Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Late goals, slow starts marring positives changes for Vancouver Whitecaps post-international break

In Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our column looking at all things Vancouver Whitecaps, we look back at the ‘Caps first 4 games after the international break.

The ‘Caps find themselves at a strange crossroads at the 33% mark of their 2021 season. 

With only 2 wins from 11 games, rooted to the bottom of the Western Conference with just 9 points, 6 points off of the last playoff spot, things aren’t looking great for these Whitecaps, who are winless in 7 heading into their clash with Real Salt Lake on Wednesday. 

Despite that, they have appeared to turn a corner since the international break, picking up 2 draws in their last 4 games, making solid comebacks in all 4 of those games despite conceding the first goal in each match. 

While they certainly need to find a way to stop giving up the first goal so frequently, as they’ve got a record of 0W-6L-3D (3 PTS) when they give up the first goal, compared to a record of 2W-0L-0D (6 PTS) when they score the first goal, it’s been good to see some fightback from this group as of late. 

That fightback has mostly gone to waste, as the ‘Caps have given up stoppage time equalizers or winners in 3 of these past 4 games, and have coughed up a lead in their 2 most recent games, against the Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas, but at least it shows that they’ve got some spirit still left in this group. 

“I understand exactly where we are,” ‘Caps centre back, Andy Rose said after the Dallas game. “I don’t want to give a rallying call or anything like that, but I hope the people see that and choose to stick with us. We need to become more consistent. In these last few weeks going up against good teams away from home, I think we’ve shown a lot of really encouraging passages of play.

For a team that has lost so many games these past few years, it’s encouraging that they’ve not yet appeared to give up on head coach Marc Dos Santos, even if they’ve continued to struggle to pick up results. 

And with this being a results-based business, it leaves the ‘Caps in an interesting spot 11 games into the season. With the prospect of heading back to Vancouver finally on the horizon, can they find a way to get things back on track, allowing them to push for a playoff spot? 

Or will they remain mired in this rut, one that could be quite emblematic of the Dos Santos era, one where these ‘Caps continued to show plenty of promise, but failed to ever turn that promise into tangible results? 

It’s something for the decision-makers in Vancouver to ponder over these next few weeks, which may prove to be crucial for the survival of the Dos Santos era, which is certainly not at risk of exploding in the immediate future, but could start to be on thin legs if things don’t improve over the next month or so. 

But otherwise, there is a lot else to talk about in Whitecaps land, so here is some of what else has stood out from the team as of late, in our first edition of this column since the international break. 

On the front foot:

To start, it’s worth noting that the ‘Caps’ struggles to start games from earlier in the season has remained a constant after the international break, as heading into their latest games against Dallas, they’d been outscored 8-0 in first halves in 2021, yet to even score a goal in over 450 minutes of first-half action. 

Seeing that, you can almost understand why they’re yet to win when giving up the first goal this season, as they’ve never had a first-half lead, making it hard for them to make up the gap when they don’t turn up for games until the second stanza. 

That’s not to say that they’ve started badly in all of their games, but slow starts have been a consistent trend, one that has proved to be costly in their quest to grab points. 

So against Dallas, it was frustrating to see them go down 1-0 in the 22nd minute, as they failed to mark Dallas’s in-form 18-year-old striker, Ricardo Pepi, and he punished them adeptly. 

But then, for the first time all year, the ‘Caps found some first-half magic. Lucas Cavallini pounced on a shocking defensive mistake from Bressan to tie up the game in the 30th, before Andy Rose put his team ahead with a nice header on a corner in first-half extra time. 

That meant that for the first time in 2021, the ‘Caps carried a first-half lead into the second-half, giving them a good chance to win. 

It’s possible that this Dallas game was the anomaly, and that the slow starts are due to return starting with the Salt Lake game on Wednesday, but it’s worth noting that when this ‘Caps team breaks slumps, they break them emphatically. 

Take their open play goal slump, for example. After going the first 6 games of the 2021 season without scoring from open play, the ‘Caps now have scored open play goals in 5 straight games, scoring 6 open play goals over that span. 

If they could do something similar with first-half goals, it could go a long way towards them busting their current slump, as it’s much easier to chase wins from the front than it is from the back, as they’ve often tried to do this season. 

“There’s two things that we addressed in the last two days,” Dos Santos said of the slow starts after the Seattle game. “It’s the why of coming out and lacking sometimes the little things to dictate the game, and we also spoke about making big plays in the end of games.”

Those late goals:

But while those first-half goals against Dallas brought with them a bit of optimism, they would eventually go to waste, as the ‘Caps succumbed to yet another late goal, something they’ve made a habit of doing as of late. 

In their 4 games since the end of the international break, the ‘Caps have now dropped points from drawing or winning positions in the 92nd, 93rd, 71st and now the 94th minute, costing them a total of 6 points in the process. 

It might not seem like a lot, but that’s the difference between the ‘Caps in 13th and the Houston Dynamo in the last playoff spot in 7th, showing that their inability to hold onto points is costing them dearly. 

And that’s what’s so frustrating about those late goals, as the ‘Caps would have actually been in a decent position without them, but instead, they find themselves falling deeper and deeper into the pit of the Western Conference. 

Even more painful for the ‘Caps? They’ve actually shown good fight back in all 4 of those games, giving up the first goal in all of them before recovering to be in a position to either draw or win, showing the aforementioned spirit in the group. 

That’s got to be tough for Dos Santos, who is getting the sort of fight any coach would want from his group, yet execution continues to be an issue for these ‘Caps. 

Based on the level of talent in this ‘Caps team, that theoretically shouldn’t be a problem, but for whatever reason, it’s been an issue for them as of late, and they need to find a way to root it out before it costs them dearly. 

It’s one thing to show no spirit and throw away results the way a team like, say, Toronto FC has done as of late, leading to the sacking of Chris Armas, but that the ‘Caps have shown good spirit makes it even more frustrating, as it shows that they’re so close to that breakthrough. 

Maybe it comes against Salt Lake, but Dos Santos will hope that it can come soon enough here, before his team starts to rue the 9 points that his team has dropped in 2nd halves this season. 

“It’s very hard to explain,” Dos Santos said of the late goals after the Dallas game. “I think it’s us having the ability just to make the plays. It was a very unlucky ball. Lucky goal that we dealt with and it’s just frustrating that the opponent doesn’t have to work [for] the goal that gives them the 2-2. 

Early returns on the 4-3-3:

Moving elsewhere, though, it’s important to note the role that the 4-3-3 has played in this mini-resurgence, as the ‘Caps switch to the formation after the break has appeared to pay dividends for them.

In 3 of their 4 games since the break, they’ve gone with the 4-3-3, and in all 3 of those games, they were either winning or drawing heading into the 90th minute before giving up late goals. 

Even more interestingly, in the one game where they didn’t start with a 4-3-3, instead trying to go with new striker Brian White up front with Lucas Cavallini in a 4-4-2 against the LA Galaxy, they went down 1-0 in the second half, before a switch to the 4-3-3 allowed them to grab a 92nd-minute equalizer. 

That game didn’t end as they would’ve hoped, as they then gave up a 93rd-minute winner to the Galaxy, but it was another instance where the 4-3-3 had them in a good position, as it’s quickly proven to be a formation worth continuing for the ‘Caps. 

In the 4 games since the international break, the ‘Caps are generating 1.25 Expected Goals (xG) per game, which isn’t fantastic, but is an increase on the 1.16 xG they’re averaging for the season. 

Considering that they only put up 0.80 xG against Dallas, as they sat back after going up a goal, that number would probably be higher, though, showing that the 4-3-3 is having a noticeable impact on the ‘Caps ability to generate chances, making it less of a surprise that their open play goal tally has quietly shot up at the same time. 

There are a few concerns defensively, as they’ve given up 1.5 xG per game over that same time span, but that is actually an improvement on the 1.64 xG they’ve given up over the course of the season, and that 1.5 number is skewed by a 2.65 xG shellacking from Supporter’s Shield favourites, the Seattle Sounders. 

They’ve still got a lot of work to do offensively, as they’re still 2nd-last in MLS in terms of shots per game, last in shots on target per game and 4th-last in possession per game, and are still 5th-last in xG, but at least they’ve been trending in the right direction ever since the formation switch. 

Seeing that Caio Alexandre, who is already a transitional force, has been unlocked the last few games, joining wingers Deiber Caicedo and Cristian Dajome as the biggest standouts after the international break, it’s been a positive change for several of the individual players, as well. 

Caio Alexandre’s statistical radar in 2021 (Fbref.com)

Along with some strong play from full backs Cristian Gutierrez, Javain Brown and fill-in Janio Bikel, the 4-3-3 has proved to be a boon in nearly every aspect of the ‘Caps game except their ability to defend wide balls, which is more of a systemic issue, anyways.  

There could still be a few tweaks to the 4-3-3, as one has to imagine that someone like Leonard Owusu could be unleashed in this formation despite being stapled to the bench as of late, for example, but otherwise, it’s been a positive change for the ‘Caps. 

Having experimented with seemingly every formation under the sun these past 2 years, it’s probably the formation they should’ve stuck with since the beginning, so hopefully they don’t stray from it despite the inconsistent results as of late.

“I think we’re getting really comfortable in this 4-3-3,” Rose said. “There’s a real identity forming. It’d be really, really nice for us to show our fans at home at BC Place. It’s something we’re excited about, we hope for. During my time in Vancouver, this is certainly the group I’ve felt most confident about moving forward.”

Gauld Rush?

Moving to the end here, it’ll be interesting to see what happens now with prospective Whitecaps #10 target, Ryan Gauld, who as of last week looked close to signing a deal to become the ‘Caps latest DP. 

As of writing, there hasn’t been a change in the news on that front, but with MLS’s secondary transfer window opening on Wednesday, it’ll be interesting to see if an official announcement concerning his signing follows. 

After Wednesday, the ‘Caps will go on a 10-day break because of the Gold Cup, so no better time for them to make the signing and then get him into training, giving him a few extra games before a potential debut on July 17th, July 20th or July 24th, the first 3 ‘Caps games after the break. 

Obviously, that requires him actually putting pen to paper, but based on reports, it appears that he’s on track to do that quite soon, and for the ‘Caps, who need all sorts of offensive help, his arrival can’t come soon enough for Dos Santos and his staff. 

Back North?

Otherwise, speaking of that July 20th game, it’s starting to look like that could be the day the ‘Caps play their first home game in Vancouver in 2021, as Toronto FC’s president Bill Manning told reporters that his club was looking to play at home starting July 17th. 

They’re still awaiting confirmation from the health authorities to do that, but it appears that with new rules allowing fully vaccinated individuals to avoid quarantine, the team will at least be training in Ontario going forward, making it possible for them to start playing games. 

Considering that the ‘Caps are all fully vaccinated, that means that they should theoretically at least be able to train at home soon, much like Toronto and Montreal are planning to do, before being able to play home games in Vancouver not long after. 

They won’t be able to do that for July 7th and 17th, as they’ve committed to playing those ‘home’ games in Salt Lake in front of fans, but the door is open for any game after July 20th, assuming all goes well with the authorities. 

If that happens, under the current health restrictions in BC, the ‘Caps would be able to hold around ~13 000 at BC Place assuming they just open the lower bowl, with that number rising to around ~27 000 if they were to open up the upper bowl. 

With current projections then allowing teams in BC to play in full capacity stadiums starting in September, it would be a good way to ease back into their return to playing in front of fans, which for a ‘Caps team that hasn’t done so since February of 2020, is long overdue. 

Goodbye Ali:

Lastly, it’s important to point out the departure of Ali Adnan from the Whitecaps this past weekend, as the fan-favourite left back’s contract was terminated, making the DP a free agent. 

Having yet been able to play in 2021 due to an ongoing visa issue, it was an unfortunate but inevitable conclusion to the Iraqi international’s time in Vancouver, as he’d clearly liked playing on the West Coast. 

But due to the US’s strict visa process that unfortunately isn’t kind to countries such as Iraq, his last game in Vancouver will officially have come in 2020, leaving the fans unable to wish him a proper goodbye. 

As a result, it leaves the ‘Caps with 2 DP slots, one of which has to be a Young DP (U23), which was technically the case beforehand, but not officially so with Adnan yet to be bought down (as he was under the TAM threshold), adding one other item to their already full shopping list. 

With Cristian Gutierrez’s emergence at the left back position, it isn’t a pressing need, but with no natural backup left back, the ‘Caps are in a precarious position should he go down with an injury. 

There are some good domestic left backs kicking around in the Canadian Premier League, for example, such as Diyyaedine Abzi and Kwame Awuah, amongst others, so it shouldn’t be hard for them to fill that backup left back spot, but it’s just unfortunate that Adnan’s departure came the way that it did. 

Had they at least been able to get a transfer fee for Adnan, they’d have been able to put that money elsewhere in the squad, but instead, they’re left with nothing, another victim of the US’s strict border laws. 

So now, here’s to hoping he can find a new club in short order, allowing him to get back out on the field again, something he’s gone way too long without doing for a club. 

Looking Forward:

Otherwise, it’ll be interesting to see how the ‘Caps get on in this game against Salt Lake before undertaking their short 10-day break. 

With no Maxime Crepeau and Lucas Cavallini due to the Gold Cup, the ‘Caps will be in tough against their hosts at their ‘home-away-from-home’ in Utah without their early MVP favourite and last remaining DP, but they’ll need to find a way to snatch a result. 

Having mostly actually played pretty well since the international break, they’ve only got 2 out of a possible 12 points to show for it, as they’ve quickly sunk to the bottom of the West here. 

But with good news on the horizon, such as the arrival of that long-awaited #10, as well as the prospect of returning home, this would be a good time to get some momentum before a positive end to the summer. 

It’ll have to come quick, though, as they look to avoid a third straight lost season, one where they just couldn’t find a way to turn the many flashes that they showed into any sort of long-term success. 

They aren’t far away from something good, but they’ve got to take a step forward sooner rather than later, before things are too late. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Real Salt Lake, Wednesday, July 7th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy)

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