Why a Whitecaps MLS Cup run is more likely than you think (see: 2015 Timbers)
The week before the 2017 MLS season started, I had to fill in one of those preseason questionnaires that editors love and writers hate, one asking for predictions about the coming campaign. Some combination of perversity, experience of the playoffs killing off favorites -- and instinct based on the trajectory of the team -- had me pick the Vancouver Whitecaps for MLS Cup. I hit send, and, full disclosure, promptly forgot about them.
I suspect I wasn’t the only one. When this week’s round of Western Conference games wrapped, we were left with the curiosity of the three Cascadia teams occupying the top spots in the conference. No surprise to see defending champion Seattle Sounders there, or the peak-Valeri Portland Timbers, but when a closer look revealed the Whitecaps not only tucked into third place but with games in hand, and leading the conference in points-per-game, you could almost see eyebrows going up across the nation.
Vancouver has its destiny in its own hands, yet the Whitecaps also seem to be flying under the radar. Perhaps that level of expectation is due to a subdued year in the West, and the lowered expectations that have come with the old kings LA Galaxy looking a shadow of their former selves, and the young pretenders, FC Dallas, grinding the gears.
Or perhaps it’s just that Vancouver has put up respectable rather than spectacular numbers, keeping pace without ever looking like outpacing anyone. In fact, if Vancouver remind me of anyone right now (and I doubt they’ll be grateful for the comparison), it might be the 2015 Portland Timbers.
Playoff campaigns have their own narratives and mythologies, distinct from most of the regular season that shaped them, and you doubtless know the Timbers’ story framed in those terms. Put briefly, chugging along beneath the red line, the Timbers surprises the Galaxy in LA with a breakout second half, then ride the momentum into the playoffs. Caleb Porter’s late-season moving of Darlington Nagbe into the center and Diego Chara to sole holding midfielder solves all structural and tactical issues. The liberated team has a sprinkling of luck from a magical goal post against Kansas City that only seems to confirm its destiny, and when Portland punches Columbus in the nose within seconds of MLS Cup kicking off, the rest is procedural.
None of the above is untrue, in terms of how the momentum of the Timbers’ surge felt for those following it, but as Porter pointed out after the final, the team had been consistent all year, never lost back-to-back games and had one of the most balanced rosters in the league. From that perspective, looking back, it was less of a surprise that the Timbers should win the Cup than it was that they were not considered credible candidates for longer.
That’s what Vancouver reminds me of: a solid all-around team growing into its skin and also gaining a little fresh alchemy at just the right time. For the Nagbe/Chara shuffle, perhaps read the return of Yordy Reyna to the team and the license he’s giving to Fredy Montero, while coach Carl Robinson’s instincts as a one-time defensive midfielder give both a safe platform to do their thing.
Reyna’s preseason injury could have derailed Vancouver; instead, his return has been like a new attacking signing. Against Houston a few weeks ago, Robinson described him as “like a rash” when the team was without the ball, chasing and harrying and forcing errors all over the field as Vancouver ended the Dynamo’s six-game unbeaten run.
Still, few are paying attention to the Whitecaps. Last weekend’s broadcast of their game against RSL served as a perfect microcosm, with announcers focused on Houston’s surprise loss to Colorado -- and clinging to hope of an RSL playoff appearance -- as Cristian Techera opened the scoring for Vancouver. Even in the moment, the Caps weren’t the focus.
In the past few years, the caricature of the Whitecaps has been of attackers who are all speed and no substance, and defenders who are solid — stolid, even. With the likes of Kendall Waston and Tim Parker, and the shot-stopping capabilities of David Ousted (who seems to have inherited Dan Kennedy’s mantle of being mysteriously underrated), the Whitecaps once again have a back line capable of keeping the team in most games, even if never quite guaranteeing a clean sheet. Vancouver’s 37 goals conceded is squarely in the middle of the pack of this year’s top contenders, and if it’s nothing like the eye-catching 21 conceded that Sporting KC has managed, the Caps have also scored eight more goals than Sporting.
And as Portland might tell the Whitecaps, even a good defense needs a little luck en route to a title, so might this year be the one where the Whitecaps complete a Cascadian trifecta? More spectacular teams may have to stumble for that to happen, but it’s far from unprecedented, and the West, for sure, is wide open. If Vancouver do goes all the way to the Cup, then, more than most years, it will make absolute sense. In retrospect.