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The Weakest Link: Targeting Vancouver Whitecaps Signings in 2021

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

For the first time in a long time the Vancouver Whitecaps have a lot of players under contract for next season. This could be seen as a bad thing, as they currently sit last in the entire league in ASA’s expected points model. On the plus side the ‘Caps will have at least one (but probably two) DP slots open and at least two (but probably three) new youth DP slots next season. This situation means that the offseason between 2020 and 2021 will not be spent trying to find shrewd depth pick ups or overhauling the whole roster. Rather, to elevate themselves from the worst analytics team in the league back to respectability, they will have to focus on a small number of high impact signings. That is doable but it must be informed by careful planning and with consideration to how those impact signings will interact with the players already in place.

Boffins generally agree that soccer is a weak link game. This means the team that does not have the worst player is most likely to win (as opposed to a strong link game where the team with the best player is most likely to win). So if you are in a situation where you have to make a smaller number of high impact signings it makes sense to target the positions at which you are weakest. As a starting point for determining Vancouver’s weakest players I used the percentile charts I have been making to build a lineup which shows the average percentile each member of the starting XI is in. For goalkeepers I calculated their average percentile between their goals saved above expected and their pass score, which are the only keeper stats I have available that are all that worthwhile.

I am assuming that one way or another Fredy Montero, Ali Adnan, and David Milinkovic will not be back. Based on various statements and lineup decisions made over the past month I think the writing is on the wall for all three. In an alternate universe we are marvelling at the cost efficiency and on field effectiveness of the Chirinos-Cavallini-Milinkovic front three being fed by two DP midfielders but I guess it’s not meant to be. In any case, these numbers provide an interesting jumping off point. We can see that five of Vancouver’s starting lineup are below the league average. There is nothing wrong with being below league average, by definition half the players in the league are below average, but there is a problem if a player is below par and asked to start every week.

Now, we can’t take the numbers beside player names as gospel. We must use our brains a little bit. For example, Erik Godoy and Janio Bikel are hurt by the fact that they don’t provide very much xG, but that isn’t really their role in the team. We also see that Cavallini is below average but replacing him isn’t really practical and one would hope that these impact signings would raise his game somewhat.

Another way to visualize this is using ASA’s goals added metric, which should show how many goals above average, or in some cases below average, a player adds for his team per game.

As you can see the two lineups match up pretty well. The only big differences are that the G+ model does not like Dájome because of his often wasteful passing and shooting, and it likes Bikel a lot more because it values his defensive play.

Based on the above information I rank Vancouver’s hierarchy of needs as follows:

#1 Centre Midfield (8/10)

It’s no secret that midfield has been a weakness for Vancouver for a long time now. Baldisimo is a good prospect and Owusu has run hot and cold but neither is an elite MLS midfielder at this stage. Bikel does what he does but he is almost purely defensive. The Whitecaps need a centre midfielder who dictates the tempo of the match and provides a serious attacking threat. If the Whitecaps are able to sign five special players in the offseason then I think you probably expend two of them in the centre of the midfield. The exact profile of these players will depend on what system the team is using, and who the manager is, but based on the players already in place. I would argue that a player who can occupy the space behind Cavallini in a traditional #10 role, who can also do some defensive work, would be ideal. Cavallini is at his best when his main job is to get in the box and win physical battles. He needs someone to take the burden of distribution and playmaking in the final third off his shoulders

#2 Winger:

Outside of Cavallini the Whitecaps don’t have a lot of players that carry a goal threat. Cavallini leads the team with 0.37 xG per 96 minutes (penalties not included) but after that, if Montero leaves, the next two highest players are Dájome and Bair who average less than half of Cavallini’s total. A goalscoring winger would give Vancouver another weapon and take some of the pressure off of Cavallini. The Whitecaps version of Diego Rossi would be the goal, though of course that’s easier said than done.

#3 Fullback:

I doubt the Whitecaps want to go down the DP fullback route again but if Ali Adnan leaves then they only have one natural player on each side. Gutiérrez is a good attacker but struggles a bit with elements of the defensive game and Jake Nerwinski is the definition of average MLS fullback. Additions of some kind are needed. On the left I still think Diyaeddine Abzi would be a fantastic choice but I am not so enamoured with the CPL options on the right side. Kadin Chung is basically the same guy as Nerwinski and Mohamed Farsi has shown flashes of talent he has only been attempted 15 tackles as a professional and he got dribbled past on seven of them (shout out @canpldata on twitter). You can’t slot a player with that resume in as a starter in MLS with any degree of confidence, even if he does look talented, especially when you know he’ll be asked to do a lot more defending for the Whitecaps than he does for Cavalry. A young DP in the mould of LAFC’s Diego Palacios might be interesting, but on the right.

#4 Centreback:

The Whitecaps have three centre backs under contract and three on options and outside of Erik Godoy none of them are entirely convincing. But four of them are under the age of 23 so with the right coaching and development there could be something there. I don’t think a full DP centre back would be the best use of resources and bringing in yet another young centre back probably doesn’t make sense either. Some reshuffling at the centre back position might be necessary but I don’t think using a DP slot or Young DP slot on it makes sense for the Whitecaps right now.

#5: Striker

A young DP striker to back up Cavallini sounds like a fun idea. Maybe a player who isn’t quite ready to play 90 minutes every week but is a big talent. But you have to consider that every other team in the league is getting access to these new young DP slots as well. The Whitecaps can’t really afford to fall any further behind. That means they need to bring in players who can have an impact now. They’ve not put themselves in the position to have the luxury of projects who don’t start every game.

#6: Goalkeeper:

Goalkeeper is the one position the Whitecaps actually have an abundance of good players in so I don’t see any reason to add any special players to the keeper position.