Ultimately it’s up to you whether you will exercise the Vancouver Whitecaps’ promise to refund anyone’s season ticket if they aren’t satisfied with the direction of the team by January 31st. But this article is for people who are either in or out on the basis of the team being good. It’s for the people who tweet at TSN every time Marc Dos Santos is on the radio to say “when are they going to spend on real quality!?” I suppose it’s also for anyone else interested in trying to predict how the 2020 season will go. Now, I am planning to publish this article when the deadline is a week away. Marc Dos Santos has said:
“I feel like there’s a lot of competition for places, and when we’re going to make another few announcements, you guys are going to say how are all these guys going to play? And it’s a good problem to have.”
That would certainly be cool but seeing is believing at this point for the ‘Caps. So, although I will publish this article the Monday of deadline week, I will update it if significant additions are made.
If the team being good is your number one issue, I can’t recommend it. There are some interesting pieces but as it stands they are unlikely to score enough goals to make the playoffs.
Current projected finish: 12th in the west
Methodology: I have made predictions before and they have almost universally been wrong. I wrote a big article on the matter!
So why should you take these predictions seriously? Well I’ve taken a few steps to try and avoid the disaster that was last year. First, I have done my best to isolate myself from the the scorching hot takes out there. Takes like “the team is too short”, “they’ll never win with so many Canadians” or “that player can’t be any good because he played in X country.” I am aware of these takes, and rest assured they are causing my brain to melt, but I am doing my best to not read them. Second, I will not be including any subjective observations in these projections. For example; In-Beom Hwang and Ali Adnan were both in excellent form for their national teams during the offseason. It might be reasonable to conclude that, after having a bit of a rest following playing football for 18 months straight, they performed better because they weren’t exhausted. You might then come to the conclusion that this means they will perform better in 2020. Reasoning in that style will not be considered. Third, whenever something is uncertain I have made a more conservative projection.
What is needed to make the MLS playoffs is pretty straight forward. Scoring 50 goals is the most important milestone to hit. For the most part, in any league in the world, one goal usually nets you one point in the standings (open up the league table of your favourite league and try it, it’s uncanny!). In MLS 50 points is usually the margin you have to cross to make the playoffs. Generally speaking you also need a positive goal differential in order to make it. So, do the Whitecaps have what it takes to meet those parameters?
Is there enough Service to get to 50 goals?
In the past I've discussed the need to get to an average of 10 key passes per game. Right now the Whitecaps are nowhere near that. I see nothing to indicate that there will be a significant increase in the number of chances they generate. Cristian Dájome creates good chances but does not create them in large numbers and Leonard Owusu rarely directly creates chances. But I also said in that article that there were other ways to measure creativity
“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.”
See? I did say that.
So far the Whitecaps only midfield addition is Owusu. He rarely directly assisted shots in Israel (partly because he was played in such a defensive role) but regularly played the ball into the attacking third. It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to suggest that will lead to more goals in the long term. Figuring out exactly how many is the difficult part.
Owusu played six balls into the final third, per game in Israel. “BuT tHat’S nOT a tOP leAguE.” True, Mr smart guy, let’s say it goes down to four per game (a reduction of a third).
Let us also assume he plays around 2500 minutes in the 2020 MLS season. Let’s say he absorbs all of the minutes of the departed Felipe (1962) and pulls the remainder from Andy Rose.
The Whitecaps turned 1066 final third entries into 359 shots with an average xG per shot of about 0.08
So we can see that Owusu should add about three goals to the team and, unless something weird happens, an extra three points. This is assuming that the quality of the shots won’t go up but I actually rather suspect they will. Cavallini is much better at getting into high danger scoring areas than Montero and Dájome is better than the Lass Bangouras of the world. But wait!
Although Felipe and Rose were not playing enough passes into the final third, they were still doing it from time to time. By taking these minutes away from them, we have to subtract what they were providing. Felipe played 38 balls into the final third in Vancouver, so that’s easily taken away. You then have to calculate how many balls into the final third Rose plays per minute and take away the appropriate amount based on the number of fewer minutes (40 shots). This leaves Owusu providing the team with a net gain of 33 shots and a net gain of only a single goal. This may sound disappointing but it is worth keeping in mind he’s basically providing the positives of two players by himself.
That very long explanation of the attacking impact of one player aside, I don’t see any evidence that this team is going to be getting significantly more shots for than they did last season, which is a problem. With this in mind, here are my goal predictions:
Penalties: 4.6 xG
The Median MLS team over the past 5 seasons has usually earned about 6 penalties. Some teams get as high as 10 and some get very few. But even last season the Whitecaps managed to get 7 so it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be somewhere in the middle. I strongly suspect these penalties will be taken by Lucas Cavallini but I don’t know that for sure yet. Maybe In-Beom Hwang will take them (he looked pretty confident on the one he took last season), maybe Ali Adnan will redeem himself for his humiliating Panenka attempt, Maybe Russel Teibert will suddenly emerge as a penalty aficionado. Whoever takes them, penalties have an xG of 0.8. This means the Whitecaps 6 penalties work out to 4.6 xG.Add this to the total of whoever you think will take the penalties.
Lucas Cavallini: 8.85 xG
Even when anticipating the frontline will be poorly serviced, I expect around 9 open play goals from Cavallini. Why? because he is excellent at getting into high danger scoring areas. Even on lowly Puebla his average shot had an xG of 0.17. This would have put him 6th amongst MLS strikers last season. I project him to get very slightly over 2 shots per game (which is about what the team averaged last season+the little Owusu boost) and to play about 2500 minutes. Most DP strikers played about 2700 minutes but Cavallini always has a few red cards in him so I've adjusted him down a bit. This works out to 8.85 xG. This gives him a pretty good chance to get 9 with 8 also being a possibility (assuming he isn’t super lucky or unlucky).
Yordy Reyna: 4.3 xG
Reyna managed 7 goals last year but he was the beneficiary of some calamitous goalkeeping and if his shot quality remains the same, you can’t count on him to get that many again. Now, in 2017 and 2018 his shot quality was a lot better, and he might return to that level if the team around him is better but at the moment I'm not counting on it. Therefore I am anticipating another season of Reyna taking a lot of shots from the perimeter of the 18 yard box. Some of these will go in, if he’s lucky it might even be a lot. But assuming he plays around 2200 minutes and shoots at the rate and quality he did last year (while playing in the left inside forward role I'm anticipating he’ll be deployed in), 4 or 5 is a good bet.
Cristian Dájome: 3.66 xG
Projecting Dájome is difficult because he had a really good 2019 with good shot quality and a bad 2018 with bad shot quality. In the interests of fairness I have split the difference. Therefore I am anticipating about 1.6 shots per game (the average of Venuto, Bangoura and Chirinos last season), 0.1 xG per shot and about 2200 minutes played and 3.66 xG. It’s distinctly possible he does a lot better but I’m not going to count on him being as good as he was last season.
Theo Bair: 2.6 xG
Theo Bair had an impressive 0.19 shots per xG in 2019. Unfortunately he got, like, no shots. Bair could have a breakout season if the level of service improves. But I'm not counting on that at this time. I am anticipating Bair plays about 1000 minutes for 2.6 xG.
Tosaint Ricketts: 2.86 xG
Ricketts was surprisingly good in 2019. He is 32 so I am anticipating a drop off of around 0.1 xG per 96, and that he plays about 1000 minutes. Of course he won the beep test in preseason so maybe there won’t be such a steep decline but it has to come at some point or another. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Fredy Montero: 1.5 xG
Figuring out where Montero fits in to this team is difficult. I’m just kind of assuming he picks up the remainder of the minutes available at the centre forward role.
In-Beom Hwang: 2.5 xG
In-Beom takes a lot of shots. Unfortunately those shots are mostly bad. Marc Dos Santos leaned on him heavily in 2019 and as things stand will have to do that again in 2020. I anticipate he plays about 3000 minutes. It’s possible he gets lucky and lots of those bad shots go in but 2 or 3 is probably the best you can hope for
Ali Adnan: 1.5 xG
Adnan takes a lot of shots (for a left back). Unfortunately those shots are mostly bad. It’s possible he gets lucky and more of those go in but I wouldn’t count on it. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Centre Backs: 3.2 xG
Last year the Whitecaps got six goals from centre backs. Would you believe I don’t think that’s sustainable? Collectively their centre backs amassed 3.2 xG and it seems reasonable to expect that again from Erik Godoy and whoever slots in next to him.
Everybody else: 5
Every year some random scores a goal or two. Will Jake Nerwinski score another goal? Will Patrick Metcalfe chip the keeper from 25 yards on his debut? Will Andy Rose pop up into the penalty area at the right moment again? I don’t know, and there’s no real point trying to guess who it will be, but someone’s going to do it. Last season 10 players scored a single goal for the Whitecaps, the season before it was 4, and the season before the 3. 5 seems like a reasonable middle ground.
Total: 37.37 xG
This is exactly the same number of goals they scored last season. It’s actually slightly better than they were in the underlying numbers last season but it’s still not nearly enough. Their defence remains stout, and I think the ball wining abilities of Leonard Owusu will lead to them conceding fewer goals, but not enough to make up for scoring less than 40 goals. Keep in mind it’s quite a conservative projection, it’s possible some tactical tweaks and controlling the ball a bit more will bring this total up a bit but I am not going to count on that until I actually see it happen.
What needs to change?
In a word: Shots. They need to get more shots. Owusu makes a bit of a difference but the midfield isn’t good enough and they are a tweaked hamstring to In-beom away from having 0 creativity in it. The front three is perfectly fine but they are going to be to starved of service to reach their full potential. If Dájome and Cavallini can get to three shots a game each that will be about an extra six goals right there. If they genuinely do start pressing more and having more possession that will make a difference as well. But at the end of the day the midfield needs some additions and they could definitely do with a right back who provides a bit more going forward. As it stands, short of a miracle, it ain’t happening.
David Milinkovic update:
Oh boy that’s a weird one, isn’t it? I don’t even really know where to start with Milinkovic. Never before has a player seemingly signed for depth thrown so much into disarray. If the Whitecaps are going to play a 4-3-3 then they now have eight players to fill three spots. Perhaps Ryan Raposo is loaned out to a CPL team easily enough, but it’s hard to see what to do with the rest of them. This may open up the intriguing possibility of switching to a 4-2-3-1. This may be the most optimized way to deploy the current Whitecaps squad because it allows In-Beom and Owusu to focus on moving the ball to the front four and puts less playmaking responsibility on the shoulders of any one individual player. I will see how the line up the first pre-season game today against Columbus Crew before going in to detail n that possibility, but it does intrigue me. I am obviously not saying it would transform them into a playoff team but it might get them a bit closer.