The Vancouver Whitecaps recently announced they had picked up the options on three players, released some others, and are still in negotiations with four more players. One of the players they are still in negotiations with is Doneil Henry. This was confusing to me because it seemed like a no brainer that Henry, a solid domestic player on a cheap ticket, would return. But on the most recent AFTN podcast we got a bit of a bombshell. Apparently Henry is unlikely to return, in part, because the Whitecaps are targeting three new DPs, one of which will be a centre back (in addition to a midfielder and a forward). To facilitate this the club will apparently buy down In-beom Hwang, Fredy Montero, and Ali Adnan. There’s quite a bit to unpack there. Firstly, if that genuinely is their plan; and not part of their alleged “Say you’ll buy good players to win back an alienated fan base —> actually don’t —> ??? —> Profit” strategy; then they must know something we don’t. Under the current MLS rules it isn’t possible to buy down Hwang or Adnan so they must be fairly confident that those rules are going to change somewhat. Secondly, is that really the best allocation of the resources at their disposal?
Part 1: On the Surface This Seems Really Dumb
Are there centre backs out there who are better than Henry? Absolutely. But in MLS you can’t just go improving willy nilly. You have to take the byzantine salary cap rules into account. This new 3 DP strategy, if it is real, is going to create a very top heavy squad rather than one with the resources spread around 10ish players as the ‘Caps have done in the past. That’s fine, in fact I would prefer it, but it does mean you need some guys who are just good enough. Henry seems like the sort of guy who would be perfect for facilitating fitting this ambitious project under the salary cap, which would then allow you to get two DP midfielders and in turn would allow you to run the salivating DP-Hwang-DP midfield. It was also posited on the AFTN show that Henry might not want to be back and in that case the Whitecaps have little control over the matter. But if it is the case that he’s being pushed out for a DP centre back my instinct is that’s a bad move.
Part 2: On the Other Hand Maybe it’s not so Dumb
The Whitecaps conceded 59 goals in 2019 (that’s bad). Would a DP centre back help bring that number down? Well defence is just as much about systems as it is about individuals and you can never be sure but, yeah, probably. Here’s the thing though, i’m not sure it would bring that number down all that much. A point i’ve made repeatedly and which, much to my frustration, hasn’t really penetrated the public discourse is that the ‘Caps were actually quite good at limiting the opposition to bad shots. The problem was they gave up 681 of them. Only two other teams in the west conceded over 500, and the ‘Caps were the only team in the league to give up 600+. Vancouver’s 56.6 xGA means that the average shot the ‘Caps conceded had a paltry 8.3% chance of going in. In practical terms that means when the ball got to the back four they did their job. But the ball just kept coming.
Now one intriguing argument for a DP centre back is that it might help the team play out of the back better. This was something they were kind of bad at in 2019. To quote ASA’s Harrison Crow “Our expected passing model (think of it as expected goals but for passing) shows that [the Whitecaps] make a ton of safe passes. They sit in the top 10 in safest passes out of the defensive third. What really stands out however is that they’re incredibly bad at it. In other words, they’re making passes that are neither difficult nor dangerous, but also not completing they as much as they should. Only Columbus has been anywhere near as poor in their own defensive third.”
A really good ball playing centre back could, in theory, help fix this problem. This would mean the Whitecaps could control the game more and in turn the number of shots they concede would go down.
Part 3: On the Other, Other, Hand it’s Still Kind of Dumb
A closer look at ASA’s date suggests that the biggest problem with Vancouver playing out of the back is not the centre backs. Doneil Henry and Erik Godoy’s fancy passing stats were not exactly amazing but they were also definitely not bad. Godoy and Henry completed the highest number of passes above expected in their defensive 3rd of anyone on the team. They weren’t just passing the ball sideways as they were the second and third most direct outfield players who played serious minutes. They were doing their job. But who wasn’t?
Firstly, the goalkeepers. Zac MacMath in particular was very bad but Maxime Crepeau was not great either. Though both players had much higher passing percentages than Brian Rowe and Stefan Marinovic before them, it seems these gains came from playing shorter easier passes, rather than better passing proficiency.
The fullbacks were just as bad if not worse. Ali Adnan was the worst of the bunch, though it is worth mentioning that he made up for that somewhat by advancing the ball really effectively via dribbles. PC and Jake Nerwinski also performed below expectations. The only fullback who performed above passing expectations in ASA’s model was Scott Sutter.
The midfield, predictably, was also a problem. What stuck out to me was how bad In-beom Hwang was at passing in his own end. In fact he was the worst outfield player when it came to passing in the defensive 3rd. His passing was very good in the middle 3rd and attacking 3rd but for whatever reason it just cratered in his own end. I must say, this is causing me to reconsider my assertion that Hwang can be a good #6. Russel Teibert and Andy Rose were marginally below expectations and Jon Erice was mildly above expectations. Nobody covered themselves in glory.
Henry is not amazing but he is also not bad. I would much rather invest the money you would need to get a DP centre back into the midfield. A DP centre back would improve the team but I think Henry+an extra DP midfielder trumps DP centre back+average MLS guy in midfield. So if this is the choice the Whitecaps are actively making then I have to say it is not what I would do.