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Whitecaps Sensible Transfers: U-22 Strikers

Elche CF v Real Zaragoza - Friendly Match Photo by Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

I can’t help but feel a bit anxious this off-season. It feels like everything is set up for the Whitecaps to be legitimately good (at least by their standards) next season. They’ve got a pretty decent core coming together, shed a lot of bad money, and the track record of their new recruitment team is quite strong. But those expectations come with a certain anxiety. What if they screw it up? It feels like if they aren’t good next year then they never will be. It’s an exciting and scary time. The result of this, for me at least, is I’m constantly running possible combinations of ways to allocate their various assets. This is usually the sign that it’s time to write an article.

Lately, I have been thinking more about how the Whitecaps’ squad would be constructed if they do indeed use their DP slot on a pacy-wide player. This would leave them with a U-22 initiative spot (assuming Caio Alexandre is out), and two further senior roster spots to fill the four targets Axel Schuster laid out in his AFTN interview. A quick reminder-they are apparently also looking for a striker, a centre-back, and a goalkeeper. The Whitecaps have been linked to two centre-backs, who were 23 and 25 years old. So it seems they will not be using their U-22 spot there. Schuster also mentioned they were not interested in another project in goal, so it seems highly unlikely their new keeper would be a U-22 player. So if their DP is a winger that only leaves one spot they can fill with a U-22 player and that is a striker.

In a way this kind of makes sense. You have Brian White who you know will hit a certain threshold if he has proper service. He provides a nice safety net for you if the young player takes some time to adapt to a new country, league, language, etc.

So, a quick review of the MLS U-22 initiative. Essentially it allows clubs to sign players under the age of 22, whose transfer fee does not count against the salary cap. They can occupy a U-22 spot until they are 25. They aren’t DPs so long as their salary is under the DP threshold. They can be “U-22” if they are signed the season they turn 22. So in this article, written in December 2022, we will be looking at players who are currently 21 years old or younger.

I used similar search parameters to my article which looked at potential DP striker targets. In fact, there were three players in common between the lists (I begrudgingly decided that Chelsea-linked Datro Fofana was too unrealistic). But I lowered the minutes threshold and I opened it up to more leagues. My logic behind this is as follows. What we are looking for here is not necessarily the leading man of the team in the immediate term. We want somebody who is showing something to suggest that superstardom is in their future but they are early enough on that journey that they are still attainable for the Whitecaps. That said, we want somebody from a level where you could reasonably be expected to be at least an MLS squad player right away. As it turns out, there are not a huge amount of these players. Young strikers scoring a lot of goals tend to be quite expensive and/or have already been snatched up by a big team. So we might as well touch briefly on each of the ones I have identified.

U-22 Strikers

Player Name Current Club Age League NPG/90 xG/90 xA/90 NPG+xA/90 xG+xA/90
Player Name Current Club Age League NPG/90 xG/90 xA/90 NPG+xA/90 xG+xA/90
Aune Selland Heggebö Brann 21 Norway 1/2 0.53 0.78 0.05 0.58 0.83
Musa Qurbanly Qarabag 20 Azerbaijan 1 0.86 0.75 0.08 0.94 0.83
Zan Vipotnik Maribor 20 Slovenia 1 0.82 0.61 0.04 0.86 0.65
Ivan Azon Real Zaragoza 19 Spain 2 0.53 0.56 0.06 0.59 0.62
Nicholas Bonfanti Modena 20 Italy 2 0.77 0.49 0.02 0.79 0.51
Bernhard Zimmerman Rapid Wien 20 Austria 1 0.55 0.46 0.03 0.58 0.49
Ben Waine Wellington Phoenix 21 Austrailia 1 0.53 0.39 0.07 0.6 0.46

Ivan Azon | 19 | Real Zaragoza

Data via Wyscout

We begin with the player who would probably be my first pick. Ivan Azon is in his second full season with Real Zaragoza in the Spanish second tier. He doesn’t start a ton of games so his raw goal totals are not that high but his production on a per-90 basis is very strong. Also, from the clips I have seen, he seems more able to get in behind than Brian White, which is something that Schuster talked about wanting in that interview. Nobody has put a good compilation of him on Youtube, and if I try and add videos from La Liga’s YouTube page a team of commandos will be despatched to kill me. So you’ll just have to trust my analysis of the Wyscout clips.

Bernhard Zimmerman | 20 | Rapid Wien

Data via Wyscout

Bernhard Zimmerman has a strong goal record, albeit in a fairly small sample size, in Austria. Generally speaking, players from the Austrian league have a strong record of translating their production to MLS. Like Azon, he’s not necessarily a pure transition striker but he does have some ability to get in behind. He would certainly be a decent option.

Nicholas Bonfanti | 20 | Modena

Data via Wyscout

Nicholas Bonfanti has an outstanding goal rate in both Serie C and Serie B. But there are a couple things that hold me back. Firstly, he does not seem to be particularly quick. Secondly, he has quite a limited sample size in senior men’s football. There also seems to be a certain amount of xG over-performance that probably portends a dip in his incredible goal scoring pace. But he is still a young guy, scoring a lot of goals, and probably affordable. So he makes the list!

Aune Selland Heggebö | 21| Brann

Data via Wyscout

Normally I would not be that keen on a player in Norway’s second tier, I’m still not really, but Heggebö does have some things about him that are somewhat redeeming. Firstly, he’s only in the Norwegian second tier because his team got relegated. The radar above is his stats from his time in the first tier. Those numbers don’t look too bad for a young striker on a relegated team. Plus, guys who have managed to be decent despite their team being a bit crap have been a real boon to Vancouver’s recruitment over the past couple of seasons. But, despite that, the video doesn’t make Heggebö seem like that great of a fit. I’m just not sure he’s distinct enough from what they had before. He’s on the long list but I would definitely have him closer to the bottom than the top based on what I’ve seen.

Musa Qurbanly | 20 | Qarabag

Data via Wyscout

Qurbanly’s goals and xG/90 are so high that the radar presets can’t really capture him. This guy is scoring a goal in basically every single match he plays. But there are a few things that hold me back. Firstly, the Azerbaijan league (currently ranked 29th in the UEFA Coefficient) is not that good. We have seen attackers from similar leagues, like Adam Buksa and Alexandru Mitirita, be successful in MLS but there is no denying it would be a significant step up. Furthermore, Qurbanly plays for the richest and most dominant team in Azerbaijan, an experience that is quite different from being the striker for the Whitecaps (or most MLS teams, really). To try and get an idea of how he might perform on a more level playing field I watched some clips of him playing for Azerbaijan’s U-21 team. What I saw was a bit concerning. He seemed to have trouble gaining separation from opposing defenders, and most of his shots against stronger teams were from long-range or bad angles. His goal totals still make him interesting to me but there are certainly some red flags.

Zan Vipotnik | 19 | Maribor

Data via Wyscout

Basically, everything I said about Qurbanly goes double for Vipotnik. Except that the young Slovenian seems a lot more comfortable getting in behind opposing defences. That said, it should be noted he has a much smaller sample size in his country’s top division than Qurbanly.

Ben Waine | 21 | Wellington Phoenix

Data via Wyscout

We finish with a player I know very well. Waine is sort of in the opposite situation from Vipotnik and Qurbanly. He has been pouncing on table scraps in a Wellington Phoenix side that plays full-on sufferball. I have my doubts. I think A-League to MLS is quite a big jump, he’s a bit lacking technically, and he isn’t even always a nailed-on starter. But every time I watch him I can’t help but feel that he would compliment Ryan Gauld really well. He’s extremely quick, has great off-the-ball movement, and is surprisingly good in the air for someone his size.