TORONTO — As Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic begrudgingly reached into the net to grab the ball following Toronto FC’s fifth goal of the night, there was dismay on the players’ faces.
After a hard-fought 2-2 draw at home in the first leg of the Canadian Championship, Vancouver was trailing 4-0 in the return game at BMO Field after 53 minutes. The Whitecaps pulled back two consolations before ultimately falling 5-2 on the night and 7-4 on aggregate.
“I think sometimes you have to give the opposition team credit,” said Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson in his post-match press conference. “This time, I think, irrelevant of the last-minute goal [in the first leg], I think Toronto probably deserved to win the trophy because they were the better team tonight. They scored five goals and their players were on.”
However, irrespective of the attack, the defence has been Vancouver’s Achilles heel all season long. The Whitecaps have now conceded 55 goals in 28 games in all competitions in 2018, with just three clean sheets in that span.
Even Kendall Waston, a stalwart defender for the Whitecaps since 2014, was lost for words as to why the team’s defensive form has declined.
“You never know why. Obviously [people] are always going to see the defence when the [opposition] scores. But it’s not the defence every time. Everything comes from all of us, so when we win, everybody wins. When we lose, everybody loses.”
As the first half continued, TFC was notably exploiting Vancouver’s left flank. The opening goal via Jozy Altidore was created down that side, and Sebastian Giovinco was thwarted on two occasions before Altidore’s strike as well.
Eventually, Toronto had freedom across the pitch, although the majority of their passes into the box were generated on the right.
“They pull you one way and then obviously try and switch the play,” Robinson explained when asked about TFC exposing Vancouver’s left side. “They leave two forwards up the top so you always have to keep the full-back tucked in. You can’t go two-for-two against any top player in this league. We knew it was a challenge for us. … Good players manage to pull you around the pitch sometimes and that’s certainly what happened a few times today.”
Robinson also pointed out the two earlier misses by Yordy Reyna, via a diving header, and Alphonso Davies. However, apart from a sizzling strike from distance, Davies was largely held in check by Toronto.
Now Vancouver’s focus shifts to MLS and the playoff chase. The Whitecaps are currently two points adrift of sixth-place Real Salt Lake with 10 matches remaining.
Luckily for the Whitecaps, all but two of those games are against Western Conference opponents. They face the West’s basement dwellers, the San Jose Earthquakes, in back-to-back matches to close out the month of August, so there are certainly opportunities to climb the standings.
However, even the Earthquakes, currently bottom of the league with 16 points, own a better defensive record than the Whitecaps. San Jose has conceded 43 goals to Vancouver’s 47 in MLS.
Over the past four seasons, 49 goals conceded is the upper limit for playoff teams.
The defensive woes are quite bizarre, considering the Whitecaps have been known to be a defensively stingy side under Robinson. Vancouver has dealt with a slight amount of bad luck defensively, as evidenced by expected goals allowed (xGA) – an advanced analytic used to determine the quality of a shot.
According to metrics from American Soccer Analysis, Vancouver’s xGA is 38.6, compared to its actual goals allowed of 44 (not counting own goals). This demonstrates that the defence has conceded slightly more often than expected.
However, the Whitecaps are also slightly outperforming their expected goals (xG), so it does balance out somewhat.
Vancouver will dedicate these final two months towards the hotly contested playoff battle in the Western Conference. However, if anything is going to derail their hopes, it will be the defence, which has flattered to deceive in 2018.