Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Strong start to 2021 MLS season continues for Vancouver Whitecaps after 2-2 draw with Toronto FC

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column where we break down all things Vancouver Whitecaps, we look back at their 2-2 draw with rivals Toronto FC from Saturday. 

They may feel like they dropped 2 points, but that doesn’t mean that picking up 1 wasn’t a bad bit of business, either.

On a hot Saturday afternoon in Orlando, the Vancouver Whitecaps picked up a valuable road point after a 2-2 draw against fellow Canadian rivals, Toronto FC, continuing a strong start to the 2021 Major League Soccer season after beating their Cascadian rivals, the Portland Timbers, 1-0 on MLS’s opening weekend. 

While the ‘Caps will feel hard done by considering they were leading against TFC until the 85th minute, making it feel like they dropped 2 points instead of gaining 1, had you told most fans that before the season that they would’ve picked up 4 points from their first two games of the year, they would’ve been ecstatic, so that shouldn’t diminish the value of this result as a whole.

Considering that it took them 7 games to reach that total in 2019, and 5 games in 2020, that they’ve already got that many points after 2 games is a huge step up from their first two seasons under head coach Marc Dos Santos, showing their continued improvement. 

The work is far from being over, as the Whitecaps have a lot of metaphorical 9-5 shifts to undergo before being able to say that they’re a team that has the credentials of an MLS playoff team, but that shouldn’t dim the optimism surrounding their strong start. 

With the Whitecaps missing a good chunk of their regulars for these two games, both in terms of returnees and new arrivals, who have dealt with a myriad of issues ranging from injury, to visa problems, to quarantines, it only increases the value of these points, showing off their fighting spirit.

As they continue to integrate those faces back into the squad, they’ll believe that this is just the beginning of what’s to come from them, finally showing the sort of promise in Dos Santos’s 3rd year in charge that some have been waiting ever since the Canadian coach was hired to helm the ‘Caps ship at the end of 2018. 

Returning to the Toronto game, however, what was most positive about the match was that we saw another solid overall performance from the ‘Caps, who continued to build off of what they started to show towards the end of 2020 under Dos Santos. 

Too often last year, it felt like the ‘Caps would just try and hang on in games, instead of carrying much of the initiative, as they struggled to grow into games. So far through two matches in 2021, that is no longer appearing to be the case, though, which has been a nice change to see so far.

If the ‘Caps are going to indeed take a step forward and become a playoff team, they’ve absolutely got to take more initiative in games, so it’s been nice to see improvements in that area of their game so far this season. 

Before looking way too far ahead, however, let’s revisit some of what stood out for Vancouver in their game against Toronto, as they continued a strong start to 2021 on Saturday. 

A tough voyage: 

And to start things off, it’s worth noting how brutal the conditions were on Saturday in Orlando, which certainly had a big impact on both teams. 

A quick glance at the Orlando weather report at kick-off showed that it was a warm 32 degrees Celsius with 45% humidity at Exploria Stadium, which essentially meant that the players were playing in what could be best described as a sauna. 

For those who have ever stepped in a sauna, let’s just say it’s not the most ideal location for a soccer game, and the conditions on Saturday only confirmed that. 

Otherwise, the set-up was great, as Orlando’s facilities are among the best in MLS, which is going to serve Toronto well as they use the stadium as a temporary home base to start the season, but one can only question the decision to kick off at 15:00 local time, which didn’t seem like the best decision in hindsight. 

“The condition when it comes to the field, the condition of the stadium and everything, is top, Orlando has a great field, a great pitch, a great stadium,” Dos Santos said after the game. “The humidity made it very hard, it’s the type of day where just walking outside you’re sweating a lot.”

“So it could give you a picture of how it is, so that affects the moments of pressure, if you even look at Toronto, Toronto normally is a very high press type of team, and those moments didn’t happen as much, and it’s due also to the type of weather.”

So all things considered, it made the ‘Caps solitary point look a lot better when factoring in the brutal weather, which made it a little harder for them to exert themselves in this game. 

But that’s just the reality of playing away in MLS. Had this been a normal year, this game would’ve been in Toronto, which actually received snow over this past week, so that just gives you an idea of the uniqueness of what teams can be expected to face week-in and week-out. 

Plus, when you factor in the COVID protocols, which forces away teams to travel in and out of cities on game day, and it only adds to the struggle that away teams face. Even though the ‘Caps dodged the in-and-out on Saturday, as the timing of the game and distance between Salt Lake and Orlando just made that impossible, it’s something that they had to deal with a lot in 2020. 

There’s a reason why teams typically struggle to pick up points in MLS, so for the ‘Caps to pick up a point isn’t the worst thing in the world, as Dos Santos pointed out after the game. 

“If we win every game at home, and we tie every game away, I think we can even win the Supporter’s Shield,” Dos Santos joked after the game. “But it’s very hard, the games away, guys. I can’t stress that enough, because I don’t want you guys to think it’s an excuse, and it’s really hard the in and out. The way we travelled there to Orlando gives us a better chance, when you’re able to travel the day before and sleep at the hotel, meet with the players there, come to the stadium, it gives you a better chance.”

“When you’re in the in and out, it’s very hard for the away teams, very hard. The important (thing) is to take the most points possible when you’re on the road, and be incredibly aggressive at home to get something in the games at home. MLS is, is a roller coaster, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon and we played 2 of 34 games, there’s 32 left, we still have a lot to do.”

And Dos Santos isn’t all that wrong. 

For reference, if the ‘Caps were to indeed win all of their home games and draw all of their away games, they’d pick up 68 points. The all-time MLS points record in a season is 72, and most teams typically win the Supporter’s Shield with around 60 points.

It’s obviously going to be nearly impossible to maintain this pace, understandably so, but it does show the value of picking up away points whenever possible, provided that you take care of business at home whenever you can.

Janio Bikel on the ball against Toronto FC (Vancouver Whitecaps/Twitter)

Offensive improvements:

Elsewhere, it was nice to see the ‘Caps take a step forward offensively this game, after participating in a pretty low-event game against Portland. 

In that game, they only had 6 shots, 2 of them on target, generating a meagre 0.60 Expected Goals (xG). While they scored one of those chances, and were full value for the victory, it was always going to be a big ask to generate that few chances and consistently pick up points, as that would put a lot of stress on their defence every week. 

They took a step forward against Toronto, however, generating 8 shots, 6 of them on target, which gave them a very good 1.66 xG, which was reflected in the fact that they scored 2 goals. 

That gave their defence a better margin of error to work with, and considering the two mix-ups that they had on both of the goals that they conceded, their improved offence certainly helped them avoid dropping any points after those mistakes. 

There is still a lot of work to be done there tactically, as the ‘Caps were still lacking invention at times in the final third, but as the numbers showed, they looked like an improved offensive unit on Saturday. 

“I thought when we had possession in their half, that we could still grow a lot,” Dos Santos said. “There’s actions, the last pass, the last run, the play in behind, we could stretch that line a little bit more. So I’m a little bit disappointed there, but I understand we’re still in this process and we’re still trying to build the team. So, look, there was things that I’m more pleased (with), I think there was areas of the game that there was more growth.”

And what was most impressive about the ‘Caps is the damage they did through the middle of the park against Toronto. 

Typically, they do most of their damage down the flanks, but there were a few occasions where they attacked right up the middle with the ball on Saturday, which was a nice change to see. 

They were rewarded for that intent once on Saturday, as their first goal came off of a penalty that was won after Cristian Dajome and Lucas Cavallini ran right through the middle with the ball, winning the spot-kick after a good spell offensively. 

Along with a couple of other chances that came off of some other good runs down the middle, it was nice to see the ‘Caps show that sort of intent on Saturday, and hopefully it’s a sign of what’s to come from them in that area of their game this season. 

“I thought it was a hard game against a tough opponent with a lot of quality,” Dajome said post-game via an interpreter. “We put up a great performance. I thought, during the game we attacked well through the middle, and we had to create more through the middle. That’s where I did most of my damage there, so I thought we could have done a little bit better, penetrating through the middle.”

Plus, while the ‘Caps showed good flashes in that area against Toronto, this is only the start of what’s to come from them this season, or at least you’d think it is, as they continue to receive more reinforcements in the coming games. 

With the continued integration of new arrivals midfielder Caio Alexandre and right back Bruno Gaspar, who made their MLS debuts on Saturday off of the bench, along with the continued adaptation of winger Deiber Caicedo, who continued to show good flashes in his second MLS start, better days do seem to lie ahead. 

Importantly, that’s without talking about the players who were on the team last year but are still working their way back into the team, such as Leonard Owusu (injury) and Ali Adnan (visa), who should also add to the team’s slowly improving offence. 

But while the team’s offence showed good flashes in possession and in transition, it’s important to highlight the main way that the ‘Caps have created offence so far this season – via set-pieces. 

They want to continue to improve their offensive game in possession and in transition, no doubt, but considering that 7 out of their last 9 goals (regular season and preseason) have been via dead balls, it shows how important that avenue of attack has been for them as of late, and no point in them stopping that anytime soon. 

“Yeah, it’s hard. There’s players that came here late to preseason to join the team,” Dajome continued. “But as for the set pieces, it’s something we’ve worked on a lot and that’s how we’ve been producing in these past two games.”

“But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter how we score, it just matters that we put the ball in the back in the net. Of course, we’ll keep working to produce in all parts of the field, but that’s just my opinion, it doesn’t matter how the ball goes in the net.”

And it’s that last point from Dajome that is so key. Ideally, the ‘Caps will be getting their goals from a multitude of sources, be it in transition, after lengthy phases of possession and off of set pieces, as all goals are indeed equal on the scoresheet. 

For a team that created much of any of those things consistently the past two years, it’s important that they continue to build off of what they’ve done on dead balls to start the year, while also continuing to grow the other areas of their game in the meantime, giving them a multi-pronged approach in attack. 

Considering that their attack has mostly had no prongs over the past two years, it seems like a big ask, but as we’ve seen to start the season, they’ve shown the potential of being able to change that, so hopefully they continue to work at that. 

Front three looking good:

Speaking of prongs, however, it’s worth noting how good the three prongs of the ‘Caps attacking trident, which consists of Dajome, Cavallini and Caicedo, were against Toronto FC. 

They combined for 1 goal (Dajome), 1 penalty won (Cavallini), 5 shots, 4 shots on target and 4 key passes against Toronto, as they continued to show the growing signs of their burgeoning trio. 

The partnership of Cavallini and Dajome, in particular, continues to really help the ‘Caps out, as they’ve done a good job at picking up where they left off at the end of 2020, where they really started to develop a great understanding of each other as the year went along.

That’s carried over into 2021 so far, both in preseason and in the season, and it doesn’t seem like it’ll slow down anytime soon, as the pair credits a close relationship off of the field to their success on it.  

“Yeah, he’s a great player, a great person, him and my family are always together,” Dajome said of Cavallini. “Every day we’re doing our best to get to know each other on and off the field, we’re trying to get to know each other’s qualities on the field as well, as we did last year.”

“But the most important thing is to try and make that relationship produce on the field as well, so that means more goals for me and more goals for him. That’s the main goal with our relationship.”

Their closeness is extended to other areas of the field, as well, seeming to give the whole team a boost at times. 

Thanks to the CDC, as some have started to call the trio, there’s a good atmosphere surrounding the team right now, one that they’ve attributed to their strong start to this season. 

“I’m not surprised,” defender Andy Rose said of his team’s strong start. “Because everything we saw in preseason with a lot of guys missing in preseason with everything we went through, we go down, and not conceding a second goal helped us a lot.”

“We trust guys like Cava(llini), Dajo(me) and Caicedo to get forward, they’re full of quality. I told the group at halftime to stay calm, that we would continue creating chances. The whole group has a spirit that we didn’t have last season. We’ve got a lot of quality.”

Obviously, getting results will help the players keep that positive attitude, but even then, seeing how much losing some of this group has seen over the past few years, it’s good to see that hasn’t carried over into this year, at least not yet, that is. 

The key will be maintaining that good spirit, which is easier said than done, but hopefully the CDC continues to play their part in that. 

Squad rotation coming?

Lastly, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the ‘Caps lineup in their next game, as they made no changes to their squad between their opening game and this one, electing to stick with a bit of continuity on the field. 

But with reinforcements continuing to pour in, might that get Dos Santos to change his mind ahead of their 3rd game?

He says not to count out any possibilities, so it sounds like we could see some changes ahead of next weekend, which could be good news for the likes of Gaspar, Alexandre and Derek Cornelius, who had good cameos off of the bench against Toronto. 

“It’s gonna depend,” Dos Santos admitted, when asked about potential lineup changes. “Sometimes you win, and inside the 11, there’s two players or a player that doesn’t have a positive game, sometimes there’s injuries, but you have to work with that confidence, you have to also work (out), do you have three games in eight days.”

“Now, when you have one game per week and you’re able to manage that more, but that saying, they also say it a lot in Portugal. Me, I believe in stability, I do believe in stability, but at the same time, I’m gonna tell you that players need to keep deserving their spot, they need to be consistent with their spot, and this level of competition in the roster is very good, and is very healthy, and we wanted it to get to this point.”

Considering how the ‘Caps have started the year, it’ll be hard to see there being too many changes, as Dos Santos mostly likes to roll out the same 11 whenever possible, but it does seem like the door is open for some changes ahead of their next game, a clash with the Colorado Rapids. 

Looking Forward:

And looking ahead to that game against Colorado, it promises to be an interesting one, as the Rapids are reeling after losing to expansion side Austin FC for their first victory in franchise history this weekend. 

For the ‘Caps, they’re well aware of the danger that the Rapids have, so they’re not taking them lightly, but they’ll look to maintain that positive attitude in their squad ahead of that game,  regardless. 

As they continue to roll along after a strong start, they’ll want to continue to prove that these points that they’ve picked up are no fluke, which is certainly something that many people will be wondering about after these 2 good results. 

Seeing the team’s frustration at dropping 2 points against Toronto, it doesn’t appear complacency is an issue, however, but they’ll have to prove that is the case next weekend when they get to take the field against the Rapids. 

“There’s music in the locker room, so there’s joy,” Dos Santos said. “There’s joy, there wasn’t music, but then we told the guys, let’s embrace it, we wanted to win, but four points out of the first six, going on the road, it’s very positive.”

“So I think that the spirit right now is very good, but you have to control that, because it’s not cause we got four out of six points that now (we’re comfortable), there’s a lot of work, the game against Colorado is going to be a challenge, so we have to be ready for that.”

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Colorado Rapids, Sunday, May 2nd, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy)

Cover Photo via: Vancouver Whitecaps/Twitter

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