After the Vancouver Whitecaps home opener against New York City FC this past weekend, we look at some of what the ‘Caps should take away from that game, as they now get set to take on Houston Dynamo in week 3 of MLS play this upcoming weekend.
It might not have been the complete turnaround that they were hoping for, but there was still progress.
And after losing 4-0 to the Columbus Crew in the opening game of their 2022 MLS season, that’s all that the Vancouver Whitecaps could’ve hoped for in their second match, when they took on New York City FC at BC Place in their home opener.
Facing off against the defending MLS Cup champions, they were expecting a stiff challenge, so they looked to come out with a much-improved effort in response to that, as they looked to avoid another drubbing like the one they faced 7 days prior.
Which, to give them credit, they found a way to do, because while they didn’t leave this NYCFC game with the full allotment of 3 points up for grabs, they did well to nab 1 point in a spirited 0-0 draw with the champions.
Now, that’s lifted spirits in this ‘Caps side as the MLS season really gets into full gear here, continuing this weekend when they take on the Houston Dynamo down in Texas.
Before then, though, there’s still a lot to improve on if the ‘Caps want to grab that first victory, no doubt, but after the opening game, finding any sort of progress in that second game was a must.
So before looking ahead to that next game against the Dynamo, here’s a look back at some of what the ‘Caps did well to improve on in that game, as well as what they’ll need to be better at, giving an idea of what they should hone in on before matchday #3.
There might not have been much to write home about in that 0-0 game, but there were still plenty of important learning moments for this young Vancouver team, which at this stage of this new campaign, is all you can ask for from a match like this.
The backline finds some improvement:
And the biggest area of growth for the ‘Caps in this game? That had to be on the defensive side of things, as after conceding 4 goals the week prior, they did very well to hold a dangerous NYCFC attack to zero goals.
Plus, it’s not as if the ‘Caps got super lucky, either, as they did an overall solid job of tightening up the ship on the defensive side of things.
So don’t be fooled by the fact that they gave up 19 shots, or conceded 70% of possession. The latter number is a bit of a worry, yes (more on that in a bit), but it’s worth noting that those 19 shots turned into just 1.5 Expected Goals (xG), which means that the ‘Caps gave up just 0.07 xG a shot.
Considering that they were able to do that despite finding themselves without the ball for much of the game, that’s huge, as it shows that while they had to sit back and absorb a lot of NYCFC attacks, they made sure that they weren’t punished for it.
And because of that, a shout has to go to the ‘Caps backline, led by centre backs Tristan Blackmon, Ranko Veselinovic and Florian Jungwirth, along with wing backs Cristian Dajome and Cristian Gutierrez, who did a much better job of tightening things up in front of Thomas Hasal in goal than they did a week prior.
Seeing that, however, the question then has to be asked – what did they do better defensively that they weren’t able to do in the last game?
There, the answer isn’t so straightforward.
Obviously, having a more defensively balanced midfield pivot of Leonard Owusu and Russell Teibert helped, for example, but given the lack of ball control that the ‘Caps had, that wasn’t fully effective (just take a look at the matches heat map below to see how so).
What really changed, though, was the back 5’s ability to make key defensive interventions at the right moment, which is backed when you look at the numbers.
For example, there’s the fact that the ‘Caps back 5 were able to make 9 tackles, led by Blackmon (5), Gutierrez (2), Jungwirth (1) and Veselinovic (1), as well as 5 interceptions, led by Blackmon (2), Veselinovic (2) and Jungwirth (1). Along with the 27 clearances and 2 blocks that they were able to put up, that was key, as they did a great job of making defensive interventions before NYCFC got to the dangerous areas.
Plus, almost as a bonus, the ‘Caps back 3 also did a great job of winning their duels, too, as Blackmon (9/9), Jungwirth (9/11) and Veselinovic (3/7) did a great job of ensuring that they were on the better end of most 50/50 balls in this game.
And that’s exactly what the ‘Caps needed from them in this game. In the first match, it just felt like the ‘Caps were far too soft at the back, and that was clear on all 4 of the goals, where it just felt like the Vancouver defenders were second-best on all of the loose balls in their box.
In this game, however, they ensured that wouldn’t be the case again, as they ensured that the dangerous NYCFC attack, led by the dangerous Valentin Castellanos, Maxi Moralez, Talles Magno and Thiago Andrade, wouldn’t punish them as the Crew did.
So although the ‘Caps still have a lot of work to do on the other side of the ball, especially in terms of ensuring that they keep the ball better (therefore ensuring they give up fewer chances), if they keep defending like this, there’s a lot to like there.
Because of that, credit has to go to the individuals that stepped up, as well as head coach Vanni Sartini for adjusting things ever so slightly, as it had a huge impact in this game.
Thomas Hasal’s bounce back game:
But at the same time, while the ‘Caps overall team defence was a lot better in this game, as seen by the statistics, there is one individual who ended up playing an especially big role in keeping the clean sheet, and that’s their goalkeeper, Thomas Hasal.
His efforts were recognized around the league, too as he was named to MLS’s TOTW, but it’s worth highlighting how good he actually was in this game.
He wasn’t particularly busy, as just 4 of those 19 shots NYCFC took actually reached the target, but he made sure to stand tall to those that did, making some big stops.
Be it his early flurry of stops on Magno and Andrade inside of the first 10 minutes, or his key stop on the 2021 MLS Golden Boot winner, Castellanos, in the 30th minute, he did a great job of making sure that the rare looks that NYCFC got were kept out.
Then, when his team needed him most, he came up huge.
That, of course, would be in the 88th minute, when Andrade found himself all alone in the box, with the game seemingly at his feet, and he sent a great shot towards the top corner.
There, though, was where Hasal made his biggest stop of the game, flying across the box to palm Andrade’s volley over the goal, keeping his clean sheet intact with a big save.
And that was huge for Hasal. After the opening week drubbing, where he had to pick the ball out of the net 4 times, you could tell that he needed a game like this, one where his confidence just seemed to grow with each stop that he made.
Again, he was far from at fault for that opening match, as the defence in front of him did no favours, something that they rectified in this match, but sometimes as a goalkeeper, you just need a game like this to boost your confidence.
So as he continues his first full season as a starter here, filling in for the traded Maxime Crépeau, seeing growth like that is key. It feels wild to think sometimes, but Hasal is just a 22-year-old learning his way at a position where players peak much closer to their 30s, so there is always going to be growing pains.
But after a game like this, you can also see the potential that the ‘Caps see in him, and that’s why they weren’t as torn up by trading Crépeau as they could’ve been, knowing that they’ve got a very good option waiting in the wings.
Now, the key will be for Hasal to build some momentum off of this, finding some consistency in his game, but it was a good start, one that will hopefully put his 2022 season on the right path.
What’s up with the attack?
For all of the good in the ‘Caps game against NYCFC, however, it wasn’t all great for Sartini’s side on Saturday.
And the biggest area of concern? The attack, which through 2 games, is yet to score a goal, sitting as one of just 7 MLS teams who are also yet to do so.
Plus, it’s not as if the ‘Caps have been unlucky not to do so, as they’ve genuinely struggled offensively, putting up just 1 shot on target through 2 games.
So while it was good to see them improve on the first game, where they had 0 shots on target from 7 shots, to put up 1 shot on target from 10 shots in this match, there is still a lot of work to be done for them to get to the level required for them to consistently win games.
The fact of the matter is, no matter how well they defend, they aren’t going to win many games where they only generated 0.4 xG, as they did in the first two matches. That’s just a fact.
Because of that, the ‘Caps must find a way to improve at the other end of the pitch, much as they did defensively.
It starts in possession, first, as the ‘Caps need to do better than holding 30% of the ball, as they did against NYCFC, and then from there, that better ball control needs to turn into more chances.
You can’t blame them for wanting to play a little more counter-attacking in this game, yes, as they got great results defensively for that, but you aren’t going to be winning many games where you hold just 30% of the ball, and the eye test backed that up on Saturday.
From there, they just have to be more ruthless in possession, especially in the final third. They’re always going to be dangerous off of set pieces, as they were in 2021, when they were 11th in xG per game in those situations, but it’s no secret that they struggled in open play, where they were 2nd last in xG per game in that category.
It’s hard to fix that overnight, of course, and finding that balance between being strong defensively and being dangerous on the attack is going to take some time, but it has to be a priority now for Sartini.
Dating back to last year, there were questions to be asked of the ‘Caps attacking identity, and nothing we’ve seen so far has provided an answer, so look for Sartini to make that a focus for next week.
Facing off against a Dynamo side that has conceded just 1 goal through 2 games so far this season, it won’t be easy, but it’s a good place to start, as they look to find their legs offensively going forward.
And speaking of that Dynamo game, it’ll be very interesting to see what version of the ‘Caps that we see on Saturday. Will it be the ‘Caps that struggled on the road in their season opener? Or will it be the defensively solid outfit we saw a week later in this home opener? Heck, can it be some better version of both those teams?
It’s too early to tell, but given the progress that they showed in this NYCFC game, there is reason to hope that the last of those scenarios is still a possibility.
So now, the ‘Caps will have a busy week of training to make that happen, as they look to pick up their first victory of this young MLS season this weekend.
It isn’t a must-win, of course, but the more points you can put up early in the season, the better, especially away from home, so this is a good chance to get on the right path as this MLS campaign really starts to pick up here.
Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Houston Dynamo, Saturday, March 12th, 2022, 15:30 PST, 18:30 EST (PNC Stadium, Houston)