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Four Vancouver Whitecaps Story Lines after #MLSisBack

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MLS: Sporting Kansas City vs Vancouver Whitecaps FC Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps have just concluded a #MLSisBack tournament run that, at various times, ranged from pathetic to valiant but ultimately futile. As we all wait to see if MLS will force its players to traverse the epicentre of a global pandemic, people are having thoughts about the Whitecaps’ showing. I too am having these thoughts and I thought you might like to hear my thoughts. It’s probably this sort of arrogance that lead to me applying to write for Eighty Six Forever in the first place. Nevertheless, we move.

MDS Out?

Not yet but perhaps soon. I was very excited when Marc Dos Santos was hired, and I still think I was right to be excited. But whatever to was that lead to him being successful in the lower levels of North American soccer either has not manifested or is not working for the Whitecaps. I mean, look at that drop off in win percentage.

Despite showing some signs of life in their pre covid games the ’Caps looked very much like their old selves in MiB; overmatched and disorganized. The team does not seem to know what to do when playing against a set defence or when they lose the ball. Their only responses are to pass it around until they lose it in the case of the former and retreat into a shell and hope for the best in the case of the latter. At the end of the day that has to come down on the coaching staff and after a year and a half you would be hoping to see some improvement in those areas. Even in the first two matches of the season the team still struggled to control the game.

Now, that being said, I am sympathetic that Dos Santos, for one reason or another, has always been without at least one or two key pieces. In the before times he was without Ranko Vaselinovic and Leonard Owusu, two players who have since proved to be pretty solid. In MiB Dos Santos was without almost all his strikers, and perhaps more importantly Erik Godoy and Janio Bikel. Lucas Cavallini was certainly the headliner of the group of missing players but I would argue Godoy and Bikel were the bigger losses. By the end of the tournament keeping things tight and trying to snatch a goal in the last 20 minutes was probably his only play.

So I have not lost hope Dos Santos can turn things around but I would not be all that upset if they did make a switch. In my opinion, as soon as things are back to normal, we’re at that part in football manager where the board tells you that you need to get X amount of points in your next five games in order to save your job. The trouble is nobody knows if things ever will be back to normal. If half his squad refuses to play in market games in the United States (and let’s be real if they have half a brain that’s what they should be doing) then can you really blame him when they underperform? Probably not.

Michel In?

Several outlets in Mexico have linked the Whitecaps to Spanish manager Michel González, recently of Pumas. On one level I hope this happens because I think I would have a lot of interesting things to say about it. For now though I would urge caution on getting too excited about this possibility. Michel would certainly be the most high profile coaching hire in the MLS history of the Whitecaps but as we have seen with the likes of Frank de Boer, Remi Garde, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, having some big teams on your resume is no guarantee of success in MLS. While Michel does have some accomplishments and characteristics that make him appealing there are an equal number of things about him that make one raise an eyebrow. I am not saying there is a 100% chance he would be a dud but I would have to be convinced.

More like “Out-Beom” am I right?

At MiB In-Beom Hwang was, once again, underwhelming. The Third Sub guys described his performances as “robotic” and I think that captures it perfectly. His stats are almost always slightly above average but his role and output are not sufficient for a designated player. It is not the case that In-Beom is a bad player or that he provides nothing, but he isn’t going to dominate a game the way guys like Alejandro Pozuelo or Nicolas Lodiero are.

In my opinion In-Beom represents the problem with the Vancouver Whitecaps’ recruitment in their MLS history. Consider In-Beom and another player, Eduard Atuesta. In many ways these two players are similar, Marc Dos Santos has directly compared them in fact. Both players play primarily as a number 8 but can play other midfield positions, both are international signings, and both are 23. Like In-Beom, Atuesta did not score a huge amount of goals in his first MLS season but in his second he broke out with 3 goals and 9 assists. It is true that production is probably boosted by playing on the highest scoring team in the league but at this point Atuesta is unquestionably the more valuable player. Yet In-Beom is a designated player while Atuesta is TAM, In-Beom makes about $200,000 more per year, and In-Beom was bought for a much higher fee. How did this happen?

About a year ago I wrote this article:

It’s very long but the important point is that, despite their reputation as a thrifty club and stated desire to be the most efficient team in the league, the Whitecaps don’t have very many players who could be considered bargains. Spending less money does not automatically make a team good at finding bargains. For that to be the case the players have to be worth more than you gave up to get them. If you have a lower budget and just sign players who are worth less than the teams with bug budgets then you are just going to have a bad team.

Back to In-Beom and Atuesta; Let us consider the circumstances of the players when they were acquired. In-Beom had just played a staring role in South Korea’s Asian games winning side (on which there were more eyes than usual because Heung-Min Son was trying to win an exemption from national service) and had a good tournament at the Asian Cup for the senior South Korean team. He was hardly the most sought after player in the world but he had some hype. Therefore, even though he was playing for a second division team, his price went up. In Contrast Atuesta had played a few dozen games in Columbia’s top division and had also played a few times for the Colombia U-20 team. So he had a level of quality that could be identified if you were paying attention but his hype had not caught up with his level of ability yet.

In 2019 LAFC lost only four times. Their assistant GM, Will Kuntz, joined Statsbomb to discuss how this juggernaut was constructed. According to Kuntz LAFC identified that South America was a region that had yielded a lot of successful MLS players but that players from Brazil and Argentina commanded too high a transfer fee to be worthwhile. So instead they targeted smaller countries with a combination of analytics and traditional scouting methods. This allowed them to find players who had the ability to be really good players in MLS but who’s price was more manageable. Also they signed Carlos Vela which helped a lot. But a player like Vela can only truly shine with a good supporting cast and finding those players for less than their true worth allows you to build a dominant MLS team.

Again we can contrast this with how the Whitecaps came to the decision to sign In-Beom. He was a player MDS said he had coveted for a long time. Not without reason. Although In-Beom has been a bit of a disappointment he still tracks as an above average MLS midfielder. Look, for example, at this data vis of his first 1600 minutes in MLS:

This is an above average MLS midfielder. If he had been snagged around 2017 before he had the cache of being regular for the South Korean national team, and therefore at a TAM level price, this would probably be a pretty reasonable level of performance. But because he was signed after he accrued that status his price went up. Dos Santos did identify a good player but, because his primary job is not scouring the globe for players who are good but just obscure enough to be cheap, other people had already identified that player as well.

On paper the Whitecaps strategy makes a lot of sense. They spend less money, but spend it smarter and on players who can be sold for a profit which funds future investment in young players and allows them to keep up with the higher spending teams. That is a strategy that I absolutely think can work but for most of their MLS existence the Whitecaps have paired this strategy with not having any infrastructure to find players with the potential to have a breakout and a reticence to take risks on players who are not already established. The result is a team that is, to use a technical term, bad.

Milinkovic and Owusu Show There is a Way Forward

In 2020 Axel Schuster was brought in to help solve the recruitment problems. He certainly hasn’t fixed everything, and you couldn’t reasonably expect him to in such a short period of time, but there are two players who have come in since he took over who give me at least a small sliver of hope that things could improve in the not to distant future. Those players are David Milinkovic and Leonard Owusu.

Milinkvoic was brought in on loan while in a bad place in his career. He had spent most of his career on loan to various clubs and was very much on the outside looking in at Hull City, having hardly made any appearances and fallen out with his manager. But based on his successful stint with Hearts in 2017/18, Schuster and the gang decided to take a small risk on him by bringing him in on loan. Since joining Milinkovic has been excellent. He has averaged 0.49 xG+xA per game since joining Vancouver. If you prorate this over a 2500 minute season you could expect him to get 4 goals and 9 assists. This almost exactly the same production as Atlanta United got out of Pity Martinez, a player for whom they payed over $15,000,000. Milinkovic has accomplished all this while playing on a team who’s struggles to control the game, or even get into the opposition penalty area at times, are well documented. Milinkovic is a perfect example of a type of player I identified in the Bargain Bin article above; A player who has ability but has been misused or been in a bad situation and therefore is available for less than what his skills are worth. The Whitecaps deserve big props for finding him and taking a risk on him.

Owusu’s career, on the other hand was on the come up as he was playing regularly and was an important part of his team. But because that team was in Israel and he did not have any international appearances for Ghana so he did not cost as much as a player who would have had a similar level of ability but who had more clout. He has been very solid for the Whitecaps so far. If you prorated his 0.22xG+xA over a 2500 minute season he would be expected to get 3 goals and 3 assists, a very reasonable return for a central midfielder. He is also in the positive for G+ ( a fancy new stat that attempts to measure players contributions beyond goals and assists) which is a rarity amongst Whitecaps players and he did most of that while playing through injury and mostly playing as a #6 when it is believed his best position is as a #8.

Owusu still requires some polish and to gain some consistency. He struggled a bit in the first half of his debut and in the knockout game against SKC. But he showed a lot of good qualities that suggest he can continue to grow in MLS and potentially be sold on for a profit that can then be invested into more players like him.

With this in mind my message to the Whitecaps’ top brass (and i’m sure they are waiting with baited breath to hear what I have to say) is to not think their job is done by hiring Schuster. They should continue to invest in their soccer ops which will allow their stated strategy to actually work. The team needs more players like Milinkovic and Owusu and they will only be found at team friendly prices if you have team of people who’s job it is to identify players who have ability but not cache.