A while back we discussed what the Vancouver Whitecaps need to accomplish to make the playoffs in 2020. At its most basic the aim is to concede around 10 fewer goals and to score about 16 more, based on the projecting what the ‘Caps have done through 30 games. Now let’s take a look at how that might be achieved. It will be difficult but it can be done.
Principles of Recruitment:
You can’t just go around signing players willy nilly. Well you can and the Whitecaps have done it many times in their MLS history but as we’ve seen it doesn’t work out super well. You’ve got to have some principles in mind. Markets are always changing so it’s hard to have a detailed plan but you should have the sort of transfers you want to make in mind. Here are a combination of the principles that the Whitecaps have set out themselves and some that I think aught to be followed.
1. Make signings to compliment the players you already have
in 2019 the Whitecaps signed a lot of players who were very similar to each other (they actually did this in 2018 as well just with a different type of player). This has made them very predictable and they do not have the skill to overcome being predictable. So signings should be players who compliment the foundational players already in place and provide a different dynamic.
2. Make all signings with the 16 more goals for and goals against fewer goal in mind
Pretty straight forward, but short of a miracle, the Whitecaps need to at least hit these targets if they are to make the playoffs in 2020.
3. Only spend transfer fees on players you could reasonably expect to get a transfer fee for in the future
The Whitecaps are a cheap team. If they blow a bunch of money on a player they will only get a good year or two out of then we aren’t likely to see that level of spend again for a while. Players who are younger and who’s value will appreciate give them the opportunity to build up a nest egg which will in turn (theoretically) allow them to compete against the big spenders.
4. Aim to be a cup competitor by 2021
Marc Dos Santos is under contract for the next two years. He mentioned in an interview that he and Greg Anderson had the goal of being better in 2020 and very good in 2021. So if that’s the plan then any key players the Whitecaps add should be players who will be in their prime in 2021. Fortunately most of the players everybody likes and agree should be kept (Hwang, Crepeau, Henry, Adnan, etc.) fall within this age range.
So bearing principles 3 and 4 in mind:
5. For god’s sake, no aging stars
People keep suggesting big name players who are obviously in decline. Guys, no! As an example of what i’m talking about here is a post from the VWFC fans and supporters Facebook group (home of Vancouver’s finest soccer minds).
A lot of people’s answer to the question posed by this post was some variation on “yes.” But, with the possible exception of Bertolacci who is only 28 (but also clearly declining), I think signing any of these players would be somewhere between ill advised and a terrible idea. Take Keisuke Honda as an example. I have seen at least 5 people suggest him as a transfer target. Honda will be 35 by the time the 2021 finally rolls around. He’s also the part time manager of the Cambodian national team and is clearly starting to transition out of a playing career. So unless you think him and his A league numbers which can only be described as “Bernie Ibini-esque” are going to put the Whitecaps over the top next season then Honda is probably a bad idea. All of the players above are past their best before date, would command huge wages, and couldn’t be sold to recoup any of that money. You’d be blowing a huge hole in Vancouver’s already bare bones budget for at most a year or two of that player. It’s not worth it.
What does Vancouver Need?
The way I see it Vancouver’s lineup next year will look something like this
Personally I think the players the Whitecaps have who are core pieces fit more naturally into some variation of a 3-5-2. But Dos Santos seems dead set on some variation of the 4-3-3 so we’ll work with that. This lineup features two players on loan. I’m agnostic on the issue of Godoy but Dos Santos seems to want to keep him if he can. Based on limited showings Michaell Chirinos looks excellent so I think his option aught to be picked up. You could probably upgrade Nerwinski but in my opinion that’s the lowest priority of the first team needs. I remain unconvinced of Reyna’s viability in a 4-3-3. True he leads the team in goals but he is seriously over performing his xG and there is plenty of evidence throughout his career that he just doesn’t work on the wing. He has shown a little better out on the right with Chirinos on the other side so maybe Dos Santos can make it work but I would not bet on it.
Filling in those question marks:
As I see it the Whitecaps have 4 areas of need. I rank their priority as follows
- Centre Midfielder (x2)
The conversation starts and ends with the midfield positions. If the Whitecaps don’t make serious upgrades in these positions then we may as well pack it in.
If you got two amazing central midfielders, Michaell Chrinos maintains his out of this world statistical profile over a bigger sample size, and Yordy Reyna somehow manages to recreate his production as a #10 out on the right then you could probably make a striker core of Montero, RIcketts, and Bair work (or Reyna being moved to the middle). But the odds of all that happening are rather low so you should probably look for an upgrade.
Even if you keep both Reyna and Chirinos you still probably want a backup who’s a level above the PC’s of the world. A more natural right sided player may also be worthwhile.
- Right Back
If they’ve got the time, funds, cap space, and the right player after meeting the above goals then they may as well upgrade the right back position. If they don’t then that is also fine.
Who might fill those Positions?
Normally this is the part where I would suggest some players, i’d get like one right, and spawn a million rumours on dodgy foreign sites. Instead I plan to focus on the archetypes the Whitecaps are (or should) be looking for. I have a few specific players in mind who I might throw out but the main focus will be on what type of player they should pursue.
The Whitecaps need two of these but you aren’t necessarily looking for two of the exact same guy. In my view the player on the left should be more of a ball winner and the one on the right should be, if you’ll forgive the Football Manager term, a Mezzala. That is, a box to box midfielder who does their defending higher up the pitch, has less defensive responsibility overall, and sometimes moves into wider spaces.
The reason for this goes back to principle #1. The Whitecaps’ two non TAMable DPs are In-Beom Hwang and Ali Adnan. For the team to be good these players need to be put in the best possible position to succeed. The way they interact with these two midfielders will be a big part of that. Let us consider what we know about Adnan and Hwang.
Hwang is technically gifted, great at moving the ball in tight spaces, gets the ball into zone 14 (the area right outside the opponents’ penalty area) frequently, makes a ton of interceptions and is a good but not great tackler. What he doesn’t offer is carrying the ball himself. Also if you look at his heat maps in the games in which he was deployed as a #6 he drifted to the right side of the pitch.
Adnan is a fantastic dribbler, is very good in the air, but is an average defender, makes a lot of high risk high reward plays while trying to generate offence and of course doesn’t always get back in time to fulfill his defensive responsibilities.
Hence the left sided ball winner. If you refer to the lineup outline above you will see that the left wing and the left inside space will be occupied by Adnan and Chirinos in attack. So there won’t be much need for this player to move into those spaces. In attack they would cover for Adnan and distribute to the attacking players. In defence they would look to hunt down the ball and win it back. The Whitecaps have been very passive in defence and part of that, according to Marc Dos Santos, is the midfielders he has don’t feel comfortable stepping forward and taking risks. So naturally the solution would seem to be to sign someone who can do that. Matias Laba but more able to pass the ball is what we’re looking for essentially. Ideally the 4-3-3 will allow this ball winner more freedom to chase the ball down due to the more stable structure than the double pivot 4-2-3-1. From a more analytical point of view you’d want somebody who attempts a lot of tackles, completes a high percentage of those tackles, has a lot of pressure events as well as a high passing percentage paired with a passing profile that emphasizes forward passing (and/or playing the ball into the opposition half). The one drawback of this profile is that this player is unlikely to contribute much to the 16 extra goals that need to be scored, at least not directly. However his ability to win the ball back and get it forward should facilitate more scoring from his teammates.
The other central midfielder would be asked to pick up more of the slack offensively. Goalscoring #8s are relatively rare in MLS. Only 6 players who play primarily as a central midfielder have scored more than 3 goals. Since this player is so important, in my view, this should be the position the Whitecaps target a DP for. What is needed from this player is to be able carry the ball forward on the dribble, play incisive passes to the front 3, occasionally move into wide areas when Reyna comes narrow, be fit and committed enough to press high up the pitch in defence, and of course score some goals. There is a lot of responsibility on this player. Somebody along the lines of Montreal’s Saphir Taider or NYCFC’s Maxi Moralez would be ideal. Analytically you’d want someone who makes a lot of key passes, generates a lot of xG and xA, completes a high percentage of his dribbles and has enough defensive actions so as not to be a liability.
The current crop of Whitecaps strikers are all quite similar. Sure Theo Bair is young and big, Fredy Montero is old and small, and Tosaint Ricketts is a sort of blend of the two, but what they actually do on the field is pretty similar. They generate xG and that’s about it. None of them dribble very much, win a very high percentage of their headers and they all kind of suck at passing.
Ricketts has been a bit of a better passer so far but he’s almost exactly average. Bair has shown some signs of growth in the other areas of the game and could still develop them at an MLS level (he did them decently well at youth international level). But for the time being they just have guys who get into scoring areas and finish off moves and don’t do much else. That sort of striker can work great in certain systems but unless the Whitecaps radically change how much possession they have and how much time is spent in the other team’s half then this sort of striker probably isn’t the one for them. Instead I believe they require someone who can be a pivot point around which the attack can move. They need a target man. This does not necessarily mean signing a 6’9” tree. The player I would look to emulate is LAFC’s Adama Diamonde. Diamonde is only 5’9” but he is strong enough to hold the ball up and win headers. But unlike the tree archetype he has the mobility to do things other than stand in the box and have balls bounce in off his face. Rumoured Whitecaps target Lucas Cavallini would have been ideal.
Both Reyna and Chrinos have had the most productive spells of their careers playing off of a target man and Ali Adnan would be much more effective if he had someone to aim for when he gets into advanced positions on the left. This sort of profile fits well with the players the Whitecaps already have. The question is can they find someone to shoulder the goalscoring load that will be required. N.B that although Fredy Montero has struggled, replacing him means you also have to replace the 7 goals he’s scored. So if you sign someone who scores 15 goals, you haven’t added 15 goals you’ve added 8. So either this striker will have to score 25 or he will have to facilitate players like Reyna, Chirinos and whomever else they may add scoring more goals.
Yordy Reyna and Michaell Chrinos are both players who are nominally wingers but who spend more time cutting inside. This will probably always be the way to go on the left where you want to make space for Ali Adnan to overlap. But on the right it might be worthwhile to have a more traditional winger who stretches the field. Otherwise the team becomes very narrow. A lot more goals originate from the middle of the field than from wide areas but if you only attack the centre then you become predictable. I’m not saying that this player should only be able to run up and down the wing putting in crosses but someone who has that in his wheelhouse wouldn’t go amiss. You’re looking for someone who does all the good winger things like dribble, play key passes, and generate xG/xA. Some people have suspected based off a reddit post and some inductive reasoning that Kevin Quevedo may be a Whitecaps target and I think he would be a fantastic choice.
I don’t see this as a super vital need but the role of the right back does change a bit depending on the profile of the player playing ahead of him on the right. If the right winger is going to tuck inside more then you want somebody who plays aggressively to provide width in the attack. Jake Nerwinski is not super ideal for that as, despite a 5 assist rookie season, he doesn’t really have a history of creating high quality scoring chances. If you have a more traditional wide player the right back can sit back a bit more to provide solidarity in the event of a counter and support the attack as needed. Nerwinski wins a high percentage of his tackles and aerials so he is quite well suited to this role. But if the Whitecaps are going to be all in on Reyna or someone like him on the right then a right back who can get forward and be a danger would be a major advantage.