3-2 win, giving hope that they can indeed continue that form into the opening weekend. 

Even though they’ll be taking on a Portland side with a few more games under their belt already, both in terms of friendlies and competitive fixtures, Dos Santos feels like that shouldn’t stop his team from being able to compete, however, as he maintained optimism surrounding the status of his group. 

“Now, what I think is positive is everybody that is available, and everybody that is ready to play, has shown a good level of competitiveness of readiness (in preseason), and that showed especially in the first 60 minutes of our last exhibition game against Chicago,” Dos Santos said. “So that’s a very positive sign that the guys that are available are able to push and be ready to play and be ready to win. The other positive thing is when you have so many guys, it also gives you a picture and an idea of how much our team can improve in the process of getting everybody up to speed and everybody ready to play.”

On the other hand, you can’t help but wonder what the ‘Caps might’ve looked like on opening day had everyone been available. Missing 6 potential starters with the likes of Godoy, Adnan, Gaspar, Owusu, Alexandre and Cornelius can’t be easy, and you can’t help but think Dos Santos would’ve liked to at least see them all be able to compete for spots in training. 

But while the absences from Dos Santos’s squad are making his lineup selection a little easier than he would’ve liked it to, he is excited by what the picture might look like when everyone is available, so he did take solace in that during the week. 

Having been through the wringer with this ‘Caps team, making him very familiar with the feeling of not being able to control plenty of uncontrollable variables, he’s just focusing on what he has available at the moment, while keeping a close eye on the bigger picture for when it all starts to come together down the road. 

“We have a very good idea of who’s going to start against Portland, a very good idea,” Dos Santos said. “And, of course, training is important, to see how some of the guys react, but if I would give you a lineup now, it would probably be 99% accurate, so we know what we want. We know where we’re going.”

“I can’t wait for the day that you ask me that question again, and I have problems with selection, because I have two guys per position battling and they all look good, and then you have problems with selection. But right now our selection (at the) moment is very easy.”

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Deiber Caicedo

‘Caps new signing Deiber Caicedo in action during his first full training session as a Whitecap (Keveren Guillou)

Heading into the first game of the season, we’re going to go with the new arrival, Deiber Caicedo, as our BTSVancity player to watch on Sunday. 

The lone new ‘Caps arrival other than goalkeeper Evan Newton and right back Javain Brown to make it into training camp in time to be ready for this game, Caicedo is the only of those three who will be expected to start versus Portland, making him an easy pick for us.

And from what we’ve seen from him so far, that’s exciting, as he’s appeared to have gotten integrated into this Vancouver team quite quickly. From explosive first full training session all the way through the preseason games that he played, he’s so far seemed like a solid acquisition on the wings for the Whitecaps. 

For a Whitecaps team that needs more creativity offensively, Caicedo looks to be capable of providing that, something his stats before his time in MLS also back up. 

So can he get up and running in his MLS debut versus the Timbers on Sunday? It’s still early days, making it hard to tell, but we’ll keep a close eye on him then as our player to watch. 

Storylines: 

Shifting away from our player to watch, however, here are some storylines worth keeping an eye out for on Sunday. 

Home away from home: 

And while we didn’t mention it earlier, it’s worth noting that this game is technically the ‘Caps home opener, as well. Given that they’re playing in Utah in front of no fans, it feels wrong to call it that, but it’s certainly something worth highlighting heading into this game. 

And it could prove to be a big factor for the ‘Caps going forward, especially considering that most MLS teams are starting to play in front of decently-sized crowds due to the improving nature of the pandemic in the US, something Vancouver won’t have the advantage of doing for the first few months. 

But on the other hand, based on last year, they’re probably very familiar with the feeling of playing away from home, which could also possibly play into their hands going forward. Either way, it’s a strange situation for the ‘Caps to find themselves in once again, but at least they head into it having dealt with it before, now. 

Will the goals come? 

Elsewhere, a big question for the ‘Caps has to be surrounding their offence, something that was quite inconsistent last season. With arrivals such as Alexandre, Caicedo and Gaspar being brought in with an eye on improving that part of their game, the ‘Caps are hoping to be a much better offensive team in 2021. 

But with many of those new faces missing against Portland, it’ll be curious to see who scores the goals on Sunday. Lucas Cavallini will have to do a lot of the dirty work, and to be fair, after scoring 3 goals in 2 preseason games, he looks up to the task, but other than him, it’s unclear who might step up. 

Could it be winger Cristian Dajome, who’s been playing as a sort of a second striker underneath Cavallini? Might Caicedo step up in his first game? Could it be someone completely off of the radar, such as Russell Teibert? 

Against a Portland team that can sometimes get a bit loose at the back, the ‘Caps will be hoping that they can find a few goals, especially knowing that they might give up a few of their own against the high-flying Timbers offence. 

Right into the deep end: 

Lastly, it’s going to be interesting to see what the fitness gap between these two teams is like on Sunday, as Portland comes into this game having already played two competitive games in the Champions League. 

On one hand, you do wonder if fatigue could start to come into play, but on the other, Portland looked really good across both legs vs a tough Honduran side in Marathon, winning pretty handily by a combined score of 7-2. 

For a Whitecaps team that only played 2.6 exhibition games, and is missing a lot of regulars, Portland could be at a significant advantage in this game, making it fascinating to see how the ‘Caps might stack up compared to them in a competitive setting. 

Stats Splurge: 

With this being the first game of the season, there’s not much to be said statistically about these two teams, other than just one key storyline — will this game be more high-event than last year’s clashes between these two? 

Last year, in two games, both teams only had a combined 3.69 Expected Goals (xG) between them across 180 minutes, which along with only 2 actual goals, shows how low-event their clashes were. 

Considering that the ‘Caps were a pretty high-event team defensively last year, they’ll be happy with that (aside from the fact that they lost both games 1-0, that is), but it was quite surprising to see such quiet games from two teams that have produced fireworks in matches in the past. 

Based on it being the first game of the season, however, and Portland’s form, this game promises to be a lot more exciting. From what we’ve seen, don’t be surprised if the cumulative from these two’s 2020 games is surpassed in this one alone, as it would be a big shock if they combined for yet another low-scoring game. 

Projected XIs:

Vancouver Whitecaps:

Head Coach: Marc Dos Santos

Record: 0W-0L-0D (0 PTS)

Portland Timbers:

Head Coach: Gio Savarese

Record: 0W-0L-0D (0 PTS)

2020 Matchups: 

Portland Timbers 1-0 Vancouver Whitecaps

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-1 Portland Timbers

Looking Forward:

So now, it’ll be very interesting to see how this game ends up actually playing out on the field on Sunday, as these old rivals once again renew hostilities. 

With it being MLS, you never do know what will happen in this game, especially considering it’s the season opener, probably the least predictable game of them all, leaving the result completely up in the air.  

And if you’re the Whitecaps, that’s a good thing, which should give them some hope heading into this game. It’s a new year, they’ve got a new-look squad, now it’s just time for them to turn that into goals, wins and points. 

But while they’ll look to do that over the course of the season, it’s important they keep an eye on what lies directly in front of them, and that’s this clash with the Timbers. 

Pre-Match Reading and Listening:

Midfield Musings: Have the Vancouver Whitecaps done enough to improve their midfield ahead of the start of the 2021 MLS season?

Studying the Squad: Evaluating the Vancouver Whitecaps roster ahead of the start of the 2021 MLS season

Fluid Formation: Analyzing the ‘Vancouver Whitecaps staggered 4-4-2 and how Marc Dos Santos might look to tweak it going forward

Predicting the Unpredictable: BTSVancity’s 2021 Vancouver Whitecaps and MLS predictions roundtable

The Third Sub Episode 85: An in-depth Vancouver Whitecaps 2021 season preview (Ft: Peter Hicken)

The Third Sub Episode 86: Vancouver Whitecaps looking to surprise Portland Timbers in 2021 MLS season opener

 Season Opener: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Portland Timbers, Sunday, April 18th, 2021, 19:00 PDT/22:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy)

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