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Hot Takes on the Vancouver Whitecaps

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MLS: D.C. United at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

I have some takes on the Vancouver Whitecaps! What else is new? All of them are somewhat controversial and none of them had quite enough meat to be an article by themselves. So here are my three most scorchingly hot Whitecaps takes.

  1. In-Beom Hwang being deployed as a #6 makes Jon Erice Obsolete

The ‘Caps have found some form using a Christmas tree formation with Hwang at the base. I am skeptical that the Christmas tree is the cause of the change in fortunes but I am all in on Hwang as the #6. Here’s how Hwang and Erice compare with the MLS averages of some the best #6s in the league this season, as well as some legacy players (N.B this doesn’t include data from the most recent week of MLS so the numbers for some players may be slightly off).

Sliding into the DMs

Player % of Successful Tackles Interceptions %of Aerials Won Passing Score/96 Average Yards Advanced Per Pass Key passes/96 xG+xA/96
Player % of Successful Tackles Interceptions %of Aerials Won Passing Score/96 Average Yards Advanced Per Pass Key passes/96 xG+xA/96
Erice 62 1.5 60 0.87 5 0.4 0.04
Hwang 66 1.8 46 0.55 1.3 1.6 0.19
Beckerman 71 2.1 53 0.33 4.54 0.9 0.12
Atuesta 62 1.2 33 1.7 3.8 1.3 0.2
Pirlo 59 1 43 0.8 5.3 2.1 0.22
Bernier 74 1.7 50 -0.24 2.2 1.2 0.39
Godoy 75 2.1 61 1.74 3.5 0.8 0.14
Gregus 68 2.1 80 0.03 2.8 1.89 0.2
Piete 69 1.8 61 0.62 2.7 0.6 0.05

*passing score is the number of passes completed above expectation.

As you can see, Hwang profiles very closely with these players. He is a better defender than Erice, but Erice is the better passer. Most importantly though, Hwang generates a lot more going forward. Erice is very good at advancing the ball but he rarely translates that advancement into chances. Now on a team like LAFC where the attacking players score so many goals it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the players are doing that might be fine (LAFC’s #6 is the much more dangerous Eduard Atuesta but humour me for a moment). But on a team like the Whitecaps who need to squeeze every ounce of production they can out of their players, a midfielder who only generates 0.04 xG+xA per 96 (i.e you would expect him to get a goal or an assist every 25 games) probably isn’t going to be good enough. But with In-Beom you get almost 5x that amount of production (a goal or an assist every 5 games or so). This still isn’t very much but, if you recall my previous article, the Whitecaps need to add 19-25 goals and every little bit counts.

If you are committed to having Erice and Hwang as 23 of your midfielders then you’re using 2 spots on players who will maybe combine for 5 goals, if you’re lucky. This puts a huge amount of pressure on the 3rd player you sign to play in that midfield. They would basically need to fix all of the midfield problems and score 8-10 goals. The odds that the Whitecaps can scout, afford, and convince this player to sign seem slim. But if Hwang is the #6 then the Whitecaps just need to find 2 players who can get 4-5 goals and collectively add the things the Whitecaps need in the midfield. That seems much more doable.

There is some evidence that Hwang has room to grow in his production. A recent article by Cheuk Hei-Ho for AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com took a look at a new stat which he calls WOWY. WOWY tries to measure how involved a player is in his team’s attacks. In Cheuk’s charts Hwang was conspicuously very high in involvement in attacks but very low in those attacks resulting in goals. So a stronger attacking corps who can actually do something when they receive the ball in the final third could lead to an increase in production for Hwang.

One question that arrises from moving Hwang to the #6 role is, will dropping him deeper reduce his ability to contribute to the attack? The answer, in my view, is yes but it should improve the attack of the team overall.

Hwang leads the team in key passes (indeed he leads all U23 players in MLS in this stat) and is 4th on the team in shots, averaging 1.4 per game in both stats. In the 4 games he’s played as a #6 he’s dropped to 1.0 key passes per game and 0.8 shots. this isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. All Hwang’s key passes and shots have only lead to 2.2xG and 2.4xA. When you look a little closer it’s not hard to see why. Here are the maps of the key passes Hwang played in the games where he played the most key passes.

Hwang vs RSL
Hwang vs LA Galaxy
Hwang vs Dallas
Hwang vs Dallas (again)
Hwang vs Colorado

While these passes are being made to dangerous areas, most of them are not to a position from which you’d want a shot to be taken. Of the 16 passes shown here only five of them are played into the box. This isn’t entirely Hwang’s fault. His teammates just take a lot of low percentage shots in situations when they should hold onto the ball and look to build on the move (Ali Adnan and Yordy Reyna are the worst offenders when it comes to this, both taking more than 55% of their shots from outside the box). The point is that Hwang is good at getting the ball to the top of the box but so far hasn’t shown much ability to play a killer ball ideally there would be somebody to receive that ball at the top of the box and play that ball in behind the back four. Thus, despite his excellent technical ability, Hwang makes more sense as a deep lying player than as an attacking midfielder. What Hwang does best is zone moving not chance creation.

Similarly 68% of Hwang’s shots have been from outside the box and thus weren’t particularly likely to result in goals. Lots of shots from outside the box may lead to Hwang scoring more goals as an individual but the Whitecaps as a whole will probably score less. You don’t want to totally eliminate long shots, since then the opposition could just defend deep and not have to worry so much about closing down, but for the most part you want to limit them. In the deeper role Hwang can be enough of a threat that defences are drawn out to close him down but not be wasting possession by shooting the ball from distance constantly.

In conclusion Hwang as the #6 opens up interesting possibilities for the rest of the team, represents and upgrade in that position on Jon Erice, and does not significantly reduce his ability to contribute offensively.

2. If the Whitecaps Plan to Persist with 4 at the Back Then They Probably Shouldn’t Pick Up Erik Godoy’s Purchase options.

It’s time for another table!

Whitecaps CBs

Player Passing % Tackles Won % Interceptions Aerials Won % Clearances Blocks
Player Passing % Tackles Won % Interceptions Aerials Won % Clearances Blocks
Godoy 81.4 83 1.2 54 4.8 1.2
Cornelius 81.5 84 0.4 47 6.8 1.3
Henry 81 77 2.1 54 5.2 1

As you can see, Doneil Henry, Derek Cornelius, and Erik Godoy are basically interchangeable. Cornelius makes fewer interceptions than the other two but makes up for it by being well ahead in blocks. But Godoy has a significantly higher salary and an unknown purchase option hanging over him. Transfermarkt.com values Godoy at 750k. Their valuations are usually a little off but for the sake of argument let’s say that purchase option is somewhere around there. That just doesn’t make sense when you only have two centre back spots in your lineup and already have two players who are basically the same guy but cheaper and domestic. When you factor in that Jasser Khmiri is almost back to full health and that you could bring in some decent domestic centre backs for a lot less (I particularly have my eye on Canadian international Manjekrar James) and I just feel that money would be better spent elsewhere.

Now in a perfect world these three seem well situated to be the 3 in a 3-5-2 (more on what the ‘Caps best formation is will come in the future!). Godoy and Henry make a lot of interceptions, which suggests they’d be well suited to playing on the sides of a back three as more aggressive stoppers. Cornelius’ blocking and passing ability suggest he’s well suited to being a covering ball playing centre back. But Dos Santos seems determined to play some variation of a 4-3-3 and unless Godoy’s purchase option is comically low I’m not sure it’s worthwhile.

3. It May be Time to Trade/Sell Yordy Reyna

Reyna is great but, again, if 4-3-3 is the direction the Whitecaps are going to go in then there isn’t really room for Reyna. He is best in a central position, either as a shadow striker or as the little man in a big man/little man partnership. He’s extremely effective in those roles. But anywhere else, not so much. Table time!

Yordy Reyna’s Career by Position

Position Career G+A Per Appearance
Position Career G+A Per Appearance
Striker 0.47
CAM 0.59
Right Wing 0.22
Left Wing 0.47

Clearly Reyna doesn’t work on the right wing. The CAM position doesn’t exist in the 4-3-3. This leaves the left wing and an out and out centre forward. The Whitecaps seem very determined to use their remaining DP slot on a striker and Reyna’s career average at centre forward only works out to, like, 6 goals and 5 assists, which isn’t nearly enough. That leaves the left wing, a role which Michaell Chirinos was seemingly signed to fill. We don’t know how Chirinos might do in MLS but based on how he performed in Liga MX I am projecting him to be a pretty decent MLS player. It’s been speculated that Chirinos may have been signed to compliment Ali Adnan’s attacking forays and if that’s the case then that means you need Chirinos on the left. Chirinos can also play on the right but then you have two wingers who mainly cut inside which in turn means the width needs to come from the fullbacks. that’s no problem on the left with Ali Adnan but can the Vancouver Whitecaps, a team that has never averaged over 50% possession over a season in MLS, get both of their fullbacks forward often enough to give the attack proper width and not expose themselves? Let’s just say I have doubts.

There is also the matter that Reyna’s underlying stats, in addition to his goal and assist totals, have nosedived in 2019. So he doesn’t really fit in plus his production (and therefore is his value) suffers for it. For me, this shows that now is the time to see what you can get for Reyna while his value is still high. On the right team that uses his best role i’m sure he can still be a very good player. But I don’t think that team is the Vancouver Whitecaps.