One of the things I criticized the Vancouver Whitecaps for in our year end round up was not getting their transfer business done in time. When the season started the team was clearly not fully assembled. Until signing Fredy Montero a week before the season started it looked as thought the ‘Caps were going into the season with Erik Hurtado and Giles Barnes as their main strike options. By my count, 5 of the 18 players who played in the last playoff game against Seattle were midseason additions; if you include the injured Yordy Reyna and Christian Bolanos then 9 of them weren’t available for the final preseason game. That’s almost half the squad not properly playing together until the season was already well underway. There’s no doubt in my mind that this lack of preparation contributed to the ‘Caps slow start to the season. Maybe they were waiting to get John Park on board as their new head of recruitment or maybe nobody was willing to sign for them but one way or another the ‘Caps entered the 2017 MLS season with a team that was clearly not finished.
In contrast it’s not even Christmas yet and the ‘Caps have already signed five players. Strikers Anthony Blondell, Kei Kamara, and Myer Bevan, Midfielder David Norman Jr. and Goalkeeper Brian Rowe. Carl Robinson stated that he knew what players he wanted to sign and it seems that’s actually the case. Not only have the Whitecaps signed players but there seems to be a type of player being targeted, which suggests the Whitecaps have an actual identity in mind. The squad traits Vancouver seems to aiming for are the following:
-Big and physical
-Tough to play against
-Direct in attack
-A threat from set pieces
-A deep squad with a 1a and 1b player for every position
The Whitecaps already started playing this way in 2017, but with a bit of a Frankenstein squad with players that didn’t really mesh together. This was most pronounced by the Whitecaps putting the more crosses into the box than any other team but having a front four (Montero, Bolanos, Reyna, Techera) with an average height of 5’6. Recently Ed Willes of The Province put out an article in which he describes the upcoming season as one that will require “rebuilding.” I’m not sure I agree with the use of the term rebuild, I think optimization might be a bit more appropriate. Robinson seems to know how he wants to play, it’s not the way all fans want to see him play but he clearly has a vision, so it’s just a matter of optimizing the team to play that way.
The Whitecaps played a system very similar to that of Burnley in the English Premier League* in 2017. Here’s a short video explaining how it works:
With strong centre backs who are always amongst league leaders in Aerial Duels and Blocked Shots (Kendall Waston and Tim Parker), a competent goalkeeper (Stefan Marinovic) and a midfield destroyer (Aly Ghezal) the ‘Caps already had a lot of pieces in place to make this system work. The one thing that clearly missing was a big striker who could bring down and control clearances. With the additions of Kamara and Blondell the ‘Caps have added two players who can fill that role. These additions should also help the team convert some of those crosses. Despite the stereotype that the ‘Caps are toothless in attack they scored 50 goals last season which was 4th in the west (almost like people make judgements based on emotion rather than actual data). With strikers that help them optimize their direct system the Whitecaps could be quite dangerous next year.
In my opinion the team is already better than it was on opening day last year. To prove this point let’s compare the starting XI on opening day 2017 with the XI the ‘Caps would field if the season started tomorrow.
Opening Day 2017
If the 2018 Season Started Tomorrow:
I’ve assumed a 4-2-3-1 formation because, well, why would you really expect anything else at this point? I’m also assuming that Yordy Reyna will be available (hopefully he didn’t murder that teenager... that’s a weird thing to include in my soccer article about the team i’ve supported since I was a little boy...) as Robinson has given assurances that the Peruvian will return. Even if you assume the worst of Reyna and the Peruvian authorities lock him up and throw away the key, you could still slot in Blondell and form a pretty decent 4-4-2.
Now that’s not an amazing team but it could probably challenge for a playoff spot if the West has another down year. I’d certainly fancy it to beat the 2017 opening day lineup. I’d say it needs someone either in the midfield or the backline to help play out of the back. I think David Norman Jr. could possibly fill that role but it would be a big risk to give him that much responsibility in his first MLS season. It’d be a risk that would satiate the people who complain the Whitecaps never give young Canadians a chance but would anger the people who complain the Whitecaps never spend on big money players so pick your poison. A case could also be made that they need a better winger then Davies but I think he’ll have a big year in 2018. People seem a little quick to write him off after ending 2017 in a poor run of form but i’ll put my reputation, such as it is, on the line and say I think he wins a starting spot in 2018.
All in all though I think the ‘Caps are building a pretty strong team for the 2018 season and i’m optimistic that if they add a couple more good players, possibly by using up all the new TAM that’s been made available, then they could make a serious run at the MLS cup. I’m excited but be sure to let me know how you’re feeling in the comments down below.
* I know that by saying the Whitecaps should emulate Burnley i’m inviting people to say the ‘Caps don’t have any ambition and that they should be aspiring to be more than the Burnley of MLS (I suspect if i’d advocated emulating Spurs, who are one point below Burnley, the reaction would be different but that’s just an educated guess). I’m not saying the ‘Caps should only aim for mid table (though Burnley are currently pushing for European Football, not saying they’ll sustain it but there’s clearly something to what they’re doing), i’m just making a comparison of style. The Whitecaps have a lot more standing relative to MLS then Burnley do relative to the Premier league so they can build a better squad relative to the league but using the same style of play (a sort of super Burnley). Now that i’ve preempted this comment it shouldn’t show up... right?