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Mission 2020 | What Needs to Happen for the Vancouver Whitecaps to Make the Playoffs Next Season?

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MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go again. The Vancouver Whitecaps have completed a very underwhelming summer transfer window which means it’s time to look ahead to a potentially brighter future. Turning things around is going to be very difficult. The easy thing to do is to say that the Whitecaps should just spend more money. This is probably true but I generally try and meet the Whitecaps where they are. In the past this has proved difficult because the Whitecaps were lying about where they were. For example, last offseason the Whitecaps said they planned to move into the top 3rd in payroll spending. In reality they have the lowest payroll they’ve ever had relative to the rest of the league. But with the squad being more defined than last season and having a general idea of the targets the Whitecaps are after things seem a bit easier to project this season. Turning the team around with what the ‘Caps have to work with is difficult. Extremely difficult. But it can be done. Here is a chart that compares team compensation with points per game:

As you can see there is a correlation between spending and success but it’s not a strong correlation. The Philadelphia Union are top of the Eastern Conference, with 18 more points and 22 more goals than Vancouver while only expending about 900k more in salary. For only 50k more than what the Whitecaps are paying Fredy Montero, the Union have Kacper Pryzbylko, Fafa Picault, and Jamie Montiero who have scored 8x the open play goals of Montero. As much as people get mad about bargain bin shopping, getting some actual bargains in may be the Whitecaps’ only option if they want to get back to the top of the Western conference (or even to its middle). But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at what needs to happen in the abstract.

What Needs to Happen in the Abstract

In the film Moneyball (Which I’ve rewatched a couple of times recently because it’s on New Zealand Netflix), Peter Brand (a composite character of Billy Beane’s real life assistants) tells Billy Beane that the reason there is so much inefficiency in MLB is because GMs think of themselves as buying players when really they should be trying to buy wins (accomplished by buying runs). Soccer works on much the same principle. You shouldn’t try to buy players you should try to buy points, which you do by buying goals. If you look at any league table in the world you will see that, barring extreme outliers, one goal scored corresponds to one point. This season the Whitecaps have scored 26 goals and have earned 24 points. They are on pace to get around 33 points. It usually takes about 50 points to make the playoffs. So the Whitecaps just need to score 17 more goals right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Last season the Whitecaps managed 55 goals but conceded so many that they fell short of the playoffs. So, while hitting 50 goals should be the priority, you need to make sure that your defence isn’t too leaky.

“Fixing” the Defence

How many goals you can concede and still makes the playoffs varies quite a bit from year to year. Less than 60 but hopefully somewhere between 45 and 55 seems to be roughly the answer. The Whitecaps have the second worst xGA in the league 3rd most goals against (amazingly they are still doing way better than in 2018). On the surface it seems like the defence is terrible. But here is something that is very important to understand. The average shot the Whitecaps concede has an xG of 0.08, or has an 8% chance of going in. This is a lower number than the other bad teams and it’s a lower number than the good teams. The Whitecaps do a good job of limiting the opposition to shots that are of poor quality. But they concede on average almost 20 shots a game. If you give something with an 8% chance of happening 20 chances to happen then it will happen once or twice. The point is the defence (meaning the back four and the goalkeeper) aren’t conceding goals because the players aren’t good enough or because of a systemic failure (well, not one by them in any case). They are bad through attrition. The other team wears them down and eventually are able to put a highly improbable goal past Maxime Crepeau. So the answer to fixing the defence is pretty simple. Concede fewer shots. There are a few ways they can do this.

The first way is to keep more possession and to spend more time in the oppositions half. The Whitecaps have the 4th lowest average possession in the league (again, still better than 2018) and spend more time in their own half than any other team in the league. Taking steps to have the ball more and for the ball to spend more time in the other team’s half will improve the number of goals the Whitecaps concede significantly.

One of the other reasons that the Whitecaps concede so many shots is that it is very easy to advance the ball against them. According to AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com’s xPasses model, the Whitecaps opposition completes 17 more passes than expected per game. This is the worst in the league and more than double the second worst team in the league. To try and understand why this was I had a look at Real Salt Lake. RSL defend very similarly to the Whitecaps. They have a disciplined block that defends narrowly and encourages opposition to make low percentage plays like crossing and shooting from distance. On paper all of their defensive metrics are almost identical: possession, shot location, tackles per game, interceptions per game. Yet RSL concedes almost half the number of shots and teams playing against them complete fewer passes than expected. The answer, it seems to me, lies in who’s doing the tackling. Vancouver’s top tacklers are mostly defenders. The only midfielders putting in a significant number of tackles are in-Beom Hwang and Jon Erice. Erice and Hwang complete around 60% and 66% of the tackles they attempt respectively. In contrast RSL’s top tacklers are Kyle Beckerman and Everton Luiz. Beckerman’s tackling stats are similar to Erice and Hwang but Luiz attempts far more tackles and completes 72% of them. The lack of a ball winner in the midfield makes things too easy for the opposition to get to the back four. What’s Matias Laba up to these days? I ask like I didn’t already look this up, he’s on loan in Chile. One would expect Russell Teibert and Andy Rose to be able to shoulder some of this load but neither attempts very many tackles. So you have Hwang and Erice as the main ball winners in midfield who are both fine enough tacklers but don’t choke the opposition attack in quite the same way someone like Everton Luiz does. If the Whitecaps keep both Hwang and Erice as starters in the midfield-three then that means the 3rd midfielder is going to have to be somebody who can tackle, dribble, and create chances. The odds the Whitecaps can find, afford and convince such a player to join seem rather low. So in order to not put so much pressure on that one signing they may have to move Erice on for someone who’s a better tackler, though a bit of passing ability would have to be sacrificed (perhaps not as much as you’d think).

The common denominator of all of these issues is that the real problem lies in the midfield. You may notice that this is a reoccurring motif throughout this analysis.

Fixing the Attack

Fixing the Whitecaps attack is significantly harder. The average xG of the shots the Whitecaps take is 0.08, just like the ones they face. But the Whitecaps don’t have the luxury of taking lots of shots to make up for the low quality of said shots. The Whitecaps take the second fewest shots per game of anyone in the league. The best teams in the league have an average xG per shot of about 0.10. Even the lowly F.C. Cincinnati are averaging 0.09. So both the volume and quality of the Whitecaps shots are a problem. Even getting the ball to the final 3rd is a problem. The Whitecaps spend less time in the opposition 3rd than any team in MLS. They spend the most time in their own 3rd and 4th most in the middle 3rd, almost like there’s a massive bottleneck right around the halfway line.

As we discussed earlier the Whitecaps need to add around 17 goals to their lineup. But there are a lot of factors that make that more complicated. For starters, three of the goals scored this season were scored by Lucas Venuto. This brings the total goals you need to add up to 20. Do you want to replace Fredy Montero up front? I wouldn’t blame you. But if you take him out of the team that’s another 6 goals you need to replace, so now you’re up to 26 goals you need to add. Then there’s expected goals to consider. Did I mention the Whitecaps have actually been pretty lucky to hit even the meager goal tally they’ve amassed in 2019? You can’t rely on Yordy Reyna scoring goals from ludicrous goalkeeping errors, long range bangers from Hwang, or Theo Bair wonder strikes because those goals are unlikely to be repeated. Since you can’t rely on the Whitecaps continuing to outperform their xG that’s another three goals added to your total. So the Whitecaps need to add another 29 goals this winter. Quite the Herculean task. The load is made a little lighter by newcomers Michaell Chirinos and Tosaint Ricketts. At time of writing neither has played so we don’t know exactly how Chirinos will adapt to MLS or how much Ricketts may have declined (we also don’t know if either will stay around in the long term). But you can make some projections. Chirinos managed 6 goals on a bad team in a league that’s better than MLS so somewhere in the 6-8 goal range seems reasonable. Ricketts averaged around 0.55 xG per96 in MLS over the previous 3 years (his actual goals followed pretty closely which is almost always the case). He’s 32 so we can expect some age related decline, as well as some associated with being on a much worse team. Let’s say it comes down to around 0.4 xG per96. Basically Ricketts is Theo Bair but over a decade older and half a foot shorter (wait, why did they do this again?). Assuming Ricketts and Bair are backups to your main striker, and that main striker plays around 2200 minutes with Bair and Ricketts taking up the rest, you can probably rely on Bair and Ricketts to collectively score around 4 goals. There’s about 10 of your 29 goals there, just 19-ish to go!

What they have to work with:

Now that there’s a goal in mind, add 19 goals, what do you have to buy those 19 goals with? It’s a little up in the air because the MLS CBA is up at the end of the seasons. Word on the street is the players will be pushing for an end to GAM and TAM, among other things. But assuming things stay the same here is a ballpark estimate of what the Whitecaps have to work with. This is obviously subject to change if the ‘Caps move players out. I worked off of Glass City’s chart which can be found here.

-Around 848K in salary cap assuming the departure of Bangoura and Ardaiz, and the retention of Erik Godoy. This number may be higher if other players who seem to be out of favour at the moment leave. I’m also assuming they’ll do something with Anthony Blondell who is still technically a Whitecap. Remember that TAM can be used to buy a player over the DP threshold down to a $150,000 cap hit. The cap hit of a DP is a little over $504,000, unless it’s a young DP in which case it’s either $200,000 or $150,000 depending on the player’s age. It’s complicated but the practical effect is the Whitecaps have room for a DP and two, maybe three, TAM players. This is obviously subject to change.

-Around 1.5 million in TAM, again, assuming Ardaiz, Bangoura and Blondell are out while Godoy is in. Also assuming the league continues to have TAM. One would imagine if it’s abolished the Whitecaps would be compensated in some way.

-Around 1.8 million in GAM. See above.

-1 DP slot. The budget for this DP slot is unknown. But we know the ‘Caps were in on Ui-Jo Hwang and were most likely in on Lucas Cavallini as well. Both players turned the ‘Caps down but due to career considerations rather than money. The reported fees for these players were $2,000,000 and $5,000,000 respectively. So the transfer budget for this DP slot is probably somewhere in this range.

-1 buyout that doesn’t count against the salary cap. Keep in mind this would probably lower the transfer budget if it was used.

Who is under contract?

Where they plan to go shopping:

Dos Santos has said that the Whitecaps plan to bring players in from leagues who also have a break during the winter and where the players will be used to the travel in MLS. The idea being that these players will be able to come in and make an immediate impact whereas players from leagues where there is little travel and the break is in the summer might take longer to settle in. I don’t know that I fully accept this premise but this is the logic that the ‘Caps appear to be operating under. Essentially this means they will be looking at players from leagues in Latin America, Asia, Northern Europe, and Eastern Europe.

What would you do?

Normally this would be where I would suggest a bunch of targets which dodgy rumour sites would report as fact and in the end i’d only get one or two players right. So instead i’m turning it over to you, the reader. You know what you have to achieve and what you have to work with. So i’m interested to hear what your approach would be. Leave a comment and I will discuss your ideas in a followup article as well as my own.