The Vancouver Whitecaps have probably signed Sergio Cordova to a designated player contract. Manuel Veth reported that it should get across the line in “the next 24 hours” so it may be official by the time this goes up. The general response to this signing online has been “thanks, I hate it.” Is that response justified? Let’s discuss.
Before we get into any specifics about what to expect from Cordova let’s discuss some suitable benchmarks for a DP striker. What would be the best possible scenario for this type of signing? What are the Whitecaps trying to achieve here? Let’s start by looking at what would constitute an average performance. I took a look at the leading non-penalty goal scorer on each team last season. They averaged about 11 goals or 0.43 non-penalty goals per 96 with the medians not far off of that. So I think it’s fair to say that anything less than that would be quite disappointing. I have argued that the Whitecaps’ window to win one of the three big trophies (Supporters Shield, MLS Cup, or CONCACAF Champions League) is in the next two to three years. Well, the leading non-penalty goal scorer on the MLS cup winning team over the past 6 seasons is at about 0.59 non-penalty goals/90 or about 16 throughout a full season depending on the number of minutes the player played. The top non-penalty goal scorers in the league are at a similar number. So that can probably be seen as the absolute best-case scenario. Axel Schuster stated in an interview with AFTN that, while it might not be possible to make the Whitecaps the best team in the conference next season, they should at least be able to make it into the top 4 (or the top 8 overall). The eighth-best striker scored about 0.49 non-penalty goals per 90. So I think anything around there would have to be considered a success. If Cordova exceeds that, then I would consider him a home run.
Now, Cordova has already played one season in MLS so we have some idea of how he is likely to perform. Cordova averaged 0.36 Non-penalty goals/90, significantly underperforming his 0.41 xG/90. Firmly in at the “disappointment” level that we outlined earlier. But, there’s still a lot more of this article to go isn’t there?
Now, the fact that Cordova underperformed his xG and according to one source missed fourteen “big chances” has drawn some ire online. Before we continue I do want to address this because I am seeing some interpretations of these numbers that I think are incorrect. Firstly, I don’t take “big chances missed” seriously as a stat. If you look at any list of who misses the most “big chances” it invariably has a lot of really effective strikers on it. This is because, to miss a lot of big chances, you have to be good enough to get a lot of big chances in the first place. If you are getting a lot of big chances, you are probably scoring a lot of them as well. Secondly, you can’t tell if a striker is a bad finisher from just one season of xG underperformance. The sample size simply isn’t big enough. If we zoom out and look at all of the data fbref has on Cordova’s career we can see that he has scored 19 goals on 18.4 expected. So there is no real reason to think the underperformance will carry over.
But, this quibbling aside, Things are not looking great for our boy. In his one MLS season, he fell well short of what’s generally required for the striker of a serious cup contender. The only way this is going to work is if Vancouver is a better fit for Cordova and it causes his production to skyrocket. Is it possible that could happen?
Ok, seriously though, I do see some evidence it could happen. Do I think this evidence is definitive? No! But let’s talk about it anyway.
If you want to feel positive about this signing, the chart below (hastily slapped together in google sheets) is for you.
This chart shows a comparison between the non-penalty expected goals per 90 and the number of touches in the attacking penalty area per 90 of every team’s most used player listed as a “forward” on fbref in 2022. As you can see, when you get more touches in the box, the amount of xG you generate often goes up as well. The correlation is not 1-to-1, which makes sense if you think about it. If you are a god of one-touch finishes your number of touches in the penalty area will be low but your xG will be really high. Conversely, if you need a bunch of extra touches to set yourself up for every shot your number of touches in the penalty area will go up but your xG will be lower because you give defenders more time to catch up with you. Most players are not so extreme which is why we see a lukewarm correlation.
Cordova was in the 69th percentile (nice) for non-penalty xG but only in the 47th for touches in the penalty area. Conversely, the Whitecaps were surprisingly good at getting their strikers touches in the penalty area with Cavallini and White clocking in at 78th and 67th percentiles respectively. But Vancouver’s strikers had a hard time turning those touches into shots. So, perhaps a more efficient striker could be a real boon to the team. an R-squared of 0.408 is not exactly slam dunk territory but, hey, it could certainly happen.
Another stat that indicates that Cordova might have more to offer in MLS is his xG/shot, which was quite a high 0.18 last season. To me, this suggests (though does not prove) a striker with good off-the-ball movement who did not get enough service.
But the most important thing will be if he can offer a different dynamic to Vancouver’s attack. The still below will be a common sight to anyone who has watched the Whitecaps over the past year and a half.
There have been countless times when Ryan Gauld has been bursting forward on the counter and looked has not had any good options for a ball in behind. Brian White, though he has many redeeming qualities, is not very fast and Lucas Cavallini was not much better. So in situations, like the one above, Gauld has to either play a ball in behind that his teammate has little chance of reaching or try and play hero ball. He is really good, so sometimes the hero ball works out, but it’s not the ideal way to solve this problem. Could Cordova be that solution?
Well, maybe. He certainly scored a few goals off of balls in behind the defence. Like this one against Seattle:
Córdova gives #RSL the lead after a battle in the box! pic.twitter.com/KsiN2MW0mO— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 15, 2022
Indeed, the Whitecaps themselves were victimized at one point:
I also like the look of this goal against Montreal. White simply would not have gotten a shot off here because he wouldn’t be quick enough to win that foot race.
So he is capable of scoring that kind of goal. Can he do it consistently though? I don’t know. According to American Soccer Analysis’s data Cordova does not really stand out on xG generated from “fast breaks.” But RSL as a team hardly generated any xG that way either so it’s difficult to say how much of that is down to him and how much of it is down to the system he is in.
To give you an idea of what sort of shots he was generating, here are his last 10 non-penalty shots in MLS play.
One thing that stands out right away is there are a lot of headers in there. It is kind of nice to not lose out on one of the good things about Cavallini. There is also that one tantalizing playe where Justin Meram plays him in behind. This is the sort of play I could see Ryan Gauld and Pedro Vite making a lot of this season.
A few bits and bobs on other elements of Cordova’s game. I have seen RSL fans complaining he is a bit lazy but his defensive numbers are all quite high for a striker so I suppose we’ll just have to judge for ourselves. His passing numbers are not much to look at so don’t expect him to play as a false-9. But considering you’ll have Gauld and Vite occupying those spaces already, maybe that’s a good thing. His raw dribbling numbers are not that impressive but ASA’s G+ model rates him quite highly in dribbling. So he seems to be doing good things with the few dribbles he does attempt.
I see a path to Cordova reaching another level in Vancouver but I wouldn’t bet my life savings on it. I think the most likely outcome is that he’s just sort of fine and scores 12ish goals. I think he will probably be a bit more effective than Cavallini but, sadly, I just don’t think that will be enough. I think we’ll know in pretty short order if he is going to be taking that next step. If Gauld and Vite spring him in behind a bunch of times in the first game then things are probably going to turn out well. If not, it’s probably going to be a long season.