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Julian Gressel: The Future is Now

MLS: D.C. United at Philadelphia Union Mitchell Leff-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps have acquired wingback Julian Gressel for 900k in allocation money. It’s an exciting move that instantly improves the ‘Caps and has some interesting implications for their medium-term future.

Gressel has been one of the league’s star players for quite some time now so I don’t feel like I need to reintroduce him in too much detail. But by way of a quick overview, Gressel is basically the best attacking wingback in the league. He has 19 goals and 48 assists in 168 MLS appearances. He averages 0.46 xG+xA per 90, which is quite literally the best of any wing back or full back in the league. It’s a tally that plenty of out-and-out attackers would be envious of. When it comes to attacking, there really is nobody who can touch him.

But this offensive power comes with a trade-off. Defensively he is extremely touchable (sure, let’s go with that). Stats are notoriously a bit unreliable when evaluating defence but Gressel’s numbers when it comes to tackling, interceptions, aerial duels won, and pressures are all pretty bad. This is more than made up for by his offensive output but it is something that has to be planned for tactically. A midfield four of say, Gressel-Teibert-Owusu-Dájome, would probably not be a good idea because it would be way too easy to get past it. Things will obviously get a lot easier when Cubas returns from injury as his defensive prowess should allow the team to set up in a more aggressive stance.

The offence that Gressel adds is desperately needed. Their defence is actually not that bad, they rank 16th out of 28 teams in expected goals against per game. That’s not amazing but it’s decent, you could make the playoffs with that if your offence was good enough. Their attack, on the other hand, has been pretty poor, ranking 27th out of 28. Even if we take the extremely generous view that the early season struggles don’t count, and what we’ve seen lately is the true quality of the team, the Whitecaps’ attack has only been 26th since the start of May (the defence is a very impressive 9th!). No doubt key contributors like Gauld, White, Caicedo, and Alexandre being injured at various times have contributed to this somewhat. But watching the games it’s pretty clear that the Whitecaps have had a tough time converting final 3rd entries to shots. I theorized after the last match that part of the problem was that their wingbacks, while all useful in their own way, were not that big of a direct scoring threat. This meant that opponents could just collapse around their goal and be pretty sure that nothing bad was going to happen to them. Well, Gressel means they can’t be so sure anymore. He’s a threat to unlock a defence with a well-placed cross or just by having a go himself. His dangerous crossing should help Cavallini and White achieve all they are capable of and stretch defences, giving Gauld and Vite more space to make things happen in the midfield. All together Gressel makes the team better and more fun to watch.

But what’s most interesting to me is how it affects the team’s plans for the next couple of seasons. Gressel is 28, turning 29 shortly. Most players peak around 27, undergoing a slow decline thereafter. Next season the Whitecaps will have Cavallini (30), Ryan Gauld (27), Andres Cubas (26), and Gressel (29). Furthermore, the young money players (or whatever their official name is) have a reduced cap hit until they are 25. Caio Alexandre will be 24 and Deiber Caicedo will be 23. So if they’re going to win something with this core they had better do it pretty soon.

I think it’s doable but it’s going to require a bit more ruthlessness from the coaching staff and front office when it comes to surrounding this core with the right pieces. They can’t be super loyal to players who can’t hang. Their key pieces can play to their absolute limits but if their keeper isn’t giving them a save when they need it, sub-par players are filling out the rest of the lineup, or the players coming off the bench don’t have the required level to make an impact.

The new look Whitecaps front office has done a pretty good job of building out a fairly strong first 11. But now they need to show that they can build out the middle and bottom of the roster in a way that supports that strong first team. That might mean some old favorites have to be kicked to the curb. Do they have the ruthlessness to do it? I hope so. It’s nice that the team is improving but I’m getting a bit sick of hearing about how if they just hadn’t had so many injuries, or had better luck things would have been different. I don’t want to finish another season talking about how they showed real promise at the end of the season so if they just run it back maybe they can make something happen. I want to see greatness. It is within their grasp.