And then suddenly it became a whole hell of a lot of chaotic fun.

A gif is worth a thousand words:

The ‘Caps had turned into a team that was tough to beat by midseason, but then Vanni Sartini took over for Marc Dos Santos and they turned into a team that – brace yourselves – played attacking soccer and actually won a bunch of games.

Brian White was a breakout star. Ryan Gauld was one of the newcomers of the year. They have a bunch of interesting young pieces, and they all basically fit together

Fun times for Vancouver even if Sporting eventually knocked them on their collective ass in the playoffs.

Formation and tactics

It didn’t take long for Sartini to switch out of the 4-2-3-1 into a 3-4-2-1 that often played as a 3-4-1-2, which they then stayed in for the final two-and-a-half months of the season and into the playoffs. I suspect they’ll ride that into next year as well.

As for the tactics, it was a little bit of everything under Sartini. Sometimes they’d draw a deeper line of confrontation and play for counterattacks, while other times they’d come upfield and try to dominate with the ball. They didn’t high press all that much, but there were moments when they’d pull that particular club out of the bag as well.

Regardless, two of the main features under Sartini were:

  1. A commitment to playing more progressive passes out of midfield.
  2. A commitment to getting both wingbacks really, really high, both of which freed Gauld up to be one of the best playmakers in the league.

They took risks. It was fun.

Highlights

They had a 10-game unbeaten streak in the middle of the season, which was fun. The best part of it was Sartini’s first game in charge, in which the ‘Caps smoked RSL 4-1 – avenging a 4-0 loss from July, and marking the first time all year they’d scored more than two goals in a game.

There were also massive home wins against San Jose, Kansas City and Minnesota. Each of those were crucial moments in getting this team over the playoff hump.

But nothing can beat the come-from-behind 3-2 win at Portland on Oct. 20, which featured one of the greatest halftime talks in MLS history:

He… was basically right! They went into halftime down 2-0, brought it back to 2-1 in the 63rd minute, and then scored twice in the final 15 minutes – not the final 10, as he’d said, but pretty close! – to win 3-2.

It was monumental. I’d argue it’s one of the best regular-season wins (maybe the very best) in the club’s MLS history.

Andiamo!!!

Lowlight

And then exactly one month later they got beat like a drum at KC. Sartini’s done a great job, but he never adjusted to Peter Vermes’ tactical gambit on the day – Sporting, one of the pressing-est teams in the league, played in a low block, invited Vancouver forward and then repeatedly shredded them with long diagonals from right back Graham Zusi to left winger Daniel Salloi. They just ran the same pattern over and over again and the ‘Caps had no answer.

Remember how I said they pushed their wingbacks high under Sartini and it was a lot of fun? Well, every tactical decision like that comes with a downside, and in the case of aggressively positioned wingbacks, the downside is that long, direct switches can leave them stranded behind the play, and put the onus on the center backs to come out and defend the wingers in space.

Maybe if Ranko Veselinovic had been healthy (he’s one of the best CBs in MLS at defending in space) it would’ve played out differently, but he wasn’t so it didn’t, and thus this one was all KC.

“Lost at Sporting in the playoffs” is no shame, by the way, even if it came from walking directly into a fairly obvious trap.

The other lowlight worth mentioning is the 4-3 loss to Pacific FC in the preliminary round of the Canadian Championship on Aug. 26, a defeat that cost Dos Santos his job.

Revelation

White’s goalscoring got all the press, which is understandable. He came alive under Sartini – nine goals in 14 games to end the season – after spending most of the first half of the season struggling, first with RBNY and then under Dos Santos.

But White’s goalscoring really shouldn’t have been that big a surprise given he scored at damn near the exact same rate in 2019 and 2020 for the Red Bulls (exact same underlying npxG numbers as well), and given that he’s consistently put the ball in the net at every level from the youth ranks onward. He makes Gyasi-like runs in build-up play and has Wondo-esque movement off the ball in the box, and guys like that score goals.

So that wasn’t the revelation. The revelation was how he helped knit the rest of the attack together so seamlessly in build-up play. I had White pegged as an “all he does is press and score goals” guy, the kind of forward who could start for a few teams and be a top back-up for anyone.

Nope. He was much, much more than that for the ‘Caps both in terms of his xA (which doubled under Sartini) and especially in his link play during the build-up. He created instant chemistry with the likes of Gauld and Cristian Dajome, helping elevate the entire attack because of it.

To be clear: Gauld was the more essential addition. Any time you add what looks like one of the top five (or so) No. 10s in the league, everyone’s going to benefit. But you should expect that from a DP No. 10, while I’m not sure anyone expected the type of all-around excellence White brought to the table.

Disappointment

And it’s a good thing White brought that to the table because DP No. 9 Lucas Cavallini sure hasn’t. In 39 games across two seasons he’s scored just nine times, and evinced zero for the chemistry White seemed to have with the rest of the attack.

I don’t know why it hasn’t worked for Cavallini, who’s generally very good for Canada and was reliably good-to-great during his Liga MX years, and I suspect that we’ve seen the last of him in Vancouver.

2022 Preview

Five Players to Build Upon:

  • Gauld (AM): Like I said: A top-5 DP No. 10. He’s in his prime and brings more defensively than most No. 10s, and ‘Caps fans should be thrilled he’s in British Columbia for the foreseeable future.
  • White (FW): Pretty easy to predict the future of this attack so far.
  • Dajome (W/WB): Had a much better second year than his first, and did so while shuttling between winger and wingback – where he was surprisingly solid defensively.
  • Deiber Caicedo (W/AM): One of the most successful U22 Initiative signings, the 21-year-old had 5g/7a mostly as a starter while spending time on the wing, as a second forward and as an attacking midfielder.
  • Maxime Crepeau (GK): Didn’t get the credit he deserved outside of Vancouver, but Crepeau was one of the three or four best GKs in the league this year, papering over a lot of the cracks left open by the iffy defense.

Offseason Priority:

I could’ve listed a bunch of other midfielders (Caio Alexandre, Pedro Vite, Leo Owusu, the reborn Russell Teibert), wingbacks (Javain Brown, Cristian Gutierrez) and even a goalkeeper (Thomas Hasal) to build around for the future. That is more of a struggle in defense.

Veselinovic could end up being an excellent MLS center back, but he’s not there yet and he spent the second half of the season mostly hurt. Erik Godoy is very good when healthy, but he’s rarely healthy. Gutierrez might actually become a LCB instead of a LWB, but who knows how that will work? The Jake Nerwinski shift from RB to LCB/RCB showed promise, but it’s a really small sample size. Florian Jungwirth and Andy Rose – if Rose comes back – are solid stopgap veterans.

I don’t think there’s going to be a complete overhaul, nor should there be. But if there’s one spot to expect an incoming upgrade or two, it’s the backline.