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Things Wouldn’t be so Bad if They Weren’t so Bad: Staring Down the Barrel of Another Vancouver Whitecaps Rebuild.

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MLS: Toronto FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Once again it is September and another disappointing Vancouver Whitecaps season is winding down. Aside from the deadly global pandemic it seems as though things have hardly changed. The Whitecaps are still bad and they are bad in a similar (though slightly different) way. It’s easy to just throw your hands up and say things can never improve under this current ownership group. But we have very little control over that so all we can do, should we choose to remain invested in the fortunes of this club, is push for them to improve. With this in mind it is important to be clear minded about the ways in which the Whitecaps have been bad and what can be done to improve those things.

The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

The general sentiment amongst Whitecaps fans is that nothing has changed between the dreadful 2019 season and the dreadful 2020 season. To an extent that’s true, the team still struggles to posses the ball and to break into the opposition third. But there is one difference from last season which is important to examine. What if I told you the Vancouver Whitecaps do not have the worst attack in the league? In fact they don’t have even close to the worst attack in the league. They are 19th out of 26 in goals and 21st out of 26 in expected goals. That is bad but it’s not the worst. Consider also that the team has the worst possession and least time in the opposition final third and it becomes clear that, when the ball actually makes its way to them, the Whitecaps’ attacking players are actually doing an alright job of making things happen. So when entering the transfer market it does not make sense to focus on attacking players. Some strengthening would of course be welcome but it should not be the first priority. The players leading the way are Yordy Reyna (0.37 xG+xA/96), Lucas Cavallini (0.32 xG+xA/96 when you take out penalties), David Milinkovic (0.36 xG+xA/96), and Ali Adnan (0.28 xG+xA/96). All of these players present some interesting problems and I would say only Cavallini is a lock to be back next season.

Yordy Reyna has been in the dog house following frequent lateness. This has lead to a great deal of speculation that he will be moved on. Moving on from your best attacking player in such a down season is a big risk but if the club genuinely feel that their relationship can be salvaged it does make a certain twisted kind of sense. Reyna is 26 and is at the peak of his value and has only found consistent success in a very specific second striker role. That’s great if your formation utilizes that role but the Whitecaps have struggled to find the best way to use him in a system that doesn’t have that role.

I wrote at the beginning of the season that Lucas Cavallini could be a good player or a great player depending on the ability of the team to create chances for him. I predicted between 10 and 25 goals depending on how many shots he got per game. What I was not anticipating was that the team would get even worse at creating chances for their strikers. Cavallini has averaged 1.69 shots per game when you take out penalties. But, despite only scoring one goal, embarrassingly missing two penalties, and embarrassingly having a temper tantrum after being sent off, he has averaged 0.17 xG per shot. Essentially from the positions he’s getting himself into he has about a 17% chance to score with every shot. Current MLS golden boot leader Diego Rossi averages only 0.14 xG per shot. So get Cavallini more shots and the team will score more goals, it’s as simple as that.

David Milnikovic is on loan with an option to buy and frankly Axel Schuster should be exercising that option and laughing all the way to the bank. I can’t imagine the option is very high considering the circumstances in which Milinkovic left Hull.

Ali Adnan is in the awkward position of being a DP and a left back. But there is no denying he’s making things happen going forward for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Why are Things so Bad?

Much like last season, and 5 of the last 7 season , the Whitecaps get outshot by their opponents. The 2020 Whitecaps average almost 19 shots against per game and the worst xGA per game in ASA’s dataset. Worryingly the low block has not been as effective at limiting the effectiveness of opposition shots with opposing teams having an average of 0.1 xG per shot, compared to around 0.08 last season.

Why those numbers are the way they are is a more difficult question. I think a large part of it comes down to team organization. It’s true the Whitecaps are a bit lacking in gamebreaking talents but if you familiarized yourself with the players on the team and what they accomplished before they arrived in Vancouver, as I had cause to do by occupying the space between legit analyst and basement crank, then you will know that these players are capable of a lot better. This is not a top MLS team on paper but I firmly believe this group of players is capable of playing better than they currently are.

In a fabulous article Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic outlines how the Whitecaps mostly struggled and occasionally succeeded to get the ball from their defence to their forwards in a game against the Montreal Impact. In the article Alex points out how the Whitecaps rarely make line breaking passes, players don’t move for passes, and they just get stuck cycling the ball around their back line. My only qualm with the article is that Alex ties the issues to tactics. While he does make a good case that the team should stick with a 4-3-3 or move back to the 4-2-3-1 they used in preseason and then moved away from for no discernable reason, I almost feel like talking tactics is getting ahead of ourselves. This Whitecaps team has organizational issues before it has tactical issues.

I often make fun of the TSN analysts but in Vancouver’s first game against Toronto F.C Steven Caldwell very astutely pointed out that some of the Whitecaps players were pressing while others seemed unsure when they were supposed to press and when they were supposed to drop off. The result was a few players rushing forward, being easily played past, and then Toronto having more space in which to attack Vancouver going forward.

When they play out of defence you can see the disorganization there as well. Next time you watch a game count how many times a player looks up field, sees nobody is moving into space for him, and is forced to attempt a speculative long ball over the top or to turn and pass the ball backwards. It happens a lot. Even in this video uploaded by the club themselves, showing a goal at the end of a 20 pass sequence, you can see that the team has to re-start several times because players get stuck.

I attribute the lack of organization to a few things; The pandemic creating a stop and go season with players not getting the chance to get used to each other, frequent changes in tactics and formations making players confused about what they’re supposed to be doing at any given time, and players starting to tune out the instructions of coaches after two seasons in a row mostly spent losing in humiliating fashion. It’s difficult to see how the current coaching staff are going to turn things around, not necessarily because they are bad coaches but because sometimes things just don’t work out. If they are going to stick around the best thing they could do for themselves is focus on one style and stick to it regardless of the growing pains. But one way or another the disorganization of the players on the field must be addressed.

Now let us discuss the squad itself. I see lots of calls to blow the squad up again but I don’t think that would be a good idea. I think there are building blocks in place, in a way that there weren’t in 2018, to build something good here. I will outline why I believe this below.

Goalkeepers:

The Whitecaps seem pretty set at goalkeeper. Maxime Crepeau is a solid enough MLS starter and Thomas Hasal is a younger player who has proved he can at least hold his own at the MLS level. Both goalkeepers have saved marginally more goals than expected in 2020 (at one time Hasal was hilariously leading the entire league in this metric but he has since regressed to the mean). I think their abilities are perhaps a bit overstated by fans due to them facing, like, 20 shots a game but they are a solid enough tandem nonetheless. There is even some utility in keeping a veteran like Bryan Merideth around because it allows you to play Hasal with the reserves if you know he won’t start that week or if you wanted to send him on loan to ensure he’s playing every week and not just sitting on the bench.

Defenders:

American Soccer Analysis introduced a new metric in 2020 called G+. The actual math behind calculating it is a bit over my head if i’m being honest but essentially it aims to measure the positive impacts a player has other than shooting and assisting. So for example if you and I were on a team and I played a 20 yard forward pass to you when you were in space then we would have marginally increased our chances of scoring and decreased our opposition’s. Or if I played a pass to you and you were marked and the ball was intercepted then we would have decreased our chances or scoring and increased our opponent’s. G+ measures all those tiny increases and decreases to try an establish how players are contributing to the team outside of scoring and assisting goals. In 2020 four of the six Whitecaps who are positives in G+ (i.e actively making the team more likely to score) are defenders. They are Ali Adnan, Andy Rose, Derek Cornelius, and Janio Bikel (who is a midfielder but played his one game for the team before getting injured as a right back). In 2019 Erik Godoy was actually in the top 10 MLS centre backs in G+ and Adnan was in the top 10 fullbacks.

So in the centre you have Godoy who can clearly be a starter as well as Rose and Cornelius who make up a reasonable backup pairing. I have been highly critical of Rose in the past but he’s continued to look more comfortable in the centre of defence and at this point I have no problem with him as a 3/4 choice centre back. I won’t be terribly sad if they don’t bring him back but I will not be furious if the do, provided he’s playing that role.

This leaves two players we have not talked about yet, Ranko Veselinovic and Jasser Khmiri. I believe that Veselinovic, who is just barely in the negative in G+, can grow into a first choice centre back. Why do I think that? Well G+ is split into categories. The categories that put Veselinovic in the negative are passing, dribbling, receiving, and shooting. He’s a plus in interrupting and fouling, the defending bits in other words. Veselinovic’s passing was supposed to be one of his strengths so it’s perhaps a bit surprising that he’s struggling in that regard. But when you think about all those times a Whitecaps player gets the ball and nobody is making forward runs for him it starts to make sense. Having good passing is hard when you’re on the Whitecaps. We also have to remember that Veselinovic is only 21, playing in a new country for the first time and playing in very weird circumstances at that. On a better organized team next to a solid veteran like Godoy I firmly believe there is an excellent player in there. He is a little bit slow but that can be worked around with proper tactics and organization. Veselinovic is on loan but the Whitecaps have an obligation to buy if he makes a certain number of appearances. I anticipate he will occupy one of the three new quasi young DP slots that MLS is introducing next season.

Khmiri on the other hand is the odd man out. I think Khmiri was a gamble worth taking, he was a highly touted prospect with interest from Europe but the Whitecaps were the only team willing to take a chance on him following a serious injury. If it had worked out it would have been a major coup but at this point it doesn’t look like it’s going to. Khmiri missed almost an entire year due to complications from his injury and when he finally made it back he looked like a far less mobile shadow of his former self. He’s under contract for one more season but it’s hard to justify him taking up an international spot. I don’t know what kind of market for him there would be but perhaps a loan move to get him regular football and hope he starts to look a little bit more comfortable might be the best move.

In the fullback positions things start to get a bit more complicated. Let us begin with Ali Adnan. Adnan is really good. By any metric he is one of the best fullbacks in the league. But this is a salary cap league and you only have so many resources at your disposal. Do you want a top 5 fullback in the league or do you want a middle of the pack fullback and a free DP slot you can use to improve your terrible midfield? As much as I like Adnan I think you have to pick option B. I even have some ideas on how you would find that league average full back while still maintaining some of the good qualities Adnan provides but more on that later.

On the right the only natural full back is Jake Nerwinski. Nerwinski is a decent defender but, despite his recent output, does not have a history of providing very much going forward. He’s ok but I would prefer the team to have another, perhaps more attacking, option. Right now the only other options are Godoy and Bikel, who are not natural right backs, and Georges Mukumbilwa who may be something but is 20 and only has 10 pro minutes.

All in all there is the beginnings of a good defence there. Some tweaks are required but I don’t think I would be looking to totally reimagine the defence.

Midfield:

Unquestionably the weakest part of the Whitecaps and the root of much of their misfortune. The Whitecaps midfield has struggled in part because the players assembled to play in it were never all fit to play at the same time. But that does not excuse how little depth there was at the start of the season or how overrun the midfield has looked throughout the 2020 season. The midfield did receive a big shot in the arm with the break through of Michael Baldisimo (makes you wonder what took them so long to get him out on the field) but you can’t rely on a 20 year old with less than 5 MLS appearances. That being said Baldisimo looks like the only sure thing in the midfield going forward.

There are also two maybes in the form of Janio Bikel and Leonard Owusu. Bikel has only played one game for Vancouver and it was as a right back, though he certainly looked good. His underlying data from his previous seasons suggests he’s a much better midfielder than he is a right back so it seems the Whitecaps have something good there but..

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(H/T @GalindoPW on twitter for the radars).

Leonard Owusu is also hard to get a handle on but for different reasons. Owusu has been “pulling a Flores” which is when one has a really promising debut but then plays slightly worse in each subsequent match (in the style of former Whitecaps midfielder Deybi Flores). If you look at his Data Owusu comes out as a bang average MLS player. But that’s not because he’s played average every game. It’s because he’s had some incredible games and some absolutely dreadful games. Unfortunately those incredible games were quite front-loaded. It’s not the most scientific measure but here is a chart of his Whoscored.com ratings over time (discounting his 6 minute debut in the pre-corona times):

I remember looking at his stats during his first few full games and thinking the Whitecaps had found their own version of Mark Anthony Kaye. But overtime he’s seemingly struggled more and more. Part of that has been that he’s been put in some tough positions with the team depleted and experiencing the disorganization described above. But nevertheless there are some aspects of his game that are concerning. For example his interceptions and duels won, two aspects of his game that were big strengths in Israel, are down since he joined Vancouver. Perhaps we could chalk this up to difficulty adapting the physicality and demands of the league, especially in a year as weird as this one. He is a player who has shown quality, but it remains to be seen if Marc Dos Santos (or let’s be real here, probably someone else) can get that quality out of him every game.

There is also, of course, Russel Teibert. He lags well behind all three of the players mentioned above, except he’s ahead of Baldisimo in G+ but I think that’s just a sample size thing. At this point I am feeling more and more that I would like to see if younger players like Patrick Metcalfe and Damiano Pecile can figure it out. At the very least the team must stop Peter Principling him into a full time starter.

The Whitecaps can’t move forward with this group of players in the midfield. But they do have some midfielders with some quality and if they were to, say, sell Ali Adnan and use the two open DP slots on midfielders in addition to what they already have, that might be pretty good.

Attacking Players:

We have already discussed the Whitecaps attackers a little bit but I wanted to get a better feel for which of them are making the most of a bad situation. So here is a table showing some of their stats for every 100 times they touch the ball (discounting penalties). That doesn’t totally remove the influence of the rest of the team but it does give you a better idea of what they are doing with the chances to attack that they do have.

Whitecaps Attacker’s Stats Per 100 Touches

Player Total touches Shots Key Passes xG xA
Player Total touches Shots Key Passes xG xA
Cavallini 196 5.612244898 1.020408163 0.9795918367 0.08673469388
Milkinovic 250 2.4 3.2 0.372 0.56
Reyna 222 4.054054054 2.252252252 0.5585585586 0.2207207207
Dájome 345 3.188405797 1.15942029 0.2579710145 0.06376811594
Bair 121 2.479338843 1.652892562 0.2561983471 0.0826446281
Raposo 104 0 0.9615384615 0 0.1153846154
Montero 35 5.714285714 2.857142857 0.4571428571 0.1142857143
Ricketts 90 4.444444444 0 0.2777777778 0

The table indicates that Cavallini, Milinkovic, and Reyna are making things happen despite not seeing a whole lot of the ball. Bair and Dájome are both doing alright but you probably wouldn’t want to be relying on them game in and game out (really makes you think when one of them is a 21 year old homegrown and one is a much ballyhooed international signing). Tosaint Ricketts shoots a lot, Fredy Montero is doing well but has played so little you can’t draw any firm conclusions, and Ryan Raposo is really struggling. In the interests of understanding how these numbers stack up a bit to the rest of the league here is the same chart for LAFC, the team with the most goals in the league.

LAFC Attacker’s Stats Per 100 Touches

Player Total touches Shots Key Passes xG XA
Player Total touches Shots Key Passes xG XA
Vela 122 10.6557377 4.098360656 0.893442623 0.4344262295
Rodriguez 646 5.108359133 4.489164087 0.4148606811 0.5882352941
Rossi 594 6.734006734 2.693602694 0.8585858586 0.3569023569
Wright-Phillips 232 8.620689655 1.724137931 1.655172414 0.1551724138
Musovski 61 8.196721311 0 0.6393442623 0
Perez 48 8.333333333 0 0.5208333333 0

There is some weirdness with sample size in the LAFC chart, Bradley Wright-Phillips hardly ever touches the ball unless it’s a shot inside the box for example, But the Whitecaps top attackers aren’t terribly far behind the high priced DPs of LAFC. True, LAFC shoots a lot more but in terms of xG and xA our boys in blue aren’t to far off the pace. If you combine their expected goals and assists here are the LAFC DPs ranked against Cavallini, Milinkovic, and Reyna

  1. Vela: 1.32
  2. Rossi: 1.22
  3. Cavallini: 1.07
  4. Rodriguez: 1.00
  5. Milinkovic: 0.93
  6. Reyna 0.78

The Whitecaps players are a little bit behind but they aren’t way behind. I’m not saying Cavallini, Reyna and Milinkovic are as good as Rossi, Vela, and Rodriguez but I am saying they hold up surprisingly well. With some better organization and support from, say, two new DP midfielders who knows what they might be able to accomplish. Perhaps they would not be the highest scoring team in the league but could they be in the top 3rd? I think they absolutely could.

When thinking about how to address the forward line going forward it is clear to me that David Milinkovic simply must be kept. He’s comparing favourably to some of the most expensive players in MLS history and he’s on the worst team in the league. Reyna makes sense to keep around if the coach, whoever that may be, is planning to play a 4-4-2 with Milinkovic on the left side and a Reyna Cavallini partnership up front but if they want to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 then it probably makes sense to explore the market for him. I think you probably let Montero walk, even though he does look more lively when not asked to play the whole game, and loan Raposo out to the CPL.

The Future:

The way I see it, the Whitecaps essentially have two players in each line of the team who you can build something around. Crepeau in goal, Godoy and Veselinovic in defence, two of Baldisimo/Owusu/Bikel in the midfield, Milinkovic, Cavallini, and maybe Reyna up front. Or, if we’re going to visualize it, they could run one of the following:

You may notice Ali Adnan is not included above. That’s because I expect him to be sold. They’ve alluded to planing for life without him in the past, there will definitely be a market for him, and having a left back be one of your best players leads to all kinds of weird imbalances within the team. But that’s ok! Ladies and Gentleman, allow me to introduce you to:

Operation Three Amigos:

What is operation three amigos? You ask, bleary eyed from making it to this point in an article that’s already almost 4000 words long. I’m so glad you asked, dear reader! Operation three amigos is a simple three step plan to restore the Vancouver Whitecaps to their former glory (or at least to get them to make the playoffs again).

  • Step 1: Sell Ali Adnan

Adnan is a full international, has played in a top 5 league, and his time in Vancouver has produced plenty of highlight real moments. Somebody’s going to want him.

  • Step 2: Replace Adnan with York 9 left back Diyaeddine Abzi

At just 21 (the radar below is wrong, I promise I checked) Abzi has been a breakout star in the CPL. He’s especially interesting for our purposes because his game matches up almost perfectly with Adnan’s. You don’t necessarily want a DP left back but you also don’t want to lose the good things Adnan brings to the team. I think Abzi provides a very tidy way to accomplish both of those goals (once again, H/T @GalindoPW on twitter for the radars).

Now, Abzi plays in the CPL which (hilarious memes about certain games played in 2019 aside) is a lower level than MLS. You would expect some drop off . But remember that Adnan is a top 5 fullback in the league and would probably still be playing Serie A if it weren’t for a misunderstanding about vacation time. Abzi doesn’t need to be Adnan, he just has to be an approximation of him at a slightly lower level. He wouldn’t be a top 5 left back in the league but he might very well be able to be in the top 15. Plus he’d only be 22 by the start of the 2021 season so he would still have room to grow. He and Cristian Gutierrez would form a left back tandem that’s young, Canadian, and able to keep up with the rest of the league. The price for a top CPL player seems to be between 100k and 250k which would put Abzi’s cap hit well below the TAM threshold.

  • Step 3: Use the two open DP slots to bring in two players who compliment your already in place DP, Cavallini, and create a dangerous triad of guys who score a lot of goals.

This step seems self explanatory.

Materials:

Assuming they execute operation three amigos the Whitecaps would have 2-3 starting spots to fill and potentially some space to improve on the starters they already have. To fill those spots and perhaps to upgrade on what they already have they would have approximately (working very roughly off @GlassCity’s estimated salary budget):

2 DP slots

2 First round draft picks (their own and SKC’s)

1.7 million in cap space

2 million in GAM

3 international spots

At least two of the quasi young DP slots being introduced in 2021

We have been let down many times before but with a bit of investment (I know!), careful planning (I know!!) and some intelligent decision making (I know!!!) that looks very doable to me.