Canada Calling: Vancouver Whitecaps ready to put ‘pride’ on the line in all-Canadian clash versus rivals, Toronto FC

In week 2 of the MLS season, the Vancouver Whitecaps will take on Toronto FC in an all-Canadian matchup. Here’s our preview ahead of that one, as the ‘Caps will look to build off of a strong opening day win over Portland, while TFC will look to avenge a tough loss against fellow rivals CF Montreal. 

With a strong start now in the rearview mirror, the focus has shifted to what lies ahead. 

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, that means setting their sights on their upcoming opponents, Toronto FC, putting the glory of a big opening day win against the Portland Timbers behind them. 

After dispatching their Cascadian rivals in week one of Major League Soccer action, the ‘Caps are looking to now take care of a Canadian rival in week 2, completing a strong start to the season in the process. 

To do that, however, they’ll have to go right into the lion’s den to take on a tough TFC side, one who is reeling after a tough loss to fellow Canadian rivals CF Montreal on opening day. 

But while heading in the lion’s den would usually mean heading into a tough Toronto environment in a normal year, but now, due to the ongoing pandemic, that means the Whitecaps will be heading into the lion’s den that is Orlando’s Exploria stadium, home of the Orlando City SC side nicknamed the lions, which happens to be TFC’s current temporary digs. 

There might not be fans for that game, removing some of the intimidation factor, but with the game kicking off at 15:00 PM local time in Orlando, it’s going to be a very muggy and sweaty lion’s den, one the ‘Caps may struggle to adapt to, as it’s a far cry from the crisp and cool air that they enjoy at their home base in Sandy, Utah. 

They’ve tried to prepare accordingly, but they’re awaiting the worst of conditions on Saturday, so they feel like there aren’t going to be any surprises on that front.

“Yeah, look, you can’t recreate the humidity here in Salt Lake, that’s a reality, you can’t build a soccer field inside a sauna,” Whitecaps head coach, Marc Dos Santos, joked when asked about Orlando’s weather conditions. “The reality is that you train in Salt Lake and the weather is different. But what we (did) do is we tried to limit the times that they drink water today during the training sessions. So we limit that a lot. And those are the little things we could do, but it’s really hard to recreate the type of atmosphere or humidity that we’re going to find at three o’clock.”

And as Dos Santos then noted, there are some advantages to playing so early for his team, who will be still used to operating in a different time zone. 

Will that be enough to overcome the brutal weather that awaits them? Who knows, but if not, they’ve also got some other safeguards to turn to if needed. 

“The good news is that three o’clock over there is one o’clock in Salt Lake, so we’re still alert, we’re still fresh, still ready to go,” Dos Santos continued. “I think the five subs are gonna matter, I think the five subs in this game are going to be important, and we have to be ready to use it, because when Montreal played Toronto, they’re both in Florida, they’re both used to the same type of weather. Now, we’re not, and we are going to have to make sure that we’re smart dealing with the different phases of the game.”

Elsewhere, the weather won’t be the only thing running hot on Saturday, as several of these players will be more than excited to renew acquaintances with each other once again, building off of their long rivalry that stems from being some of the only Canadian counterparts in an American-dominated league. 

Especially for the likes of Lucas Cavallini and Russell Teibert, who grew up out east, these sorts of games are always special, no matter the circumstances in which they’re played. 

Plus, what will be good to see is the amount of Canadian content both teams turn to in this game, which always hasn’t been the case in past meetings. Both Vancouver and Toronto will be expected to start with at least 5 Canadians each, and based on the strong Canadian flavour that will be on both benches, there’s a chance that we see upwards of 15 Canadians get minutes on Saturday. 

It’s a far cry from the days where a half-dozen Canadians seeing the field in this game felt massive, showing the shift that both teams have taken in recent years to give more opportunities to local players. 

As a result, it’s only going to stoke the growing rivalry between these two teams, as the national pride will be on full display in Orlando on Saturday. 

“I think that a lot of our Canadian players that are at the national team with the Canadian players of Toronto, they share this pride and ego about going to the Canadian camp saying that they beat one or each other,” Dos Santos said. “So there’s that pride when it comes to playing Toronto and Montreal and an understanding that we’re playing teams from our country and we want to be the best one in our country, so I think those emotions are always there not only against Toronto, but also against Montreal.”

One such Canadian to look out for on the Whitecaps will be Cristian Gutierrez, who is fresh off of a man of the match performance against the Timbers, one that was good enough to see him earn a nod to MLS’s Team of the Week. 

For the ‘Caps, that was huge, as Gutierrez continued the growth that he’s shown since coming to Vancouver last year. Even despite finding himself behind the most expensive full back in MLS history, Ali Adnan, Gutierrez kept his head high and continued to fight for minutes last year, and with Adnan now out for a few weeks due to a visa issue, it looks like Gutierrez will get a good run at left back for the ‘Caps. 

As part of a strong start to 2021 for Gutierrez, who earned his first call-up to the Canadian National team earlier this year, he’s just looking to improve each and every game, continuing that into this Toronto FC matchup. 

“Yeah, I felt the changes since I’ve arrived here,” Gutierrez said in Spanish on Thursday. “I felt I would definitely notice there’s been an improvement for myself when I compare the Chilean league with Major League Soccer, I noticed a change and it’s allowed me to become a little bit more physical. And yeah, I’ve definitely noticed, I’ve improved a lot.”

Vancouver’s going to need Gutierrez to come up big against Toronto, as well, building off of the clean sheet that he and the rest of his defence contributed to last week, especially now as they come up against a Toronto offence that likes to press high and attack on the front foot. 

After a topsy-turvy 2020 season in terms of their defensive record, they appeared to continue the stability that they found in the last few games of last year in their opening game against the Timbers, and they’ll look to continue that into this week’s game. 

That’ll mean continuing to defend as a unit, limiting spaces in between their defensive lines and pushing their lines up the field whenever possible, something that starting defenders Andy Rose and Ranko Veselinovic are looking to do more of against Toronto, after doing a pretty good job in that area against Portland. 

“The biggest thing going into the season that we’ve been working so hard on and started to work very hard on towards the end of last season is the space between our lines, being a very compact unit, protecting the middle of the pitch,” Rose said on Thursday. 

“We’ll continue to get better,” he continued. “We want to be a team that moves well together, is tight, is compact and at different moments in different games that’s going to have to be in a low block, at different times, it’s going to be in a higher block.”

A big part of that?

Communicating and continuing to watch film, building off of what they did against the Timbers. 

“A lot of that comes into communication, understanding how to play with one another, understanding each other’s tendencies,” Rose said. “Which obviously comes through training, through watching film, through just being so focused and concentrated on the task at hand, so that’s something we’ve spent a lot of time on.”

Considering that the ‘Caps have spent a lot of this offseason talking about having a strong group of returnees, and how that’ll allow them to take a step forward from last year, it was good to see that in action against the Timbers, and hopefully that now continues into this clash against TFC. 

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Lucas Cavallini

Cavallini in action against Toronto FC in 2020 (Keveren Guillou)

And someone who will be looking to continue off of a strong end to 2020 and good start to 2021 is Lucas Cavallini, who is our BTSVancity Player to Watch this week. 

After scoring the ‘Caps lone goal in their 1-0 win over Portland, Cavallini heads into this clash looking to score against his local team, having grown up in Ontario. 

Last year, he only did so in once of three clashes the ‘Caps had with Toronto, and you know that Cavallini is just itching to change that this year, so look for him to try and etch his name in the scoresheet again this week. 

As the ‘Caps most expensive signing ever, he lived up to that billing with that clutch goal against the Timbers, and will be looking to continue and show what he’s capable of against a plucky Toronto side. 

Storylines:

Elsewhere, here are three storylines to watch out for ahead of this game. Here are 3 that are catching our eyes, in particular. 

Prove it was no fluke:

First, the main goal for the ‘Caps against Toronto FC has to be to prove that their win over Portland was no fluke, as many certainly will be wondering if that was just a one-off game, instead of a sign of what’s to come from this team in 2021. 

That doesn’t mean that they necessarily need to go out and win to change that narrative, but they need to continue to show similar tactical organization and structure to what they showed last week, showing that they have what it takes to trouble teams week in and week out. 

Against a motivated Toronto side, it won’t be easy, but it would be a good way to prove that they’re a team not to mess with in this 2021 season. 

The conditions:

Next, there’s the conditions, which as mentioned earlier, promise to be brutal. 

The ‘Caps will want to avoid using that as an excuse, but there’s no doubt that it’ll be hard to do certain things in their game, such as press high, especially against a Toronto team who’s used to these conditions. 

So for Vancouver, they’ve got to not be afraid to manage the game, if needed, be it through aggressive substitutions, shifting their tactics, or doing a bit of both. 

Depth an issue:

Lastly, it’s going to be interesting to see how both teams cope with the multitude of absences that they’ll face heading into this game, which may play a role in how this game will go down. 

For reference, the ‘Caps are missing 4 players, while TFC are expected to be short as many as 8 players, showing how shorthanded both teams might be. 

Obviously, the ‘Caps are an advantage in that department, especially considering that they’re receiving the boost of having 4 players return to their squad after missing out against Portland, but they need to make sure they use the depth at their disposal, something they didn’t do against the Timbers. 

Especially considering that Toronto might have one eye on their next game, a Champions League clash with Cruz Azul on Tuesday, they may be ripe for the picking if the ‘Caps can take advantage of that. 

Stats Splurge:

Pivoting to a look at the numbers, there are a few interesting stats that pop up ahead of this game, on both sides.

To start, it’s going to be interesting to see who wins the Expected Goals (xG) battle in this game, as the ‘Caps had 0.57 xG for and 1.34 xG against versus Portland, compared to Toronto, who had 2.02 xG for and 1.52 xG against in their clash with Montreal. 

It’s worth noting that the ‘Caps led for nearly half their game, while Toronto trailed for much of theirs, meaning that score effects probably slightly played a role in those numbers, but it’s still something worth keeping an eye on. 

Otherwise, the other big stat to watch out for will be in the possession department, as the ‘Caps will be feeling good after holding 51% of the ball against Portland, which was a stark improvement from the 45% possession they averaged in 2020.

Against a Toronto team that has averaged 30%, 33% and 49% possession in their three competitive games under new head coach Chris Armas so far this year, the ‘Caps will hope that they can see a lot of the ball again on Saturday. 

Projected XIs:

Vancouver Whitecaps: 

Head Coach: Marc Dos Santos

Record: 1W-0L-0D (3 PTS)

Toronto FC:

Head Coach: Chris Armas

Record: 0W-1L-0D (0 PTS)

Looking Forward:

So now, it’s going to be curious to see how this match unfolds, especially considering the conditions that this game will be expected to be played in. 

A quick peek at the Orlando weather report shows that Saturday will have a high of 32 degrees celsius, with 57% humidity and 27 km/h winds, showing what both teams will be up against. 

For the Whitecaps, it won’t be easy to adjust to, but they’ll still feel confident in their ability to get a result, especially after picking up 3 crucial points last weekend. 

As a busy start to the MLS season continues, the ‘Caps are looking to show that they’ve finally taken enough of a step forward this season to make the playoffs, and they’ll look to continue their quest to try and prove that against Toronto. 

It won’t be easy, but it never is in MLS, so it’ll be interesting to see how this game unfolds, especially considering the unpredictable nature of this unique and wacky league. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Toronto FC, Saturday, April 24th, 2021, 12:00 PDT, 15:00 EDT (Exploria Stadium, Orlando)

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