Audi Playoff Preview 9

After finishing near the top of the Western Conference regular season table, Sporting Kansas City will look to punctuate a thrilling 2021 campaign by winning silverware on Major League Soccer's greatest stage. The Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs will see Sporting take the field with aspirations of hoisting the club's third MLS Cup title.

The first step for third-seeded Sporting is a Round One showdown with the No. 6 seed Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Saturday afternoon at Children's Mercy Park. Kickoff is slated for 4 p.m. CT with live coverage on Bally Sports Kansas City, Bally Sports Midwest Plus, UniMas and TUDN. Tickets for the highly anticipated encounter are available at SeatGeek.com.

In the buildup to Saturday, SportingKC.com will deliver a comprehensive playoff preview presented by Audi, examining the prevalent storylines surrounding Manager Peter Vermes' side and generating excitement for what lies ahead.

We have now taken a comprehensive look at the entire Sporting Kansas City team, broken down from defense, midfield and attack. Now it is time to cast attention on the opponent, Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

Vancouver finished the regular season with a 12-9-13 record as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Led by interim head coach Vanni Sartini, Vancouver is in search of their first playoff win since 2017 after missing out on the playoffs the last four seasons. Sartini was quoted on MLS Decision Day saying “We’ll beat Sporting Kansas City.” We’ll see what happens on Saturday.

Let’s look at the strengths, weaknesses and key players Vancouver will bring into the opening round of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Three Strengths

Inspired Form

The Vancouver Whitecaps are on an unprecedented tear entering the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. As recent as Aug. 8, the Whitecaps were in last place in the Western Conference. After losing to Canadian Premier League side Pacific FC in the Canadian Championship on Aug. 26, head coach Marc Dos Santos was out and Sartini was in. The Whitecaps have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and have only lost two matches since mid-July, even when Dos Santos was still at the helm. With six straight results to close out the regular season, the Whitecaps are maybe the hottest team in MLS entering the playoffs. They will look to keep their inspired form going with higher stakes on the line.

Aerial Threats

The Whitecaps did not score many goals in the 2021 regular season. Their 45 goals scored rank 18th in MLS. However, they thrived in one category—and that is headed goals. Their 15 heads goals lead the league. Forward Brian White leads the team in both headed goals (four), and total goals (12). Sporting will have to contend with the aerial threats to keep Vancouver off the scoreboard.

Down but Not Out

Sporting Kansas City picked up 19 points from losing position in 2021, second only to their Round One opponent, as the Whitecaps had 22 points gained from losing position. This certainly is intriguing for Saturday’s match as neither team will be out of the contest after the first goal. Sporting has two 0-0 draws this season while Vancouver has three, so a goalless draw in 120 minutes of soccer is not likely either. Both teams will be on the hunt for that first goal to get out on the right foot, but if the regular season is any indicator of what is in store for the postseason, neither team will fold after conceding first.

Three Weaknesses

Play Away from Home

In a topsy turvy season for Vancouver, another inconsistency came in the form of their home stadium. With Canadian COVID-19 restrictions, the Whitecaps were initially unable to play or train in Vancouver and temporarily set up shop at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of Real Salt Lake. The Whitecaps moved back to BC Place in Vancouver in late July. BC Place proved to be a fortress with the Whitecaps boasting a 7-1-1 record at home north of the border. When they left the fortress, fortunes turned. Vancouver went 2-5-10 away from both their temporary and permanent homes. Children’s Mercy Park has been Sporting’s own stronghold as they boast a 9-3-5 record at home. Vancouver’s road struggles and Sporting’s home strength certainly is a Whitecaps weakness.

Lack of Possession

There is a vast tactical disparity between Vancouver and Sporting. While Sporting ranks second in the league in total possession at 55.2%, Vancouver ranks 24th in the league with 46.1%. Sporting loves to possess and pass the ball, ranking first in the league in total passes this season, while Vancouver is content sitting back behind the ball. Sporting will try to dominate possession, as per usual, and launch attack after attack on Vancouver’s backline. Expect more of the chances to fall Sporting’s way.

Playoff Inexperience

Vancouver enters the 2021 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs with just six players with playoff experience on their roster. Only two of those six have previous playoff minutes with the Whitecaps. Factor in their interim head coach Sartini not having any playoff appearances and you will see that most of the Whitecaps are in uncharted territory. There is a clear imbalance in the familiarity of the postseason between the clubs as Sporting’s manager Peter Vermes will be participating in his league-record 17th MLS Cup Playoffs as either a manager or player. Additionally, Sporting’s roster has combined for 68 playoff starts, while Vancouver’s has combined for 10.

Three Vancouver Players to Watch

Brian White

As mentioned above, White is Vancouver’s leading scorer. The forward is lethal in the air with four headed goals and has added eight more from inside the box. White has made 23 starts for Vancouver since his first start on June 8 after being acquired from the New York Red Bulls. White has added five assists for the Whitecaps and one for the Red Bulls in 2021. He is the key target man in the Vancouver attack.

Ryan Gauld

Scotsman Ryan Gauld signed with Vancouver on July 31 in the middle of the MLS season and has been a revelation for the club. He has appeared in all 18 of Vancouver’s MLS matches since joining the side, tallying four goals and six assists in that time. His first MLS goal was an 89th-minute game winner on Aug. 21 against LAFC. Despite playing only a little over half the season, Gauld ranks second on the club in assists and fourth in goals. He is their playmaking midfielder who runs the distribution channels.

Ranko Veselinovic

Vancouver’s towering defender, Ranko Veselinovic is the anchor of their backline. He leads the club in clearances (100), blocks (44) and minutes played by a defender (1995). In the regular season, he won 61 percent of his aerial duels, staying true to Vancouver’s above the ground style of play. The international player is a bruising center back who has conceded 25 fouls in 2021. Veselinovic is the leader of the backline and has the tough challenge of stifling Sporting KC’s attack.