I just was never really able to figure out what was supposed to be going on.
A GIF is worth a thousand words…
Vanni Sartini earned a lot of goodwill for his season-saving stretch run in 2021, and there was a lot of optimism heading into 2022. But the ‘Caps never came close to discovering the same magic – which, to be fair, was in part because of all the injuries and absences they suffered throughout the year.
But it was also because Sartini did things like repeatedly start Cristian Dajome as a wingback, or make Russell Teibert a linchpin, or fail to develop any of the young players on the roster, none of whom took a step forward until Pedro Vite’s late insertion into the first XI.
They stumbled out the gates with their worst start in club history, and mostly just kept stumbling. A late attempt at yet another miracle push toward the postseason shouldn’t overshadow that.
Formation and Tactics
For the most part it was a 3-4-2-1, though at times it was a 3-5-2 with a single pivot once Andres Cubas arrived. Then, as things kind of fell apart in late summer, Sartini threw some different looks at the wall, including a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2. By the end it was a 4-4-2 base without the ball that morphed into a 3-4-2-1 in the attack.
I am going to very gently point out before Sartini was hired, the ‘Caps front office had gone about collecting pieces to play a 4-3-3, which meant for a good chunk of the year they had no actual wingbacks. I’ll also very gently point out I… really was not able to discern what their tactical identity was in possession. I know, for instance, the wingbacks were supposed to get forward, but there weren’t any obvious triggers or repeatable passages of play.
Related: As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, only the Red Bulls had a lower xG from pure possession this season.
And yet, you know what the ‘Caps have that the Red Bulls don’t (at least not yet)? A cup! Vancouver won their second Canadian Championship in late July, beating Toronto FC in penalties after a 1-1 draw AET.
No matter what else happened this year, that was a great night for this team and those fans. And because of it, the ‘Caps will be back in the Concacaf Champions League next year.
If we’re limiting it to the regular season, then the obvious answer is the three-game, late-September winning streak that kept the ‘Caps alive until it all fell apart on Decision Day. That streak coincided with Vite’s insertion into the XI, which added a third heat to the attack – any team that brought its line too far upfield was in serious danger of getting gashed via through balls from the little Ecuadorian.
Most of the rest of the season. They were 1W-6L-1D out of the gates, which, as I mentioned, is the worst start in club history. They went 2W-6L-4D over the course of two months, from early July to early September, which is when the rest of the West created separation. During that stretch, there was nothing at all like the magic Sartini was able to conjure from this team late last season.
If there was one outing that really destroyed hope, though, and laid bare the fact the ‘Caps were not going to do the thing in 2022, it was the 3-0 home loss to a heavily rotated Nashville side in late August. That was a true six-pointer, one that would’ve had Vancouver above the line if they’d won it.
Instead they lost in spectacular fashion – Lucas Cavallini got himself a red card and a very deserved three-game suspension to go with it – and just kept losing until it was too late.
Until Vite finally got on the field for regular minutes in mid-September, the answer was going to be nobody. Deiber Caicedo regressed, then got hurt and disappeared. Caio Alexandre got hurt and then got loaned out (he’s playing well in Brazil, at least!). Thomas Hasal struggled, then got hurt, then struggled some more. Michael Baldisimo barely played. Mateo Campagna didn’t play. There wasn’t a lot to choose from here.
The closest anyone comes to actually being a revelation is Ryan Raposo, who put together a few very decent outings at left wingback, including a start in that Canadian Championship final. He was truly not bad, and that’s a surprise from a guy who, at first glance, doesn’t exactly seem made to be a left wingback.
But then the real answer became Vite, who’s more of a true No. 10 than Ryan Gauld, and whose presence in the half-spaces allowed Gauld to be a field-stretching winger instead of a sit-and-orchestrate playmaker:
The chemistry was legit.
When an entire team full of young guys uniformly fails to take a step forward until one guy has a good three-game stretch after the playoffs are mostly out of reach… woof.
An even bigger disappointment, though, has to be that even when Vancouver were close to whole, to the point they didn’t even theoretically have to rely upon the kids, they still struggled to play good ball. Cubas, Gauld, Brian White, Julian Gressel, Alessandro Schopf, Javain Brown, Ranko Veselinovic, Tristan Blackmon… that’s a really good core! There should at least have been signs they were coming together, starting to understand each other more and amplifying each other’s strengths while covering for each other’s weaknesses.
But it never worked like that in 2022. Again I’ll point out injuries and absences played a big role, but a part of it also looked like the whole team was confused, from a tactical perspective, as to what to do when they got on the ball.
Five Players to Build Around
- Gauld (AM): A wizard in transition who hasn’t been quite so high-level in possession, he’s nonetheless a very good MLS playmaker.
- White (FW): Injuries and illness limited him this year, but his underlying numbers are still good and with full fitness should be a 12-to-15-goal scorer in 2023.
- Cubas (DM): Had moments where he looked like Vancouver’s version of Diego Chara, but also had moments where it looked like they were asking too much of him in possession.
- Gressel (RWB): One of the greatest crossers in league history, it should just be plug-and-play if they can get him fit.
- Vite (AM): More of a pure, chance-creating 10, Vite fits perfectly alongside Gauld.
They will probably want to upgrade in goal, and they will certainly need to have a think about what to do with Cavallini (who most likely won’t be back), and they might have some offers to consider for guys like Alexandre and Veselinovic.
But more than anything else they need to figure out how to avoid another year of stalled progress with their young players. The ‘Caps are not going to go out there and buy a roster; they’ve got to build and develop, and if they can’t do the second part of that, then the first part doesn’t actually stand a chance of being accomplished.
So think about this offseason less in terms of going out on the market and buying stuff and more in terms of reassessing the club culture and infrastructure as they relate to turning young, talented players into slightly less young but actually good players. This winter, for the ‘Caps, that is basically all that matters.