Yesterday, Marc Weber of the Vancouver Province broke the news that the central defender Mouloud Akloul is done with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The 28-year-old Akloul is in his second season with Vancouver but his first as a regular player. Last season, Akloul shattered his ankle less than half an hour into his debut while scoring a winning goal and made only one brief appearance off the substitute's bench late in the year. While rehabilitating his injury Akloul was active in the community, won the team's community service award, and cemented his reputation as one of the most popular Whitecaps in Vancouver.
Of course, Teitur Thordarson was popular too. With Akloul gone the Whitecaps are without their second-best central defender (on a defense that's been one of the team's few saving graces this season), but they also have room for a major signing. Clubs in Europe have released their out-of-contract players and everybody and their dog has been saying that if the Whitecaps are going to sign a star, the time is now. In order to free up salary cap room, particularly the $330,000 cap hit of a designated player, somebody would have had to go out the door.
I understand that, in a salary cap league, sacrifices must be made. What I don't understand is why Akloul had to be the sacrifice.
The only reason to release Akloul is because of his salary cap hit. Akloul has a contract for $150,000 this year that is now off the books. Evaluating this move is difficult because it has to be part one of a multi-part move: either Tom Soehn has somebody ready to sign on the dotted line and he needed to free up salary or he's even stupider than I thought.
Taking it in isolation, what does the loss of Akloul do to Vancouver? It deprives the Whitecaps defense of its sole ball-moving central defender. When Akloul was injured the past two games it was possible to see the effect on the Whitecaps lineup: there was less coherence between defense and midfield and without Mouloud's effortless offense and ball movement the midfield tandom of Terry Dunfield and Jeb Brovsky found themselves isolated. None of the Whitecaps other central options really play that role.
On the other hand, Akloul was undoubtedly a chaotic defender. He made lots of good things happen on the field but also lots of bad things. He could charge back, overtake a forward, and make a goal-saving tackle one minute, then refuse to get physical with the same forward to allow a quality scoring chance the next. He's difficult to watch. I've heard it said that he's not as aggressive and forceful in his tackles since he broke his ankle but frankly I only watched him for twenty minutes of his career before that happened. There's no doubt that Akloul's $150,000 contract wasn't good value for money and, on a team tight to the cap needing to squeeze as much efficiency out of its roster as possible, he was vulnerable.
I still can't convince myself that releasing Akloul was the right decision, though. Pending a new signing it puts Vancouver in a hell of a hole: with Jay DeMerit's groin acting up we have a central defense corps of a gimped DeMerit, a rookie Michael Boxall, technically Greg Janicki (although Soehn seems to be trying his damndest to pretend Janicki doesn't exist), and Jonathan Leathers playing out of position with Bilal Duckett on the right wing (or as I like to call it "the shit sandwich"). A defense of Alain Rochat, Michael Boxall, Jonathan Leathers, and Bilal Duckett scares nobody. Thanks to Akloul's hamstring problems he was unlikely to play this afternoon anyway, which is a comfort, but he was getting close to selection.
Even if the Whitecaps sign an elite central defender tomorrow, he'll need some time to join the team and get into shape. So Vancouver's defense is in trouble for the Voyageurs Cup final on Saturday.
I don't understand why the Whitecaps would release Akloul specifically, though. His contract isn't great value but it's far from the worst on the team. The most glaring offender is John Thorrington, who has a 2011 guaranteed salary of $207,200 to do more-or-less nothing. Even when Thorrington is healthy nobody thinks he's worth two hundred grand and the man is simply never healthy; I'd be interested to hear a justification for the Whitecaps keeping a badly injured, older, more expensive, less useful Thorrington over a slightly injured, younger, less expensive and more useful Akloul. I'd also release Joe Cannon ($209,756.25) before Akloul because Cannon and Jay Nolly are, basically, the same: Cannon is getting elite goalkeeper money to be an average goalkeeper. It's possible that one or both of those contracts are fully guaranteed but guaranteed contracts aren't common in MLS: that's just hypothetical.
Akloul also takes up an international spot, which could be a factor. Of course, so does Alexandre Morfaw and his $90,000 salary wasting away with the Whitecaps Residency. As always, there are better options available.
Sadly, because of the way the MLS salary cap works, the team couldn't make up the numbers by releasing three useless players like Bilal Duckett, Blake Wagner, and Long Tan: they don't count towards the cap. If the Whitecaps need to make room they have to cut big earners, but Akloul was neither the biggest earner nor the least useful.