James Nalton looks at how the Vancouver Whitecaps’ smart scouting has brought them recent success and laid the foundations for more
Last Tuesday night, Vancouver Whitecaps won the Canadian Championship for the first time since 2015, defeating newly-star-studded Toronto FC whose team featured recent marquee signings Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi.
It is a promising sign for the Whitecaps, who are undergoing a period of evolution, and an indication that their rebuild towards more sustainable success is working (and, indeed, bringing that success, perhaps earlier than anticipated).
The Canadian Championship isn’t as high profile globally as Major League Soccer but for Canadian teams in 2022, it’s arguably more important than MLS and the MLS Cup Playoffs.
The main reason for this is Concacaf Champions League qualification. It was the only route for Canadian MLS teams (Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal) to qualify for the 2023 Champions League.
This will change for 2024 when they will be able to qualify via MLS as well as the Canadian Championship, but in 2023 Vancouver have taken the only route available to Canada’s three MLS clubs. So success has already arrived, both in the form of a trophy and top-level continental football next year.
The Whitecaps are building an identity. This is not always an easy thing to do in MLS given the roster and spending restrictions, but, at the same time, it is something needed even more so because of them.
This Canadian Championship final went to a penalty shootout in which Vancouver scored five out of five. The spot-kicks were all scored by players signed within the past season and a half, and who are each a part of building this identity.
That they are already among the five players trusted to perform in such a pressurised situation shows how they have settled and how important they already are to head coach Vanni Sartini.
A period of change
Last season was the Whitecaps’ best finish in MLS’s Western Conference since 2015. Finish being the operative word: they turned one of the worst midseason records in the league into Supporters’ Shield winning form in the latter half of the campaign. This saw them qualify for the playoffs in November having been bottom in the West in early August.
That period saw a change in head coach from Marc Dos Santos to Sartini and eventually a change in formation to the shape we see today.
Some tidy transfer business during and after that coaching change has furnished the team with new talents to help forge their new identity.
And there are few players in MLS who better fit the Whitecaps system than their most recent signing, Julian Gressel.
Axel Schuster, the club’s sporting director since November 2019, admitted the German had been on the club’s radar for some time, and both he and Sartini have commented on his suitability.
Since being picked up by Atlanta in the first round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, Gressel has consistently been one of the best attacking full-backs in MLS. Even if the teams he has been playing for have not lived up to expectations in certain seasons, the 28-year-old has remained one of the most productive players in the league from wide positions.
Even during Atlanta’s decline following their 2018 MLS Cup win and while playing for a struggling DC United side, Gressel has remained one of the best value players in MLS, and his TransferLab scores reflect that.
Even during a much-maligned season for Atlanta in 2019 under Frank de Boer, Gressel was part of a team that won the US Open Cup and Leagues Cup, showing his worth as a right wing-back while continuing to be an option in central midfield as he had been in the previous season.
Partly for fun, and partly to show us how effective Gressel is in attacking areas, we can apply TransferLab’s Winger – Wide Playmaker profile to MLS full-backs to see how good they are going forward. He still ranks highly, especially so in the 2019 season (below).
This reinforces Gressel as an ideal fit for Vancouver’s formation, which for much of the time can be a genuine four in midfield rather than a back five. The heatmap from 2019, bottom right on the image above, could be one from a right wing-back in Sartini’s current side.
Much of Vancouver’s defensive cover comes from the two central midfielders, rather than relying solely on the wing-backs tracking back, and one of these central midfielders, in particular, has been another example of focused recruitment at the club during the previous season.
In hindsight, the signing of Argentina-born Paraguayan international Andrés Cubas seems like something of a coup.
The skilful midfield destroyer went under the radar enough to play a season in Ligue 2 after his Nîmes side were relegated from France’s top division in 2021. Despite relegation, the 26-year-old was one of the best in Ligue 1 in his position during his sole season in a top-five European league, having originally joined the French side from Argentine side Talleres.
TransferLab (above) shows him among the top 20 defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 in the 2020-21 season, and below can compare his performance in that year to players in MLS, and is an indication that he was worth signing on a Designated Player contract.
Cubas’s defensive ability, demonstrated above with high scores for tackles, interceptions, and 1v1 defending, means the full-backs can remain in more advanced positions while he offers cover with the aim of breaking up opposition counter-attacks and protecting the back four.
This midfield insurance means that in some games, including the Canadian Championship final, Sartini even feels comfortable using wingers such as Ryan Raposo and Cristian Dájome in the wing-back positions. Vancouver’s wide players are often considered wingers rather than wide midfielders or wing-backs by sites such as Transfermarkt that record positional data, and they can play this way thanks to the defensive cover being provided by the wide centre-backs and by Cubas doing his N’Golo Kante impression in the middle.
Ryan Gauld and Brian White
On arriving at the club in February 2021, Vancouver’s director of recruitment Nikos Overheul commented that a Designated Player in the attacking midfield position was a priority, but also an area in which they wanted to find the right player rather than rush into a signing.
They eventually brought in Ryan Gauld to fill that position, and the 26-year-old Scot played a key role in the club’s 2021 turnaround and playoff qualification.
Gauld has been highly rated since he emerged as a teenager in the Dundee United first team, where he played alongside the likes of Andy Robertson and Stuart Armstrong. But Gauld’s path has been more meandering than that of the now English Premier League stars and established Scotland internationals, spending much of his time in Portugal on loan from Sporting CP who signed him from Dundee United.
His trajectory and somewhat under-the-radar career (not dissimilar to Cubas arriving from Ligue 2) meant he was always an option for a savvy MLS side. On his arrival in Canada as a Designated Player, Gauld immediately became one of the best players in the league. In those few months towards the end of the 2021 season, his form was at MLS MVP level.
He linked up with another effective new signing, Brian White, who joined from New York Red Bulls earlier in the 2021 season. The 26-year-old American started relatively slowly with just one goal in his first nine starts but went on to score 11 goals in the few months following Gauld’s arrival.
Now operating in a role somewhere between a No. 10 and a wide playmaker, Gauld’s form has settled somewhat from the heights of his first four months in MLS, but he remains key to the way Vancouver play.
The fairly flexible front three used by Sartini can see strikers White and Lucas Cavallini take turns dropping deep or drifting wide, while Gauld knits things together from midfield to attack.
The somehow uncapped Scotsman has now been at the club for exactly a year and offers the side a combination of traditional playmaking via through-balls and clever passing, as well as delivery from dead balls and crossing from the halfspaces or wide areas.
The dovetailing of the central attacking three, the width offered by the wing-backs, and the energetic support from two central midfielders form a large part of this team identity when it comes to shape, with wide centre-backs and a sweeper offering support in and out of possession.
In terms of tactics deployed Vancouver appear to be erring towards the low possession, high pressing approach which has been so successful for Philadelphia Union, and (to a lesser extent) New York Red Bulls.
A goal against Chicago Fire in the MLS fixture prior to the Canadian Championship final was a good example of some useful high pressing from their front three, followed by quick, direct attacking play.
As Chicago try to play the ball out from the back, Gauld and Pedro Vite press the central defenders as they drop wide, while Cavallini blocks the path to the defensive midfielder, eventually pressing the goalkeeper.
Out of shot, the high position of the Whitecaps wing-backs means they are ideally situated to cover the opposition full-backs, preventing the short lofted pass out wide goalkeepers regularly use to bypass a press.
This forces the ‘keeper to go long and leads to pressure on the intended receiver from Vancouver’s left centre-back and left-wing-back.
The left-sided of the two central midfielders, in this case, Leonard Owusu, is then on hand to pick up the loose ball following an almost inevitable poor touch from the Chicago player when trying to take down a difficult long pass. Owusu relieves any counter-pressure on his own team by offloading the ball to the back three who recycle possession before the move that leads to the goal (below) begins.
This is just one example of a part of Vancouver’s style of play in action. It doesn’t always work as smoothly in defence and as slickly in attack as that, and Vancouver went on to lose that game against Chicago 3-1, but there were nevertheless encouraging signs even in defeat.
We can also take a look at the Whitecaps’ most recent acquisition, Alessandro Schöpf, who was available on a free transfer after leaving relegated Bundesliga side Arminia Bielefeld this summer.
Schöpf had an overall TransferLab score of 95 from last season using the Box To Box midfield profile. Setting the comparison to Tier 4, which includes MLS and the 2. Bundesliga, we can go some way to predicting that the 28-year-old Austrian will perform well at this step in world football, showing similar levels to Cubas and Gressel.
Though we have used the Box To Box profile here, as well as being an option alongside Cubas, Schöpf could also operate in a playmaking role off the striker, similar to Gauld.
A key area of building an MLS squad is securing suitable players in those relatively low-earning roster spots while also signing mid-level players from within the league.
Vancouver have added Tristan Blackmon, Sebastian Berhalter, Cody Cropper, and Florian Jungwirth as well as White to fill such spots, while fans also have high hopes for 20-year-old Ecuadorian Vite.
TransferLab’s player plot function shows that Vite is up there with some of the league’s best creators when it comes to accurate, progressive passing, and more regular game time as he gets used to the league could see him emerge as a very useful player.
In the shadow of the MLS team, players such as Matteo Campagna (18), Ali Ahmed (21) and Easton Ongaro (24) are among players developing in the Vancouver Whitecaps II side that play in MLS Next — effectively a professional reserve league allowing clubs to develop players outside of the senior roster.
As Philadelphia Union (again) have shown, this second team can also be a useful way to produce players who will eventually fill those all-important supplemental roster slots without taking up lots of salary space, while also providing a pathway for players to become senior first team regulars or be sold on for them to make the next step in their careers.
Vancouver remain a work in progress (which football club isn’t?) but both the work and the progress are evident on the pitch in the way they are trying to play, and off it in the players they are targeting. As Overheul told a fans Q&A shortly after his appointment:
“From [Phil Giles, Director of Football at Brentford] I learned how to design a good process and the importance of long-term thinking. There’s value in doing things differently for sure, but there aren’t really any magic bullets. Analytics certainly aren’t. A lot of what makes a club successful is doing the little things well and doing them every day. The trick is to tilt the odds ever so slightly in your favour and over time that will lead to sustainable success.”
And under Schuster and Overheul, Vancouver are taking this approach with careful, considered moves in the market. A Canadian Championship win against a high-profile Toronto side will certainly not do them any harm and sets a platform for another late push to qualify for the MLS playoffs throughout the rest of 2022.
Editor’s note: this post was amended on 04/08/22 to add in the section on Alessandro Schöpf
Image credit: Shutterstock/JL Images