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It’s so Much Worse Than You Think | The Vancouver Whitecaps and “The Bargain Bin”

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s article comes to you from Christchurch New Zealand. It’s quite a gruelling trip to get here, taking about 18 hours of total travel time. The worst stretch is the 13 hour flight from Vancouver to Auckland. On this particular flight I was surrounded by crying babies. There was one either side of me, one in front of me, and one behind me. It was like a diamond midfield formation. Most people would curse their rotten luck that they’re stuck next to these babies. But you have to see things from the babies’ perspective. Infants’ ears are much more sensitive to pressure changes so plane trips are quite painful for them. Essentially those babies were being tortured for 13 hours, occasionally passing out from pure exhaustion and then waking up to find their situation not improved one bit. Anyway, shifting gears completely, how about them Whitecaps?

The Crowd Begins to Gather Outside the Bastille

The Vancouver Whitecaps have lost their last three league games and been outscored 10-1 while doing so. Their last win was May 26th and to top it all off they failed to beat Cavalry F.C in the first game of the Canadian Championship. People are pissed. Frankly you can’t really blame them. They were told at the start of the year that it was time to be great and so far the team has only sunk. One phrase that keeps coming up is the “bargain bin,” or some variation thereof.

The basic idea is that the Whitecaps don’t spend enough money to be competitive. This idea is absolutely true. But I think something important is missing from the bargain bin discourse. Something that is important to discuss because without it the true depth of the dysfunction is obscured. It’s true that the Whitecaps don’t spend enough money, but the problem is actually much worse than just miserliness because...

The Vancouver Whitecaps Don’t Have Any Bargains:

Ok that’s an exaggeration. They have a couple. But that doesn’t quite grab your attention in the same way. What’s that? You demand accuracy? Ok, fine.

Despite Their Thrifty Way the Vancouver Whitecaps Have, at Most, Two or Three Players Who Could Reasonably be Described as Bargains:

A player who doesn’t cost a lot of money and a bargain are not the same thing. I’m available to sign for league minimum tomorrow but signing me would not be a good idea. A bargain would be a player who is acquired for less than what they are actually worth. So Maxime Crepeau, absolutely a bargain. Montreal basically gave him away, he makes less than $100,000 and has been at the very worst a solid MLS goalkeeper. I think Doneil Henry also qualifies as a bargain. He was acquired on a free transfer, makes around $200,000 and has been an excellent defender for the Whitecaps. But other than those two, pretty much every Whitecaps player was acquired for market value. Think about it. Of the big acquisitions in this rebuild which players were acquired for less than what they are worth? In-Beom Hwang was bought from a second division club but had excelled in some international tournaments so a little under two million seems about right. Ali Adnan is good enough to be a squad player in one of the big five leagues so a bit under three million seems about right. Fredy Montero was a veteran striker at a big club but both sides wanted to move on and thus he was available on a free transfer but with a big salary. These guys are not as expensive as players like Carlos Vela or Alejandro Pozuelo but they are certainly not bargains.

Why is This Important? Isn’t This the Problem of Still Not Spending Enough?

Yes, mostly yes, but with a small portion of no. Something that people were asking, and that has been floating around in my mind since the 6-1 thrashing, is why LAFC are so much more better than the Whitecaps? After all, they’re only currently using two DP slots on Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi respectively. Now those two DPs are amazing players and they make a huge difference but LAFC feels like such a complete team and those two players can’t explain all of their success. How were they able to build such a superior team with the same league constraints as the Whitecaps? If you look over their team the answer becomes pretty clear. Bargains!

LAFC spends more money on DPs than the Whitecaps, true, but their squad is also full of bargains. Mark Anthony Kaye ($177,000), Latif Blessing ($103,000), Mohamed El Munir ($200,000) and Tristian Blackmon ($72,000) just to name a few. Compare them to their Whitecaps analogues; Jon Erice ($752,000), Felipe ($500,000), Andy Rose ($192,000), PC ($112,000) and screaming into your pillow ($0). Compared to the competition the Whitecaps do a terrible job of finding undervalued players. When you both spend less than your competition and do a worse job of finding undervalued players the result is...well...this.

During the thrashing at the hands of LAFC I tweeted this:

Honestly I feel I was a little too hasty in this assessment. You see, last season three of the Whitecaps’ top four earners were Brek Shea, Efrain Juarez and Aly Ghazal; Guys who weren’t even guaranteed to be starters by the end of the season (keep this in mind in case somebody tries to pull a cheeky RoBBo dID tHe BEsT WiTH whAt hE HaD). Now the top earners are Montero (disappointing but he is the top scorer), Jon Erice (team captain), Yordy Reyna (second top scorer) Hwang In-beom (leads the team in chance creation by an almost 2-1 margin) and Ali Adnan (a few weirdos aside, we mostly agree he’s pretty good). Having your top earners be the guys who actually contribute the most to the team and not massive anchors is a big improvement. But to truly be maximizing what you have, you have to (I can’t believe I'm writing this) exploit the labour of your employees more. You need some guys who do more than what they are payed to do.

I think the lack of bargains is important to acknowledge because it shows the problem isn’t just money. Let’s say you were an eccentric billionaire and you wanted to buy one of the lowest spending teams in MLS and turn them into a contender. If you bought, for example, the Houston Dynamo then your job would be easy. They have consistently found players like Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis despite being the lowest spending team in the league. You could just scale up what they’re already doing because they are already making the most of what they have. But if you bought the Whitecaps then you’d have to make serious structural changes because they aren’t finding those bargains.

It is Really Important That They Get Better at This, Like, Now

If the Whitecaps don’t improve at finding undervalued players, and fast, then they are screwed. This is not an exaggeration or a fan being reactionary, this is the truth. There is a storm brewing on the horizon and as it stands the Whitecaps are not in a position to deal with it. Whitecaps attendance is slowly but surely going down and people are getting increasingly frustrated by the management and ownership of the club seemingly doing nothing about it. If the Whitecaps are bad for three years in a row then I don’t know how much longer this can go on. So they need to be good next year and good in a convincing fashion. They currently have two designated players who cannot be bought down with TAM. At least four additions are needed to make the squad a playoff team, never mind a competitor and only one of those additions can be a DP. It wouldn’t matter if the five richest people in the world bought the Whitecaps tomorrow, they can only sign one DP. The only way around this is to find players, like Mark Anthony Kaye, who play like DPs but don’t get paid like DPs. To do that you have to find actual bargains. Players who for some reason or another are available for less than they are actually worth.

Yes. The best thing the Whitecaps can do is to hire some experts. They’ve said a scouting staff was something they were planning to do for a while but it’s a promise that’s quickly entering “I'll believe it when I see it” territory. For two transfer windows in a row people have talked about it being “the most important transfer window in the history of the club” and the Whitecaps haven’t seen fit to help the coaching staff out with some scouts for either of those. If no experts are on the way, here are some suggestions from me, a keen observer.

  1. Sign Players From Countries/Leagues/Teams With Less Reputation and Where Wages Are Lower

It’s a fact of life in football that nationality plays a big role in a player’s value. Brazil and the Netherlands for example have reputations as producers of great players and thus players from those countries have inflated values. Due to some conversations I've had I am reasonably confident that the Whitecaps are aware of this concept. But despite their reputation as bargain bin shoppers they don’t target players from leagues where players are known to be undervalued, like those of Colombia and Uruguay, all that often. The players who came in with the MDS rebuild mostly came from major leagues in Europe or had caught people’s attention in international tournaments. The only player who fit the mould of a player from a league with a lower reputation was Jasser Khmiri who hasn’t played yet due to an injury. So they may be aware of the concept but they aren’t really applying it.

But other MLS teams have used this concept to great effect. The aforementioned Latif Blessing makes half of what Andy Rose makes and he would easily be the Whitecaps’ best winger and would probably be their best centre mid and striker as well. The reason his wages are so low is because he was signed from the Ghanaian league (originally by Sporting Kansas City) where wages are low and thus it didn’t require as much expenditure to bring him over.

Philadelphia Union are top of the Eastern conference and their squad prominently features players who came from from the lower divisions of Germany. I’ll cop to never having heard of Kacper Przybylko before this season but he’s got 9 goals on less than $300,000 a year so clearly these guys are out there if you know where to look.

Back in 2011 the Seattle Sounders signed some guy you may have heard of called Fredy Montero. Montero came from the Colombian league and his salary was only around $500,000. For that relative bargain the Sounders got at least 10 goals a year before Montero moved on to Portugal. But when he came back to MLS with the Whitecaps they payed him almost double that. As a player who had already been a star in MLS and who had played for a big club in Europe, he was in a position to demand more. If the Whitecaps were in on a player like Montero before he was a star then they wouldn’t have had to pay as much. But if you’re chasing these players after everyone knows who they are then you aren’t going to get the bargains necessary to build an MLS juggernaut.

Finding players like this is of course easier said than done. There’s always risk when signing players from smaller leagues that they won’t be able to translate their performance to big leagues. But if you can’t compete with Atlanta, Toronto F.C, or LAFC then you’re going to have to be looking for guys in places where players cost less. Once again a scouting department would really help with this (strong emphasis on department, not just one guy). Obviously these things vary based on the situation but the best regions to look for players who are undervalued tend to be Eastern Europe, Africa, Scandinavia and smaller South American countries. Ideally a scouting department would include experts in at least a few of these regions to provide a pipeline similar to what Philadelphia has with the lower divisions for German football (though obviously you don’t want to rely too heavily on one region).

2. Sign Players From USL and CPL

This works on the same principle as point number one but comes with the added benefit that these players are usually domestic. Player movement back and forth between the first and second division isn’t uncommon in other parts of the world. But in North America, for whatever reason, a lot of players do well in USL and then just kind of stay there. For this reason I think the second division is an under utilized source of talent in North America. To be fair Marc Dos Santos seems to have a pretty good eye for players who can do well at the next level. He was instrumental in bringing in Maxime Crepeau to Vancouver and bringing Mark Anthony Kaye in to LAFC. PC wasn’t the same kind of success but he’s a replacement level player on a replacement level salary (more or less) so it’s not like that was a crippling miss. If you can correctly identify good talent in the second division then you can get Mark Anthony Kaye before he’s Mark Anthony Kaye. Most importantly you don’t have to pay them like they’re Mark Anthony Kaye.

3. Target Players who Aren’t Being Utilized Properly

The website breaks down players’ scoring records by position and it is often very telling. For example, during the winter the Whitecaps were linked to a striker called Rui Costa who had played most of his career in the Portuguese second division. His goal rate wasn’t super impressive with 27 goals and 8 assists in 78 appearances or 0.45 goals+assists per game. But when he was played as a centre forward, as opposed to on the wing or in a Withdrawn role, he had 18 goals and 5 assists in 28 appearances or 0.82 goals+assists per game. His effectiveness essentially doubled when he was played as a centre forward but he’d played less than half his career games there. Obviously that rumour never came to fruition, and I didn’t get to drop that bit of knowledge on you until now, but it does reveal a principle that can be useful when trying to find bargains. If you identify a player who isn’t being used properly by his club then he will probably be available more cheaply. You can then use him correctly, he will play better for you, and his value will increase.

4. Analytics:

Marc Dos Santos talks a lot about having a specific style of play where each position requires a specific type of player. The results of this have been...mixed. But systems like this lend themselves well to using analytics to find players. This is an excellent mini doc by FourFourTwo on how analytics are used by clubs like Forest Green Rovers and Southampton. I highly recommend you watch it in full but there are a couple of quotes I thought were particularly pertinent.

“We were one of the smallest teams in the league, we were actually loosing money. But it also created a great platform. It meant that if we just did things the same way the New York Yankees, A.K.A The Manchester United [of MLB], did; We were destined to finish where our player wages said we would. If you had the lowest payroll you were probably going to finish last.” -Billy Beane, on implementing sabre metrics at the Oakland Athletics.

As we discussed way back at the start of this article, the Whitecaps have very few players earning below market value. They are operating pretty much exactly like a Toronto or an Atlanta United but with a much smaller budget. Since they have one of the lowest payrolls in the league and aren’t doing anything particularly different they are destined to finish at the bottom. So they need to do something different.

“The point of analytics is doing things differently. One of the reasons for these crazy prices we’re paying for football players these days is that people get wedded to one player. They think ‘this is the guy, we need to have him, we’re willing to pay over the odds.’ What data can do is help you generate options. Maybe you find guys who are kind of like that other guy, or maybe [guys] who would fit into the team in a slightly different way. [These options] allow you to walk away from a bad deal.” -Chris Anderson, Author of “The Numbers Game”

You may have noticed these nifty little charts from the American Soccer Analysis guys.

These charts are helpful because they show how players are doing compared to every other player in the league. In the example above we can see that Ali Adnan is better than =/>75% of players in MLS in expected goals, involvement, dribbling and defensive actions. He is below average in pass quality and expected assists. So what one would conclude is that Ali Adnan is an excellent dribbler, is very involved in the Whitecaps’ attack, and a pretty good defender but his passing leaves something to be desired. If you watch Ali Adnan then these results probably aren’t that surprising to you. But these charts aren’t just a neat way of quantifying what you see when you watch a game. You can also do some interesting things with them. For example:

That bench player on $137,000 actually does the same things your $1,471,000 DP striker does and does them better:

Maybe splashing the cash for a new DP isn’t a great idea when you have someone on loan who does basically the same stuff:

Your $109,000 draft pick and your $2,000,000 former Manchester United Star do similar things:

If you’re a club with a low budget then you’ve got to be making these comparisons constantly. As we can see from these charts, there are players out there on small salaries who offer the same or very close to what DPs offer. But why stop at just doing these comparisons within MLS? The Whitecaps have access to (I mean, Jesus, you hope they pay for an OPTA and/or Wyscout subscription) data from all over the world. You could do this sort of thing with almost any league in the world. You can find the Chris Mueller of Argentina, China, or Portugal. Since the Whitecaps have an idea of how they want to play, you could tailor what stats you look at by each position and find undervalued players that fit what the ‘Caps are looking for from all over the world. This could potentially save a huge amount of time and (importantly for the Whitecaps) money. The coaching staff (or some hypothetical scouting staff) would have to spend a lot less time and money traveling around the world scouting and interviewing players if they’ve already filtered their candidates down to a few options thanks to the data. Those players will also be gotten for less than what they are actually worth, which will make the Whitecaps better for less and give them more flexibility.

Of course we don’t really know how much the Whitecaps use analytics at the moment but considering they keep trotting out Andy Rose I’m guessing that answer is not much.

5. “Bad Boys”

If your eyes glazed over during the stats part then here is a more old school way to get value for players. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor would frequently sign players for Derby or Nottingham who had reputations as head cases and they would help them through these issues to allow them to reach their full potential. Obviously you don’t want to take this too far. You don’t want any Nazis or rapists. But players who have a reputation for being talented but lazy or arrogant can come on down. People often respond differently to different types of motivation and a lot of coaches are stuck in their ways. Why not be the one to try a different approach? After all, if you do what everyone else does but with less money then you are destined to finish last.

6. Players Who are Down on Their Luck

One of the ways you can acquire top players on a budget is to target them when they’re down on their luck. The Whitecaps kind of tried this with Lucas Venuto. Venuto had excellent seasons in Austria, a level of play similar to MLS but had a nasty injury and had fallen out of favour. He should have been a perfect buy low candidate but for some reason the Whitecaps clutched defeat from the jaws of victory and handed him a $600,000 contract. They could have re-signed Kekuta Manneh for free and at half the the salary and gotten almost exactly the same outcome.

Can you even tell which is which without their stat lines being labeled? No? Then why does one have a salary almost double that of the other?

Despite the contract whiff, the logic that went into the Venuto signing wasn’t unreasonable. If he were on say $350,000 then a six goal pace would actually be a pretty reasonable return on investment. If you target players who are down on their luck but have shown quality in the past then there are bargains to be found. But it can be a bit difficult when the person in charge of your contracts is also the person who missed the automatic extension clause in Brek Shea’s contract.

7. Most Importantly, You Need to be Proactive and not Reactive When Pursuing Players

When the U20 World Cup was going on, Marc Dos Santos opined that the players who impressed him were already being courted by big clubs. You can’t be finding out about players at the same time as everybody else if you want to get bargains. You have to be in on the ground floor. This is of course easier said than done but you’ve got to find a way to do it one way or another.

If you take only one thing away from this very long article it should be that if the Whitecaps want to win an MLS cup they are going to have to do things differently from everyone else. Not just differently but also innovative. It is paramount that they be smarter than every other MLS team. A head of scouting is a good start but probably isn’t going to be adequate, no matter how impressive a hire it is. If they don’t manage to get smarter, much smarter, then we’re never going to get off this flight of pain.