PREVIEW: Vancouver Whitecaps host LAFC in Leg 1 of Concacaf Champions League quarter-final
The race towards silverware is heating up in the 2023 Concacaf Champions League.
Now, just eight teams remain in the hunt to lift the CONCACAF Champions Cup, after an entertaining Round of 16 filled with goals, upsets and wild comebacks.
One of those eight teams remaining is the Vancouver Whitecaps, who cruised through the Round of 16 with a 7-3 aggregate win over Honduran side Real CD España, marking their first games in this competition since 2017 in style.
Now, though, things will get a lot tougher for Vancouver, as their next matchup is against one of the tournament favourites, the 2022 MLS Cup and Supporter Shield winners, LAFC.
In what’s expected to be a hotly contested matchup between two teams that know each other very well, it’s a tantalizing tie, one that should be not short of storylines or entertainment.
Ahead of the first leg, which will be held on Wednesday at BC Place, here’s a look at how both teams are looking before then.
Consistency a big boost for LAFC in 2023
There’s no doubt that heading into this tie, LAFC is the favourite to advance to the semi-finals. The defending MLS and Supporter Shield champions, they were dominant in 2022, putting up one of the best seasons in MLS history en route to that aforementioned double.
Not only that, but they retained most of the big pieces from their roster from last year, too, bar Gareth Bale, Chicho Arango and Latif Blessing, allowing head coach Steve Cherundulo to maintain some consistency, which isn’t always easy for winners to do in a selling and salary cap league.
In fact, LAFC arguably upgraded at some positions, too, bringing in the likes of Denil Maldonado, Aaron Long, Stipe Biuk, Timothy Tillman and Mateusz Bogusz, overall leaving them in a pretty good place heading into this year. With a good mix of stars and depth across the roster, they’ve done well to build a team that can both dominate games, while being able to handle the rigour of their schedule.
That doesn’t mean that they’re not without faults, however. In fact, there is one big question surrounding the team right now - in goal, as 2022 starter and Canadian international Maxime Crépeau is still recovering from a fractured leg he sustained in the MLS Cup final, which has been a big loss given how crucial of an addition he was.
To be fair, John McCarthy has stepped up nicely in his place, and has been helped by the partnership of Giorgio Chiellini and Aaron Long in front of him, but no doubt that LAFC will be eager to welcome back Crépeau.
Other than that, however, there’s no doubt that LAFC is very comfortable with where their team is at. With a deep attack, led by the always-dangerous Carlos Vela and Denis Bouanga, and supported by Kwadwo Opoku and Stipe Biuk, they’re a tough team to defend.
Plus, their midfield, which boasts Kellyn Accosta, Ilie Sánchez and Jose Cifuentes as regulars, with Timothy Tillman also proving to be a key addition, they can really control the middle of the park, too.
A team that is really rhythm-heavy, if you let them set the tempo, it can be game-over, quick, something that Vancouver will have to be wary of as they get set for this matchup.
Whitecaps heating up at right time, while LAFC hits a bit of a wall
Yet, while LAFC is certainly the favourite based on their roster, how do they stack up with Vancouver in terms of form?
And there, it’s worth noting that both teams are coming into this game riding opposing trendlines.
To begin, there’s the Whitecaps, who after a tough start to their MLS season, are starting to find their legs a bit.
Following two losses in the first two games of MLS play, they’re undefeated in their last four, and just picked up their first win of the season over CF Montréal. Along with their win over Real CD España, there’s no doubt that they’re trending in the right direction, even if they’ve only got one win in MLS play this year.
Just look at their underlying numbers, for example. Over the past few years, the Whitecaps have typically been a team that struggles to generate chances, while being prone to bleeding them. This year, however, they’re second in MLS in xG for per game with 1.8, and are middle of the pack in terms of xG against with 1.20 (in 2022, they had 1.13 xG for and 1.41 xG against).
Really, the lone blemish on their record is that they’re not turning enough of those chances into goals, as they’re heavily underperforming their xG, something that should straighten out over time, should they keep generating similar chances. Meanwhile, defensively, there are some worries, but given how they looked in that area before, they’re also on the right track there.
As for LAFC, they’ve been pretty much as advertised, sitting with three wins and two draws in five games, looking every bit like the team many expected them to be.
At the same time, they’ve slowed down a bit after a red-hot start. In MLS play, their two draws have come in their last three games, and even their most recent win was a tight one over FC Dallas, who despite only having 10 players for most of the game after a red card, nearly grabbed a road point off LAFC.
Plus, it’s worth noting this all started in the second leg of their Champions League tie against Alajuelense. There, despite being up 3-0 heading after a huge performance on the road, Alajuelense went up 2-0 on them in LA, putting them on the ropes until Carlos Vela scored to effectively end the tie.
Because of that, it’s no doubt that this isn’t the same LAFC side that won their first three games (all competitions) by a combined score of 10-2, as they’ve looked a bit off since, especially in the attack.
They’re still on the right track, as they’re third in MLS in xG for with 1.8, and are also second in MLS for xG against with 0.84, so they’re playing well, but the numbers aren’t necessarily translating into the dominance that it would suggest.
Therefore, Vancouver will need to take advantage of this blip, especially in the first leg, one that they were supposed to be on the road for, but had to switch with LAFC due to venue availability.
If they can get a positive result at home, and not allow any away goals, that would go a long way toward their ability to get something out of the second leg, especially given that they’d be heading to a stadium that hasn’t always treated them well in the past.
Positional battles to watch
As for the matchup itself, there will be plenty to keep an eye out for on the field, as these teams play very similarly. For example, despite being two of the top chance-generating teams, they don’t actually hold onto the ball very much, both sitting middle of the pack in possession metrics so far this year.
What that indicates is that they like to play quite vertically, with the goal being to get their attackers a high volume of chances in the final third. At the same time, they both like to use their midfielders in possession, even if they’re not shy about bypassing them if they need to.
Elsewhere, both teams like their full backs to be quite aggressive, as they both play a narrow formation, with LAFC’s 4-3-3 seeing their wingers play quite narrow, while the Whitecaps forego wingers altogether by playing a 4-3-2-1 with two #10s.
As a result, the first key matchup to watch will be at full back. At the beginning of the season, that was an area where Vancouver struggled, but they’ve figured it out in recent matches, and they’ll need to keep that up against an LAFC team not shy in exploiting spaces behind the full backs.
Because of that, watch for Carlos Vela and Stipe Biuk to try and exploit the space against likely full back starters Ryan Raposo and Matiás Laborda, should either of those two get caught up the field.
Otherwise, the last member of that LAFC front three, Denis Bouanga, will be one to watch, as he already has six goals and two assists in all competitions, including three goals in the Champions League. One big area that the Whitecaps have struggled defending is wide balls, and Bouanga is as good as they come in terms of being able to get open and finish in the box, something that the Whitecaps centre backs will have to watch out for.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Ryan Gauld will be crucial for the Whitecaps, as he usually is. With the midfield battle pretty much expected to be a net-neutral battle, Gauld will need to find spaces between the lines, helping link up with the Whitecaps attackers, which are expected to be Brian White and Simon Becher.
Especially given how good LAFC’s centre backs are in duels, the key to exploiting them will be to get them stepping into space to create pockets in behind them, and Gauld’s ability on the ball can be a way for that to happen.
Other than that, however, look for Vancouver to try and really cause problems on set pieces. Armed with some dangerous set-piece deliverers, and some players who know how to get on the end of those crosses, that could be a potential avenue for success for Vancouver, given how good LAFC can be in open play.
“This rhythm of midweek games, we had a taste of it in the first round of the Champions League, which I think the players enjoyed, and did very well in, and we expect the same versus Vancouver” - LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo on playing in the Champions League.
“The way that we were playing (versus Montréal), it was very, very, very, very good. Of course, on Wednesday, it’s going to be a completely different game, a hard game (...) but tonight, we celebrate the quality of our performance, as it was top-level” -- Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini on facing LAFC after beating CF Montréal 5-0.