VANCOUVER, BC – On Wednesday night, Vancouver Whitecaps FC punched their ticket to the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs courtesy of a dominant 3-0 victory at BC Place over Western Conference leaders St. Louis CITY SC.
A big factor in the win was the ‘Caps working-class designated player Ryan Gauld. That’s a sentence you could write several times to describe many of the Blue and White’s triumphs in 2023.
Following the match, head coach Vanni Sartini was asked what his thoughts were on Gauld being an example for the rest of the squad. The ebullient Italian answered with the following:
“I’ll answer like this: from June on, Ryan Gauld is by far the MVP of the league. No one can say something different because he’s a complete player. Maybe some other players they’re more flashy than Ryan, but no one is so important and so committed to what the team does, having the quality that he has.”
On Thursday, Gauld was named as the club's nominee for this season's Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player award.
Gauld has tallied 28 goal contributions (12 goals, 16 assists) across all competitions this season, with 23 of those coming in MLS play (11 goals, 12 assists) to put him in a three-way tie for the sixth-most in the league.
However, it’s not just Gauld’s offensive output that makes him one of the best players in the league, it’s his tenacity and commitment on the defensive side of the ball that separates him from his competitors.
Like Sartini said, he’s a complete player.
Defining the Defending
We all know Gauld’s offensive play, which we’ll dig into later, can be a joy to watch.
But for a coach, there’s no better feeling than watching one of your attackers track back and win the ball for your team.
In terms of players in his position, Gauld’s been one of the best at doing exactly that and more this season.
The Scotsman has tallied 63 tackles (tied for 16th in MLS), 33 blocks (tied for 44th in MLS), 25 successful aerial duels, and 14 clearances, according to FBref.com. All four of those statistics put him at the top when compared to fellow MVP candidates Luciano Acosta, Thiago Almada, and Hany Mukhtar.
Gauld also leads the league in possessions won in the final third with 19 and sits second in interceptions amongst the above group.
With those defensive qualities, he’s able to win the ball back for his team and create high scoring chances for his teammates. Take his assist on Simon Becher’s game-winning goal against Minnesota United FC back in May as a prime example.
Thanks to Cubas’ pressure, Gauld anticipates where the ball is being passed to, intercepts the attempt, and plays an inch-perfect pass into the path of Becher.
It may seem like a small detail at first, but it can make a huge difference on the pitch to have someone in Gauld’s position contributing as much as he does on the defensive side of the ball.
When Gauld gets into the opposition’s half scouting the pitch for a line-splitting pass and then he ends up in the box two minutes later unleashing a strike at goal, it feels like defenders are getting rushed at by a buzzing bug that just won’t go away.
He’ll go wherever he wants in order to wreak havoc on opposing backlines.
Similar to his defending statistics, Gauld’s offensive statistics stand out as some of the best in the league.
All of his 12 assists have been primary ones, which put him second in that category in the league only behind Almada. Nine of those have come from open play, also putting him second in the league.
In fact, once you count primary assists and goals combined, Gauld sits third in the league with 23.
It’s not just the goals and assists numbers themselves that favour Gauld, more advanced metrics such as big chances created (18 – third in MLS), key passes (78 – fifth in MLS), expected assists (9.0 – fifth in MLS), expected goals (12.17 – ninth in MLS), and non-penalty expected goals (7.44 – 16th in MLS) also show how essential the playmaker has been to the ‘Caps success this season.
What’s even more impressive of Gauld’s form is since May 31st, no one in MLS has recorded more goal contributions than the Scot (22 - 11 goals and 11 assists). Across all competitions, he has tallied 25 (12 goals and 13 assists) in his past 20 appearances.
Pretty good MVP calibre form if you ask me.
The fans at BC Place thought the same on Wednesday, as they chanted 'MVP, MVP, MVP' as Gauld walked off the pitch after the match.
"I'm thankful to that group of fans for saying that," said Gauld when asked about it in the post-match press conference.
The Scot went on to make the conversation more about the team instead of himself, once again showcasing the humbleness he's carried within himself throughout his career.
"Three points is what matters and we'll look to Seattle and hope to repeat that kind of performance."
With the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs on the horizon, the working-class playmaker isn’t done making his case for MVP yet.
Gauld and the ‘Caps will look to continue climbing the Western Conference as they take on Cascadia rivals Seattle Sounders FC on Saturday, October 7 at Lumen Field in Seattle, Washington. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. PT. You can catch the match live on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV or listen live on AM730 radio.
Vancouver will wrap up the 2023 MLS regular season on Saturday, October 21 with a Decision Day clash against Los Angeles FC at BC Place, with kickoff set for 6 p.m. PT. Tickets are still available at www.whitecapsfc.com/tickets.