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Too Many Forwards?

Sebastien Le Toux scored a gem Saturday but he also played like garbage. It was a vivid demonstration of why we need depth and shouldn't just give up on proven talents.
Sebastien Le Toux scored a gem Saturday but he also played like garbage. It was a vivid demonstration of why we need depth and shouldn't just give up on proven talents.

One surprising topic of conversation in recent weeks has been that the Vancouver Whitecaps have too many forwards.

I say "surprising" because the Whitecaps forward corps is no juggernaut. With 17 goals for in 14 matches this year, the Whitecaps are just above the middle of the Western Conference in offense; good but not enough that anyone should be complaining we're unbalanced. The forwards have turned in mixed performances: Sebastien Le Toux scored the winner Saturday but has had some nightmarish play apart from that, Camilo Sanvezzo has been in a slump since the first month of the season, Eric Hassli has been playing withdrawn a lot and hasn't scored an ugly goal in a long time, Atiba Harris is hurt, Darren Mattocks still has much to learn, and Long Tan wants to get out of here.

The Whitecaps are by no means doing badly offensively. Martin Rennie's tactics, which have emphasized getting Vancouver's nose in front then playing very low-risk soccer for most of the year, have had their impact on our less-than-spectacular scoring numbers (the Whitecaps have two wins by more than one goal this regular season). Of the goals we do get, most of them come through the forwards (12 of 17, which is pretty much what you'd expect) so they're contributing, but at the same time who thinks this team's problem is that it has so many incisive, exceptional attacking players that it can't play them all?

I do think some of Vancouver's forwards are better fits than others. There's even a few I'd consider moving. But if I did move them, I might take forwards back. Given how badly inconsistent our strike force is I think you can hardly say we have "too many" options.

For instance, it's perfectly reasonable to think the Whitecaps would be wise to sell Camilo. Camilo is an unquestionably talented poacher. However, he also struggles to play with anybody else, is an extremely limited playmaker, and doesn't always seem to give a full effort. Playing him as anything other than a pure target striker has proven to be a waste of time and, this year, the Whitecaps haven't had much call for a pure target striker. While he's an absolute gem in the right system, such as the one Tom Soehn ran at times last year when Eric Hassli was unavailable, this ain't that system.

So I wouldn't object to the Whitecaps selling Camilo along. (I say "selling", not "trading", because when you trade a player like Camilo in Major League Soccer you basically never get fair value back. Partially because of the salary cap, partially because of this league's weird player culture, and partially because soccer managers as a breed are just not used to making trades well. Right now Former Piotr Nowak Suck Machine fans are glancing at Le Toux and nodding sadly.)

If we moved Camilo, would I spend the money on Carlos Bocanegra if he became available? Sure, although I'm actually pretty pleased with Martin Bonjour. But I'd also be willing to bring in Steven Naismith or John Fleck or another solid, all-round forward who could provide a more versatile and reliable contribution than Camilo. (Those two names, Fleck in particular, might be pipe dreams but you get my drift.)

Likewise, I feel we should move Atiba Harris and Long Tan. But not because they're forwards: I think Harris is awful value on his contract and Tan clearly doesn't want to be here so why torture him for the sake of a fourth-stringer? Clear out Harris and spend his salary on somebody useful; it doesn't particularly matter whether it's a forward or not so long as it's a more efficient use of our salary cap dollar. Move Tan and sign Ben Fisk as a homegrown player. Fisk and Tan can play very similar roles, but Fisk is younger, Canadian, projects to be better, and won't mind playing Reserves and USL PDL. It may be wise to hold off on signing Fisk until the end of the USL PDL campaign so we don't waste one of our three MLS contracts every PDL match, but as a strategy replacing the forward Tan with another forward still makes sense.

Regardless of how many big-name forwards you think we'd have I'd still keep Hassli and Le Toux. Well, there's an asterisk next to both of their names: if we had the chance to get a really marquee striker as a designated player and had to move one of those two to make room then I'd give them a ride to the bus depot. But the same is true for everybody on the Whitecaps' roster. Neither Le Toux nor Hassli are the most consistent players: Le Toux could famously go half a season without scoring in Philadelphia, and we all know how snakebit Eric Hassli is. Take a look at Hassli's season shooting percentage; it can only indicate somebody who is either drunk every game or a brutally unlucky distance shooter. Depth is good. Hassli makes a fair bit of money for a platoon player, but who would you replace him with that provides the same abilities at a $350,000 cap hit and, just as a bonus, is rapturously popular with the fans?

As for the bright young prospects like Mattocks and Caleb Clarke, little needs to be said about them. I'd hold onto them but wouldn't dare rely upon them. I know that Mattocks's speed and ability to get in alone captures the imagination, but on Saturday we saw the bad side of Mattocks: the fact that he loses his temper, that he can't create anything on his own, his sometimes questionable positioning. That's because he's young and will certainly improve, so I'm not worried about him; I'm just saying that, today, he is not yet The Guy.

The Whitecaps forward corps isn't perfect, as we've seen vividly. There's some dead weight that needs to be removed. But it certainly isn't the case that we just plain have "too many forwards".