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Lucas Cavallini: The Most Whitecaps Signing of All Time (Not in a Good Way)

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Real Salt Lake Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

I conceived of this article idea about a year and a half ago. I was planning to save it for Cavallini’s eventual departure but now seems as good a time as any. Lucas Cavallini’s head stomp on Alex Muyl may very well have damned the Whitecaps’ playoff hopes for the 2022 season so it seems like a good time to reflect on his three years in Vancouver. I think El Tanque’s time with the Whitecaps is important to examine. In a lot of ways, I feel he is emblematic of why the Whitecaps are the way they are and there are a lot of important lessons to be learned from it. I do want to be clear though, even though this article will mostly discuss Cavallini’s transfer to Vancouver as a negative thing, I don’t think he is a bad player. A good player and a good signing are not necessarily synonymous. Fit with the squad, the player’s age, and the point they are at in their career are all important considerations when deciding who to sign. Indeed those considerations are a big part of the problem with the Whitecaps signing him. But there will be time to get into all of that.

I would like to start by juxtaposing the timeline of Cavallini’s career with what was happening to the Whitecaps during the same period.

2011: Lucas Cavallini signs his first professional contract with Nacional in Uruguay.

The Whitecaps play their first season in MLS. It’s hard to take issue with this phase. Canadian players try their luck in other countries all the time and most of them don’t amount to anything.

2014: Cavallini, having turned in some good performances with Canadian youth teams, made his senior debut, and scored at a decent clip in Uruguay moves to Fenix on a loan that would eventually become a permanent transfer.

The Whitecaps have their best MLS season to date thanks to the excellent play of Pedro Morales and some solid defending. But there is the sense that strikers Darren Mattocks and Erik Hurtado are not making the most of what the Chilean playmaker is giving them. If you want to put a number to that feeling, the two collectively managed 10 non-penalty goals from a little over 14 expected non-penalty goals.

2015: Fenix opts to keep Cavallini, signing him on a free transfer. He scored 28 goals for them throughout a little over three seasons.

The Whitecaps break their transfer record on Octavio Rivero hoping he can provide more reliability than Mattocks and Hurtado. Rivero gets off to a hot start but quickly fizzles out, scoring only 9 non-penalty goals across a season and a half before being sold at a loss. The Whitecaps have, in terms of underlying data, what is still their best MLS season ever. But this is mainly due to their stout defence. Their attack is in the bottom half of the league in both expected goals and actual goals.

2016: Seemingly spooked by Rivero’s struggles in the second half of the season the Whitecaps bring in Blas Perez and Masato Kudo to support him. They also trade for Giles Barnes later in the season. Not a single Whitecaps striker scores more than two goals that season and the club misses the playoffs for the first time in the Carl Robinson era. I like to post the chart that shows the Whitecaps’ expected goal difference per game since 2013. On that chart, it is pretty clear that 2016 is the point where the wheels start to fall off. The Whitecaps player recruitment strategy is starting to fall behind as the rest of the league gets smarter.

2017: Lucas Cavallini earns a move to Peñarol for an undisclosed fee. He plays a handful of games for them, scoring a goal every 122 minutes, and is then loaned to Puebla in Liga MX.

The Whitecaps bring in Fredy Montero on loan. Montero does reasonably well but it’s clear he’s not the most natural fit in the Whitecaps’ cross-heavy attack. They make the playoffs but a glance at the underlying numbers shows that their form is a mirage. They bow out to the Seattle Sounders in an embarrassing fashion.

2018: Impressed by Cavallini’s play, Puebla makes his transfer permanent for a reported 1.29 million fee.

The Whitecaps bring in two strikers who seem like a better fit for the team. Anthony Blondell is signed for a reported 1 million fee and Kei Kamara is brought in for a first-round draft pick. Blondell scores one goal that was probably going in anyway and mysteriously disappears from the squad midway through the season. He is loaned out and later sold the season after. It eventually comes to light that Blondell has been charged with sexual assault, a charge he fails to appear in court for. A warrant is issued for his arrest in 2021. Kei Kamara forms a successful partnership with Alphonso Davies but leaves Vancouver after one season. Leaked emails reveal that new head coach Marc Dos Santos felt Kamara would make it difficult to implement the culture shift he was hoping for. The pick the Whitecaps traded away becomes DeJuan Jones, a very useful player with almost 100 MLS appearances to his name. Later in that draft future, Canadian international Kamal Miller is taken by Orlando. Also of note in 2018, though not directly tied to the Cavallini timeline, LAFC signs Mark Anthony Kaye for a nominal fee.

2019: Despite Puebla being middling at best, Cavallini establishes himself as a fairly reliable goal scorer and an important player for them.

The Whitecaps’ attempts to overhaul their squad fall flat on their face. A returning Fredy Montero scores only three open play goals and Joaquin Ardaiz doesn’t score at all. By the end of the year, both are behind veteran Tosaint Ricketts and rookie Theo Bair on most people’s depth charts

2020: Here is where the timelines converge. The Whitecaps shatter their transfer record to bring in Cavallini, who is now just shy of his 27th birthday. Now, anyone who is paying attention will note that there were quite a lot of opportunities to sign him for a lot less, even for free, before this. Could the Whitecaps have convinced him to come at those points? Who knows. But I don’t think competing with wages and status of the Uruguayan league would be that difficult. There are also quite a lot of reasons to feel anxious about the signing, most of which are pointed out contemporaneously. Firstly, the one that most people latch on to, there are questions about the Whitecaps’ ability to get him service. The Whitecaps had one of the worst seasons in MLS history in 2019 and it is not clear how slapping a striker on top of that, even a good one, is going to work out. Also, there is the issue of age. Research has shown most players peak around age 27 and undergo a slow decline thereafter. So spending so much money on a late-20s player often does not work out. They are likely to depreciate both in terms of ability and resale value. Of course, there would be no need to worry about the resale value if you had snagged him for free in 2014 but when you spend 6 million on a player and you don’t usually spend that kind of money it has to be taken into consideration.

Still, Cavallini is undeniably pretty good and there is a sense of excitement that the Whitecaps are starting to splash the cash. There are even some tentative signs in pre-season that he is forming a good relationship with fellow DPs In-Beom Hwang and Ali Adnan. But then the pandemic struck and we never get to see if that trio would blossom. Cavallini never plays in the same team as Hwang again and he struggles without a creator behind him. As we all have become painfully aware, El Tanque is not exactly a finesse player nor is he strong in the build-up phase of the game.

But at the end of the season, we got a little flash of what is possible. Fredy Montero, who is randomly good again for some unknown reason, is played as a more withdrawn striker behind Cavallini. This allows Cavallini to focus on getting in the box and being a big muscular nuisance, things he is very good at. As the season ends Axel Schuster promises that the team would be targeting a DP #10. It seems like this is the perfect profile to get the best out of Cavallini...

2021: The DP #10 does not arrive until the secondary transfer window and Cavallini is once again left to fend for himself. without the proper service, he struggles mightily and by the time Ryan Gauld arrives injuries mean Brian White eats his lunch.

2022: 2022 has probably been Cavallini’s best season but even then he’s not exactly setting the world on fire. He is #34/46 amongst strikers with at least 1000 minutes in non-penalty expected goals. He has 0.36 non-penalty goals per 96 minutes. The average lead striker on an MLS cup-winning team usually averages about 0.6. These struggles are, of course, not entirely his fault. Generating offence has been a struggle for the Whitecaps as a whole. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The Whitecaps spent a ton of money on a player who they could have had for free a few years earlier. They then did not put him in a position to succeed and the combination of that with his technical shortcomings has led to him being one of the less effective regularly starting MLS strikers. It’s classic Whitecaps. They resisted paying significant transfer fees for the longest time and then when they finally started they bought a player that they were not able to maximize. The Whitecaps have an option on Cavallini’s contract and, since his transfer fee would not count against the cap anymore (this is my understanding of the rules anyway, please do not yell at me if this is wrong) he would be a TAM player. I honestly have no idea what the right thing to do is.

So, What did we learn?

I think there are a few lessons to be learned from this ordeal.

#1: Shoot Your Shot with Young Canadians

One of the things that stands out to me in this story is how many times Cavallini moved for either nothing or a fraction of what the Whitecaps paid. It’s not like signing him would have been crazy at most of those junctions either. His goal-scoring record in Uruguay was very solid and well worth taking a gamble on considering he is a domestic player. How many of the re-builds and clear-outs of the striker position could have been avoided over the years if they had just snagged Cavallini for free early in his career? That’s not to mention how much greater their current cap flexibility would be. But instead, they waited until his price and reputation outstripped his actual ability.

So the lesson here is that if a Canadian, or any player who counts as domestic, looks like they are about to break through to stardom you have to be quick on the draw. There should be age and league-appropriate benchmarks for deciding when to pull the trigger, of course. But if you’re going to do the buy low-sell high thing then you have to be first to these guys. Mark Anthony Kaye is another example of a player they missed out on when he was cheap and I fear that Aribim Pepple will prove to be a 3rd. Of course, this strategy carries risk as not all young starlets work out. But all transfer strategies entail risk of one kind or another and this is the risk that comes with what the Whitecaps are trying to do.

#2: Floor Raisers Before Ceiling Raisers

Some interesting articles have been written over the past couple of years on floor raisers and ceiling raisers in football. Here is one that explains the concept in detail. Put simply, a floor raiser is a player who elevates the ability of his teammates and a ceiling raiser is someone good at capitalizing on and maximizing the work done by the floor raisers. So, putting it in Whitecaps terms, Ryan Gauld is a floor raiser. Most of Vancouver’s offence flows through him, his game is based around being on the ball, and he can elevate the players around them. Brian White, on the other hand, with his limited on-ball skills but fantastic off-ball movement and finishing is more of a ceiling raiser. Cavallini’s strengths skew more towards the ceiling raiser side of things and his struggles have been greatly exacerbated by the lack of floor raisers around him.

Now, I won’t make a declarative statement that you should never use a DP slot on a ceiling raiser. There have been some examples of that profile being successful, Josef Martinez’s record-breaking 2018 season being a notable one. But I will say that it doesn’t make sense to be obliterating your record transfer fee for a ceiling raiser without the floor raisers already in place.

#3 Don’t Pay Top Dollar for Late Prime Players:

This is a pretty well-established best practice in the world of football at the moment but it is worth repeating. This sort of move rarely ends up being worth it because the age-based decline is a fact of life for everyone.

Cavallini’s signing came at a slightly awkward time for the Whitecaps, front office-wise. Technically he was Axel Schuster’s first signing but it was rumored the club was interested in him the previous season as well. They were very much still in their “just doing random stuff” era. I think there have been some positive signs in the past year that there is a bit more long-term planning involved. Still, though, it’s worth watching out for these same mistakes in the future.