At the start of the year I was relatively positive on the new look Vancouver Whitecaps. I didn’t think they were going to win the league or anything but I had them as a low playoff team and, well, look at them. In fairness to me, I was not the only analyst, reporter, degenerate-keyboard-warrior to eat crow on this issue. KJ and Caldwell, Canada’s most trusted soccer men, expressed optimism about the upcoming season on their podcast. JJ Adams and Dan Riccio both predicted the ‘Caps would make the playoffs on their far superior podcast, as did stats boffin and guy who is generally right about these things Harrison Crow. But there were people who saw this coming. Marius Rovde and Duane Rollins both projected the Whitecaps would be at or near the bottom of the West. Perhaps it’s not surprising that they were right and I was wrong. After all they both have way more experience than me and Rovde in particular has more intimate knowledge of how things work in Whitecaps land. But I try my best to provide you the best possible content I can. I try and learn as much as I can about soccer to provide insights that you might not get otherwise. I feel I've learned a ton in the past year. So I’m not really satisfied with “oh well I was wrong” especially when I was that wrong. Plus I didn’t play professional soccer and don’t have an English accent so I have to actually be right once in a while to be taken seriously. So I come before you to humble myself, look back on the assumptions I made going into 2019 and figure out where I went wrong.
- Uncertainty and Incomplete Information
The Whitecaps brought in a lot of players from lots of different leagues, many of which didn’t have much detailed information publicly available on them beyond appearances, goals and assists. I think we can all agree this isn’t a very good, or at least not a very complete, way of judging a player’s worth. How will Joaquin Ardaiz’s 5 goals and 3 assists in 23 appearances in Belgium translate to MLS? Not well apparently! But determining that at the time wasn’t easy. Whoscored.com doesn’t cover the Belgian league and most other resources on it are generally behind some kind of paywall. So all we had to go on was a decent looking YouTube highlights package and a bunch of old articles declaring him “the next Cavani” after he scored like two goals at u20 Copa America. So from this limited information you come away with an impression something like “this guy seems pretty decent, I guess.” The fact that he doesn’t try very hard and isn’t a very clinical finisher don’t really make themselves apparent when that’s all you’re going on. Only having limited information on many of the Whitecaps signings probably contributed to:
2. Hugely Overrating the Midfield
Friends I’m about to share something very embarrassing with you. I trust you won’t be too mean. Here are some experts from an article I wrote in February of this year.
“The Whitecaps have a very dynamic midfield. Yordy Reyna had the same number of big chances created as Miguel Alimron last season and should be in a better mental space than the start of last season. Lass Bangoura struggled in La Liga but created chances at the same rate as Pedro Morales, and we know how that turned out. Felipe, despite not being used properly, created chances at almost the same rate as Luciano Acosta who got 15 assists and was almost transferred to PSG for an 8 figure fee. New signing Hwang In-beom is coming off 1.8 key passes per game at the Asian Cup, despite playing through an injury. If he takes some time off to recover and comes into the season fully fit then he could do some real damage. There is also Jon Erice who was one of the better passers in the Spanish second division. What I’m trying to say here is the the striker just needs to be above average. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a 10 million dollar DP, though that would be nice, it just needs to be someone pretty good.”
“Overall I am feeling pretty good about this rebuild. It can’t be judged fully yet because there are still 2 strikers and at least another defender to be added but things seem to be moving in the right direction. Dos Santos said in a French language interview that he wanted the Whitecaps to be quicker and more dynamic. So far the team is that. They probably won’t compete for MLS cup right away but I think, as long as the strikers they land are good then they should make the playoffs.”
Right, so obviously these might be the most incorrect predictions made in the history of football. Hindsight is 20/20, OK! But seriously, where did I go wrong? Well overrating players was part of it. I still don’t really understand how Lass Bangoura managed to be this bad. The general rule of thumb is if you’re good enough to play and occasionally score in a big five league then you’ll probably be a pretty sick MLS player. Guys like Saphir Taider, Pedro Morales, and Josef Martinez have all been smash hits in MLS after very underwhelming showings in the big 5 leagues. Granted, Bangoura had been out of the first division in Spain for two seasons, but he’s actually doing worse in MLS than he did in La Liga 2 years ago. I don’t know how he’s managed this but somehow he has.
Another player I overrated was Felipe. I was quite bullish that the Brazilian midfielder had more to offer than what we saw from him in 2018. The main basis for this was that Felipe created a lot of chances and that surely more of those must be converted in 2019. Unfortunately I committed the cardinal sin of football analysis, not filtering for open play. A lot of Felipe’s key passes and xA were generated by being on set pieces in 2018. But in 2019 free kicks and corners were more commonly taken by In-Beom Hwang, Ali Adnan, and Yordy Reyna. When you adjust for set pieces, Felipe wasn’t really doing anything particularly different between 2018 and 2019. Serves me right for committing the cardinal sin.
Overall though, I think I mostly rated the players correctly. Looking back on my article that looked at the 14 offseason signings, I feel most of my takes on the players as individuals have been vindicated.
I didn’t know Khmiri would be injured for so long, I obviously missed on Bangoura and Ardaiz, and I’d say I failed to take into account how age would effect Fredy Montero but otherwise I still mostly feel the same about the players having actually seen them play as I did just looking at their past careers. What I failed to consider, and indeed the Whitecaps coaching staff may have failed to consider, is how these players were all going to fit together. The Whitecaps signed a lot of players who are really similar to each other. The opening day starting midfield of Hwang, Erice, and Felipe, for example are basically just varying levels of the same guy. This has resulted in the team being pretty easy to game plan for.
Many have pointed out that other teams have beaten the ‘Caps using the style we were promised we’d see them play. But if you look at the squad it makes a lot of logical sense to approach a game against Vancouver in that way. In the past playing a high line against the Whitecaps was a mistake. They had the likes of Kekuta Manneh, Darren Mattocks Alphonso Davies, and many more who could burn you for pace. If you dropped deep against them they had no idea what to do, and playing a long ball game is a losing strategy in the long run but the physicality of the Whitecaps attackers kept opponents honest. But with a front three of Bangoura, Montero and Reyna (who they started with on opening day) there isn’t the same danger. None of the three is big or strong enough to trouble defenders in aerial duels very often. Montero is painfully slow so you don’t have to worry much about him getting in behind. So the ball in behind would have to be perfectly weighted such that it would be well over the head of a defender but would still allow Reyna or Bangoura to get on the end of it before the opposition keeper. The only midfielders on the Whitecaps you could see maybe playing that ball are Hwang or Erice and both of their game’s are based more around moving the ball in tight spaces and moving zones than it is about the defence splitting passes that we used to see from Pedro Morales. There is a slight chance they might be able to pass through you but the third midfielder is always somebody like Andy Rose or Russel Teibert who definitely cant, and the front 3 aren’t particularly good passers so on the rare occasion the ball makes it to one of them the attack dies quickly. So of course you should press the Whitecaps. There’s very little chance you’ll get burned and you get all of the benefits associated with that style. I’m not saying the Whitecaps should go back to route one football but perhaps a better balance could be struck.
As a human, if you are conscious of it or not, you make a lot of emotional decisions. You are full of bias and have many blindspots. It’s part of the reason I like stats and analytics so much, because they should mitigate those factors (though they can absolutely be influenced by bias and emotion depending on what type of data you decide is most valuable). But if you are aware of your biases then you can mitigate their effects on your thinking. It allows you to take a step back and ask yourself “am I really following the facts wherever they may lead or is this my brain telling itself what it wants to hear?” When applying this to sports, the obvious potential bias is this is a fan blog and we lean into speaking from a fan’s point of view. I’m sure being a Whitecaps fan influences my opinion on the team but I am pretty aware of that bias and I think (at least I hope) that I take that into account when I’m forming my conclusions. But around the midway point of the season I began to become aware of another bias I have.
Me: Chirinos seems interesting but this seems a bit like trading Venuto for Venuto— Caleb Wilkins (@wilkins_caleb24) August 2, 2019
Some guy who says he's "been a season ticket holder since 2011": BaRGaiN bIN SigNINg
Me: You'd better not come at my Honduran king like that #VWFC
This is a joke, but like all good jokes it rings true. Whitecaps fans online are overwhelmingly negative. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being negative if you’ve sat down, looked at the evidence and decided negativity is the way to go. But I think we all know that’s not the case most of the time. Allow me to explain further with the example of Jon Erice. Erice has been all right but is hugely overpaid and doesn’t provide very much going forward. Let me tell you how my day went when he was signed:
When the Erice signing was announced I was in a 4 hour seminar at work on how to be efficient with your time (the delicious irony). I glanced quickly at twitter during a break and saw the Whitecaps had signed a midfielder who was in his 30s and had played most of his career in the Spanish second division. “I’m not sure I like this” I thought to myself. But as I came out of the seminar I saw that there were a bunch of fancy passing stats that suggested Erice had been one of the better midfielders in La Liga 2. “Hmmm, well I still have some concerns but maybe this isn’t as dumb as I thought it was at first blush. I guess i’ll see how this plays out” My inner monologue continued. But then I went online (always a bad idea) and was overwhelmed by a bunch of dudes with twitter bios that said something like “Gooner, footy nut, proud dad” saying stuff like “cHeaP,” “wHeN WiLL thIS OrGaNiZAtiOn lEArN tHey nEEd tO spENd,” “BarGaIN BiN.” If you’re like me and always up for a twitter scrap then you start pointing out the aforementioned passing stats and get involved in a really dumb conversation. These people may end up being right about players being a cheap option when something more was called for. But they say it about literally every player. It’s not like they knew who Jon Erice was before he signed, and for the most part they had no interest in finding out. They definitely said the same thing about Maxime Crepeau and now probably post stuff like “Crepeau is the only good player.” As you get increasingly frustrated with these people your brain starts to retain the positives which they are either ignoring or more likely didn’t bother finding out about and the doubts you had start to be pushed out. You start to view the player through rose coloured glasses in a way that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise. But enough of my contempt for the audience, back to why I’m a dummy:
4. Analyzing Transfers in the Wrong Way
My “I’ll see how this plays out” approach is probably the wrong way to look at transfers. My mind was changed when I read an article by performance analyst and smart soccer twitter guy Tiago Estêvão. Estêvão argues that the time to judge a transfer is the moment it happens. Although not every player will work out, so long as the logic that goes into acquiring players is sound then in the long run there will be more hits than misses. So if I find myself saying “I’m not sure if this transfer is a good idea or not” then it’s probably at best an average signing.
There are some limitations to this, for example in MLS we don’t learn how much money a player is being payed (which is super important to judging a signing in a salary cap league) until a couple of months into the season. There is also the first issue I raised in this article of a lack of information on some players who come to MLS. Take former Whitecap Gershon Koffie for example. Koffie became a pretty good MLS player. But he was signed from the Ghanaian league. I can’t even find an up to date table for the Ghanaian league, let alone any kind of indication about which players there might be able to hack it in MLS. So judging this transfer the moment it happened would have been extremely difficult. But I feel that incorporating this philosophy into how I analyze future transfers may help me be more accurate.
5. Bad Luck:
I’m not going to claim the Whitecaps are actually good but you can’t deny there’s been a lot of really weird and unfortunate stuff that’s happened this season. They’ve been denied at least 5 points by what we’ll call marginal VAR calls, they’ve had a player get injured after already making three subs twice, Jasser Khmiri’s first surgery was a failure, and many other players have had some kind of external factor that limited their ability to perform (like fatigue). It’s not like these factors prevented a glorious rise but they certainly didn’t help.
6. Hugely Underestimating just how bad Things are at the Front Office Level
I’ll be honest, I used to think the incompetence of the front office was a little overblown. Probably because it was a favourite talking point of people who were talking about how cheap the Whitecaps were when they still had a payroll in the top half of the league. I should have payed more attention to the people who have dealt with them most directly. But during the various scandals that have gone on in 2019 we got a little peak behind the curtain to see how they deal with problems and man these guys suck. Every move came too late and they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to every move. You can only imagine how they deal with problems that don’t get hashed out in the public sphere. Perhaps this is why a multimillion dollar organization is only now searching for a technical director. One quote that got me in particular was when Dos Santos said that he and his coaching staff felt they now had a better understanding about what kind of profile succeeds in MLS. This would seem to suggest that, despite the Whitecaps being in MLS for almost a decade, they don’t have anybody in their organization who would be able to advise a manager on this sort of thing. To see what effect the GM/TD role can have on a club look no further than Vancouver’s expansion cousins the Portland Timbers. They have only had three managers in their MLS time and during the entire time Gavin Wilkinson has been the GM. Portland has had a stable core built around players like Diego Valeri, Diego Chara, and even some guys not named Diego. Portland have won an MLS cup and gotten to a final since 2011. In exactly the same time the Whitecaps, sans GM/TD, have had 5 managers, several different casts of players and have only won a single playoff game. The disparity in the level of organization is stark.
7.It Always Feels Like the Team is Better Than Last Year
Because it probably is. MLS is a fast growing league. In 2014 the Whitecaps had the 5th highest payroll in the league. Since then their payroll has gone up by about 3 million but the payroll of the median MLS team has gone up by 8 million. So you have to consider that if your team was bad last year it doesn’t have to reach the bar set the previous season but also has to improve more than everyone else does.
Now that I’ve learned from these experiences how am I feeling about the team going forward? Well, not super great. It is completely possible to turn things around but it will be extremely challenging. The Whitecaps have one open DP slot and limited international slots to get the 20ish extra points that will make them a playoff team, to say nothing of a cup contender. This means that dishing out a huge transfer fee will only make so much difference. They are going to have to get their TAM signings (if that’s a thing that still exists under the new CBA) absolutely perfect. If you look at TAM signings league wide, and Whitecaps TAM signings in particular, this doesn’t seem a likely outcome. I am fairly sure the team will be better next year, it could hardly be worse, but I don’t know if they have the parts in place to make that big of an improvement. The scouts are to few and haven’t been in place for long enough, the technical director (if they ever come) won’t have been in place long enough, and they’ll be saddled with some of the dumb contracts they gave out the season before. We’ll have to wait to see what they do of course but right now I’m not feeling super positive, though I haven’t given up all hope just yet.