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What Is To Be Done? (With Lucas Cavallini)

MLS: Houston Dynamo FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

In my last article, I took a look at how Lucas Cavallini was emblematic of the lack of direction that has plagued the Whitecaps for much of their time in MLS. In that article, I freely admitted that I had no idea if they should pick up his contract option or not. I think it is worth going into a bit more detail about why that is such a hard decision. After all, any jackass can say what should have been done in hindsight. It takes real punditry chops to say what should be done next.

To my mind, there are two potential paths. Each of them has an element that makes them deeply undesirable. If you have read the book Moneyball (you should never pass up an opportunity to flex the fact that you read) you will know that one of Billy Beane’s rules for trading is that you can always recover from not signing a player but it takes a long time to recover from signing a player you shouldn’t have. This whole Cavallini situation demonstrates the wisdom in that. So, here are the two options, each of which kind of sucks in its particular way.

Option #1: Decline His Option And Replace Him With Another DP:

I sense that this is the most popular option among the fan base. It has some obvious appeal. Cavallini has underperformed and, based on the success of Ryan Gauld and Andres Cubas, you have to believe Vancouver’s recruiting department could find some dynamite striker options.

But this option also has some serious drawbacks. Firstly, you’re giving up on any possibility of ever recouping any of the huge fee that was initially paid for Cavallini. The chances of getting all of that money back were already minimal but you’re setting whatever you might have got back on fire. Now, it’s not my money and I don’t particularly care if the Whitecaps’ owners are in the black. But the problem is, they might care about that. I always feel a bit uneasy that these guys who were reluctant to ever pay a transfer fee a few short years ago might turn off the taps if they don’t start to see a return on the money they are spending. This is one of the reasons I would like them to target players with sell-on value. Player sales will allow the team to build up a slush fund of allocation money in case the owners ever decide they are done investing.

There is also no guarantee that a new signing would be any better. You can have the best process in the world but nobody has a crystal ball. But, perhaps the biggest problem is that, while Cavallini has been disappointing, he is still the team’s best striker. He is outperforming Brian White on a per-90 basis and leads the team in goals overall. If he played a full season without significant injury or suspension in the current Whitecaps team (which sadly has never happened) you could probably rely on him to score 10 non-penalty goals. If you replace him in the lineup with someone who can get 15 then you aren’t up 15. If the Whitecaps are going to challenge for some serious silverware next season then history tells us they will have to score approximately 20 more goals. Losing your top scorer for nothing, no matter how disappointing he may be, seems like a less-than-ideal way to start that journey.

Option #2: Keep Him as a TAM player and Bring in Another Senior DP

This seems like the slightly less bad option. It lets you keep the genuine benefits that Cavallini brings while potentially adding another difference maker. within this option are two sub-options.

Firstly, and in my opinion, most excitingly, you could add another striker. This would ideally be somebody more of a danger in transition to compliment Ryan Gauld. You could then set up in something like the formation below.

Obviously, you can quibble with some of the selections, and hopefully, there would be room for a few small upgrades here and there but that would be the general shape. The game model would be pretty straightforward. You sit in a mid-block, daring other teams to get by Cubas. When you win the ball you can counter quickly with Gauld, Dájome, and the new DP striker. If that first quick wave fails and you have to break down a low block you also have the weapons to address that. Gressel stretches the field and his crossing is a danger opposing defences are forced to respect. Cavallini can act as a battering ram with his ability to win physical battles and draw defenders to himself in the box. Schopf can help overload the box with his late runs. You probably aren’t going to win any awards for beautiful football with this set-up but you can imagine it being effective.

But there is some reporting that indicates the Whitecaps’ thinking is going in another direction:

Who knows if Fein would specifically be a DP but they can only fit so many new additions under the cap. You could use your new senior DP slot in centre midfield or even centre back if you were feeling spicy in an attempt to simply never concede again. It doesn’t really come across because they never get a save but with Andres Cubas on the field the Whitecaps’ defence really is not bad at all (in terms of expected goals against, at least). A defensively capable midfielder who plays a lot of progressive passes like Fein could make the ‘Caps a frustrating out for attackers and help the ‘Caps themselves control the game a bit more. It might not matter if Cavallini doesn’t score 20 goals if the team only concedes 30.

So, what are the downsides of this course of action? Well, firstly, who knows if this option is even on the table? As I alluded to in the first part, we don’t really know what the Whitecaps’ ownership group is thinking or how willing they are to provide further investment. Because of how infrequently they communicate, we are unlikely to find out.

But, even if the club had infinite funds to work with, there would still be drawbacks to keeping Cavallini as a TAM player. DPs count approximately 612k against the cap. We don’t know the Whitecaps’ exact salary cap situation but they outright waived Erik Godoy to make room for Alessandro Schopf so they have to be at least somewhat up against it. The relatively large salaries of Florian Jungwirth and Jake Nerwinski are off the books next year so that will provide some relief but their space is not infinite. Keeping Cavallini as a TAM player would eat a huge chunk of cap space, which would make further upgrades to the squad difficult beyond the one senior DP slot you open up. You would have to fill out the bottom of the roster with homegrown players and players on the senior minimum.

This problem could be ameliorated somewhat if the new DP was under 23, as young DPs only count 150k against the cap. But a U-23 player who is a guaranteed difference maker is not an easy type of player to acquire. That sort of player usually has a lot of suitors.

You could also look to move on from some of the dead wood in the squad. Leonard Owusu (401k), Janio Bikel (438k), and Russell Teibert (437k) all stand out to me as players who are not justifying their wages. But the thing about deadwood is lots of people want to sell and very few people want to buy.


I think in the process of writing this I convinced myself that keeping Cavallini as a TAM player and signing a young DP is the best course of action- if it is possible to do that. A lot depends on factors that I, as an outsider, can’t be fully aware of. Of course, the true best course of action was to sign Cavallini in 2014 when his value was low so that he would not be a massive anchor now. But that path was not taken long ago and there is nothing to be done about it now. Generally, I think it would be best to use the freed-up DP slot on a striker who can do a lot of damage in transition but I’m open to arguments for other positions.