The Vancouver Whitecaps won a trophy this week, for the first time since 2015. It was nice to get one over on Vancouver’s big rivals and be able to taunt Toronto media people on Twitter. But if that success (and fun online taunting) is going to continue, the Canadian championship can’t be the height of Vancouver’s ambitions. I have talked a lot about how the Whitecaps’ window to win something, in this case, we could be talking about at least one of the CONCACAF Champions League, Supporter’s Shield, or MLS Cup, is in the next 2-3 years. The Whitecaps have a core of players who can achieve that if they have the right supporting cast. The need to build the right supporting cast brings us to the topic of this article: The Whitecap’s goalkeeping really sucks.
The Whitecaps started the year with Thomas Hasal in goal, who was mostly bad. It was not so much that Hasal was letting in howlers, just that every halfway decent chance against him went in. Hasal went down with an injury and was replaced by Cody Cropper. There is a not inconsiderable body of opinion that things improved significantly when Cropper went in goal. I have to say, I find this interpretation of events to be a bit bewildering because Cropper has also mostly been bad, and if anything a bit worse than Hasal. If we look at American Soccer Analysis’ G+ metric for goalkeepers (a quick explainer on how that works and what all the categories mean can be found here) the picture becomes pretty clear.
I have two big takeaways from this data. Firstly that Hasal is the superior goalkeeper. Secondly, and both importantly, neither of these guys is very good. Hasal at least has time on his side, being younger, but I would not feel confident going into next season with him as the uncontested #1. I know the Whitecaps said they wanted to develop Hasal, and I myself called for him to get a bit more of a runout. But if you give a young player a chance and it turns out he wasn’t ready for that chance I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying “well, we tried.” What I have a problem with is when the young players don’t get a chance in the first place.
Now, when presented with data about Cropper’s deficiencies, people often come back with some version of “yeah, but it feels different with Cropper in goal.” Even former Canadian national team player and goalkeeper coach Paul Dolan has been full of praise for Cropper on Whitecaps broadcasts. So I think it’s worth going into why it feels different with Cropper in goal, as it’s not just a fringe crank opinion.
I think it mainly comes down to two factors. Firstly, the Whitecaps have defended a bit better as a team in the games Cropper has played in goal. With Hasal in goal the Whitecaps gave up 1.51 expected goals per game and that figure has shrunk slightly to 1.45 per game with Cropper in goal. Cropper also has a much better record than Hasal in terms of wins and losses. But, as I discussed way back when Vancouver was bottom of the league, the Whitecaps were getting incredibly unlucky in the early parts of the season. Their results were always going to improve as their luck changed so the fact that it started with Cropper in goal seems like a classic case of correlation not equaling causation.
But I think what it mainly comes down to is that, unlike Hasal, Cropper does genuinely make spectacular saves. These spectacular saves are more than offset by the soft goals he lets in but they are visceral and stick in your mind in a way that Thomas Hasal looking on forlornly as another good but not great shot goes by him does not.
If there’s one anecdote that sums Cropper up it was the sequence in Vancouver’s home match against Real Salt Lake where he made a world-class save on Sergio Cordova, only to get beat at his near post by a not particularly hard shot less than a minute later.
There are also often claims that Cropper is better on crosses than Hasal. But, as we can see from the “claiming” category above, that just isn’t true in any measurable sense. Even if you want to go off of pure numbers, Hasal stops 9.6% of the crosses he faces compared to Cropper’s 5.1%.
But the long and the short of it is that Vancouver’s goalkeepers are bad. They have the 4th worst goals saved above/below expected according to fbref, with their goalkeepers collectively giving up 7 more goals than would be expected based on the quality of the shots they have faced. For a team that is once again right around the playoff line, that could be the difference between being in and being out. If they want to ever win anything bigger than the Canadian championship then this is not a situation that can continue. I have talked a lot about the club being overly loyal to mediocre players this season. Sticking with a goalkeeper group that was around when the team had success, but did not actually contribute to that success, would be a prime example of the sort of thing I am talking about.
So, how should the Whitecaps look to strengthen the goalkeeping position? Well, firstly I thought it would be a good idea to establish a benchmark to aim for. So I looked at the performances of the goalkeepers of teams who won either the MLS cup or the Supporter’s shield. To be honest, the effects of goalkeepers were a little bit less than I was expecting. The average MLS cup-winning goalkeeper, since 2013 has saved 0.02 more goals than expected per match and the average shield winner has saved 0.08 goals per match. These work out to between 1 and 3 goals saved above expected throughout the season. There have even been a few goalkeepers who won silverware while conceding slightly more goals than expected, although this has not happened since 2018 for the MLS cup and not since 2015 for the Shield. This says to me that, as MLS grows, having a dependable goalkeeper is becoming more important, not less so. It does make sense that most trophy-winning keepers are not doing anything that crazy. After all, if you are relying on your goalkeeper to bail you out every single game, as opposed to just occasionally, you probably aren’t winning any trophies.
So, we know what we’re aiming for. Now let’s take a look at methods of acquiring a goalkeeper. The first thing that occurred to me was to try and establish who the league’s best keeper that isn’t currently the #1 at their club and try and get them in a trade. So I looked at goalkeepers who had played at least 1500 minutes in this season and the last two before it who were not currently the first choice on their team.
This process yielded two obvious options, both of whom have some points that make them very attractive and a couple of points that make them less so.
The first option is Seattle’s Stefan Cleveland (28), who comes with a lot to recommend him. Firstly, as we can see from the G+ metric, he is very good at keeping the ball out of the net, and not bad with his feet.
Secondly, he is on a very team-friendly contract, making just 167k in guaranteed compensation. This contract has another year on it, plus an option. So in theory he could provide very effective goalkeeping for the Whitecaps for almost the entirety of their window to win without them having to give him a big raise. This would, in turn, free them up to invest more in the players in front of the keeper.
But the problem is that Seattle is one of the smartest teams in MLS. This means that they are keenly aware that Cleveland is good and that 36-year-old starter Stefan Frei only has so much time left. So they may not be willing to part with him cheaply.
The next best option is Clement Diop (28). Diop had a difficult start to life in MLS but really found his feet in Montreal. A move to Inter Miami did not go well for Diop as he got off to a rough start to the season and was replaced by the younger Drake Callendar. But, despite that bad start, Diop has had a lot more good games than bad over the last three years.
His contract is even more team-friendly than Cleveland’s at just 136k in guaranteed compensation. Since Inter Miami has seemingly found a long-term starter, they would probably be willing to part with Diop relatively cheaply. But the problem is unless I’m mistaken, he would occupy an international slot.
After trades, the next logical place to look is free agency. There are some appealing options out of contract. Two goalkeepers have been net positives for their teams over the time we are looking at who will be free agents at the end of the year. New York City F.C’s Sean Johnson (33) and Toronto F.C’s Alex Bono (28). But they also present certain problems. Firstly, they are free agents coming off good seasons and as a result will be able to command top dollar, perhaps even more than they are worth. The other problem is reliability. Although they have been net positives over the past three seasons, they have not been good for each of the last three seasons. This is a particularly big problem for Bono. Bono has been in MLS for quite some time and played significant minutes in six seasons. Aside from this season, he was a big positive impact on TFC in 2017, about even in 2016, and a negative impact in 2018, 19, and 21. So you would be betting big on your ability to get the good Alex Bono and not the bad Alex Bono. Johnson is more reliable but he has only had two really big seasons and mostly been about average other than that. So there’s a not insignificant chance you would be paying a ton of money for basically average goalkeeping.
You could also look to USL or CPL for options but, I’ve got to be honest, I’m not convinced any of the options are better than what the ‘Caps currently have. You could also look for Canadians and Americans playing abroad, which I did through Wyscout. The Canadian options are decidedly uninspiring but there is one American who might be both attainable and good. That would be 29-year-old Josh Cohen, who plays for Maccabi Haifa in Israel. Cohen was a standout in USL before moving to Israel in 2020. He has continued to do well there and played in both Europa League and Champions League qualifiers so the jump to MLS should be manageable.