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Coffee with the Caps, Monday September 30

Aha suck it Zlatan!

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at LA Galaxy Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Good Monday morning Caps fans, although it is cloudy over here in my neck of the woods meaning I really just want to go back to bed.

Instead, I’ll focus on Vancouver’s thrilling 4-3 victory over LA Galaxy, which certainly gave my Sunday evening a shot of eight-goal-thriller caffeine and made me feel smugly superior to a team that virtually any longstanding MLS fan loathes.

The match also was important in another sense: it marked the debut of Tunisian centerback Jasser Khmiri, who was sidelined for much of the season recovering from meniscus surgery. The 21-year-old penned a three-year-deal back in February after arriving from Tunisian Ligue Professionnelle giant Stade Tunisien.

Khmiri became a bit of a running joke over the year, with his mythical recovery flumoxing both fans and reporters alike. Despite being rumored to have been close to full fitness back in July, he did not make his first appearance in the starting 18 until earlier this month. Sunday, obviously, was his first actual minutes for the Caps.

The results were certainly a mixed bag. Much like Derek Cornelius’ debut, where he quickly became acquainted with the speed of one Alberth Elis, Khmiri was forced to reckon with one of the most talented attackers in the league in former Boca Juniors star Cristian Pavon. Pavon’s speed and deft touch was clearly a step above what Khmiri was used to and basically every major chance from the first half came from the Argentine blowing by Khmiri and attempting to find Zlatan Ibrahimovic in front on goal.

But Khmiri turned things around in the second half, showing why MDS was so keen on his skillset. His raw athletic ability is clear helps him recover even when he isn’t in the best position. He also was strong aerially, recording some 19 clearances (part of this was subpar service from LA Galaxy but it deserves to be commended all the same).

Two things stood out to me, however. One was Khmiri’s physicality. While he isn’t as physically imposing as Donneil Henry, he is 6’4 and that is noticeable in how he plays. He successfully put off Zlatan late in the match on a key chance for the Galaxy, forcing him to send a header well over the bar which would have given them a late lead. I also liked how comfortable he looked with the ball at his feet—a key component for a CB in MDS’ system. Remember, it was Khmiri who initially launched the ball to Fredy Montero that prompted the winning counter attack. These elements make him a pretty natural fit to slot in alongside Henry.

Much like Derek Cornelius, Khmiri is going to have some rough patches adjusting to a new league. But Cornelius has really come good for Vancouver and last night showed flashes of why Khmiri will as well. Remember that Stade Tunisien is not just one of the best teams in the Tunisian league but routinely competes for CAF Champions League titles as well, putting them on the shortlist for the best team on the continent. Khmiri was also a fixture for the national U-21 team and seems a good bet to earn a senior team call-up if he gets regular minutes in Vancouver.

Giving him a full preseason will be a big boost and means the Caps could well enter next season with four MLS starting quality centerbacks in Khmiri, Henry, Cornelius and Erik Godoy (whose option to buy will be a point of debate for the next few weeks). The fact that Godoy seemed quite capable as a RB both enhances his value and means the Caps could enter next season with a backline of Ali Adnan—Henry—Khmiri/Cornelius—Nerwinski/Godoy in front of Max Crepeau.

That’s pretty good! If Adnan can smooth out the peaks and valleys to more often flash the DP-level skill we all know he has, it gets even better. Right back is still a bit of an issue but honestly the number of teams in the league with two elite fullbacks on the field at any given time are few. Given the roster constraints, rolling with Nerwinski and Godoy at RB would be fine.

The big obstacle, of course, remains finding a DM who can do exactly what Jon Erice does but better and is seven years younger. But, in the meantime, the Caps’ defense has the makings of the cornerstone to this rebuild. Khmiri’s return only serves to solidify that fact.

Onto the links...

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