SANDY, UT - JUNE 4: Fabian Espindola #7 of Real Salt Lake and Bilal Duckett #3 of the Vancouver Whitecaps fight for possition during the second half of an MLS soccer game June 4, 2011 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Real beat the Whitecaps 2-0. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
Duckett is a 23-year-old alumnus of Notre Dame University who joined the Whitecaps out of the third round of last year's MLS SuperDraft. His rookie professional season saw Duckett play 226 minutes in Major League Soccer, 706 minutes with the Whitecaps Reserves (first on the team), and 68 more in USL PDL with the Whitecaps Residency. In total, he accounted for no goals and no assists in precisely 1,000 minutes over a level of play ranging from "high professional" to "middling semi-pro".
Duckett was released on November 23 but has been in Vancouver since late last week, including attending Saturday's Canada - Cuba match. He has been tweeting hopes that he'll have a contract with the Whitecaps for the new season and is generally expected to be a part of the team's training going forward.
So, what's going on? It sounds rude, but Duckett's name because a byword among Whitecaps fans for the sort of inept college player Tom Soehn had the team rely on last season. His attitude was fantastic and he brought charitable and community involvement which went well beyond the call of duty, but for all his athleticism Duckett never seemed like an MLS talent. He played three positions, none of them well, and his release was generally seen as a necessary bit of business for a rebuilding team.
In fact, depending on the situation, Duckett's re-acquisition may prove to be a smart move. Just last week I was bemoaning Martin Rennie's lack of acumen in getting rid of the versatile, young, probably affordable Philippe Davies. Duckett is versatile, almost certainly affordable, and not much older. Plus he provides coverage at a position where we need it.
Not many players are willing to sign for MLS minimum money. If Duckett is, I might actually be talking myself into his return.
Duckett has his advantages. He is athletic; quick and slippery with strength that isn't considerable but is sufficient. He also works hard and has a good head on his shoulders. It's such a pity Duckett went the college route, because if he'd been in an MLS academy since he was 14 he'd be a professional for sure. He's familiar with many of the players on the team and, though it's impossible to judge these things with certainty from outside, he certainly seemed to get along with them. We know he won't complain playing MLS Reserves or USL PDL minutes, which means he's temperamentally well-suited to hold down a spot on the bottom of the roster.
I have three potential problems. Is he taking playing time away from a younger, more promising player, or an older player who would be of greater immediate value? What role is he being asked to play? Is he making more than bottom-of-the-barrel money? If all three of those have positive answers then bringing Duckett back actually makes sense.
Duckett can play all three defensive positions. The Whitecaps are loaded at centre back with Jay DeMerit, Martin Bonjour, Carlyle Mitchell, and Michael Boxall, so Duckett is probably being counted on primarily to help out at full back with draft pick Chris Estridge and Jordan Harvey.
The Whitecaps have some decent youth options but nothing spectacular. Adam Polakiewicz has been the left back on the U-18 squad. He's a nice young player who's had time with the U-17 national team, but is also a 1994 and has another year of eligibility at the U-18 level. He didn't play much USL PDL over the summer and didn't stand out when he did; I'd like to leave him to season a little longer. On the right, Declan Rodriguez is a quality 18-year-old who converted from midfield last year. I like Rodriguez and I think my opinion is widely shared, but he is still feeling out his new position a bit. Moreover, neither Polakiewicz nor Rodriguez have Duckett's versatility, and both may be hurt more than helped by riding an MLS bench rather than playing regularly with the PDL team. We're not looking for someone to come off the bench regularly and spot start; we're looking for a warm body who can stay fit and keep us alive in case of injury.
Bearing in mind that Duckett was released in November, it's safe to say he wasn't the Whitecaps' first option. After alternatives fell through it would be sensible to look at a known quantity who was ready, able, and willing to come in. Veteran fullback cover isn't always that great; there's a reason Blake Wagner got an MLS job after being cut.
In this article I've made an assumption about Duckett's role; that, if he signs, it would be to prop up the bottom of the totem pole. This seems sensible to me. If Martin Rennie has other ideas then I'm terrified. But this is probably impossible to evaluate until Duckett signs and we're into the season.
Finally, the question of Duckett's salary. Last year, Duckett made the minimum of $32,600. That's not a lot of money; first-class Residency graduates like Russell Teibert and Bryce Alderson sign for several times that and many players choose to play in the NASL rather than take that much cash. An 18-year-old Residency player giving up a cozy, free billet and a full-time playing gig for $32,600 cash, a warm bench, and no guarantees beyond the next season might even think twice.
The players who sign for $32,600 are the ones who have no choice or the ones who just want to chase the dream. Even setting aside other professional soccer possibilities, Duckett holds a degree in information technology management from Notre Dame's well-regarded Mendoza College of Business; he'd be able to do more in a post-soccer career than sell washing machines. At the same time, he's clearly passionate about soccer and has been willing to make sacrifices to pursue his career. At another MLS minimum contract, a versatile, positive-minded player like Duckett arguably represents good value.
If Duckett rejoins the Whitecaps, it won't be a signing that propels them into or out of the playoffs. I'd prefer a higher-quality presence on the bench but, bluntly, in a salary-cap league sometimes that's not going to happen. So if this happens, I'd be fine with the return of Bilal Duckett. And no, I can't believe I said that either.
Just please, no Peter Vagenas.