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Where Did All the Money Go?: An Analysis of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Increased Spending

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MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps currently sit 12th in the Western Conference. Their underlying data suggests they are slightly better than that but they are clearly in the bottom half of teams in the league. This has lead to a lot of questions being asked about what they are doing with all the money they are spending. After all, a report declared them CONCACAF’s highest spending team in 2020 and two of the top five highest transfer fees in the club’s history were spent this season. So, what did they do with all that money? Let’s look into it. This article will specifically look at players who were signed for a fee since the arrival of Axel Schuster. So players like In-Beom Hwang who were signed before his arrival, or Cristian Dájome who came on a free transfer, aren’t going to be covered here. I have chosen to do this because that arrival of Schuster seemed to coincide with a change in strategy when it came to transfer fees, with the club showing more willingness to spend transfer fees but generally targeting younger players who would have lower salary demands.

Before we begin we should ask ourselves; How do we judge a transfer? An article that i’ve found very insightful on that topic is this one by Tiago Estêvâo. I highly recommend the whole thing but the most important section is the one pulled below.

With that out of the way, let’s begin.

Lucas Cavallini: 6,000,000

Schuster’s time as sporting director began with a big splash. About half of the money that pushed the Whitecaps to being CONCACAF’s highest spending team was spent on Cavallini. I don’t totally love the idea of spending 6 million on a player who was about to turn 27 because you are probably never going to recoup that cost. But the signs were there that Cavallini could be a really effective player in the right circumstances. Everybody and their dog knew that Cavallini’s success would be dictated by the ability of the Whitecaps to get him service. So far they have not been able to do that for any sustained period. Maddeningly we saw about a 7 game period where Lucas Cavallini played with Fredy Montero and produced like a top level MLS striker. So he can do it if he has the right players around him. But the Whitecaps have mostly frittered away the prime years of Cavallini that they spent so much money for. Cavallini is 28 this season, he will be 29 before the next one starts. From what we know about aging curves, this is the point when strikers begin to decline. Good player, mediocre deal, terrible planning.

Leonard Owusu: 1,100,000

The next big transfer outlay of Schuster’s time was to bring in Owusu. Owusu is a good example of a transfer that made a lot of sense but just has not worked out in practice. The Whitecaps desperately needed to strengthen their midfield. Owusu had good data, good video, was spoken highly of by people who had seen him play and was just entering his prime years. It just hasn’t worked out so far. Owusu’s data and video showed a player who was adept at winning the ball back and making aggressive passes up the pitch. His time in Vancouver has been marked by basically being the opposite of that. This might suggest that moving from the Israeli league to MLS is too big a jump. It’s certainly a jump in quality but Gadi Kinda joined SKC the same season and basically picked up exactly where he left off in Israel so that isn’t really a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps Owusu would do better under a different manager (if hypothetically speaking, that were something that may be on the horizon). The transfer fee for Owusu may have been slightly high but overall I have a hard time taking issue with the logic that went into signing him.

Erik Godoy: 1,490,000

Godoy’s loan was made permanent in 2020. With the departure of Doneil Henry there was no real argument against doing this.

David Milinkovic: 100,000

I think it’s fair to say the Whitecaps got more than 100k worth of player but he then mysteriously disappeared from the team and was let go on a free. So... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Ranko Veselinovic: 649,000

Like with Owusu, I don’t hate the logic of this transfer at all. Veselinovic was a highly thought of young defender in Serbia and getting him for that price is a pretty reasonable deal. Obviously he struggled to adapt to MLS at first but remember that’s the risk you take with signing literally any player. He even started to look pretty comfortable this season before being dropped for no discernable reason.

Janio Bikel: 2,200,000

When I sat down to write this article I was planning to say that Bikel was a decent player but that 2.2 million was just too much money for a pure ball winner. But then I went back and looked at his radar from his time in Bulgaria and, honestly, that kind of looks like a player worth 2.2 million doesn’t it?

Radar from @GalindoPW on Twitter

Now, obviously the Bulgarian league is a lower level than MLS (it currently sits 24th/55 in the UEFA coefficient). But would you reasonably expect, for example, for Bikel’s passes into the final 3rd per match to fall by over 60%? After the 2019 season the Whitecaps desperately needed strengthening in the midfield and Bikel looked like a player who could make a really positive difference. So far that has not fully materialized but at the time of the transfer this looked like a really good fit for what they needed.

Deiber Caicedo: 2,500,000

Caicedo was the first major signing after the arrival of Nikos Overhuel as head of recruitment. Caicedo came in with the expectation (at least from me) that he would be a standard MLS starter in year one and that he would grow into a very good one over the next couple of years. His data and video were good and at only 21 years old he still had a lot of time to improve (this guy is 2 years younger than Patrick Metcalfe). The Whitecaps only had one established winger in Cristian Dájome so they did need somebody like Caicedo. I know we’re supposed to be banishing how the players actually performed from our minds; But I think if you look at the number of shots Caicedo is involved in compared to how few touches of the ball he actually gets then there is every reason to think he can develop into a beast at MLS level. This was a good transfer.

Caio Alexandre: 4,000,000

Alexandre was a really good, young, ball progressing midfielder on a terrible team in a league better than MLS. The Whitecaps needed someone like that (because the guys they bought to do that the previous year did not work out) so this transfer was pretty reasonable. The transfer fee may be a bit on the high side, turning a profit on that in the future might be a challenge, but just in terms of player quality this was a great transfer.

Conclusions:

Spending so much money and ending up at the bottom of the Western Conference is naturally going to lead to questions about the quality of recruitment. But most of Vancouver’s signings in the Axel Schuster era have been reasonable targets for which a reasonable fee was payed. They’re not doing anything mind blowing. They are yet to pluck some previously unheard of super star out of the Bosnian Sunday league for a $5 Subway gift card. But they are mostly targeting players in their early 20s who have good data in solid leagues. That should be a winning strategy, but so far it has not been.

I think we need to start asking questions about what happens once those players arrive in Vancouver. It’s tempting to blame embattled head coach Marc Dos Santos, and i’m sure he shares a heavy portion of the blame, but this has been a problem for a long time in Vancouver. Maybe it is time for a rethink of the way Vancouver integrates new signings. Assistant coach Rico Clark was brought in this year to do more individual work with players. It’s too early to judge what effect, if any, that will have. Other initiatives like that might be worth looking in too.