The Vancouver Whitecaps had a solid 2023 regular season that showed the team has a foundation to build upon.
They made the playoffs - losing in the first round to Los Angeles FC - with a sixth-place finish in the Western Conference and ended the campaign with a +7 goal differential.
They were among the 12 out of 29 MLS teams to finish the season with at least 10 wins, 10 draws, and 10 losses from 34 regular season games.
That puts the Whitecaps firmly in the middle of the MLS pack. We’ll take a look at how the club can begin to elevate itself into the league’s elite.
Let's take a look at the three things the Whitecaps need to prioritize this offseason to ensure they improve in 2024.
In Ryan Gauld and Brian White, the Whitecaps have two elite MLS players.
The issue is that beyond Gaud and White’s 26 combined goals, no Vancouver player scored more than four in 2023.
The efforts of Gauld (11 goals, 12 assists) and White (15 goals, four assists) were the driving factor behind Vancouver having the second-best offense in the Western Conference and the joint-seventh-best attack league-wide with 55 goals scored.
Vancouver manager Vanni Sartini tends to play a 3-5-2 with Gauld and White up top, so a midfielder who can score and assist would be an ideal acquisition.
It may be worth taking a flyer on an experienced former designated player who is now a free agent, such as former Seattle Sounder Nicolas Lodeiro or former San Jose Earthquake Jamiro Monteiro.
Scoring 55 goals gave Vancouver one of the league’s top offenses, but conceding 48 goals puts their defence firmly in the middle of the pack.
Goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka played in all but one match in 2023, but he was average in his first MLS season after joining the Whitecaps from Yokohama F Marinos in Japan. The 27-year-old’s contract expires at the end of the 2024 season, which means he’ll be playing for his job.
That could raise his level, but bringing in a solid backup – or giving more playing time to 24-year-old backup Thomas Hasal if he earns it in training – would put pressure on Takaoka to perform and would prepare the club for the Japanese ‘keeper’s possible departure.
But if they really want to make a splash and end the goalkeeper debate, they could bring back former Los Angeles FC ‘keeper and current free agent Maxime Crepeau, who played for Vancouver from 2019-2021.
Tristan Blackmon and Ranko Veselinovic, the two centre backs who were nearly ever-present in Sartini’s first XI, are solid players. Blackmon, at 27, is a proven veteran at this point while the 24-year-old Veselinovic has been good if unspectacular.
The two players each have the same hole in their respective skillsets: they each ranked within the bottom 15 percentile among centre backs in ball recoveries. As a team, Vancouver were in the bottom 10 in MLS in the stat.
While ball recoveries should not be the only way to evaluate centre backs – for instance, a team that takes more risks and presses opponents more often will have more chances at recovering the ball than a player on a more conservative team – the stat reflects a player’s anticipation and ability to read the game.
Whitecaps defensive midfielder Andres Cubas was the one guy who recovered the ball consistently for the team, and he did it 8.99 times per game on average which is the third-best in MLS of anyone who played more than 900 minutes in 2023.
Whether it’s in the form of a centre back, a wing-back, or a midfield partner for Cubas, Vancouver needs someone who can win loose balls and keep his team in possession.