(In this short 3 part series leading up to our predictions for the season, we look at the Caps changes to 3 key phases of the field: Defense, Midfield and Attack. Today we begin with a look at the defensive side of things)
In an offseason filled with monumental change for the Whitecaps, one of the bigger question marks heading into the start of the season 14 days from now remains the backline. Formerly one of the strengths of ex-coach Carl Robinson, it disintegrated spectacularly last season, with the Caps going from a team that was one of the most feared defensive units in the league to one that started leaking goals left, right and centre. They ended up finishing with the 4th worst Goals Against record in the league, only marginally ahead of record-breaking defensive disasters in San Jose, Orlando and Minnesota. This ended up costing Robinson his job, as results became hard to come by as the Caps ended up having to constantly deliver big offensive performances to scrape out victories. They failed to keep a clean sheet from April 27th onwards, a span of 25 MLS matches and around 5 months. They were able to sustain a good offensive pace for the first half of the season and kept themselves in a playoff spot for about 2 thirds of the season, but having to score 2 goals a game to keep any chance of gathering points caught up to them, as they crashed out of the playoff race by the last 3 matches of the season. With a new coaching regime being brought in along with some fresh new players, it is expected the Caps solve a lot of those defensive woes, despite losing their All-Star defender in Kendall Waston after his hasty exit meeting and subsequent trade to FC Cincinnati. However, with the Caps looking to start 3 of the 4 regulars from last years backline to start the season, many fans worry that their woes may not be completely behind them quite yet.
In bringing back right back Jake Nerwinski, centre back Doneil Henry and left back Brett Levis, new Marc Dos Santos is putting a lot of faith in the growth and bounce back from 3 key starters under Robinson last season. Nerwinski was expected to take a huge step last season, fresh off a rookie campaign where he ended up grabbing the starting role from veteran Sheanon Williams with his plucky performances and his attacking prowess, grabbing 5 assists and solidifying himself as one of the better draft picks the Caps have made in recent years. He started out slow in 2018, taking a few months to get going, as veteran Sean Franklin ended up taking his spot in the lineup for several weeks while he sorted out his various woes. Once reestablished, he began to regain some of his rookie year confidence but being a regular starter in the leaky defence the Caps were employing and only having 1 assist all season made it a tough campaign overall for the sophomore. It is expected that he returns to that confident form we saw in his rookie campaign, which will be key for the flexible side Dos Santos is expected to employ. On the other side of the defensive line was Canadian Brett Levis, who finally broke through and became a regular starter after dealing with various injury woes and adversity in his first few seasons. He was solid in the minutes he played, providing some solid service going forward and limiting his defensive mistake for the most part. His biggest issue was going 90 minutes, as he dealt with cramping issues all season, which often made it difficult on his team as it is never ideal to substitute a defender, no matter the score or situation. Since at the moment it appears he will be a starter if not a very regular squad member going into the season, it is hoped that the issue is behind him as he will need to be in good shape to handle the rigours of the Dos Santos system. Lastly in the trio of returnees was the controversial Doneil Henry, who showed glimpses of the talent that got him the lucrative move to Premier League staple West Ham many years ago, outperforming the outgoing Waston in many key statistics such as tackles (2.2/game to 1/game), interceptions (2.3/game to 1/game), clearances (5.5/game to 1/game) and blocks (1.1/game to 1/game). Despite performing well in the counting stats, he often frustrated at key moments in matches, best summed up by his own goal in the waning moments of the first leg in the Canadian Championship final, gifting Toronto a draw and a key second away goal, after the Caps had gone up despite being down a man. After the error, Henry punched a wall and fractured his hand, impacting his play for several weeks and getting into the bad books of many Caps fans despite his otherwise good play. He suffered those kinds of lapses all too often at the worst moments last season, giving away penalties and missing open headers whenever it seemed that the Caps least needed it. It ended up being a rough return overall to MLS for the Canadian, but he proved he does still have potential to develop at the position so it is hoped he takes a big step forward for a squad in need of a solid defensive identity this season.
The New Guys:
Dos Santos has also been able to put a stamp on the backline during the transfer window so far, bringing in 5 new faces in Jesser Khemiri, Erik Godoy, Derek Cornelius, PC and Scott Sutter and drafting another in Brendan McDonaugh. He also brought in two new goalkeepers in Zac MacMath and Maxime Crepeau, replacing the outgoing New Zealand international Stefan Marinovic. There is expected to be fierce competition for the two centre back positions along with left back, as Jake Nerwinski has appeared to solidified his spot in the 11 to start the season. Godoy is going to be a key player to monitor in the coming weeks, as he has 8 years experience playing pro in Argentina and brings a lot of key attributes to the team in his tenacious tackling and solid ball movement. With Dos Santos expecting a mobile backline capable of pushing up to the half line when the ball is in the oppositional half, he will have to be a key marshall if the backline is to expect any sort of defensive success this season. With Cornelius being very raw, and Khemiri playing a style that can be best described as a loose cannon, Godoy and the aforementioned Henry are going to be relied on to provide stability before the two youngsters are pressed to provide consistent playing time in the rotation. One wild card to watch out at centre back as the season develops is McDonaugh, the 22-year-old drafted in the second round of the draft in January. It was originally expected that he would be sent out on loan, which could still be in the cards before the season begins, but so far in preseason has shown his impressive ball playing ability that persuaded Dos Santos to rate him so highly when drafting him with their only pick in the draft. He has a lot of developing to do on the defensive side of his game, but he has been lauded for his professionalism and if Dos Santos is expected to experiment with 3 centre back systems during the season, it becomes even more likely he ends up sticking around for the entirety of the season. At left back, PC has been brought in to provide competition for Levis, but the both of them are expected to shift between the left back and left wing positions until a player is brought in at either of those positions to provide some clarity. PC is a very energetic player, as mentioned in some of our match recaps so far this preseason, despite his well-chronicled limitations in his technical abilities.He will provide hard work and leadership that will be beneficial for the Caps in training and in key matches. PC was not the only fullback brought in from Orlando, as veteran Scott Sutter was also brought in as right back to push and mentor Nerwinski and provide cover at the position. It was obviously very worrying to see two members of the historically terrible Orlando backline brought in, but so far it appears they will be key squad rotation members instead of everyday starters, and that they bring key attributes that will stand out as they put the stench of last season behind them and start anew under Dos Santos.
Where does that leave the Caps?
The Caps will leave a better idea of where their defensive situation is trending after their trio of friendlies in the next week, where they will face some good oppositions in the two MLS Los Angeles clubs and a perennial Liga MX powerhouse in Club Tijuana. The pair of friendlies in Hawaii the past weekend did not end up being too friendly for Henry and Cornelius, but with Godoy and Khemiri arriving at camp this past week, we will hopefully see the beginning of some chemistry as they adapt to the Dos Santos way of doing things. It is expected that Godoy will end up being a very good player for the club this season, coming to MLS with more pedigree and experience at a top level than Waston did when he arrived, and we all saw how that ended up turning out for the Caps. If he is able to form a reliable partnership with one of Henry, Cornelius or Khemiri, it is not crazy to imagine a return to the defensive dominance the Caps used to exhibit when they had Waston, Tim Parker and the fiery David Ousted, making BC place a feared stop for many MLS teams to come to over the course of the season. With MacMath being a proven commodity in MLS (36 Clean Sheets in 132 MLS starts) and Crepeau coming off a season in which he was named USL goalkeeper of the year, the goalkeeping battle will ensure whoever ends up starting the season in the net will hit the ground running. With the competition being as fierce as it is so far, it will also ensure that there will be no threat of complacency settling in as either player will be hungry to get into the starting lineup whenever the opportunity arises. Also, having a good Canadian goalkeeper will be huge in the quest for the Canadian Championship, ensuring that the outfield places will go to players that deserve it, instead of shoehorning in academy graduates not yet ready for action to fulfill the 3 Canadian quotas required.
What to expect:
It is expected that adapting to a new ball-playing system with a high line will bring growing pains, as evidenced by the first few preseason matches. How long this adjustment period ends up taking may make the difference between being a top Western contender and a team on the bubble scraping its way towards the playoffs. One key factor in this question is also considering the vast changes made in the midfield ahead of them. One key factor in the decline of the Robinson system was not finding a competent replacement for the tenacious Matias Laba, with Aly Ghazal providing solid play but never having the lungs and cover Laba was able to provide at the defensive midfield position. This years edition does not have a player like that either, but with the system changing and putting more emphasis on a high press, the plethora of long-shot goals that plagued the Caps are expected to disappear as they often conceded goals from outside the box due to the lack of midfield pressure in their low block. They may be susceptible to some incisive passing and quick forwards with this high press, but the box-to-box natures of midfielders such as Andy Rose, Hwang In-Beom, Russell Teibert and Felipe combined with the intelligence of Jon Erice and tenacity of David Norman Jr will help the Caps regain some of the midfield prowess lacking since the days of Gershon Koffie and Laba. There also appears to be an overall better commitment to defence from the attacking positions, with forwards expecting to press and hound the ball, removing one-dimensional players such as Christian Techera who was often best described as a black hole defensively due to his lack of height and effort tracking back. Considering these factors in those positions, combined with a new system, a good goalkeeping battle, bounceback seasons from some key players along with some key new additions, the Caps should trend up towards the top half of the league in terms of defensive stats, maybe even making a push to be a top 10 team in that regard. There will be an overall adjustment to the style of the league from the new additions, but with the diverse hunger and experience they bring in, hitting form by the summer is not out of the question as they compete for a playoff spot.