When the Whitecaps give an obscure Belgian second-division player a long-term designated player contract, I should panic just a little bit. "Oh my god! They've gone mad! Four years for a guy I've never heard of! Four years for Dale Durgeon or Francois Boot or whoever this asshole is!" Then I'd breathe into a paper bag for a bit. Then I'd buy FC Edmonton season tickets.
This is a roll of the proverbial dice. Mustapha Jarju has scored some goals but he's never played in a league like Major League Soccer, he's never played for a leading European club, and he's filling the only position where the Whitecaps arguably don't need major improvement. Signed to a four-year designated player contract, Mustapha Jarju is probably here for the duration for good or ill.
Yet I'm excited. The Vancouver Whitecaps have gotten a lot wrong this season but this looks like exactly the right thing to do. They've signed a promising 24-year-old with international pedigree, someone who brings a good balance of skills but has also proven he can score in leagues better than Major League Soccer. He fills a position that doesn't need filling but he can move around the field and brings a skillset the team probably doesn't have right now. He gives the team more desperately-needed flexibility up and down the lineup and far more options going forward. This is a player who, if all goes according to plan, should help them right now and will help them even more in the years to come.
Mustapha Jarju is not a "name". He will not sell a single ticket. There's no casual soccer fan flipping past Sportsnet this morning and double-taking. "Wait, the Whitecaps signed Jarju? Wow, maybe they're more legitimate than I thought." This is a move strictly to improve the team on the field; just the way I like it.
The fact is that Jarju has no reputation to prop him up. He's not a Torsten Frings type; brought in because people know who he is and remember his salad days. Jarju's salad days haven't arrived yet and only real fans of Belgian or Gambian soccer will know more than his name. That means we can only evaluate him on his record and, luckily, his record is pretty good. It's enough to make me confident, if not exactly certain, in this signing.
What kind of player are we looking at here? Jarju has some scoring chops, of course: he has a reputation for being able to put the ball in with either foot. He hasn't got the cannon foot of an Eric Hassli but he relies on shiftiness and accurate like a rich man's Camilo Sanvezzo. His passing ability has also been praised and he's played quite a bit as an attacking midfielder in a playmaker's role. While he can't be considered an elite passer, unlike Hassli or Camilo you can at least rely on Jarju to find and exploit good opportunities.
Jarju seems to be most comfortable as a withdrawn forward, though he can do work as a target man or in central midfield. That's fair enough, since I think the Whitecaps could use a good withdrawn forward. My ideal formation with a fit Jarju and a reasonably healthy team is a 4-4-2 diamond, with Jarju and Hassli as forwards while Davide Chiumiento plays as an attacking midfielder at the top of the diamond. Russell Teibert and either Nizar Khalfan or Shea Salinas on the wings, Gershon Koffie as the defensive midfield. It's not a great sextet and I'm not certain it would get us into the playoffs, but it's certainly strong enough to challenge any defense.
When I see people talk about Jarju I often read about how he's coming from the Belgian second division. This is true: Jarju is an alumnus of Garret Kusch's alma mater RAEC Mons which spent last year in the second-divison Exqi League. That said, Mons was a leading team in the division and secured promotion for the 2011-12 season. They were a first division side when Jarju joined Mons in 2008 and the young man bagged eight goals in the Jupiler League that season. He also came up with Lierse SK during their first division years, scoring seven times against Belgium's best (playing his later years alongside long-time Eighty Six Forever favourite Tomasz Radzinski).
Fifteen goals in two seasons in the Jupiler League is no bad haul for a 24-year-old forward. As a rule the Belgian first division seems to be underrated: obviously it's no Serie A and I don't think it's even a Dutch Eredivisie but it's a strong second-rate league which has produced some magnificent players. Jarju's been stuck on some mediocre teams but he's been loyal to them and had great success: both Lierse and Mons saw promotion thanks in no small part to Jarju's efforts. That bodes well for the struggling Whitecaps.
The Belgian second division is not a great league. It is, however, a tough one. I've watched very few second division games in my time but from watching their first division, as well as from their reputation, the second division can be a very chaotic place to play. Teams come in and fold fairly regularly for Europe and the style of play can be very physical. Grounds vary massively in quality and there's no shortage of hard men making paycheques with grit rather than skill. All this bodes well for MLS as well. With the exception of truly transcendent talents, MLS's best foreign imports tend to be players who come from leagues with a history of truculence even if they're not rough-and-tumble types themselves. Jarju is a bit of a stringbean and he has no reputation for mucking it up personally, but if he can handle a little abuse it'll serve him well.
For all the stick I give Tom Soehn his ability to find talent isn't that bad. He's made some glaring misses, of course, but he's also got some sterling players out of nowhere. Long-time readers will recall that, when the Whitecaps signed Eric Hassli, I was awfully worried he wouldn't be worth his designated player contract. Soehn pulled another African out of even more obscure circumstances in Gershon Koffie and he's been a revelation. Other African signings have also worked out decently: Alexandre Morfaw is overpaid but has been unlucky with injuries this year and has a lot of fans among followers of the Whitecaps Residency while the late Ridge Mobulu looked like a talented player that was just a bad fit in Vancouver and more than worth the flyer the Whitecaps took on him.
Soehn's lousy acquisitions have almost universally come in from elsewhere in Major League Soccer. When Soehn looks overseas he does extremely well as a rule. So the history of the coach and general manager is no reason to worry about Jarju. Indeed, it might be cause for confidence: Soehn slacks off a little bit bringing in old MLSers but when he goes abroad he does his homework.
The reasons for my optimism should be obvious. Of course, Mustapha Jarju has one advantage: he isn't Owen Hargreaves. Even TSN was reporting that the Whitecaps were likely to sign Hargreaves when a press conference was called yesterday afternoon, and while that made me think a Hargreaves signing was actually less likely it shows how far the possibility of his coming home has sunk into the zeitgeist. There's still a horrifying possibility of the Whitecaps signing a man who's played two games in two years, of course, but at least it didn't happen today.
I'm glad they didn't sign a player I desperately want to avoid. Yet, to my surprise, they also seem to have added a pretty good one. Only time will tell how Jarju adjusts to MLS but right now there's reason for confidence.