In the second half of 2021, the Vancouver Whitecaps looked like they might have a path to being legitimately good. But one area that stood out right away was the quality of the “guys” was a bit lacking. When Vanni Sartini had to turn to his depth players he was frequently having to lean on players who were out of position or who were lacking in ability. In a weak-link game (a game where the winner is more likely to be determined by who doesn’t have the worst player rather than who has the best player) that’s a bad thing. When you look back at recent supporters shield winners, one thing that really stands out for all of them is the quality of depth in their squads. In the case of the 2020 Philadelphia Union and the 2018 New York Red Bulls, the quality of depth in their squads ended up being more important than their lack of star power.
So, I decided to look at some guys who could help with that.
I have been writing for Eighty-Six Forever for five years. If you do anything for five years you are going to get better at it. I have done articles suggesting players who would be good signings in the past and, looking back on them, I don’t think they were very good. I think I tried too hard to cover the whole world and as a result, I ended up talking about players I only had a surface-level understanding of. This time I wanted things to be different. This has been a much more long-term project.
The players discussed in this article were first identified using data. I then spent months watching as much of them as a person who doesn’t get paid to watch soccer could reasonably be expected to (if somebody would like to pay me to watch soccer then please get in touch). The profile I was looking for was simple: young, cheap, domestic, able to make an impact in MLS. The first three are had easily enough but combining them with the 4th one is where things get tricky
I was also cognizant of Axel Schuster’s stated desire to turn the Whitecaps into “the Athletic Bilbao” of MLS. I.E relying as much as possible on Canadian talent. These players are not only Canadians but I did focus more on Canadians than Americans.
There are also a couple of major limitations to my approach. Firstly, my assessments are based only on what the players do on the field. I don’t know, for example, if any of these players are rabid anti-vaxers (I can guarantee nobody in this article is good enough to be worth putting up with that kind of nonsense).
I also don’t know who might be available in the MLS super draft. The Whitecaps have been taking the super draft more seriously in recent years and have snatched up a couple of good players, the most successful of which has been Javain Brown. But I have no idea where one would even begin to start watching NCAA soccer in Canada, let alone who the good players are. Like the rest of you, I just wait until a week before the draft and read how tall every player is in the mock drafts.
I also don’t have a very good sense of which players are coming through the academy who might be worthwhile. Trying to figure out which academy players were good was a bit like pre-1989 Sovietology at the best of times but the pandemic has totally destroyed any idea I have who is a worthwhile prospect. There are three strikers mentioned in this article but if the next Cyle Larin is just over the hill then they probably don’t make as much sense to pursue.
With all that out of the way let’s finally get into this behemoth.
I sort of doubt the Whitecaps would be interested in signing a goalkeeper this offseason. But, if one of Crepeau or Hasal gets sold (I think this upcoming window is a great time to do that to avoid a Harvey/Adekugbe type of situation) then they might want a bit more help. In that eventuality, there is one obvious choice to pursue.
Player: Dayne St. Clair
Current Club: Minnesota United
Estimated Cost: Transfermarkt lists a 1.1M value but recent poor form may mean he is available for considerably less.
The third-choice keeper for the Canadian national got off to a terrible start in 2021 and was dropped after three games by Minnesota. He hasn’t made a club appearance since. But he has had many more good games than he has had bad ones in his career and he makes surprisingly little money. He seems to be well and truly out of Adrian Heath’s plans and MLS backups hardly ever cost anything. St. Clair might be a bit more expensive than the average back up but his value will probably never be lower than it is right now. In 2020 St. Clair saved the second-most goals above expected per game of goalkeepers that played at least 450 minutes. As we have seen with Matt Turner in New England, a keeper who can save significantly more goals than average can be the thing that elevates a good team to contender status. The 2020 season is a much bigger sample size which leads me to believe that his three terrible games in 2021 were probably a fluke.
There are two elements of St. Clair’s game that might give the Whitecaps pause. Firstly, he isn’t the most aggressive on crosses. In 2020 he stopped only 3.7% of the crosses he faced. That’s about half the league average. He is, however, quite willing to come off his line to cut out through balls. The other problem is that when he has the ball at his feet he usually sends it into row Z. This seems to be partly a tactical thing as Tyler Miller does basically the same for Minnesota. But even still, St. Clair’s accuracy is a concern. He had one of the worst long pass completion rates of any keeper in the league in 2020.
But, despite those potential drawbacks, St. Clair represents good value overall. Especially if Youssef Dahha can do for him what he did for Crepeau.
Fullback was one of the areas where the Whitecaps’ depth was most exposed in 2021. They managed to find diamonds in the rough in Cristian Gutiérrez and Javain Brown but when one of them was injured Sartini was often forced to play a midfielder out of position. The Whitecaps have shifted to a back 3/5 so it’s vital that the players playing in these roles be able to attack as well as defend.
Player: Diyaeddine Abzi
Position: Left (Wing) Back
Current Club: York United
Estimated Cost: 100-200k
This is maybe the biggest no-brainer signing out there right now. Abzi is basically CPL Ali Adnan. Tremendous dribbling ability, great offensive contribution, and defending that’s good enough that it shouldn’t be a major problem in MLS. Abzi has a transfermarkt value of 165k and his contract expires next year so York United won’t have the strongest negotiating position.
As I have discussed in previous articles, it is difficult to project how CPL production would translate to MLS. But the best estimate I can come up with, based on the performance of the few players who have played in both leagues, is about a 40% drop-off in production. Even with that hefty cut, Abzi would still be in the top 25% of MLS fullbacks for xG+xA with a similar xG level to players like Richie Lareya, Sam Vines, and Cristian Gutiérrez.
His dribbling game is also pretty incredible. He is amongst the leaders in CPL fullbacks with 2.6 completed dribbles per game, a total that not a single MLS fullback can match this season. Obviously, we would expect him to be less dominant after making the jump to MLS but clearly, he would be able to run the ball up the field pretty well.
Abzi’s defensive game is solid enough, though it probably wouldn’t be anything special at an MLS level. He was exposed a little bit in York United’s game against Toronto F.C. But other players were a lot more exposed and in a back five, there would be a lot less individual stress placed on him. His defensive numbers are down this year but I think that’s partly down to being played on the left side of the midfield a lot more often this season.
Player: Raheem Edwards
Position: Full Back/Winger
Current Club: LAFC
Estimated Cost: $0 (pending free agent)
Every year Raheem Edwards gets signed by a new team, puts up some decent numbers in limited minutes, and then he gets unceremoniously shipped somewhere else. This year, once again, it looks like Edwards will be looking for a new club, as he is a pending free agent.
This can be a great opportunity for the Whitecaps because he really is pretty good. Scoring from players outside of Gauld and White is, in my view, one of the things the team will need to take the next step. Only two fullbacks (with at least 1000 minutes played) had more xG+xA per game than Edwards last season so he definitely provides that. Plus he was in the 99th percentile for pressures and the 97th percentile for tackles so there is no shortage of defensive effort to his game.
If the Whitecaps were to sign a wing-back from outside the league he would have to be pretty damned good to exceed the level that Edwards has already shown he can achieve in the league. You don’t have to surrender any assets to get him, he made less than 100k this season, and he fits with the club’s stated desire to mostly rely on Canadians. Overall he just makes a ton of sense.
Player: Kunle Dada-Luke
Position: Right Back
Current Club: Pacific F.C
Estimated Cost: $0 (contract expiring according to Transfermarkt)
When watching Pacific F.C-looking at the usual suspects-one thought kept occurring to me. “That guy with the headband looks pretty good.” I then looked at some stats and came to the conclusion that my eyes were not deceiving me, and thus Kunle Dada-Luke is on this list.
Dada-Luke is extremely athletic creative, and defensively sound. There’s just nothing relevant for a wing-back where he is weak at the CPL level.
His biggest weakness if probably his 1v1 defending (though even here we must note that he is comfortably above the CPL average). This weakness, such as it is, is a lot less likely to be exploited if he were playing in a back 3/5 as there would be a lot more cover for him. A wingback role would also give him a lot more freedom to get forward. The fullbacks who generated more xG+xA per 90 minutes than him also got to play significant minutes on the wing. Dada-Luke, on the other hand, has almost always played on the right side of a back four. So perhaps, with more freedom to attack, an even greater offensive breakout is possible.
Of course, MLS is a step up from the CPL so you can’t necessarily expect the same level of all-around dominance. But he’s only 21 so there is room to grow and it would be hard for him to put up a more impressive performance at the CPL level than this so I think he’s earned a shot. He earned a starting spot relatively late in the season but he played 10 matches worth of minutes so I think we can be confident this performance is not a fluke.
Player: Zachary Verhoven
Position: Right Back/Right Wing
Current Club: Atletico Ottawa
Estimated Cost: $0 (contract expiring according to Transfermarkt)
For a while, Zachary Verhoven was in no man’s land when it came to career progression. He was not quite productive enough to be a winger and not quite defensively sound enough to be a full back at a higher level. But the Whitecaps’ switch to a back 3/5 opens up all kinds of opportunities for fullback/winger tweeners. Verhoven generated the most xG+xA amongst fullbacks and wingbacks while playing on by far the CPL’s worst team. To me that says with better teammates he could do even more.
Now, he is a bit soft defensively and a bit easy to knock off the ball. You would probably be relying on the right-sided centre-back to cover for him pretty often. But his offensive production, even on the pathetic Atletico Ottawa team, suggests he’d be pushing the top 10 attacking fullbacks in MLS. For a guy on an expiring contract that’s pretty good.
Folks I won’t lie to you. The market for cheap domestic center-backs who are also good is a bit thin this year. This is a shame because this is the one position the Whitecaps could really use some help in, after switching to a 3 at the back-formation. The ‘Caps have a starting back three that is fairly solid but when they had to turn to reserve players things got pretty dicey last season. Truly the best thing they could do for domestic depth might be to just give some minutes to Facchineri and Campagna. True neither of these players are very experienced at the pro level but they are at least centre-backs. But I have done my best to come up with some options in any case.
Player: Jake Ruby
Position: Anywhere along the backline
Current Club: HFX Wanderers
Estimated Cost: Transfermarkt value of 83k
The Whitecaps Academy graduate has played for HFX wanderers for the last two seasons. Initially, I wrote him off because, while his defence is very good, he offers very little going forward. But the switch to a 3-4-1-2 opens up some interesting MLS possibilities for Ruby. I mean, just look at this guy’s chart. He was born to play on the outside of a back 3!
Would he be an elite MLS centre back right away? Probably not. But could he play adequately when the inevitable injuries to Erik Godoy and Florian Jungwirth happen? I think so. Plus he’s only 21 so there is still plenty of room to grow and he would be eligible to play for the Whitecaps U-23 team, who supposedly will be playing in a new MLS reserve league next year.
Player: Callum Montgomery
Position: Centre Back
Current Club: Minnesota United (On loan to San Diego Loyal in 2021)
Estimated Cost: 50-150k (contract expiring but I figure Minnesota Probably have at least one option year)
Montgomery is probably the best domestic USL centre-back who isn’t a highly valued prospect of another MLS team. He’s really good in the air and with the ball at his feet. True, he’s not very fast and it’s a bit late for him to develop into anything more than a backup at MLS level.
But he has enough ability that he can probably be trusted to play 10-ish games (especially in a back three where there is less stress on each individual defender) and Minnesota aren’t using him so he probably wouldn’t be that expensive to acquire.
The Whitecaps have about 75 centre midfielders vying for two spots in Vanni Sartini’s starting eleven. So maybe it isn’t the number one area of concern when it comes to building depth. If anything it might be better to clear out some of the sea of middling players and add a more high-profile signing in this position. Nevertheless, there are a couple of interesting propositions out there and this article isn’t nearly long enough so here you go.
Player: Harry Paton
Position: Centre Midfield
Current Club: Ross County
Estimated Cost: $0 (Expiring contract)
Harry Paton is young, proven in a league that’s similar to MLS, and according to Transfermarkt, his contract expires in May of next year. His current team, Ross County, seems destined to be relegated so a move to MLS would definitely be a positive career move for him. That seems like an avenue worth exploring to me.
Paton Contributes well defensively and gives the Whitecaps a bit of a different dynamic in the middle of the park with his dribbling ability. Plus he creates quite a few chances for his teammates. His xA per 90 is comparable to MLS midfielders like Mark Anthony Kaye, Gadi Kinda, and Tomas Pochettino. MLS is a better league than SPL but it’s also a lot more balanced so while he is facing harder competition he would also probably have stronger teammates. So I think his performance in Scotland might be a bit more transferable than you would think.
Player: Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare
Position: Centre Midfield
Current Club: HFX Wanderers
Estimated Cost: 100-150k
If a CPL player is in his mid-20s and has already had one crack at an MLS team then I want to be absolutely blown away by everything about them. For me, Gagnon-Lapare meets that bar. He was a key part of the 2021 HFX side that often played teams off the park but couldn’t put their chances away. He defends, he progresses the ball, he attacks, and he does it better than almost everybody else in the league.
Now, he obviously wouldn’t be this dominant in MLS and at 26 this is probably as good as he is going to get. I probably wouldn’t pay a transfer fee higher than 100k for him, even that might be a stretch. But if you can get him for an Evan Newton/Tyler Pasher type of transfer fee then I think there are a lot worse things you could do with that money. There isn’t really another midfielder in CPL who can touch this level of all-around excellence and even if he saw significant drops in all of his key performance indicators he’d still be an above-average MLS midfielder
In particular, 0.3 expected assists per 90 minutes is pretty insane, especially while playing in a double pivot. That means he’s assisting more high-quality scoring chances per game than Ryan Gauld is for the Whitecaps. There would surely be some drop-off in MLS but even if his output were cut in half he would be in the top 10 MLS centre midfielders in xA.
Pair those attacking gifts with above-average 1v1 defending and winning a whopping 59% of his duels and Gagnon-Lapare seems like a guy who could fill in very nicely for injured players and, just maybe, challenge for a starting spot.
There is a ton of uncertainty around the Whitecap’s striker options going into next season. Brian White seems like a lock to lead the line but other than that it’s hard to say. It’s not clear that the Whitecaps would want to keep Lucas Cavallini but it’s also not clear that anybody would want him, especially for the price the Whitecaps payed. David Egbo showed some promise on loan in USL but his status as an international makes him a bit difficult to fit in as a backup striker. Theo Bair also showed some promise on loan but 3 goals in 875 minutes probably wouldn’t be getting anyone excited if he were a player we had never heard of called Gunnar Gunnarson. Tosaint Ricketts is out of contract. So the Whitecaps have anywhere between 1 and 5 strikers next season. Fortunately, there are great options at reasonable prices to fill however many spots the ‘Caps need to.
Player: Cal Jennings
Current Club: LAFC
Estimated Cost: 200k
Sometimes the easy pick is the easy pick for a reason. Cal Jennings has put up two insane seasons in USL. In 2020 he averaged a goal every 63 minutes, earning a move to LAFC. But LAFC, for whatever reason, has hardly used him this season. He has spent most of 2021 on loan to the Las Vegas Lights, a simply dreadful team, and has still managed to light up the USL. The Lights finished the 2021 season with a -36 goal differential. Despite this Jennings led all USL players with 0.83 xG+xA per game. On average USL players see a reduction of 25-31% in their offensive output when they make the jump to MLS. If that were the case for Jennings then he would have a similar output to players like Raul Ruidiaz, Josef Martinez, and Alan Pulido. So, good people, I submit to you that if LAFC aren’t going to use this player then somebody else bloody well should.
Stylistically he’s also kind of a good compliment to Gauld and White. He’s fast and good at dribbling, which are basically the only things that stand out as weaknesses in the Whitecaps’ current front three. There have been several times this season where the Whitecaps have been defending the lead, won the ball while the opposition has too many men forward, Ryan Gauld picks his head up and scans the field…and the only option is a ball into space to Brian White. Much as we have all come to love Brian White there is perhaps no other MLS striker you would less want to have to win a foot race to save your life. A striker with some pace who’s comfortable on the shoulder of the last defender could help a lot with keeping other teams honest when defending a lead.
Player: Adonijah Reid
Position: Striker/Attacking Midfielder
Current Club: Miami F.C
Estimated Cost: $0 (expiring contract according to transfermarkt)
I’m sure you all knew this was coming, seeing as I am the internet’s foremost Adonijah Reid evangelist. But I have good reasons. At 0.77 xG+xA/90 minutes Reid is the USL player, not currently owned by an MLS team, who generates the most xG per game. If he sees a drop-off of 25-30% when making the jump to MLS then he’d still be expected to get a goal or assist every second game.
But despite this he gets surprisingly little love from Miami F.C. He only started 10 of his 29 appearances this season. So the already low price of top USL talent is likely to be even lower if there is any price at all.
Now, you might reasonably ask, how can I possibly be suggesting an MLS team sign a player that barely starts for a USL team? Well, he’s played almost 1200 minutes (if you include stoppage time, as American Soccer Analysis does) so we can be reasonably sure that his incredible per-minute production isn’t a fluke. Plus, as far as I know, there isn’t any other U23 Canadian who produces this level of offence that’s available at this low of a price point. If you want to be the Athletic Bilbao of Canada then this is the kind of swing you just have to take.
Now, no doubt you’re wondering if he’s so good why does he never get to start in USL? Well, I think there are two key reasons. Firstly, until a brace on the final day of the season, Reid was pretty spectacularly underperforming his xG. It’s possible he was being punished for his lack of scoring, even though he was creating a ton of chances for himself and others. The other reason is that his on-field attitude is a bit Barry Robson-esque. There’s a lot of exasperated looks to the heavens when he doesn’t get a pass he wants and he isn’t exactly an enthusiastic defender.
But even with these factors I think the low cost and huge potential upside make this a risk worth taking. Plus, in Ryan Gauld, the Whitecaps have a player who made some changes to his game to become more complete. Maybe he can get in Reid’s ear about that stuff.
But with that long screed out of the way, what type of player is Reid exactly? Well he usually lines up as a center-forward for Miami but in practice, he’s more of a false 9. He’s also played on the wing in the past but I think he’s a much more effective player through the middle (and there are no wingers in Sartini’s system in any case). When Reid is in the middle he is less likely to dribble into a blind alley and he can use his excellent vision to find teammates.
Player: Terran Campbell
Current Club: Pacific F.C
Estimated Cost: $0 (expiring contract according to Transfermarkt)
Just when I think I’m out, he pulls me back in. I have been watching Terran Campbell since 2017. When WFC2 folded and Fresno buried him on the bench I thought his MLS prospects were done. When he had a good but not great first CPL season I thought his MLS prospects were done. When Pah Modou Kah dropped him to the bench, I thought his MLS prospects were done. But in his age 23 season, Campbell put forward a performance that’s hard to deny.
He’s not quite as prolific in the xG department as Jennings or Reid but even with a significant drop-off with the jump to MLS, he would fit in comfortably with the Diego Rubio’s and the Max Urruti’s of the world. I doubt he would be a prolific MLS striker (though with my record of assessing his MLS prospects he would probably win the golden boot) but I am pretty sure he would be a better option to come on and close out a game than 34 year old Tosaint Ricketts.
When it comes to fulfilling the Tosaint Ricketts role, Campbell ticks all of the boxes. He does a lot of effective defensive work, he generates a lot of shots and he’s got a bit of speed to exploit a stretched defence.
There you have it, folks. Over 4000 words on 12 domestic players I think can make a difference for the Whitecaps next season. But the fun doesn’t stop there. I’m planning to do a part 2 on players who I would not sign for the first team this offseason but who I think are worth keeping an eye on. Given how long this one took to write, and there are even more players on that list, I have no idea when it will be out. But I figure if I tell the 15 people or so who made it to this point that I am going to do it then I will be forced to. So keep an eye out for that!