Bullet. Dodged. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
What a narrow line it is between tragedy and triumph.
When I went to bed yesterday afternoon, having spent the past few hours following along to the MLS Expansion Draft, I was gutted. The Vancouver Whitecaps' strategy seemed to have gone all wrong. I wasn't even sure they still had a strategy! We had picked up a bevy of players who were almost offensive in their ineptitude. Players who I had watched plenty of, gotten to know, and decided after due thought that I wanted nothing to do with them. Players whose fanbases were celebrating that they were gone, that they had found a sucker willing to take them even if they got nothing back. That always seems like a bad omen to me. It was a horrifying experience. I was beginning to wonder if all that hope and optimism about "the best organization in North America" was giving away to another Toronto-esque nightmare of incompetence.
Four hours later, I woke up and everything was okay again. The useless players were, almost to a man, gone. In their place came allocation money, international spots, and even a draft pick. We had taken liabilities and turned them into assets. The whole affair wound up being quite cunning, and I practically tittered with glee. My confidence had been restored in a heartbeat, as the nimble fingers of Tom Soehn had plucked out the most inept of his drafted players and cast them off to other teams while picking up useful ingredients in exchange. That was all it took. Four hours, and it was good to be a Whitecaps fan once more.
Not that Vancouver's expansion draft wound up being perfect. Oh, heavens no. Of the players drafted by the Whitecaps yesterday, we kept goalkeeper Joe Cannon from the San Jose Earthquakes, defender Jonathan Leathers of Sporting Kansas City, defender/midfielders Nathan Sturgis from the Seattle Sounders and Shea Salinas of the Philadelphia Union, midfielder John Thorrington from the Chicago Fire, and forward Atiba Harris of FC Dallas. In addition, we selected then traded midfielder Sanna Nyassi of the Sounders and strikers Alan Gordon (late of Chivas USA), Alejandro Moreno (late of the Union), and O'Brian White (late of Toronto FC). Many of those players are fairly nice. But even the good ones weren't always the best player available.
As ever, I guess I know better than the experts. And after the jump, I grade the Vancouver Whitecaps' performance in the Major League Soccer expansion draft.
I'll be excited to see Shea Salinas in a Whitecaps uniform. Salinas was my second choice as the Whitecaps' utility fullback/winger when Jeremy Hall was traded to the Portland Timbers, and Salinas actually brings a lot of the same assets as Hall to the table: he runs like a scalded rat, is surprisingly strong on the ball for a player of his stature, and simply does not know the meaning of the word "quit". Uniquely among the Whitecaps' cast, he can also work some absolutely beautiful magic with the ball. Salinas is just a 24-year-old defender, but he's also exciting. He's just as quick on the ball as he is off it and he combines that with unusual awareness and confidence for a defensive player his age: his week 10 goal against Houston and a certain badly-coiffed goalkeeper was an epic of not only individual skill but sheer intelligence and audacity.
Salinas's record isn't clean, of course, which is why he was exposed in the expansion draft. The primary concern is injury: he missed over two months in 2010 with a fractured leg in addition to a couple other niggling problems that dogged him early in the season. Salinas did return late in the season and looked good coming back, but the Union were clearly sufficiently spooked that they made Salinas available. He's also on his third MLS team, having been taken from San Jose in last year's expansion draft, and with all his skill it's worrisome that two clubs have considered him so expendable. Even so, the Whitecaps were right to take a chance on him. He could wind up being Vancouver's Sebastian Le Toux just by staying healthy.
I was generally pleased by the calibre of defensive player the Whitecaps added in the expansion draft. Grabbing Nathan Sturgis from Seattle was a canny move. Sturgis is small, but he's yet another young all-rounder who is adept going forward and coming back. Though a native midfielder, Sturgis was forced to play at centre back in Seattle last season due to an injury crunch and acquitted himself well. He's not the quickest player in Major League Soccer, but he hits the ball hard and can distribute it well with either foot. At just twenty-three years old, Sturgis is still highly experienced thanks to tours with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake as well as the Sounders. Of course, Sturgis has now been taken in two expansion drafts: teams don't seem to be too determined to hold on to the youngster. But as a cost-effective utility player, it would have been hard for the Whitecaps to do much better.
The only true defender Vancouver added to the lineup was fullback Jonathan Leathers, and he was another good pick. Stop me if you've heard this one before: Leathers is a small but quick player in his early twenties who can play multiple positions and, while not a dominant player, is a useful bit piece. Leathers has played only sporadically with Kansas City, and the Wizards weren't exactly the deepest defensive team in Major League Soccer. But he looked good in limited action and won't be called upon to do too much for Vancouver. He also fills a position of weakness: while Vancouver's central defense looks very strong, there isn't much depth on either side. Leathers, while not a fantastic player, is likely to be a useful one.
The selection of San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper Joe Cannon was well-intentioned, but ultimately not the best pick possible. Long-time readers will recall that I was pimping hard for Pat Onstad as a veteran who could mentor Jay Nolly and Simon Thomas while playing first-glass goal. The Whitecaps picked Cannon to do much the same thing, showing that we were at least thinking along the same lines. Cannon's even sort of Canadian, with a Quebec-born father, and is still eligible for our national team. It was the right idea, and by no means do I think Cannon is likely to be a poor goalkeeper. I just think they took the wrong man.
The primary knock on Onstad is that, at age 43, he's old. He's also had some nagging injury problems in the 2010 season that reduced his effectiveness, and the number-crunchers tell me that his goals-against average is worse than Cannon's. But the 35-year-old Cannon is no spring chicken either, and he's shown signs of slowing down a lot more acutely than Onstad has. Cannon is coming off a serious ankle injury that saw him lose his starting job in San Jose and wasn't all that fantastic when healthy. Cannon also had more help behind the relatively strong San Jose Earthquakes defense than Pat Onstad did behind the porous Houston Dynamo unit. Cannon has had some poor seasons behind some poor defenses and while nobody thinks that Onstad isn't still starting quality, Cannon out-and-out lost his job. Taking Cannon over Onstad was the Whitecaps going for a safe, conservative decision that was, in fact, far riskier than just taking the solid Onstad would have been.
The choice of John Thorrington from the Chicago Fire was another mixed blessing. Thorrington, or as I will now insist on calling him "The Thunder God", is a four-time United States international at midfield who was a starter for the Chicago Fire lineup back when they were be contenders for MLS Cups. He's a good, intelligent veteran, who has played seemingly everywhere in the soccer world. He's also helpfully versatile, having played quite well as both a holding midfielder and in a far more offensive role. He's also seen some time on the wings. He's the sort of player who the Whitecaps could plug in pretty much anywhere, and I value him for it.
But Thorrington is another guy clearly on the downslope of his career. He lost his starting position in the Chicago Fire lineup this season, making only five league appearances in 2010. While hardly washed up, at age thirty-one Thorrington's athleticism is starting to let him down and he isn't nearly strong enough that he can start pushing guys around to make up for it. In spite of all his experience, he actually only has two years' experience as a starter: in his first three years in Chicago, Thorrington played a combined twelve league games. Thorrington's also suffered from injury, which is the last thing this team needs. And all of that for a hideously unreasonable $177,000 salary.
If the Whitecaps wanted to take a chance on a two-way midfielder who's on the outs with his old club, they should have gone to Toronto FC's Julian de Guzman. Julian's Designated Player salary cap hit isn't that much higher than Thorrington's, although of course he's paid quite a bit more. Jules is younger, better in every category, and Canadian to boot. By the time the Whitecaps selected Thorrington de Guzman was off the board; the FC had protected him after the moronic O'Brian White selection. But a bit of long-term thought could have paid off. Even if de Guzman wasn't a palatable choice, the Whitecaps could have added some promising youth in Amadou Sanyang or any of a number of less well-compensated, more frequently playing journeyman players to fill the Thunder God's shoes.
My next complaint is less about a specific player and more about strategy. The Vancouver Whitecaps, as things stand right now, are horrifyingly undersized. Their currently signed defenders are 6'0" Jay DeMerit, 5'11" Alain Rochat, 5'10" Nathan Sturgis and Shea Salinas, and 5'9" Jonathan Leathers. If we're to add the best defenders from the second division roster, we would wind up with the 5'11" Wes Knight and (thank god!) the 6'2" Luca Bellisomo. The team looks like it might take Willis Forko as well, and he's only 5'10". This could be a problem, long-term, and is why I suggested the Whitecaps take New York's Andrew Boyens to provide some aerial coverage and balance. The Whitecaps are running a heinously undersized defense in a league that employs an awful lot of 6'3" strikers with powerful legs and bodies like Volkswagens. You could fit our starting back four into a phone booth! The tallest player in the bunch, Bellisomo, isn't even a particularly good aerial man. If teams play direct and go for headers against us, we're going to get pummeled.
It's hard to me to criticize the Whitecaps for selecting O'Brian White from Toronto FC, but I'm going to do it anyway. White is a terrible, terrible player. Athletically and mentally, he comes up far short of MLS standards. Though quick enough in a straight line, it takes him forever to get up to speed and he can only go in a straight line. He can hit the ball with power but not with accuracy, and it takes forever for him to get a shot away. For such a large man, his aerial ability is nil due to his non-existent jumping ability. He has a knack for being in the wrong places at the wrong times, and his first touch is abominable. He has no ability on the ball. He'll be 25 before the 2011 MLS season starts, and he makes just south of $200,000 per year. The closest thing to a bright side with White is that, thanks to a chronically bad knee, he is injured often enough that you don't have to watch him play too much. There is nothing to like about O'Brian White and I was in true despair when the Whitecaps selected him.
Then we traded him to the Seattle Sounders, so that was all right then. Not only did we saddle the Sounders with a horrible player, but we picked up some allocation money into the bargain. That was a nice piece of business by Tom Soehn, and I'm left wondering why Toronto FC elected to lose White for free when they could have picked up a few allocation bucks from Seattle instead. I definitely will enjoy seeing White's cement feet against us in the Cascadia Cup, in the unlikely event he gets off the bench.
But were the allocation dollars really worth the use of an expansion draft pick? The Vancouver Whitecaps' striker strategy throughout the draft seemed misguided: we drafted four of them but none of them were very good, and we then traded three of them away. Alejandro Moreno, the most proven of them, went to Chivas USA along with Alan Gordon (who just came from Chivas: boy, did he probably get worked up over nothing). We held on to only St. Kitts and Nevis international Atiba Harris, a mediocre striker/winger with a career haul of fifteen professional goals in five seasons. Harris is not bad, and he can be a useful supporting player. But nor is he going to help the Whitecaps particularly: a five-goal season would be a major coup.
Meanwhile, there were legitimate, talented professional strikers available for the taking. O'Brian White's teammate Chad Barrett was among them. White is only a few months older than Barrett but Barrett has lapped him several times over as a scorer. It's true that Barrett's ability to miss howlers has earned him mockery from the Toronto supporters, but he's also one of the most industrious strikers in North America; a fine passer who can dig the ball out and create his own opportunities. Even with his reputation, Barrett would be far and away the best finisher on the Whitecaps, and even when he's missing scoring chances he's contributing in other areas like a poor man's Emile Heskey. Yet not a sniff from the Whitecaps. My own mock expansion draft pick, Collins John of the Chicago Fire, was available as well: a highly talented, fairly young, and relatively cheap scorer who's piled in goals in both England and the Netherlands. No call to him either. We could have even gotten a slick veteran like FC Dallas's Jeff Cunningham. Instead, it's Atiba Harris for us.
The more optimistic members of the Whitecaps' supporters family are taking this as evidence that the Whitecaps have a first-class offensive player coming to Vancouver. The argument goes that they would only fail to pick up a proven scorer in the expansion draft if they had a proven scorer coming over from somewhere else. To which my reply is: what, there's such a thing as too many proven scorers? You aren't going to sign a striker of John's or Barrett's quality for much less than either of them make. Certainly you aren't going to bring in an accomplished European scorer for less money! Barrett in particular is a known quantity in MLS who's proven he can succeed, and John has given no reason to believe he couldn't score in the right situation. To walk away from the table with just Atiba Harris is criminally short-sighted. Even if the Whitecaps signed Jozy Altidore himself, injuries and scoring slumps happen to the finest players. For the second season in a row the Whitecaps have no scoring depth, and if they don't fix it they will regret it.
Ultimately, evaluating an expansion draft is a difficult thing to do. The Vancouver Whitecaps enter today with fewer holes than they had yesterday. They have a veteran goalkeeper, they have defensive depth all over the place, and the central midfield is coming together. They have a striker who is at least a regular MLS player, even if his quality is dubious. On the other hand, they desperately need some aerial men on their defense, the midfield is short a couple of solid players, and the strike force is still miles from the required quality. This is not a team that is ready to compete for the MLS playoffs today.
If the Whitecaps have plans afoot to address their weaknesses and do so successfully, this will be a very good expansion draft for us. They took the players they needed and turned the ones they didn't into assets. But, looking at it today, they left an awful lot of talent lying on the draft table in favour of chasing allocation money and international spots. Hopefully they'll make good use of it. The O'Brian White trade certainly taught me that Tom Soehn sometimes has a plan even where it isn't obvious. But if, a few months from now, the Whitecaps are once again struggling to score and getting dominated in the air, the expansion draft will be the first place to look for an explanation.