Vancouver Whitecaps 2023 MLS SEASON PREVIEW | Projected XI, Key Questions & Predictions
It's a big year out on the west coast for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Having won their first trophy since 2015 thanks to their penalty shootout (and shirtless head coach barrel-rolling) heroics in the 2022 Canadian Championship, the Whitecaps are hungry to add even more to the cabinet in 2023.
Armed with a finally-complete squad – arguably their best-ever as a team – Vancouver is now well-equipped to make those silverware dreams a reality by competing and thriving in the (crowded) MLS Western Conference.
All that's left for them to do is prove they can indeed make the leap from contenders to would-be champions, an elusive status that Vanni Sartini and co. believe they can reach in 2023.
Projected Starting XI:
- MLS: 12W-7D-15L (43 PTS)
- 9th in Western Conference (no playoffs)
- 2022 Canadian Championship winners
3 KEY QUESTIONS:
1) Is this Whitecaps team ready to compete?
All of their Designated Player spots are filled. They've made some intriguing bets on Under-22 initiative players. There's a good mix of experience and youth. They've done well to swing for the fences with some fun intra-league trades. The squad has been assembled from all of the methods available to them. In fact, other than the presence of more academy talents, the Whitecaps have pretty much exhausted every acquisition method that MLS has.
The result? A team that sporting director Axel Schuster and head coach Vanni Sartini believe is ready to bring home silverware - and make no mistake about it; that's the top priority.
This season is going to be all about putting it together for Vancouver. Anything less than a top-five finish in the West is going to feel like a letdown, so it'll be important that the Whitecaps avoid some of what plagued them in past years: No more scoring slumps, poor first halves, untimely goalkeeping – all of those excuses have to go out the window now.
Starting with Sartini, who will be expected to have his side organized and ready to go, and led by key players such as Ryan Gauld, Andrés Cubas, Julian Gressel and Ranko Veselenovic, as well as new arrivals Matiás Laborda, Sergio Córdova and Yohei Takaoka, everything is put in place now for this team to succeed.
Now, it's about delivering on that, and shedding their reputation as a team that can be good, but struggles with the idea being great.
2) Can Yohei Takaoka be the answer in goal?
Whenever the Whitecaps have had success, such as in 2015, 2017 or 2021, there has been one constant: Strong goalkeeping.
From David Ousted to Maxime Crépeau, Vancouver has had a history of boasting reliable, game-saving 'keepers leading them to success. They'll look to keep that up with the signing of Japanese goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka.
After a tough 2022 where the Whitecaps were among the worst in MLS by most goalkeeping metrics, the club responded by letting Cody Cropper go, and brought in Takaoka, who comes to MLS fresh off a title-winning season where he was named to the J1 League's team of the year.
Although there are concerns about how he'll adapt to MLS – as well as his height at 5'10" – there is no doubt that he's a very strong goalkeeper, one that could be a key biggest difference-maker for this Whitecaps side.
3) Where are the Canadians?
For all of the intriguing players on this Whitecaps roster, there's just one sticking point: A distinct lack of Canadian starters.
While there are talented local prospects in the squad, the team's projected opening day line-up could have, well... none of them on the field to start. For a Canadian team that has long stated it wants to be the "Athletic Bilbao of Canada" in one day playing only domestic products – and, conversely, has faced the "Whitecaps hate Canada" meme on social media in years past – this is far from ideal.
That’s not to say they need Canadians to succeed in MLS. Far from it, actually. Still, as teams around MLS have shown, it's hard to have success without any form of local talent on your squad. And it's not for lack of production, as the Whitecaps academy is one of the strongest in the region at developing intriguing prospects.
This isn't just a nice-to-have scenario, though. The team could face some real ramifications in the Canadian Championship, where the Whitecaps will need to start Canadians on a minimum quota, and could be going up against teams like Toronto or Montréal who both hold multiple regular Canadian internationals on their teams.
For now, Vancouver boasts none of Canada's squad from the 2022 FIFA World Cup, so they'll hope that some of their young Canadians such as Ryan Raposo or Ali Ahmed can change that. If not? Questions as to how the team continues to struggle to properly graduate and integrate academy talent will arise, despite their successes at lower levels.
Player to watch: Sergio Córdova
Lucas Cavallini has left the Whitecaps – and may have burned some bridges on his way out by telling his new fans at Club Tijuana that Liga MX is superior to MLS. But Vancouver will be quick to move on from the Canadian international striker, by bringing on a new DP up top to replace him in Venezuelan international Sergio Córdova. The 25-year-old spent last season on loan at Real Salt Lake, where he scored 9 goals in 33 games in MLS, so the Whitecaps will hope he can keep up and improve on that form this season.
But, this is a club that has also struggled to truly find a no. 9 that sticks around and thrives, so if Córdova can't find his feet fast, the Whitecaps might be in trouble.
Vancouver will do well if… the Córdova and Takaoka signings hit. Even without them, this team would've been very solid, as they've got players who can defend and create chances, but there were question marks about if they could keep the ball out of their net and score goals. With Córdova and Takaoka, however, they've made significant bets on two players who can help them do that, and if they come good, that could really vault Vancouver up the standings.
Vancouver will struggle if… they can't maintain consistency. When they started poorly last year, Sartini tinkered with his team a lot, just trying to get anything to stick. It's no coincidence that his team's best periods came when they got settled and allowed certain players to form chemistry together. This has been a very hot-and-cold team under Sartini, so finding a way to find some rhythm and stick on the side of hot will be key, because if not, things could go south quickly.