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The Vancouver Whitecaps’ Midfielder Graveyard

Vancouver Whitecaps FC v Portland Timbers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

I predicted big things for the Marc Dos Santos Whitecaps. The past three years has been a process of me being completely owned and everyone who disagreed with me at the time being vindicated (c’est la vie). But the thing that finally proved definitively (to me at least) that coaching is a big problem in Vancouver is what will be outlined in this article.

There is no nice way of saying this. Every single midfielder who has played for the Whitecaps over the last three years did better at progressing the ball when they were not coached by Marc Dos Santos (yes, even Russell Teibert). They have all either moved on and performed better, were better before, or performed better at a different club.

My suspicions were first aroused by the play of Leo Owusu in the Whitecaps midfield.

I was pretty excited for Owusu at the time of his signing so it’s always been kind of baffling to me that he has looked the way he does in Vancouver. Sure, it’s a bit of a jump from the Israeli premier league to MLS but Gadi Kinda made it all right in MLS. Owusu, however, has seen his progressive passes per game and his passes into the final 3rd absolutely crater in Vancouver.

Data Courtesy of Fbref and @GalindoPW on Twitter

But, I mused to myself, there’s always a risk with any transfer. Sometimes players just don’t work out in a new environment at a higher level.

But I became less sure about that line of thinking when I looked at Janio Bikel’s data before he joined Vancouver.

Data Courtesy of Fbref and @GalindoPW on Twitter

If anything the decline in progressive passing is more pronounced with Bikel (though he has played more “long passes” in Vancouver). So I took my concerns to Twitter.

The two responses I got pointed out that MLS is a higher level than Israel or Bulgaria. That is true but I still was a bit unsure if that could explain all of the decline.

But what about a player who came from a league that’s generally considered to be better than MLS? Caio Alexandre joined this season from the Brazilian Serie A. You would expect his numbers to be up since he is now playing against easier competition. And yet...

Data Courtesy of Fbref and Wyscout via @GalindoPW on Twitter

Deep progressions are basically the number of times the player has progressed the ball into the final 3rd through passing and carrying. Alexandre’s decline is less noticeable because he is a really good player. But considering he came in from a relegated team in a better league you would expect there to be improvement not regression.

Maybe that’s splitting hairs though. After all, Alexandre is pretty close to what he was doing in Brazil.

So, I though, what about players who have played lots of time in MLS, both under MDS and under different coaches. Felipe was a player who never seemed to live up to expectations in Vancouver. By the time he left people were pretty sick of him, including me if i’m honest. But a look at how he’s performed under different managers shows that maybe we were to harsh.

Thank’s to the partnership between fbref and statbomb we have tonnes of detailed data on MLS players. Here are Felipe’s passing stats in 2018, the last season of Carl Robinson.

As we can see Felipe was not totally dominating the league or anything, but he was doing alright. He wasn’t necessarily passing forward a ton but he was setting up shots (partly due to being on set pieces) and was around the average in most other things.

Here is Felipe in 2019, where he mostly played under MDS.

The decline here is pretty obvious. He was passing into the final 3rd and penalty area even less often, he was making fewer progressive passes, and basically saw declines across the board.

Here is how Felipe has performed over the past 365 days, which have mostly been played under Hernan Losada.

In the past year Felipe has been in the top quartile for progressive passes, and in the top 3rd for both passes into the final 3rd and penalty area. Comparing this to how he did under Vancouver’s two most recent managers is kind of incredible.

I feel my point is pretty well made already but just to be double sure, let’s look at the king of passing backwards.

Here is how Russel Teibert performed in the last season under Carl Robinson.

Just like Felipe, this is not exactly amazing. It is true that he did not pass forwards as much as you would like from a starting central midfielder. But he was in the top half of MLS midfielders in progressive passing distance! That blew my mind. Plus, he was pretty good at retaining the ball.

Here is how he has done over the past 365 days in MLS.

That is a pretty shocking decline. I don’t really know what else to say. If twice is coincidence and three times is pattern then what is five? And this only includes the midfielders where I had access to data from the multiple leagues the had played in.

If you want to see what this lack of forwards passing looks like in practice then i’d highly recommend this recent article from my boss Samuel Rowan.

But you probably didn’t need telling that the Whitecaps players generally look a bit confused about what they’re supposed to do and don’t do a very good job of creating space with their off ball movement.

A 2018 article by Steven Sandor quotes a former Ottawa Fury player who describes MDS as “the best motivator he ever played for” and says players would run through a wall for him. Dos Santos also did have a pretty incredible record in the second division before making the jump to an MLS head coaching job. So it is kind of weird to me that this is happening but at this point it is pretty undeniable that it is. Maybe all that second division success was fraudulent and it took the jump to MLS to expose that. Maybe Vancouver was just a bad fit. We won’t really know until he moves on to another job. But it is abundantly clear that it’s just not working here.