It’s been a tough last few weeks in the sports world - there’s no two ways about it. But in spite of the uncertainty surrounding the resumption of the MLS season, as well as soccer leagues worldwide, one thing that always remains relevant is transfer target speculation.
Earlier this week, both Whitecaps Sporting Director Axel Schuster and Head Coach Marc Dos Santos took part in a conference call to provide an update on the current state of the club from a footballing perspective.
While I can’t say that I recommend sitting through the full 30 minute conference (as I did). Axel Schuster did reiterate the Club’s position in terms of player movement and the current state of the roster.
Schuster re-stated that players such as Leonard Owusu, Janio Bikel and Ranko Veselinovic will essentially be the Club’s new acquisitions if/when the league restarts at some point during the summer, and that although the Club has an international spot available, they’re not exactly in a massive rush to use it.
While that’s certainly been the Club’s official stance, it’s not as though the Whitecaps haven’t looked at bringing in a another international player to fill that spot. The Whitecaps were incredibly close to acquiring the services of Korean midfielder Lee Dong-gyeong as the season was about to commence, and if not for a late change of heart by the player, the deal likely would have gone through.
I'm told that Lee Chung-yong played a key role in convincing Lee Dong-gyeong to stay with Ulsan and try to move directly to Europe instead of joining #VWFC as a stopgap. Chung-yong's been a mentor for Korean players in Europe for so many years. He's doing the same now in Korea. https://t.co/QxcUCmyeX0— Steve Han • 한만성 (@realstevescores) March 24, 2020
The attempt to acquire Lee Dong-gyeong points to an important theme and predictor among Schuster & Dos Santos’ recent transfer targets: familiarity.
While a lot was made of the relationship between former Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson and a certain player agency (you know who I’m talking about), developing relationships with a variety of player agents and organizations is an important part of being successful on the transfer market. The more familiarity and trust you have in negotiations, the easier it is to get a deal done that might be beneficial for both sides.
In the case of Lee Dong-gyeong, he was represented by the same group (Ivan Sports Korea) that represents both current Whitecap In-beom Hwang, and another failed transfer target of the Whitecaps from last season, now Bordeaux striker Ui-jo Hwang.
Another two of the Whitecaps’ recent acquisitions, Leonard Owusu and Ranko Veselinovic are also represented by the same agency (SPOCS Global Sports), whose top client is Liverpool front-man Mo Salah.
Looking at the agencies which the Whitecaps have had successful dealings with during the Dos Santos/Schuster era seems like a good place to start when theorizing about players the club might look to target in upcoming windows. Perhaps with this information, the Whitecaps can fill that open international spot on the roster.
Other important factors to keep in mind when looking at transfer targets is age, position, and play style/fit. Axel Schuster emphasized in his conference call that he envisions building the Whitecaps as a developmental club, and therefore it’s unlikely they target players over the age of 27.
Looking at positional needs, three areas in particular stand out to me:
-A midfielder who is attack minded.
-A second striker or No.10 to potentially replace Fredy Montero or Yordy Reyna.
-Fullback depth, or a replacement for Ali Adnan.
Lastly, Marc Dos Santos seems to prefer players who are physically gifted and who have a high defensive workrate, so at times this might rule out smaller, more technically oriented players. Schuster and Dos Santos have also stated multiple times that they want players who play regularly in their current league, so that’s another factor worthy of consideration.
With all that in mind, I present to you (in no particular order) my top-three theoretical Whitecaps transfer targets based on the criteria I’ve explained above:
Kyosuke Tagawa (CAM / Winger) FC Tokyo
Back in 2018, Tagawa was on the radar of many top clubs in Europe, and through Shinji Okazaki’s endorsement, Tagawa was seriously targeted by Leicester City. In particular, Tagawa’s performances at the 2017 and 2019 under-20 tournaments impressed many international scouts - and Tagawa was tagged as a promising prospect on the verge of a breakout move.
At 18, it’s only a matter of time before a Euro club finds Kyosuke & works to sign him. With 3 goals/5 caps for the U-20s, that day might come sooner rather than later. At the very least, he has the promuse to rival the likes of Kagawa, Asano & Minamino in success in Europe. pic.twitter.com/CL79taSR1E— Football Wonderkids (@fbwonderkids) January 19, 2018
Since then though, Tagawa’s market has diminished significantly. In early 2019, Tagawa made the move from his youth club Sagan Tosu to J-League giants Tokyo FC, and following the transfer, has played just 12 total matches in league play, with one goal to his credit in 327 minutes of play.
Needless to say, things probably haven’t gone quite as Tagawa expected at Tokyo FC, but with veterans such as Brazilian Diego Oliveira, as well as countrymen Keigo Higashi and Kensuke Nagai ahead of him on the roster, consistent playing time has been hard to come by.
So while Tagawa hasn’t necessarily enjoyed the playing time Marc Dos Santos and Axel Schuster might like to see, he certainly looks like someone who would only rise in value with exposure to a new market and increased time on the pitch. The Whitecaps enjoyed some early success with David Milinkovic, and he looked like far more of a reclamation project than Tagawa does.
From the player’s perspective, an MLS move for Tagawa might be just the kick-start he needs to set his sights on Europe for a second time. Tagawa is represented by Base Soccer Agency, who helped broker the loan and eventual signing of Whitecaps left back Ali Adnan, so perhaps there’s the possibility of putting a similar deal in motion for the young Japanese midfielder.
To get a sense of what Tagawa is capable of on the pitch, below is his one goal, one assist, perfomance for his country in the 2019 U-20 World Cup (Tagawa is #11).
In summation, Tagawa looks like he could be a good fit from both a footballing and business perspective for the Whitecaps. Positionally, he would fit nicely into the No.10 or Centre Forward position behind Lucas Cavallini, and could also kick out on the wing as an inverted winger when the formation demanded it. At 21, Tagawa’s best days are surely still ahead of him, and I think it would certainly be worth the Whitecaps time to gauge interest on this intriguing prospect.
Nemanja Glavcic (CM/AM) Slaven Belupo
The 23-year-old Serbian midfielder could be just what the Whitecaps are looking for to offset the physicality and defensive nature of Leonard Owusu and Janio Bikel in the midfield.
This selection rather goes against the mold of player that I suggested Marc Dos Santos was looking for earlier on, but Glavcic possesses some qualities that are currently in short supply amongst the Whitecaps midfielders.
After starting his pro career with a brief stint at Partizan Belgrade, Glavcic moved to another Serbian Club, Spartak Subotica, and spent three seasons with the team. Over those three years in Serbia’s top flight, Glavcic was a regular starter and amassed 104 appearances with three goals and nine assists.
More recently, Glavcic moved to Croatian club Slaven Belupo, and has played 25 matches for the team this season, with 5 yellow cards, but no goals or assists. While this obviously isn’t ideal, it seems fair to say that Glavcic hasn’t benefited from solid team play around him. In 26 matches played, Slaven Belupo have scored just 23 goals (with ten coming from a single player) and have a -20 goal differential.
Looking at some of Glavcic’s play from this season, he’s consistently created quality opportunities for his teammates, and most often, the finishing touch has simply been lacking.
Glavcic’s best ability is likely his left foot. He’s an adept set piece taker, and his touch on through balls, crosses and long passes is exceptional. Glavcic also looks very comfortable with the ball at his feet, and is not afraid to get stuck in defensively, despite being on the smaller side. With dedicated defensive midfielders behind him, and a big target in Lucas Cavallini to play the ball into, it’s pretty easy to imagine Glavcic roaming the top of the opposition’s box, as well as releasing attacking players on the counter-attack. The Serbian could be both an enticing option to pair with In Beom Hwang, or to replace him if he is indeed sold on.
Glavcic is represented by the aforementioned SPOCS Global Sports, and in addition to fostering the moves of Leonard Owusu and Ranko Veselinovic to the Whitecaps, SPOCS has overseen the moves of Jan Gregus (Minnesota United) and more recently, Zdenek Ondrasek (FC Dallas) to MLS from Europe.
If the reports from North America are positive through his agency, then perhaps Glavcic could be enticed to leave his struggling Croatian league club for a new challenge in MLS.
Sam Adekugbe (LB) Vålerenga
Finding a perfect fit for the fullback role was admittedly more challenging than the other two positions, but bringing 25-year-old Canadian Sam Adekugbe back to Vancouver might actually make a lot of sense (he wouldn’t even take that international roster spot).
Last fall, in an interview with our friends at Between the Sticks, Adekugbe even suggested that it might be something which is on his radar. Reflecting back on his time in Vancouver, Adekugbe said:
“I guess I can just call it a learning experience...Sometimes in football you get humbled, but Vancouver is home for me. I don’t have any ill will towards Vancouver, it’s a place I would like to go back and play football eventually...”
Throughout his stint with Vancouver, Adekugbe battled with Jordan Harvey for the starting role. And in 2015, after finally having grasped a hold of the starting place, a Voyageurs Cup injury set the young Canadian back significantly.
After playing limited minutes during the rest of 2015, Adekugbe would spend time on two prolonged loan stints (in England and Sweden), before eventually making a permanent move to Norwegian club Vålerenga in early 2018.
Since then, Adekugbe has played in 55 matches for Vålerenga, recording 5 assists and helping the Oslo club fight for a Europa league place back in 2018, falling just short with a 6th place league finish.
With all of that said, I doubt Adekugbe would be interested in returning to Vancouver as a depth piece. However, if the Club was to move on from Ali Adnan in the near future, a spot as the starting left back for the Whitecaps, the role that eluded him years ago, could be potentially enticing.
Additionally, playing for the Whitecaps would likely only help his profile within the National team, and would allow him to build additional chemistry with several fellow Canadian internationals.
While Adekugbe might not have the flash of an Ali Adnan, he’s definitely a better defensive player, and would be a much better fit from an asset management perspective in a salary-cap league. It seems to make more sense long term for the Whitecaps to focus their international spots and DP contracts on other positions, and ideally this is a position the Whitecaps should be looking to develop through their academy, or from the CPL ranks. But for now, Adekugbe could be a good fit.
Potential transfer targets is a topic that I am going to continue to research and monitor as the 2020 MLS season remains on hold, but what are your thoughts on my first three suggestions? Is there anyone out there that you think the Club should be targeting (realistically)?
I think this should go without saying, but these three players are simply suggestions I am making, rather than an attempt to feign knowledge of who the Club is currently targeting. Sometimes, it’s just fun to throw out some “what if” scenarios.
As a final point, Manuel Veth of Transfermarkt just recently announced that according to his sources, the Club paid 2.2 million dollars for Janio Bikel. Does that seem like a fair price? Perhaps only time will tell.