Earlier this week, Long Tan made his first appearance of the season for the Vancouver Whitecaps. As Vancouver looked for a goal against DC United Tan came on for Davide Chiumiento, put in four minutes plus stoppage time, ran hard, didn't achieve much, and we drew 0-0 anyway.
Long Tan scored one goal in MLS last year, which even for the 2011 Whitecaps wasn't a lot. He's got some versatility but is mostly used as a forward, although Saturday we finally saw him on the wing. He has some skill but nothing that stands up on a team that runs out Chiumiento, Camilo, Alain Rochat, and Lee Young-pyo every week. He's a nice guy, but keeps to himself and is certainly no boisterous, beloved Eric Hassli figure.
Yet swing by a Whitecaps fan board and you'll see avid debate on whether we're underusing Tan. "Why wasn't he given half an hour to turn this game on its head, like we all know he can?" Many poor teams have players who don't see much action and who parts of the fanbase therefore believe is secretly excellent; Tan is ours. The fact that three coaches, two of some quality, have now seen him as a useful but replaceable bench part only makes their opinion stronger.
What is Long Tan? Is he the impact substitute we all want, the useful depth guy we all suspect, or the overwhelmed second-division alum we all fear? Let me tell you.
Tan comes to the Whitecaps from the second division but never played for the second-division Whitecaps, joining us after the 2010 USSF Division Two Pro League season. That year with FC Tampa Bay Tan played mostly as an attacking midfielder which makes looking at his scoring statistics a bit stupid. But let's do it anyway: in 25 games, Tan played 1,726 minutes and managed 3 goals and 2 assists. One of those goals was from the spot, meaning he scored a goal from open play every 863 minutes.
FC Tampa Bay in 2010 stank and missed the playoffs but were a pretty good offensive team: Aaron King scored twelve goals and Ricardo Sanchez managed five (in only 12 matches). Their 41 goals for was second in the USL Conference and third in the league. Tan usually played regularly but was not among their top offensive threats.
Tan's points came in bunches. He went the first six games of the season (412 minutes) without a goal or an assist, then had two straight one-goal-one-assist matches against St. Louis and Minnesota. Having done that, he went eleven games (852 minutes) without a goal or an assist, scored August 7 against Austin, was soon after sent off and suspended two games for violent conduct, and failed to record a goal or an assist for the rest of the year. In the team's last five games he played only 33 minutes despite being healthy. In August, September, and October, Tan played 90 minutes once and only got over 70 minutes two more times.
The catch: Tan was already the "future considerations" in a trade to the Whitecaps. Vancouver sent Jonny Steele and Ricardo Sanchez to Tampa in exchange for Tan's rights after the season ended. Tampa was certain to miss the playoffs after a horrible slump. Both soon-to-be-outgoing manager Paul Dalglish and interim head coach Perry Van der Beck knew Tan wasn't going to be with the team next year, so why not play some guys who might help in 2011? Among the young players who broke into Tampa Bay and ate Tan's lunch was Mozzi Gyorio, who was semi-regular most of the year but scored two goals the last day of the season and has since risen in everyone's books.
Last year Tan's scoring rates were much improved in all competitions: he dominated a short stint in USL PDL with 5 goals in 341 minutes (68.2 minutes per goal), did reasonably in MLS Reserves with 3 goals and one assist in 702 minutes (234 minutes per goal), and over a short spell in MLS itself scored once and added an assist in 437 minutes. USSF D2 was certainly a much higher level than USL PDL and, for my money, noticeably higher than MLS Reserves as well; his performances at those levels taught us nothing new. His MLS performance was a big improvement over what his second-division numbers would imply, but he made those numbers off a great spell of play late in the year rather than with consistent performances.
When you look at Long Tan, what stands out above all is his sheer streakiness. Doing 80% of his 2010 offensive production in one week, for example. Even with the Reserves, Long's three goals came in two consecutive games: a brace July 31 against the Galaxy and a singleton August 9 against Seattle.
The numbers match up with what I see when I watch him. It's not that he isn't putting in effort; his work rate is rivaled only by Sebastien Le Toux among Whitecaps offensive players. But he's a moderately skilled player whose offensive threat relies on high-skill moves. He doesn't use his body well, he doesn't have a repertoire of safe but ambitious passes, and his positioning seems erratic. Instead he runs like hell, tries to beat everybody... and every so often there that one week in ten where he's really feeling fit or the defense isn't quite ready for them and he's a serious threat. Until his form slips, or he plays a lot and starts to wear down, or fullbacks are watching tape on him, and then he's pretty much just working hard and trying to create space.
Long wastes a lot of his shots, too. He just isn't accurate, even on open looks. Small wonder Martin Rennie was so reluctant to have him taking penalties. On the other hand, he sure shoots with power and a quick release, so when he's dominant enough to get his chances (as we saw at the PDL level) he'll bang in plenty of rockets through sheer shooting volume.
Even when he's not scoring, Tan's a useful player. He puts in an honest effort defensively. He's also good at spreading the field and drawing defenders to him, although not as good as Camilo or Hassli. He's a fair crosser, although less so than Russell Teibert, Davide Chiumiento, or even Michael Nanchoff. He can draw fouls well, with a shifty body, but he's no Camilo in that department (and unlike Camilo he can't power through a rough defender when the ball is worth chasing).
Long Tan is a fair player. He will occasionally have spurts where he's a good player, and then coaches should (and, historically, will) ride him like a horse. He does the Whitecaps good, is soft-spoken and polite, and is worth having around. But let's not get funny ideas about him as some great wasted talent.