Weeks after he's signed, we still know little about midfielder Tiago Ulisses or what he can bring to the Vancouver Whitecaps.
So, Tiago Ulisses is finally in town. It took him a while to get his affairs in Brazil wrapped up, then it took a little while longer to overcome a delay with his visa, but now he's here and has been training with the Vancouver Whitecaps all week.
This isn't just a feeble excuse to get used to typing "Tiago Ulisses", although I spelled it three different ways the first three times I tried. The fact is that we don't know a lot about this young man. He's the sort of player cliché-spouters always say MLS teams should sign: a young, undersized (5'9"), technical midfielder out of South America who isn't Neymar and there doesn't get seen on television too many times. He didn't play in Brazil's top national league although he's played in the best state competitions and his old squad, Botafogo, has produced some famous players, although admittedly not much since Sócrates.
I didn't write much about Ulisses when he signed, because we didn't know much about him. We still don't! If you've seen the highlight video his agent uploaded to YouTube you've seen just about everything; a lot of shots of Ulisses being shifty over the ball (but frankly everyone in Brazil is shifty over the ball), gunning some shots wide, and occasionally making a few brisk challenges, some of which were caused by his being beaten in the first place.
The purpose isn't to tell you what sort of player Ulisses is, or about his history; Michael McColl did the best job of that when the signing was announced. Instead, I'm responding to what I will charitably call "popular demand". The Whitecaps midfield has been stretched the past few games and if the suspensions keep piling up we may start looking to Ulisses. What role can he play on this team?
Depending on who you read, Ulisses is either a defensive or a box-to-box midfielder. The Whitecaps don't really have anyone in the box-to-box role, unless you count Gershon Koffie which I wish you wouldn't. But with their three-man midfield there arguably isn't room for one, unless Ulisses took Barry Robson's place at the top of the triangle. When Koffie goes for his occasional runs he does leave the Whitecaps exposed unless his midfield partner is very adroit to check back, as we've seen a number of times.
We mustn't rate Ulisses too highly. He's never seen fit to even get a chance at Brazil's highest level, and was unceremoniously cut as a kid by Corinthians without getting a sniff even at reserve action. Moving to Botafogo was a step up for him but the Brazilian soccer world still pretty much had him pegged as a state-league-level player.
I don't know what Ulisses can bring up high. He has moves with the ball at his feet, and that's worth something, but he doesn't combine that with either the playmaking instincts of Davide Chiumiento or the shooting of a Camilo Sanvezzo. Going from his video and his reputation, when he starts playing with the ball it's to bide his time rather than to really generate some startling offense. And his ball skills aren't so good that an Ugo Ihemelu type isn't going to be able to just get his shoulder in there and muscle the ball away.
Trying to judge a defensive midfielder by video clips on the Internet is the stupidest thing imaginable. There isn't a YouTubist alive who uploads video of a player like Davidson checking seamlessly into the back four as Young-Pyo Lee goes for a run. However, both by reputation and by the numbers (i.e. fouls and yellow cards, where Ulisses is always among the leaders) he's an aggressive player. Being Jun Marques Davidson does not demand an aggressive player; sure, you need to tackle well, but you also need to back off a lot and essentially be part of the defense rather than clip guys' ankles in the middle of the park.
However, I wouldn't be surprised if Ulisses could play this role in a pinch. He seems to have the required skills (attention to detail, pace, good teamwork, and tackling ability); all that's missing is the mentality and maybe some finesse with his positioning and his first challenge. He's got warts, as a player, but this is MLS so everybody does.
Ulisses seems best suited as a poor man's Gershon Koffie. I say "poor man"; in fact Ulisses was playing at a higher level in Brazil than Koffie was prior to joining the Whitecaps (but of course Koffie was a teenager, whereas Ulisses is coming into his mid-twenties, trained at one of the country's better youth academies, and was probably a pretty well-known quantity).
But Koffie and Ulisses bring many of the same tools. They can hold possession when standing still and on the run, though they do it in different ways. They're fairly direct playmakers but can still move the ball forward. They're not afraid to shoot from distance through they rarely profit by it. They're aggressive challengers; Koffie is stronger, has more all-round defensive skills, and generally looks like a superior player but I see no reason to believe Ulisses couldn't step in.
This is all hypothetical until we see Ulisses on the field, of course, and that's probably still a few weeks away. But covering for Koffie when he's been hurt or suspended has been a problem for the Whitecaps for a couple of seasons, and it's nice to see our new man has a skill set that seems to fit right in there.