Hacker: And are you saying this nuclear defence system would stop all 192 Polaris missiles?
Sir Humphrey: Well not all-virtually all-ninety seven percent!
Hacker: Well that would still leave, what, about five bombs that would get through?
Sir Humphrey: Precisely, A meer five!
Hacker: Enough to obliterate Moscow, Leningrad, and Minsk
Sir Humphrey: Yes but that’s about all!
Hacker: I should have thought it was enough to make the Russians stop and think
Sir Humphrey: But it’s not fair. With Trident we could obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe!
-“The grand design.” Yes Prime Minister, Created by Antony Jay and Johnathon Lynn, Season 1, Episode 1, BBC, 1980.
I thought of the above exchange when conceiving this article. I will explain why as we proceed.
I have had two pretty successful years of Whitecaps predictions. If you prorated the 2020 season to a full 34 games then I would have gotten their finish right almost to the exact number of goals scored. In 2021 they finished one spot higher than my overall standings prediction. I also did a pretty good job of predicting how individual players would perform. If I may quote from a couple of my articles
So, with training camp fast approaching I have been thinking about what reasonable expectations for the 2022 season might be. Truthfully, I’m having a very hard time figuring it out.
On the one hand, Under Vanni Sartini the Whitecaps were one of the hottest teams in the league. On the other hand, they unquestionably were the serious beneficiaries of good luck and xG over-performance. But on the third hand of this contemplative monstrosity, Sartini was missing a lot of key players due to injury during that period.
Zooming in on individual players, we also see a lot of guys with the potential to be serious difference makers but the realization of that potential is by no means guaranteed. Let’s go through some of these players so you can see what I mean.
It’s maybe a bit weird to talk about the guy who has been the first-choice goalkeeper for the past 3 years as an X-Factor. But for the last 3 months of the 2021 season Crepeau, at age 27, played by far the best football of his career. After mostly being a pretty standard MLS starter level goalkeeper for 2.5 years, Crepeau was the best goalkeeper in the league from August onwards in goals saved above expected. Crepeau saved 6.33 goals above expected according to American soccer analysis, which is pretty incredible for less than half a season’s worth of games.
The question is though, can he keep that up? 27 is a bit late in a player’s career to take the step from pretty good to elite. But maybe it was just a matter of finally having a fully healthy season and a decent team in front of him. I certainly don’t know!
If Crepeau can keep up that level of form and they make some improvements elsewhere then we could get to a situation where the Whitecaps simply don’t concede. According to American Soccer Analysis’ G+ metric they were already doing pretty well in their own 1/3rd it’s just the ball was always there. So if you pair that good performance with Crepeau being a brick wall and a midfield that can prevent the opposition from entering the final 3rd so easily then you have the recipe for a team that’s pretty bloody hard to score on.
All of that seems plausible. But none of it is exactly guaranteed. It seems equally plausible that Crepeau regresses and that the midfielders still have trouble preventing the opposition from advancing the ball and we end up with the Whitecaps shipping 55 goals. But these two, in my mind, equally possible scenarios mean wildly different outcomes for the team. What’s a prognosticator to do?
For two seasons now Cristian Gutierrez has provided a remarkable amount of offence for a fullback on a bad team. In 2020 he was in the 97th percentile in expected assists amongst fullbacks despite playing on a very dour tear team. In 2021, he was leading the team in key passes per game before Ryan Gauld came on the scene, though his totals were heavily boosted by the fact he took corners and free kicks.
It seems reasonable, therefore, that in a better team and in a wingback role with more freedom to get forward he could be even more effective. We only got to see one game of Gutierrez as a wingback in Sartini’s system last year due to injury. He put in a cross that lead to the Whitecaps’ only goal, set up Brian White with a high danger scoring opportunity, and 7 final 3rd entries. So the sample we have is astonishing but it’s also minuscule. Maybe somebody smarter than me can figure out what a move to a more attacking role will mean for Gutierrez’s output in the long run, but I certainly can’t. It might lead to a big increase or it might not.
Before an injury ended his season Alexandre was having a pretty decent season. But he didn’t quite hit the heights I thought he was capable of. He lead the Whitecaps in most passing stats by a mile but the secondary goal-scoring I was hoping for didn’t materialize.
At the same time though, he didn’t get to play a single minute with Ryan Gauld. That should take some of the pressure off of him and allow him to shine as bright as he is capable of. Alexandre has spent his whole career so far being a good player on bad teams. So the thought of getting to see him on a team that’s at least average is pretty exciting. Still, though, Alexandre is coming off a pretty serious injury and we don’t really know how that might affect him. Of all the X-Factors I think Alexandre is the most likely to pay off but we’ll have to see how that injury might have impacted him.
So Many Strikers:
The Whitecaps have a lot of strikers in the mix. Brian White who is coming off three consecutive seasons of scoring 0.5 goals per game and has already established chemistry with Ryan Gauld is about as sure a thing as you can get. But after him, there’s a lot of magic beans! Let’s take a look at each of them individually
We all kind of assumed he was gone but it doesn’t seem like a departure is imminent. We have seen seven glorious games of DP-level play from Cavallini when he formed a good partnership with Fredy Montero. Since then it has mostly been rash tackles and ill-advised attempts to involve himself in the buildup from Cavallini. But those 7 games did happen so it can be done. Plus, Ryan Gauld is a lot better than Fredy Montero and Cavallini was doing significantly better than Brian White on the crappy Gauld-less Whitecaps so it seems plausible he could get back to his best.
Or he might not. Part of what makes White so effective is that he understands his strengths and role in the team and plays accordingly. Cavallini insists on involving himself in all areas of the game, even though he is not equally gifted in all areas of the game.
After two seasons in a row where he didn’t establish himself and a good but not great loan spell in the Norwegian second division, I am mostly over Bair. But there’s one little line of thinking that I can’t quite get out of my mind. Until the arrival of Ryan Gauld, Brian White was shockingly ineffective. But once he started actually getting the ball he reversed course completely and became one of the league’s most prolific strikers. Bair’s career MLS xG+xA/90 is 0.01 higher than White’s was before Gauld arrived in Vancouver (and got most of his minutes on significantly crappier Whitecaps teams).
One of the things that portended White’s breakout was he had a very high xG/shot. So his teammates almost never got him the ball but when they did he was receiving it in dangerous scoring areas. When we look at the one MLS season where Bair got some serious minutes...
Do I think a White style breakout for Bair is likely? No! It didn’t happen on a HamKam team that dominated the Norwegian second division and MLS is a much higher level than that. But there’s, like, a 15% chance it could happen and if it does then the Whitecaps are going to be tough to stop.
Egbo is yet to take the field in MLS and a combination of injuries and a seeming lack of faith from the manager stopped him from truly getting going in USL. But xG numbers were pretty good-consistent with a player who could be an above average starter in MLS. His status as an international might make it difficult for him to establish himself in the squad but he seems to have the ability to do it.
The true wildcard, we don’t know what to expect from Becher or even if he will be signed to the first team right away. But the Whitecaps managed two pretty impressive picks in the super draft last year and it seems like the new recruitment department takes it a lot more seriously. If he’s as good a striker as Javain Brown is a right back then he’ll do some damage. But I don’t know enough about college soccer, or Becher specifically to say confidently that he is.
If any one of these strikers can form good chemistry with White and Gauld and reach their maximum potential the Whitecaps’ attack will be nearly unstoppable. But the most important word in that sentence is “if.”
The Whitecaps had one of the youngest squads in the league last season. Potential can be a hard thing to predict but there are a ton of players in the squad who could take a big step forward.
Newcomer Pedro Vite is one of the most highly thought of prospects out of Ecuador, already has good showings in the Copa Libertadores under his belt, and at 19 still has lots of room to grow.
Kamron Habibullah has long been considered the next big thing but, at 17, was very much still adjusting to playing against men last season. If he can take a big step this season that gives the ‘Caps another dangerous attacking weapon.
21 year old Deiber Caicedo had a good start to life in MLS but if he can take another big step he’s a very good compliment to Gauld and White. White is very slow and Gauld is good at everything except dribbling. So Caicedo, as a guy who is fast and good at dribbling, has a good style to play with them. But can he be productive enough to put the team over the top?
22 year old Ranko Veselinovic took a big leap from one of the league’s worst centre backs in 2020 to an average starter in 2021. Can he take another leap and become an elite level starter in 2022?
22 year old Michael Baldisimo is still around and, while he isn’t the most natural fit for Sartini’s system he was the only Whitecap challenging Alexandre in those ball progression metrics last year. If he can figure it out that will make a big difference.
It is very unlikely that all, or even a majority of these X-Factors will work out next season. But is also seems pretty unlikely that none of them will work out. One might be tempted to proclaim “anything could happen” but I generally feel it’s a massive cop out when pundits pull that. So, even though I find myself flummoxed on making a precise prediction, I will tell you what I think is the most likely.
Enough of these players will make the break through to get the team into the playoffs but the team that destroys all of Eastern Europe (which I guess is winning an MLS Cup in the analogy from the start) probably isn’t turning up this year. Still, there’s a lot of offseason to go and they might surprise us with a few big transactions out of left field.