What we learned from the Vancouver Whitecaps first-round playoff defeat to LAFC
The Vancouver Whitecaps 2023 campaign came to an end on Sunday, as they fell 1-0 to LAFC in game two of their first-round playoff matchup at BC Place.
After losing game one in Los Angeles a week prior, that was enough to see them eliminated, thanks to MLS’s new best-of-three format they used in the opening round of this year’s playoffs.
As a result, the Whitecaps remain with just one playoff win in their MLS history, coming back in 2017, continuing their history of struggling in the postseason.
But of all the playoff defeats they’ve suffered before, this may sting the most for them. Of course, they were always going to be in tough against an LAFC side that was coming off a 2022 where they did a Supporters Shield and MLS Cup double, but the Whitecaps felt that they could’ve surprised LA in this series.
And after how things went in game two, that sentiment won’t go away anytime soon, as the Whitecaps left feeling that they didn’t get a fair chance at winning the match, with the officiating stealing the headlines on the day.
From LAFC’s goal, which came off a controversial penalty, to a potential missed red card on LAFC, a penalty claim for Vancouver that was ignored, and then a controversial late sequence in which referee Tim Ford inadvertently halted a key Vancouver attack that nearly led to an LAFC goal, that all left a pretty sour taste in Vancouver’s mouth.
OH MY!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 6, 2023
WHAT HAVE WE JUST WITNESSED 🤯 pic.twitter.com/BgWbkRTCmt
“The referee was a disaster, we have to be completely honest,” Whitecaps head coach, Vanni Sartini, bluntly put it afterwards. “It was a disaster. Everyone can have a bad performance, and that was the case today.”
“We didn't have a fair chance, to be honest. Because today, unfortunately, the referee had a bad game.”
He later added: “Maybe if we had an American flag instead of a Canadian flag, maybe they would’ve treated us better.”
At the same time, while Vancouver will feel hard done by in that respect, however, they also didn’t do enough to win on the day, as they were still shut out at home. To be fair, they’ll also feel that some of the decisions that didn’t go their way hurt their momentum, but they also had several opportunities to put that behind them.
Now, their season is over, and they’ll look to find some revenge in 2024, where a big season could be on the cards if they reshuffle their deck properly.
Before they do that, however, here’s a look back at this playoff series, and what we learned about the Whitecaps in it.
Set-piece woes crop up at the worst time:
Throughout the regular season, there was a lot to like about this Whitecaps team.
For example, they were top 10 in MLS in goals for, top five in xG for and top five in Expected Goal differential, and were quite fun to watch.
At the same time, they were frustrating defensively, sitting in the middle of the pack in goals against and xG against, and were streaky finishers despite their ability to generate chances.
In particular, there was one big worry heading into the playoffs, too - set-pieces. In open play, they were middle of the pack in terms of goals conceded and xG against, but on set-pieces, they struggled heavily.
And struggled heavily is no exaggeration - not only were they a bottom 10 team in terms of xG against, but they conceded the most goals off set-pieces (corners, free kicks and dead balls) with 14, which was six above expected.
Because of that, those numbers alone were enough to knock them from an average defensive team to a below-average one, showing how much of an impact they had.
Those struggles reared their ugly head in this series, too, as the Whitecaps conceded four goals off dead balls in their opening game 5-2 loss to LAFC, which sunk them despite putting up a decent performance.
Of course, they were always going to struggle to win on the road against LA, but they could’ve had a chance to win or even tie that game had they not been so porous on set pieces, which could’ve been a big difference, with even a tie being a good result in these best-of-three series given that it allows you to win the game on penalties.
So while they did well to clean up their set-piece defending in time for game two, those game one woes proved to be costly for them.
Streaky scoring remains an issue:
As mentioned earlier, the Whitecaps were pretty good offensively this year, and that was reflected by several key metrics.
Plus, from an individual standpoint, Brian White was a top-five goalscorer, while Ryan Gauld was top-five in assists and goals+assists, showing that they had some pretty good firepower fuelling this run.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that the Whitecaps were quite streaky in front of goal. Even though they had the third-highest xG in MLS with 55.74 (per American Soccer Analysis), they scored 51 goals, underperforming their xG by nearly five goals.
Plus, their goals came in bunches, as they scored three or more goals on seven occasions, but were kept to one goal or fewer 21 times, getting shut out five of those games.
In a sense, that makes it less surprising to see the Whitecaps' split of goals across this series, though, as they scored two goals on just 0.82 xG in game one, but failed to score on 0.99 xG in game two, further reflecting that streaky nature of their offence.
Brian White sends it right into the hands of Maxime Crépeau pic.twitter.com/R8OOJm7Vvs— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 6, 2023
Across a playoff series against a team as good as LAFC, you have to be able to be ruthless in front of goal, and Vancouver didn’t do that enough, with the second game standing out, in particular.
And for a team that has struggled defensively, that can make it tough to win games, as it puts pressure on the defenders to be perfect knowing that their team can be streaky in front of goal, while also putting pressure on the forwards to need to score two or three to win, which can hurt ones confidence in front of goal.
Both of those factors showed across this series, and that’s why they’re heading home early.
“It’s hard to say scoring is a problem,” Sartini said. “We broke the Whitecaps record for goals, we finished with our highest expected goals in a season, but we missed a lot of chances today.”
He added: “So we will need to try to increase the quality of the team in the offseason, and then try to give them more responsibility in the final third, to be less structured and more creative.”
Work to be done to close the gap at the top:
Yet, both of those two points lead quite nicely into the last thing the Whitecaps can take away from this series - they still have some work to do to become an elite MLS team.
Having done well to push into the category of pretty good MLS teams this year, the next step will be to become truly elite, allowing them to beat the likes of an LAFC in a playoff matchup, while consistently beating those below them in the standings.
They flirted with being a top team - impressive wins over the likes of St. Louis, LAFC, Seattle and Houston showed their potential, but they were also maddeningly inconsistent, dropping points to teams they had no business doing so against.
That inconsistency is not a bad thing - they never won more than three games in a row, but they never lost more than three - but that’s the difference between those at the top, as they know how to string together stretches of dominance to push up the table.
Because of that, their main goal this offseason will be figuring out how they can best take that step.
From their new signings, to those who they let go, as well as any formation or other tweaks, they all have to be done with the intent of being a top-five team in MLS, as well as one that can make a deep run in the Concacaf Champions Cup and win another Canadian Championship.
Really enjoyed watching the Whitecaps this year. If Vite develops & if they add one more CB, they're Shield & Cup contenders next year.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) November 6, 2023
For what it’s worth, they’re not that far off - for example, for all of their inconsistency, which led them to finish 13th in MLS, they were seven points off the top five. Given that they tied 12 games, for example, many of which they could’ve won, that could’ve been the difference between them finishing 13th and fifth.
“I always said that this year could have been special,” Sartini. “It has been special, but it could have been even more special, and I’m not talking about today, because if we had more of a killer instinct during the season, we could have had three or four more points more, and we could’ve finished third or fourth in the West and things could have been different.”
But if they’re to make that up next year, they’ll need to be more consistent, and that’ll take upgrading their defence, a slight shift in midfield, and a possible addition up front to make them more ruthless in front of goal.
The good news, however? After years of being without major pieces, they’ve got most of those in place, as a core of Ryan Gauld, Andrés Cubas, Brian White, Sam Adekugbe, Pedro Vite, Ali Ahmed and more can be as good as any in MLS, and are all at good ages.
Now, they just need to make the right signings to elevate that group, allowing them to take advantage of the potential they showed this year, and making them a dominant team in 2024.
“I think we set the foundation to advance next season,” Sartini said. “It’s the 50th anniversary of the club next year, so we have an added responsibility to do better, too.”