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Make Vancouver Great Again: A (Mostly) Costed Plan to Make The Whitecaps Competitive in 2019

2018 has been a huge disappointment for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Can they turn it around in 2019? Who knows but here’s some ideas on how they could.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Seattle Sounders FC Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps are at a crossroads in their history. They are having perhaps their most disheartening season in the Major League Soccer era, and have sold their best player. But, as your Aunt no doubt frequently reminds you on Facebook, the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity (this represents a bit of a misunderstanding of the Chinese language but it’s the thought that counts!). With the money that will be brought in from the sale of Canadian wonder kid Alphonso Davies (and a number of players on expiring contracts) the Whitecaps have a chance to rebuild and to make sure the 2019 season is a better one. There are, of course, some questions about whether or not the club has the ability to make such a turnaround. We know, for example, that there are some internal limits of spending. We also know, based on what the ‘Caps have said in various venues, that they want to be a development focused club, they want to be an efficient club, and that they want to move into the upper 3rd of spending next year but won’t spend to the level of Atlanta United or Toronto FC. This may not be what we want to hear as fans but it is the reality of the situation, so analyses of future moves should be made with these stated goals in mind. Despite these limitations, the Whitecaps can put together a competitive team next year. It will require some luck, and full commitment to the principles they’ve set down, but I believe it can be done. I’ve put together a (mostly) costed proposal of how the ‘Caps can be good in 2019 without breaking the bank.

Part 1: What are we working with?

The Whitecaps will have a little over four million in TAM available: approximately 1.2 million in their annual allocation, 2.8 million in discretionary TAM and 275k from the Tim Parker trade. They will lose 100k If Jose Aja is still on the team at the start of the year as part of a condition of the trade with Orlando.

Additionally they will have 200k in GAM to work with. Ordinarily they would get an additional 200k for missing the playoffs but since Cincinnati will be joining the league next year every team gets the same amount of GAM.

Part 2: What needs to happen for the Whitecaps to get back to winning ways?

Typically you need to get 50 points to qualify for the playoffs. Additionally, despite some outliers, for the most part the number of goals a team scores will be almost exactly the same as the number of points they end up earning. So the Whitecaps need to score about 50 goals in 2019 in order to make the playoffs. This probably won’t be sufficient if the ‘Caps continue to leak goals at the absurd rate they have this year. There is, however, some reason to be optimistic that the defence won’t be so bad next year. The Whitecaps have the fifth worst disparity between their goals against and their expected goals against. They also have the worst PDO (sum of a team’s finishing rate and save percentage, scaled so that 1000 is typical) in the Western Conference. This suggests that bad luck is at least a partial factor in the team’s poor defending this year. This is not to say no improvements should be made to the defence, but priority number one should be getting to 50 team goals. Typically the Whitecaps score a goal every 10 shots. So the team needs to generate about 500 shots over the course of the season, or about 15 per game. Based on looking at the total key passes per game of the players who are most frequently in the XI the Whitecaps get about 5 shots per game that are unassisted. So the Whitecaps must build a team who’s collective key passes per game are around 10.

Part 3: Players on expiring deals.

A number of the Whitecaps players are on expiring deals. According to the Whitecaps have 14 players on expiring contracts. There are also players, like Brek Shea, for whom they have no data but who we can deduce are on expiring contracts based on how long they’ve been under contract and how long MLS contracts usually are. Let us first look at who should be let go.

Kei Kamara:

We start with a difficult one. Kamara has been fantastic this year. He’s scored goals, mentored some of the young players, especially Alphonso Davies, and to top it all off has won more headers than anybody else in the league. But he’s 33 and costs a lot of money. Additionally the Whitecaps have already invested a 1 million dollar transfer fee in Anthony Blondell. Blondell hasn’t been great, but he also hasn’t really been put in a position to succeed. In my view the Whitecaps need to try and get a return on their investment in Blondell and that means playing him. Without Kamara the Whitecaps will have a young striker group of Blondell (24) Bevan (21), Bair (18) and possibly residency striker Jose Hernandez (18). If any of these players has a breakout year they can probably be flipped for a tidy profit. So, in my opinion, the Whitecaps should focus their Davies money on players who will set up the strikers, pump their numbers, and allow the Whitecaps to sell them on for profit.

Nicolas Mezquida:

Mezquida makes 130k and doesn’t provide much in terms of offence. He can easily be replaced by a young player either from the residency or from another source. Since the Whitecaps want to be a team that focuses on development and selling players for profit, when there is an opportunity to replace a player in his late 20s or older with a younger player of similar quality they should do it.

Bernie Ibini:

The coaching staff clearly doesn’t have faith in Ibini anymore and he makes 300k a year. It doesn’t get any less efficient than that. Noah Verhoeven has had a standout season at Fresno and can easily replace Ibini. Verhoeven is younger, will cost only about a 5th of what Ibini cost and is quite possibly already better.

Brian Rowe:

The Whitecaps have two goalkeepers, in Sean Melvin and Spencer Richey, who are perfectly capable of being MLS backups and who cost less than Rowe. They also have Thomas Hasal coming through the ranks. All in all there’s not any real reason for the Whitecaps to keep Rowe or to get another goalkeeper once the 2018 season is over.

Erik Hurtado:

Hurtado works hard but at this point he’s just a roadblock to players like Bevan and Bair.

Jordon Mutch:

Mutch has been okay, but I don’t see any reason to buy him outright after his loan ends. Young players like Norman and Baldisimo can replace him.

This next group of players do not have data available regarding when their contract expires. I’m assuming that they all are based on circumstantial evidence but even if they aren’t the Whitecaps could probably find a buyer for most of them.

Brek Shea:

Whitecaps fans’ frustrations with Shea are well documented at this point. I’ve written articles defending him in the past but the fact of the matter is you can’t justify that contract. for what he offers. Shea is a 28 year old mediocre fringe MLS starter. There’s nothing wrong with that but you can’t be paying a player 745k to do that. You especially can’t have a player like that if you want to be a development club as they’ll take minutes away from the youngsters.

Sean Franklin:

Franklin is ok but he doesn’t have any upside at 33. Jake Ruby has been doing well for the residency and could probably step in as Nerwinski’s backup without a a scignificant drop in quality (but with a significant drop in price). Nerwinski’s low salary also means the Whitecaps could possibly invest in a premium first choice right back, bump Nerwinski down the depth chart and loan Ruby to CPL without getting into cap trouble. Indeed this might be a good way to make some much needed improvement on the backline.

Aaron Maund:

The coaching staff clearly have very little confidence in Maund so they should move him on. There’s not really an obvious player to promote from within so the Whitecaps will likley have to go out and acquire at least one new centre back.

Part 4: Buyout

The Whitecaps are allowed one buyout per year. It’s pretty obvious to me that this should be used on Efrain Juarez. Juarez is expensive, takes up an international spot, has done some dumb stuff on the field and doesn’t really offer anything that can’t be provided by David Norman Jr. It requires taking a bit of financial hit (which efficient teams would ideally avoid doing) but ultimately shedding Juarez’s salary to make a better team will make up for this.

Part 5: Who’s left?

Stefan Marinovic:

Marinovic is a solid MLS starter on a great contract. He makes the odd blunder but that’s the trade off for a non premium goalkeeper in MLS. As long as the ‘Caps use their salary cap savings wisely Marinovic is a perfectly good option in goal.

Doneil Henry:

Henry is statistically the Whitecaps’ best centreback in terms of defensive action and distribution. His 154k a year option can’t be exercised fast enough.

Cristian Techera:

I believe Techera is on an expiring deal but I think he should be resigned. He is frustratingly inconsistent and his contract is not very efficient but I believe the Whitecaps could find a buyer for him and get some value back. Justin Meram is apparently drawing interest from the ‘Caps and I’d certainly do that trade. Even if they can’t shift Techera though he still has something to offer this team.

Jose Aja:

Aja has some value to this team. He’s fine as a second choice centre back (especially because there is no obvious successor coming up from the residency). That being said though if they can find a buyer for him they should probably do it, especially if another centre back is coming the other way. A condition of acquiring Aja is that if he’s still on the roster in 2019 Orlando gets another 100k in TAM. It’s not a big deal if that happens as this is a pretty small hit but if they can find a way to avoid it they might as well.

Michael Baldisimo:

A young player with high upside on a cheap contract. The Whitecaps should want as many players like this as possible.

Yordy Reyna:

Reyna has had a disappointing season but he’s still a player they should hold on to. His underlying numbers are not that different from last year (they are actually slightly better) and he’s slightly underperforming on expected goals/assists. A bit better luck, and a stronger supporting cast should see Reyna’s numbers come up.

Aly Ghazal:

Despite a down season I think the Whitecaps would be foolish to let Ghazal go. He doesn’t offer much going forward but he’s very solid defensively and allows players like Felipe, De Jong and Nerwinski more freedom to get forward. His defensive numbers have come down a bit this season but this can, at least partly, be attributed to injury and being utilized poorly.

Sean Melvin:

Melvin is a good young goalkeeper who could develop into a decent MLS goalkeeper. The best thing for him might be a loan to a CPL team (maybe his hometown Pacific F.C.) as he hasn’t played much football over the past year (thanks Fresno).

Brett Levis:

Levis is a cheap, domestic, serviceable backup who can play as a left back or a left winger.

Myer Bevan:

Bevan is a cheap domestic striker with some potential. He had a reasonably successful loan to the lower leagues of Sweden now he just needs to translate that play to the MLS level.

David Norman Jr:

Young player who could really flourish with some first team chances. Like Melvin he hasn’t played much football over the past season (thanks Whitecaps) so a loan to CPL may be good for him.

De Jong:

A good veteran on a reasonable contract. It’s a no brainer to keep De Jong.

Kendall Waston:

There are rumours that the Whitecaps have offers on the table for Waston. If any of these offers are decent the Whitecaps should probably take them. Waston is 29 and his value is probably at its peak. But if not then Waston is still a very good MLS centreback and the team captain. You do, after all, need some veteran leadership on what will hopefully be a very young and exciting team.

Jake Nerwinski:

Nerwinksi is a cheap and young starter, or top level backup, in MLS. There is some perception that he’s not been as good this year but his underlying numbers aren’t fundamentally different from what they were last year.

Spencer Richey:

Richey has gotten all he’s ever going to get out of USL. At 26 he’s not a prospect anymore. Let him be the MLS back up, he’s ready for it and he doesn’t cost much.

Russel Teibert:

A cheap domestic back up who’s been around for a long time and knows the club. Teibert has lots to offer both on and off the field.

Anthony Blondell:

His first season in MLS hasn’t been a smashing success by any stretch of the imagination. But like it or not the Whitecaps paid a lot of money for him and they might as well try to make the best of it. Blondell has shown some flashes and we know he can score goals. The Whitecaps should put their money where their mouth is (or possibly the other way around in this case) and put Blondell in a position to succeed and be worth the high price they paid for him.

Part 6: Promoting from within

Many of the players who have left can be adequately replaced by either young players already in the squad or by residency players. Noah Verhoevan has had a fantastic season for Fresno in USL and has earned his shot at MLS. He’s at least as good as Bernie Ibini, if not better, and will cost significantly less. Jake Ruby could potentially replace Sean Franklin but, as I will discuss later, I think it would be better to loan Ruby to CPL and sign a premium first choice right back. Jose Hernandez could also potentially make the jump as he’s scored at a goal a game pace for the residency. However he’d probably be the 4th choice striker and can stay with the residency for another year so there’s no need to rush him if he’s not ready.

Part 7: Who should be brought in?

*Author’s note: My method of picking potential transfer targets is very limited. Basically I just looked at what players are doing well in MLS and then clicked through the “similar players” section of The Whitecaps have access to much more sophisticated scouting methods (at least I hope they do). I’m just throwing some names out there to give you an idea of the type of player that would be a good target. So when you read a name just mentally add the phrase “or someone like that” afterwards. For example:

How it will be written: The Whitecaps should pursue Everton’s Kevin Mirallas

How it should be read: The Whitecaps should pursue Everton’s Kevin Mirallas (or someone like that).

How Many DPs?:

The Whitecaps have a lot of TAM players. They currently have eight players on the team who are over the DP threshold. This puts them in the awkward position of both not having very many good players and not having any space to add more. Even with this proposed squad they’re already at 5. With TAM their cap hit can be bought down to a minimum of 150k but that costs a lot of money. For one thing they have to pay down transfer fees as well. So Anthoney Blondell and Cristian Techera all require TAM even though they have salaries that are less than the DP threshold. So unless the Whitecaps move another of their players over the threshold there is likely only room to add two DPs. If they do something stupid like not buying out Juarez or bringing in another player who’s just over the threshold and not a true DP... well the less said about that the better. This is a proposal to make the team good so let’s not focus to closely on the things that would make them bad (although deep down I feel like those things are more likely to happen). With the foundation that is in place I propose that the Whitecaps allow Anthony Blondell to take up a DP slot as he requires the most TAM to be bought down to a 150k cap hit.

What type of player?

The Whitecaps need a #10 and a winger to replace Davies. They also need players who are going to create chances. Ideally the Whitecaps want someone who’s shown they can hit about two key passes a game at the MLS level. Everybody would like them to do something crazy like sign Leon Bailey but that is hardly likely to happen. Vancouver is a smaller soccer market and big name targets aren’t likely to want to come here. Plus we’re trying to be efficient with our money here! So to find DPs who can make a difference on the field without breaking the bank you need to be looking at either great players from traditionally small footballing nations or players from strong footballing nations who’s careers are in a bit of a slump. With this in mind these are the two players who I came up with using my bush league scouting system:

Jano Ananidze (Spartak Moscow)

Once linked to the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool, 25 year old Georgian #10 Jano Ananidze’s career hasn’t quite reached the dizzying heights some hoped it would. But just because he’ll never play for a top Premier League team doesn’t mean he can’t do great things for the Whitecaps. Ananizde’s numbers compare very favourably to Real Salt Lake’s Albert Rusnak. Rusnak had a career average of about 1.2 key passes per game in the Netherlands before coming to MLS where he’s put up 3.0+ key passes per game two years in a row. The Russian league has a similar UEFA coefficient to the Eredivisie which suggests Ananidze could be a hit in MLS. Here’s some highlights of a game he played against Arsenal Tula in 2016.

Kevin Mirallas (Everton)

Mirallas has a skillset that would go a long way to replacing what the Whitecaps are losing in Alphonso Davies. He was on the outs with Everton last year so a move to MLS might do his career some good (though there are some signs Silva wants to reintegrate him). Mirallas has very good career numbers in terms of key passes in a league much better than MLS. At 30 he’s maybe a little bit older than you’d like (it would be better if the Whitecaps signed players they could potentially get a fee for in the future. Also DPs under 23 have a lower cap hit) but the fans deserve a little treat after sitting through a tough year.

With these signings the Whitecaps will have a little over one million in TAM at their disposal. I think this could be well used to improve Vancouver’s defence. It is probably better that TAM players be signed on free transfers because then you don’t have to also pay down their transfer fees. Looking at the current crop of defenders who are without a contract this is who stood out to me:

Diego Polenta:

A 26 year old Uruguayan centre back, Polenta began his career at Genoa. He never really broke through with the first team so he was loaned to Serie B side Bari. They liked him so much they extended the loan by a year. He then returned to Uruguay to play for Nacional where he made 84 appearances over 2 years. Here are some of his highlights.

Moses Odubajo:

A 25 year old right back who can also play as a right midfielder, Odubajo has extensive experience in England and has the skills to help the Whitecaps on both sides of the ball. His career was derailed a bit by a serious injury but he’s still drawn a lot of interest from clubs like Brentford and Celtic. You can see what he’s all about here.

Part 8: On field strategy

I see this team lining up in a fluid 4-2-3-1/4-3-3. Here is how I envision it. I’ve added every player’s career average key passes per game. Remember that we want it to add up to close to 10.

This lineup adds up to 7.5. This is not quite as high as you’d hope for but there is some reason to think they can squeeze a little more out of these players than their career average. Mirallas has put up 1.2 key passes per game in leagues much better than MLS for example. As I mentioned earlier Ananidze’s numbers compare very favourably to Albert Rusnak’s. Rusnak has consistently put up 3+ key passes per game. Maybe it’s not reasonable to assume Ananidze or whomever the Whitecaps end up signing to take to the league that well but would 2.0 be to much to ask? Furthermore we know that Felipe and De Jong are capable of more than their average as both have had seasons where they were well above it. There is also reason to hope that players like Reyna and Blondell will perform better surrounded by better players. You also have a front four who can all play both centrally and in wide areas which could be very dynamic and hard to deal with. There may be some concerns that Ghazal doesn’t provide enough going forward but I think he allows players like De Jong and Felipe more freedom to get forward and produce more chances. If everybody performs as well as they can, players off the bench help out, and they get just a bit lucky then this team can score 50 goals. This isn’t a slam dunk but I think it’s the best strategy if the Whitecaps want to focus on development and selling players for a profit. If a few more players like Davies come through then they will gradually be able to buy better DPs and the quality of the players they develop will go up. Ideally each year it will be more and more of a certainty that the team will be good. Just to give you an idea what the who squad will look like here’s the second XI:

This way much of the depth is provided by young players the Whitecaps have developed. I think, also that the level of quality is high enough that if any player goes down then their replacement can do a good job of covering for them. I think this will help young players be integrated into the first team better than just throwing them all out for one game in the Voyageurs Cup.

Part 9: The salary cap

The big question is, of course, if all of this will fit under the salary cap. Well I’ve done my best to learn MLS’ many arcane salary cap rules. It’s possible I’ve misunderstood something but I’m pretty sure you can quite comfortably. As it stands the roster in this proposal would be:

Senior Roster (The main roster. 21 spaces. Players count against the cap):

  1. Marinovic 162k
  2. Henry 154k
  3. Techera 150k (962k TAM)
  4. Aja 240k
  5. Reyna 150k (383k TAM)
  6. Ghazal 150k (550k TAM)
  7. Levis 68k
  8. Bevan 67k
  9. De Jong 160k
  10. Waston 150k (504k TAM)
  11. Nerwinski 67 k
  12. Teibert 160k
  13. Blondell 504 k (DP)
  14. Mirallas 504k (DP)
  15. Ananidze 504k (DP)
  16. Polenta 150k (550k TAM estimated)
  17. Odubajo 150k (450k TAM estimated)

Supplemental Roster (3 players who are on at least senior minimum and don’t count against the Salary Cap. Draft picks often occupy these spaces but since the Whitecaps have no picks in the first two rounds in 2019 we won’t worry about them for now):

  1. Norman
  2. Richey
  3. Melvin

Reserve Roster (Players on the reserve minimum and don’t count against the salary cap. The 4th and 5th spots need to be occupied by homegrown players):

  1. Bair
  2. Verhoevan
  3. Baldisimo
  4. Hernandez
  5. Colyn

Part 10: Future options

This leaves the Whitecaps with 1.071 million in cap space, about 27k in TAM, and 200k in GAM and 3 roster spaces. This gives them a lot of flexibility. If someone like Felipe becomes available again then the Whitecaps can get them without having to move out a Bernie Ibini or a Brek Shea. But also, since the squad is already relatively complete, you can take some risks on players. Trinidadian wonder kid Isaiah Hudson (who has trained with the Whitecaps on a number of occasions) has turned 18 and can now be transferred abroad. This space can be used on players like him as the Whitecaps can offer higher salaries to fend off bigger suitors. These spots should be used to make some low risk high reward signings. They can take some risks on some obscure players from South America (or just USL) and be safe in the knowledge that it won’t really hurt them if the players don’t work out. Worst case scenario, these players don’t work out and we’re back to where we started. Best case scenario, the Whitecaps add a player who is a surprise success that they can flip for a profit. The Whitecaps could also not buy down all of their TAM players the maximum allowed amount and squeeze out a few more TAM signings. I think, however, that if they do this they risk falling into the trap they did this year where the team isn’t gelling properly and there’s no room to make changes.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to another year of Efrain Juarez, a striker who scored a lot of goals in an obscure league who they hardly play and cut after a year, and residency grads planted firmly to the bench.