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So, You Want to Talk About Service?

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SOCCER: SEP 21 MLS - Columbus Crew SC at Vancouver Whitecaps

A lot of people in Vancouver are talking about service. They have been for some time.

See?

It’s perfectly natural that this would pre-occupy the minds of the public. It would be almost poetic if the Vancouver Whitecaps broke the bank on Lucas Cavallini only for him to spend the 2020 season looking frustrated as the ball never gets to him. Well I’ll confess I’ve been thinking about it as well. I’ve been playing around with a bunch of different possibilities, looking at what players they could bring in and how those players might be arranged. Let me tell you, it’s going to be very difficult. But with a bit of creativity it is possible to get Cavallini enough service that he can be a force in MLS.

First, one must attempt to understand the problem. In 2019 the Vancouver Whitecaps had the fewest shots per game of any team in the league. You will not be surprised to learn that they also played the fewest key passes (passes to a player who then takes a shot) per game of any team in the league. Not all key passes are created equal, but they correlate pretty well with scoring goals and racking up xG. In a perfect world there would be many more stats to consider when judging a player’s creativity like xA and passes into the box but those stats just aren’t publicly available for most leagues. You’ll have to humour me to some extent. To put this in more basic terms, to take things away from the numbers if you will, the Whitecaps had way to many players in their team who weren’t creating anything.

Vancouver’s current best XI looks roughly like the one diagramed below. The numbers in brackets represent the player’s average number of key passes per 90 minutes in their MLS careers. In the case of Cavallini I estimated based on his Liga MX numbers.

Two quick things to note. First, I have Rose in over Erice because this seems to be Marc Dos Santos’ preference. I do not agree with this preference but I am not in charge. Second, it’s worth mentioning that Reyna’s average drops to 0.9 when he’s played on the right and should not be tried there.

The more important thing to note is that this is very bad. It comes out to 7.4 key passes per game which is actually worse than what Vancouver got in 2019. Typically the median team in MLS gets about 10 key passes per game and the top teams usually have about 13. Vancouver is woefully behind. You may think “ah, so just sign a player who averages 2.5 key passes per game and you’re golden!” but there are stumbling blocks to this. Firstly that signing such a player would be very expensive. Players around that level last year include Wayne Rooney, Sebastian Blanco, and Albert Rusnak. The Whitecaps do not have any open DP slots so unless they find a hidden gem or a player suddenly finds his groove, signing one player who could fix the problem is probably out of their grasp whether they were willing to spend the money or not. The other problem is, even though their numbers are pitiful, the guys in there are still producing something. If you got a midfielder who could put up 2.5 key passes per game and took out Russel Teibert then you’re not up 2.5, you’re only up 1.9. So the solution I propose is the following: Since signing one incredible player isn’t possible, create one in the aggregate with several players who are not at that level but who add up to the same level of production.

To achieve this the Whitecaps will have to get a little creative. Let us start by examining which players in the lineup could be improved upon. The standouts, for the wrong reasons, in the lineup above are Bair, Teibert, Rose, and Nerwinski. While these players all have their merits (mostly), you can’t be relying on them as starters every week and score enough goals to get into the playoffs. Nerwinski had some hype as an attacking fullback early in his career but this was mostly a mirage caused by Whitecaps forwards finishing some improbable chances. Nerwinski has consistently had poor underlying numbers from an attacking perspective and at this point I don’t see any reason to believe that will change. With him at right back you’re essentially playing with three centre backs (he is quite good defensively). I’ve played around with the numbers a bit but I just don’t think it’s possible to get to the level Vancouver needs to be at without adding a right fullback who offers more going forward.

The four players in question account for an average of 2.2 key passes per game. subtracting from our total of 7.4 we’re now at 5.2 key passes per game with 4.8 to make up and 4 empty positions. 4.8 divided by 4 is 1.2. But we can’t just assume that a #6 and a fullback who average 1.2 key passes per game are going to fall into Vancouver’s laps. Providing offence from those defensive positions makes players more expensive and remember that this all has to be accomplished with no DPs. The most you can ask for from a #6 is probably around 0.5 key passes per game. Looking around the league, a right back who can average 1.0 key passes per game is usually available for between $300,000-$600,000 per year in salary. You would probably need to bring in a player from outside the league but if those new scouts the ‘Caps have are doing their job then you could probably find one. Even an increase of 0.4 is about an extra 10 key passes and another goal or two over the course of a season so the upgrade is worthwhile. This then leaves you with two positions to fill and they each need to reach the eminently reasonable total of 1.6-1.8 key passes per game. You have to make sure the majority of those key passes are from open play, because not everyone can be on free kicks/corners, but finding guys who can produce in that range is not that hard.

Just for fun, let’s stick some plausible Whitecaps transfer targets into that lineup and see where we end up. This is by no means an exhaustive list of targets. Try not to take the specific players too literally, they just serve as a placeholder for the profile of player that could be available.

The players I've stuck in, none of whom are valued over 1.5 million on transfermarkt are...

Fouad Bachirou:

Bachirou was linked to the Whitecaps when Vanni Sartini was pictured chatting with Bachirou’s agent.

Bachirou is primarily a ball winner but contributes occasionally in attack with 0.5 key passes per game in Sweden and in various continental competitions. The ‘Caps were also linked to Montreal Impact’s Samuel Piette, a player with almost exactly the same profile.

Basically you should start preparing yourself for someone like Piette or Bachirou to be signed to fill the #6 role.

Omar Boutayeb:

One of the weirdest moments of the offseason so far was when Marc Dos Santos showed up in Morocco as a coach in a charity match. I imagine Dos Santos didn’t fly all the way to north Africa just to coach a charity match, he was probably also there on business. So, having scanned the Moroccan league on Transfermarkt and watched some African Champions League highlights I've landed on 25 year old attacking right back Omar Boutayeb (I am also a fan of Walid El Karti in the midfield but I didn’t want two players who I'd have to guess at key pass stats for). I’m not sure where one would find underlying stats for the Moroccan league but Boutayeb’s goals and assist totals are similar to Adnan’s so I don’t think 0.8-1.0 key passes per game would be unrealistic. I’m sure the Whitecaps have more sophisticated means of identifying someone but the point is players who can provide this level of service are gettable without having to make them a DP.

Kevin Facundo Gutiérrez

Gutiérrez is a 22 midfielder who has put up 1.4 key passes per game in Argentina on a very poor Godoy Cruz side. He is on loan from Racing Club who he’s only made two appearances for so you’d have to figure they’d be willing to part with him. Or maybe not, I don’t know. Again the point is that you can get someone like this within the constraints placed on Vancouver who will provide service.

Antonio Xavier:

At first glance the 27 year old Xavier is an uninspiring Portuguese journeyman. In many ways he’s exactly that. BUT he has consistently put up 1.7 key passes per 90 minutes in the Portuguese first division, mostly from open play (I would have some concerns about how many of them are off crosses, but we’ll save the deep dive for if he actually signs).

This little experiment would leave you with the following team

It all adds up to 9.8 key passes per game, right around the 10 per game average. With players like In-Beom benefiting from being in a better team, you might just have enough to be a slightly above average MLS team. Cavallini’s ability to get on the end of those passes in high danger scoring areas means that a high proportion of them will be converted. Cavallini in Liga MX had a higher xG per shot than 5/10 of the top MLS strikers in 2019. If he gets enough service then he can be a force in MLS.

It is, of course, a little more complicated than this. You have to consider how the players will work as a unit and if they are a good stylistic fit. You would also have to be sure that the players you signed were going to perform. If anyone turns out to be another Lass Bangoura then the whole thing is kaput. One must also consider that these players aren’t going to be able to play 100% of the minutes and the Whitecaps’ bench as it stands is dire (more on that another day). But by distributing the playmaking burden around the Starting XI it is possible, though fraught with difficulties, to get Cavallini the service he needs without having to sign a new DP.