The ‘Caps had finished 2022 the same way they’d finished 2021: playing Vanni Sartini’s open, intuitive, exciting Andiamo!-inflected calcio. The difference was, in 2022, they’d come up just short of making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
And the reason they came up just short is because the first half of 2022 was miserable. As fun as Sartini’s teams can be, they can also be stodgy and mechanical, a collection of players thinking through particular steps rather than instinctively applying principles so well understood they’re second nature.
So when 2023 started with just two wins from their first nine in league play, and with a humiliating 6-0 aggregate loss to LAFC in the Concacaf Champions League, it felt kind of like the whole thing was going to come crashing down. It kind of felt like Andiamo! wouldn’t even make it to summer, let alone the end of the season and another ill-fated playoff push.
Obviously, things worked out much better than that. Sartini, according to sources at the team, first dialed back on some of the tactical restrictions he’d imposed upon the squad, and then in early June – on the heels of the club’s second straight Canadian Championship triumph – hit upon something off a master stroke in shifting out of the 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation and into a 3-1-4-2 that put more of the game at the feet of the team’s best all-around player (d-mid Andrés Cubas) and gave more freedom to the team’s best attacker (playmaker Ryan Gauld).
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there, but my god did the ‘Caps become fun to watch. They piled up goals on bad teams, and they gave hell to both Club León (CCL champs) and Tigres (Campeones’ Cup champs) in Leagues Cup, and they smashed the hell out of St. Louis, and they even won the Cascadia Cup for the first time in seven years.
A couple of trophies, a lot of good, entertaining balls, and a roster full of guys on the right side of 30? Vanni’s got himself a ribollita going.
Formation & Tactics
As mentioned, the formation eventually shifted to a 3-1-4-2 with Cubas protecting the backline, two flying wingbacks (sometimes inverted!), a pair of 8s who were often more functional than inspirational, and then Gauld pairing the superb Brian White up top.
Vancouver weren’t a particularly heavy possession team even with the switch, but that’s not to say they didn’t want to have the ball. I think they wanted to have it very much, because they wanted very much for you to chase them. And when you did, the entire backline and midfield was suffused with the kind of confidence the best teams have – the “yeah, we will play right through that pressure and rip you apart.”
The ripping apart usually came from the feet (or head) of Gauld and White, who were arguably the best attacking duo in the league over the second half of the season. The ‘Caps weren’t St. Louis-style direct, but they took comparatively few touches in the final third. Which is to say when they had you, they had you, and didn’t waste time putting you to the sword.
I enjoyed watching them in the second half of the season much more than the first, and was especially impressed by how they played during that long, season-defining, seven-game road trip in September. And then coming off of that and putting out maybe their best performance of the year with a 3-0 win over first-place St. Louis? Hard to top that.
But winning trophies does, in fact, top that:
The ‘Caps had been cursed in this competition up until 2022. Now they’ve gone back-to-back.
Kings in the North.
Match 1 of their Best-of-3 playoff series against LAFC was embarrassing. There is no earthly reason for a professional team to concede four set-piece goals in a single match.
I don’t think anyone should be surprised that Brian White is very good. Coming into this season he’d averaged a goal about every 200 minutes during his MLS career, which is the mark of a solid, starting-caliber striker.
This was another level all together:
And his partnership up top with Gauld was just perfect.
Ali Ahmed deserves a shout here as well.
Sam Adekugbe was brought in to upgrade the backline, and boy did he struggle. Word is it’s a lingering injury and he should be fine next year, but… woof. That was not the kind of mid-season boost they were looking for.
Five Players to Build Around
- Cubas (DM): A potential Best XI-caliber No. 6.
- Gauld (FW): Clearly better as a pure second forward than as an orchestrator.
- White (FW): If he can stay healthy, it seems like 15+ goals is a very good bet.
- Ranko Veselinović (CB): They need another step forward from the big man.
- Ahmed (CM): A field-covering, ball-winning menace with real skill to back it up.
I think they should bring Richie Laryea back (his loan from Nottingham Forest ends on Dec. 31, and the two teams are reportedly working on a deal), and I do think they should go shopping for another front-foot, ball-playing center back. Preferably someone who’s great at defending set pieces as well, because… yikes, did that LAFC loss leave a mark.
An honest assessment of Pedro Vite might be the most important thing for this team this winter, though. The young Ecuadorian is very good, and on his very good days, his presence in midfield allows Gauld to play higher and freer (which is key for the ‘Caps). But on his bad days – which he had two of in the playoffs against LAFC – he doesn’t affect the game. At all.
Vite’s still just 21 years old, so he should be in the rotation next year no matter what. But I think a big part of whether or not Vancouver can make the leap from “good team that can win the Canadian Championship” to “great team that can win MLS Cup” comes down to what they get from that spot in the biggest games.
If it’s going to be Vite, he’s got to grow and must give them more than he did. He has to run the show so Gauld can run the attack.
If that’s what I’m writing about in this column next year, then there’s a decent chance we’re talking about another new addition – or maybe even two – to the trophy cabinet.