Image credit to: Vancouver Southsiders Duncan Nichol
(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 conclude with a look at the final phase of the pitch, the Attack)
After having had a chance to work our way up the pitch with our looks at both the Defense and Midfield positions, we conclude our pre-season look at the three phases of play with a look at the Forward positions. The forwards are always a tough subject with fans, as it is easy to asses their numerical contributions through common statistics such as goals and assists, but often times a player’s value may go far above that with the way they create space for their teammates and participate in the build-up play. Last season, the Caps ended up having a lot of positive contributions from attackers, with 14 goals and 6 assists from Kei Kamara, 8 goals 11 assists from Alphonso Davies, 8 goals 1 assist from Cristian Techera and 6 goals 11 assists from Yordy Reyna. It was a good output from the Caps, considering they have often struggled to score goals consistently in their short time in MLS. It came at a cost, however, with the defence being plagued by poor play all season, partly due to the adoption of a more aggressive mindset that allowed for more goals but one that left some leaks at the back. With Davies moving on to greener pastures, Kamara being picked by Cincinnati and subsequently signed by Colorado and Techera being shuttled off to Argentinian side Belgrano, there is a lot of offence to be filled by the attackers brought in by Marc Dos Santos. There will be different responsibilities expected from the forwards this season, with the wingers expected to press a lot harder high up the pitch and track back when needed, as well as the strikers required to press very high up the pitch without possession but dropping and helping build up the play when in possession. So far, there is not much to analyze this preseason, as the two Caps have scored a measly 2 goals in 360 minutes of action so far, with the last 180 of those minutes being untelevised. With the signings arriving in a staggered manner throughout this preseason, it is a little harder to judge some of the players, but based on what we do know it is primed to be a solid frontline for this edition of the Whitecaps.
There are few returnees to this frontline, quite surprising considering the output provided last season. Some moves were forced, such as Davies being sold to Bayern (On a side note, imagine a loan move back to the team for the second half of the season, one can dream right?), but most of them were cleared out as Dos Santos looked to stamp out his attacking identity. Some may have questioned the enigmatic Techera leaving, but with his limited defensive ability and supposed attitude issues last season, it was best for him to move on, despite his good energy and skill that he has provided the club over the last few years. Another big move was the shuttling of Kamara to Colorado via Cincinnati, as many fans were displeased the Caps were moving on from a proven MLS quantity coming off a solid 14 goal season. It may have been an unpopular one, but it was a smart one considering the fit he would have had in the system. It was good to seek out options that were better with their feet and more active in building up the play, as the Caps move out of this hoofball era into a possession-based one. This is where the lone holdover regular forward from the Robinson era in Yordy Reyna will play a big role, as he has been tried out as a False 9 and inverted Winger so far in preseason, as we touched on in our previous installment on the midfield (Check that out here if you haven’t already). The skills that the Peruvian International bring are well known, and it appears a good start is in the cards for him after being plagued by injury at the beginning of his first season and controversy at the beginning of his second. The other name to monitor in this section would be young Theo Bair, who is technically a returnee having signed a contract last year, but he featured exclusively as a bench-filler throughout last season. He has come into the camp in good shape, listed at 6 foot 4, 215 pounds on his Caps profile with some good speed and quickness to go with all that power. He has quite a way to go before he is a regular starter, but he has some physical attributes and instincts that are hard to teach, so if he is able to work on his first touch and on his hold-up play he can definitely be a force to be reckoned with in this league. With the other strikers still getting up to speed, it would be good to see him get some decent minutes in the first half while playing regularly in the new U-23 side.
The New Guys:
There have been some intriguing names brought in this window, which is promising for a team looking to replace a lot of goals. They all come to Vancouver at different phases of their career, but they have a lot to bring in the 3 forward positions in the patented Dos Santos 4-3-3. Up top, we got the young Joaquin Ardaiz, who has a lot of potential, evidenced by his move to Serie A last year as a 19-year-old, and Fredy Montero, the MLS veteran who comes back after a decent second spell in Portugal despite various issues happening there. On the wings, we have the Brazilian Lucas Venuto, a decent producer in an Austrian League very similar to the MLS in terms of talent and production, and Lass Bangoura, an explosive winger who has decent stats in the top two Spanish divisions and whose skills once garnered the interested of the famed Real Madrid. This quartet, on top of Reyna and Bair, will provide intriguing lineup options for Dos Santos as they move along in the season and tackle the fixture congestion that this season’s unusual schedule will provide. Firstly, we have the intriguing new young DP, Ardaiz. As many of the young signings brought in by Dos Santos, he is very raw and is looking to develop in a league with a burgeoning developmental reputation, as he looks to possibly return to Europe in a few years once he is further down his development path. He has good pace and a good nose for the net as seen in his highlight reel, but it is concerning that a young striker is coming here with a relatively poor strike record in professional football (9 goals in 54 matches per Transfermarkt). It is exciting that the Caps managed to snag a player who’s most recent club was Frosinone in Serie A, but it is also worrying that he is making a move from a club like that at such a young age. Hopefully this move jumpstarts his career and he can have a few productive seasons before making a triumphant return to Europe a few years down the line. This is where the returning Montero plays a big role as well, as he can mentor Ardaiz and Bair in the fine art of clinical movement and finishing, on top of providing good hold-up play to aid the midfielders and wingers. Montero is very talented in that regard, and those are the skills that enabled him to make a pretty decent return to the Portuguese league and Europa league despite playing a few seasons in MLS and China at ages in which players start to consider long-term stays there. He still comes to Vancouver at a good age in 31, which can be steep for many players, but as shown by Kamara last year scoring 14 at the age of 33, if they take care of their body and have a fine-tuned style they can still be effective. Having already seen him in Caps colours, it is enticing to imagine what Montero will be able to do this season, being placed in a Dos Santos system that appears to suit his abilities a lot better than the Robinson one in which he scored 13 goals, despite it being best suited for a lanky target-man like Kamara. Out wide, there is the arrival of Venuto as a left-footed winger, who appears quite capable of playing both wings effectively so far this camp. He has a good work rate and decent production levels, scoring and assisting roughly every 2-3 games in his tenure over in Austria. As seen with players coming over from that league, production translates pretty much 1 for 1 from there to MLS, as evidenced by arrivals such as Reyna. He is expected to produce similarly to the outgoing Techera, while providing more energetic pressing and tracking back harder defensively. However, the more intriguing name brought in as winger is the exciting Bangoura, who has impressed every game so far in preseason, with some devastating pace and good footwork. Not unlike the outgoing Davies, he loves to take defenders on and terrorize fullbacks with his array of tools at his disposal. One tool that he has, which Davies showcased at various levels throughout the season with, is the ability to shoot quickly coming out of some of these moves. He has been very unlucky not to score this preseason, with a few shots saved nicely and the woodwork denying him a few times. He has performed relatively well in one of the better leagues in the world, Spain’s La Liga, with his stats being pretty decent considering he played on a low/midtable squad most of his time there. Lately, his playtime had begun to decline, so he comes to MLS hungry to play again and terrorize this up and coming league, so we are expecting big things from him this season. Many of us here at Between the Sticks have him tipped as a player to watch, so hopefully, we see some big things from him this season at BC Place.
Where that leaves the Caps:
The Caps are in good hands when it comes to the players at their disposal up top, with Venuto, Bangoura and Montero proven commodities that should perform well this season for the team. Ardaiz is a player that may end up terrorizing the league as well, provided he trains well and adapts as he attempts to rediscover some magic. The only concern would be the lack of wing depth compared to other positions, as there are only 2 real wingers, along with Reyna shuffling around and capable of filling in. PC and Levis can also fill in as wingers, with PC in particular being very good in the press, but it is going to be a drop-off in quality from wingers like Bangoura and Venuto to Levis and PC. That’s not to say that Levis and PC are not quality players, but they do not bring the same pace or skill going forward to the position as the afformented names. PC did surprise a lot of people with his 85th-minute wonder-strike against Tijuana, so he does have some hidden ability in his locker, but until the Caps get a new left back or left winger, we are left to ponder the position he and Levis will play. It is expected that the opening match sees Reyna up top flanked by Venuto and Bangoura, but once Montero is fit we’ll probably see some sort of Venuto/Reyna-Montero-Bangoura combination quite regularly for the first few matches of the season.
What to expect:
It is hard to predict output for players, as form and luck can play a big role in a 34 game slate. Techera may have had 8 goals last year, but 3 (38%) came in just one match, leaving him with 5 goals in 33 games, which takes some of the shine off his stats. As long as the Caps pick up results, it doesn’t matter where the goals come from as long as they show up when needed. As long as fitness levels are maintained, the Dos Santos system should provide plenty of opportunities for the frontmen to rack up totals, so hopefully the distribution through the back and middle are sorted by the first few weeks to allow chances for the forwards to produce. It has been a work in progress all preseason, as suggested by their low goal total, but things should be trending up soon. However, preseason is important for players to get in shape, not produce, so as long as they hit the ground running at first kick their results this preseason will be easier to digest. If one were to make a rough estimate of what kind of output to expect from them, double-digits for Montero and a 5g-5a minimum for each of Reyna, Bangoura and Venuto seems reasonable to expect with the minutes they are expected to have. Ardaiz is the real wild-card here because if he finds some consistency and form he could leave a devastating impact. He is definitely a player to watch out for during the summer, as the temperatures warm up and he starts to understand the game better. The Caps should have enough offence to win games, especially if the defence settles down after last years struggles and provides them with a chance to stay in games all season.