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Which Wingers?

MLS: LA Galaxy at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most vexing squad selection decisions that has faced the Vancouver Whitecaps is who should start on the wings. With every game, save one, of the 2019 season being decided by a single goal it’s important to get these decisions right. So let’s get into the nitty gritty of who the best two wingers on the Vancouver Whitecaps are.

First thing’s first; Yordy Reyna should never play on the wing again (well, except in very specific circumstances). I won’t try to hide from it, I really thought he could do it. But at this point the evidence is overwhelming. In 83 career games in a central role, Reyna has 44 goals and assists for a ratio of 0.53 points per appearance. In 27 games as a right winger he has 7 goals and assists for a ratio of 0.25 points per appearance. On the left wing he’s actually done alright with 7 goals and assists in 14 appearances for 0.5 points per appearance. The Whitecaps had a bit of success playing In-Beom Hwang as a sort of wide #10. Hwang would drift into the middle and open up a channel for Ali Adnan to bomb forward down the left. It’s possible that Yordy Reyna could be good in that role. But if he is played in a wide position it should only be with the intent of him playing most of the game centrally. Failing that, he should always be played up the middle.

Speaking of Hwang, is the wing his most effective position? Stats website gives him an average rating of 7.01 when playing as a left winger compared to 7.12 as a centre midfielder. So there is a bit of a drop but it’s not a huge difference. Hwang has created 5 chances in 3 starts from the wing (1.7 per start) which makes him the best creator of any Whitecap player to play on the wing in 2019. As a centre midfielder he has created 9 chances in 5 starts (1.8). Almost no difference. It’s also not like playing on the wing sees Hwang noticeably less involved in the play. Hwang has almost exactly the same average number of touches per game regardless of his position (74 as a winger vs 73.4 as a centre midfielder). With the Whitecaps front three often seeming to be isolated from the rest of the team, a player who gets on the ball a lot when he plays as a part of it could be a very good thing. The problem is moving him there leaves the midfield awfully threadbare. Jon Erice has done an adequate job as a #6 but in front of him the best options are Russel Teibert and Felipe. These are players who can be effective in very specific roles but can’t be the heartbeat of the team in the same way Hwang can. Unless Michael Baldisimo comes back from injury and is immediately as good as I think he can be, it seems to me that you just take too much away from the midfield by taking Hwang out of it.

This brings us from the people who might be wingers to the people who definitely are wingers. Lass Bangoura and Lucas Venuto were brought in to be dynamic impact wingers for the Whitecaps. So far, uh, well...

Not great. Bangoura has a goal so I guess that’s a point in his favour. Venuto has a slight advantage in chance creation, with a huge 0.8 chances created per game. Bangoura then comes roaring back with 1.1 dribbles per game, vs Venuto’s 0.8. Neither player wins many fouls with Venuto at 0.6 per game and Bangoura at 0.3 (tied with Derek Cornelius and Max Crepeau). Venuto gets dispossessed almost twice as often as Bangoura (2 vs 1.1 times on average per game), but Bangoura has a lot more unsuccessful touches (0.9 vs 0.3). The players are tied in shots per game with 0.6.

So each player is moderately better than the other in three of the six important metrics for attacking players. Neither is really separating themselves from the other. Perhaps one defends better? Venuto averages 0.9 tackles per game. Lass Bangoura has made one singular tackle in 2019. Even Joaquin Ardaiz, who MDS has publicly criticized for laziness in training, has two in 90 fewer minutes. Despite making so few tackles, Bangoura has somehow managed to average 1 foul per game, while Venuto hasn’t committed any. So I suppose with Venuto you get a little bit more defensive responsibility. The main takeaway though is that neither of the wingers who were expected to be impact players for the Whitecaps have been very good at all. In fact they don’t compare very favourably to PC. PC was widely considered by Orlando fans to be one of the worst players in MLS in 2018. But when you compare him to Bangoura and Venuto, two players signed from division one European leagues you get this:

PC comes out ahead in 3 of the 7 categories while Venuto and Bangoura only come out ahead in two. You could make a case that some of these categories are more important than others but the fact that it’s even close is a pretty worrying sign. Normally over the course of writing these articles I come to some kind of conclusion. But in this case I can’t, it’s just kind of a mess. The Whitecaps’ best winger is a central midfielder and after that it’s an undifferentiated mass of flavourless grey paste.

Normally at a time like this I would say the Whitecaps should look to their academy for solutions. It’s generally my opinion that the Whitecaps should be aiming to replace players that make you go “oh yeah, he’s a guy I suppose” with academy players. But in this case there aren’t really any obvious solutions. Kam Habibullah has a bright future ahead of him but he’s 15 and weighs 110 pounds. Throwing him into MLS actions is probably not best for his development. Georges Mukumbilwa is older and heavier but Marc Dos Santos has said he sees him as a right back in the long term. Theo Bair is an interesting option but his best position may be as a centre forward and his 1 goal and 1 assist in 5 appearances for the U23s doesn’t exactly blow you away. 17 year old Branden Cambridge had a pretty decent generation Adidas cup but again his best long term position may be as a centre forward and his numbers at youth level aren’t all that amazing. Then again if a ball were to bounce in off either Bair’s or Cambridge’s face they’d be tied for the lead in goals amongst Whitecaps wingers so maybe beggars can’t be choosers. Simon Colyn could also be an option but he’s more of a #10 than a winger and we saw how pushing a young #10 out to the wing worked for Marco Bustos. Three former Whitecaps who could have been developed into decent first team wingers by this point, Terran Campbell, Noah Verhoeven, and Victor Blasco, all played for Pacific F.C on the weekend. It’s a damned shame.