SCOUTING REPORT: Everything you need to know about Real España ahead of Whitecaps tilt
The Vancouver Whitecaps begin their CONCACAF Champions League journey this week, as they host Honduran side Real CD España in the first leg of their Round of 16 matchup at BC Place.
Having qualified for this tournament after winning the 2022 Canadian Championship over Toronto FC last summer, this is a huge opportunity for Vancouver, as they now get the chance to chase continental glory.
Looking to become the second MLS team to win the trophy, after their neighbours and rivals the Seattle Sounders overcame that mountain last year, the Whitecaps are especially hungry to tackle this competition, one that they last played in all the way back in 2017.
That year, they fell just short to Mexican side Tigres UANL in the semi-finals, a run they’ll look to try and replicate this year, if not better, as MLS continues to try and grow its reputation in this tournament.
To do that, however, a stiff test awaits them in the form of Real España. The Whitecaps enter as strong favourites, as MLS teams have done well against Honduran sides in recent years, but there’s no doubt that’ll be a challenging game across two legs, especially when they’re to head out on the road in the second leg.
Faced off against a team that is also ending a long Champions League drought of their own, having last participated in this competition in 2014, nine long years ago, it’s expected that España are going to be hungry heading into this one, too, only adding to the challenge that awaits Vancouver.
Therefore, ahead of Wednesday’s crucial clash, here’s a look at what the famed Gold and Black side will look to bring to this tie, as they try to chase a big upset against a Whitecaps side who has been on the wrong end of a few of those in cup competitions in recent years.
A historic club:
If asked to name teams in Honduras today, most would likely name CD Olimpia, FC Motagua or CD Marathón. And that’s fair, given that they’ve won all but four Apertura and Clausura tournaments since 2010, while also doing well in continental competition.
Yet, despite the dominance of that “big three” as of late, that doesn’t erase the importance of España in that conversation, especially historically.
In fact, since the inception of the league, they’re third overall in titles, and have still maintained a strong level of play over the past fifteen years, having won three of those four titles that weren’t won by Olimpia, Motagua and Marathón.
Therefore, when they had a big 2021-2022 season, finishing first in the table for both the Apertura and Clausura (before falling short to Olimpia in the playoffs both times), it was more of a return to dominance for a proud club, and less a case of them being an emerging surprise.
That’s key to note, because Honduran teams are always tough to beat in this competition, especially on the road, where the experience of clubs really is a big factor.
And given their pedigree as a big club, España should be no exception. There’s a reason that while MLS has really started to dominate Honduran teams in recent years, especially at home, only one team has won in Honduras since 2015, Montréal in 2020 (and even that was a loss as they fell in the overall tie).
Therefore, it’s important that the Whitecaps approach this tie with respect. Over the 180 minutes, they’ll be expected to win, and handily, but it won’t come easy, especially on the road, making it imperative that they make the most of their opportunities at BC Place, in particular.
Struggling in league play:
Despite their grandstand 2021-2022 season, however, things have been less than ideal for España in 2022-2023. In the Apertura, they finished fifth, before falling early in the playoffs, and haven’t been much better in the Clausura, also currently sitting in fifth through 11 games.
In particular, they’ve fallen off a bit defensively, as after having had the second-best defensive record in the Apertura, they’re in the middle of the park in the Clausura, and lost their most recent match 3-0 to Motagua, which was a bit of a worry for them.
The Whitecaps' CCL opponents on Wednesday, Real Espana, went down to a 3-0 home defeat to Motagua this afternoon in Honduran Liga Nacional Clausura action.— AFTN (@aftncanada) March 5, 2023
A lot to cheer the 'Caps. Suspect defending, especially at crosses. Here's the highlights! https://t.co/o6QJCQYqFD#VWFC
Plus, they’ve struggled in big games, losing all of their matches to Motagua (x2), Olimpia (x1) and Marathón (x1), which is less than ideal heading into a Champions League tie of high intensity.
Because of that, it’ll be a big challenge for manager Julio Rodríguez to get his team prepared for this first leg, as they’ll be in tough against a Whitecaps team that does well at home, sitting as one of the best in MLS in that regard over the past two seasons.
Therefore, look for him to lean on the veterans in the squad, including their crew of Honduran National Team players, including goalkeeper Luis López, who has over 50 caps for country, as well as Devron García, Franklin Flores, Carlos Mejía, Jhow Benavídez and Júnior Lacayo, who are all capped and have featured in a Honduran squad over the last year.
López, in particular, will be a name familiar to Canadians, as he has been in goal in the three meetings between Honduras and the Canadian Men’s National Team since the fall of 2021, in which Honduras drew, won and lost against Canada.
If not, those defensive woes could stack up for España, creating a tall task for them in the second leg.
Style of play:
As for how they’ll set up, look for Rodríguez to set up his team in a 4-4-2, which has been their preferred formation this year.
Led by forward Ramiro Ivan Racca, who has double-digit goals across all of 2022-2023, they’ve typically liked to hold the ball in games, averaging 55% of possession this season, while winning the Expected Goals (xG) battle 1.42-1.28 on average.
Interestingly enough, they don’t actually complete a high number of passes, though, sitting with a pass completion of just 77% despite all of that possession, aiming to hold the ball before launching diagonals to their wingers and forwards, averaging 50 long pass attempts a game (compared to 45 for the Whitecaps).
That’s also further exemplified by the fact that they contest almost 74 offensive duels a game, compared to 55 for Vancouver, as they really try to stick the ball up for their forwards to try and win, creating space for their wide players to then run in behind.
From there, look for them to defend rigidly. They’ve got a significant edge on Vancouver in duels contested, aerial duels contested and fouls, as they try to engage in duels, whereas the Whitecaps have the edge in interceptions, as they try to win back the ball higher up the pitch.
Therefore, stylistically, this should lead to an intriguing matchup. Based on how the two match up, look for España to be comfortable sitting in their 4-4-2, trying to physically engage with Vancouver’s forwards and midfielders, disrupting possession patterns before they get started, before launching balls towards their forwards.
From there, they’ll try to capitalize on the fact that the Whitecaps full backs do tend to push forward in possession, leaving gaps in behind, something that España can most definitely take advantage of based on the Whitecaps' struggles there so far this season. Plus, they’ll try to take advantage of the Whitecaps press, which could be broken with España’s long balls.
It won’t be easy, as they’ll have to balance a fine line defensively, as they try not to be too aggressive (as has sometimes been the case this season), while also making some of those long balls stick, but if they do, it should make for an interesting matchup.
Despite the Whitecaps status as favourites, this is very much a tie that España will feel they can win, especially if they can get a positive result on the road, knowing that they can have the edge at home, both based on historical trends, as well as when you factor in the ‘Caps road struggles.
Because of that, the Whitecaps, who haven’t won on the road since June of last year, will have to be on their A-game right from minute one in this game, because if not, this could be a long tie, especially if things remain tight heading into that second leg.