The Vancouver Whitecaps have been much-maligned for their rebuilding year falling flat so far. As they compete within a changing MLS, manager Marc Dos Santos is trying to find the best way to complete his roster to avoid a repeat season next year. Here is a look at what he has said and what he can do, as the Caps try to fit into the new MLS.
Last week, Dos Santos made some interesting comments when asked about his vision for building his team in the future. With the MLS summer transfer window open for the next week, many expect him to make a couple of moves, as the summer window is seen as the window where big-name players can be expected to move clubs, giving Vancouver a chance to splash and acquire a big fish to add to his roster.
But Dos Santos has been all over the map when it comes to his plans for this transfer period. Ranging from earlier in the window, where he did not seem optimistic about possible acquisitions, to as of late, where he says the club is in good negotiations with a couple of players, many are wondering if the big signing Vancouver needs will ever come.
When he spoke last week to AFTN and Eighty Six Forever, he dropped some interesting nuggets on why a big summer splash may be prolonged until the winter. The comments can be found here for those interested.
What does it all mean?
The main points Dos Santos makes about the transfer window in the interview is that he and his team have started to turn their focus to some less-looked at leagues, as their seasons not only overlap with MLS, but they have similar travel and fixture congestion, meaning that players that come here would be better adjusted to the rigours of MLS. So while having to wait until the winter will be tough for many, it may prove to be the best option, as teams all around the league are continuing to change the way teams look for and acquire talent.
When looking around at the new faces of MLS, a shift is evident. While before, in what was affectionately named the MLS 2.0 era, teams tended to target high-priced ageing European DPs, driven on by the signing of David Beckham, this new MLS 3.0 era has completely changed the direction that teams have taken to find success.
A look at successful teams the last few years, with the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, LAFC and Atlanta United leading the way, their roster construction paints the picture. Led by young and in their prime Latin American players, these clubs have found a way to consistently compete in MLS, having figured out a winning formula that has won them 3 of the last 4 MLS Cups, as well as providing 5 of the last 8 finalists for the coveted trophy.
In a league built on parity, seeing these teams consistently compete, while others flounder or find themselves in mediocrity, the question comes up: What are these teams doing better than the rest?
MLS 3.0: The change in recruitment profile
Somewhere in 2014 or 2015, something in MLS changed. It was a slow, gradual change, but all of a sudden teams were starting to invest in prized South American talent, and it was bringing in results. Diego Valeri was one of the first prominent players to lead this movement, coming to Portland to be their number 10 in 2013, and from then on it has seemed like every year a swath of players, from Nico Lodeiro to Josef Martinez, have done the same.
And it has completely changed the complexion of the league. While names like Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have still come in and made a difference, it seems like every window brings a bunch of Central and South American talent to the league, who rack up goals and fill highlight reels.
And why not? It’s been working wonders for teams, so no reason to stop. While it would be nice if MLS could poach players in their primes like Neymar, Messi or Sadio Mane, they can’t, but instead of chasing ageing 35-year-old veterans with a few years left in the tank, they can pursue young and in their prime players who are willing to come in MLS and give the same value a top ageing talent like Rooney can bring, but do it for longer and maybe even bring back value to the league, getting sold on for a lot of money like Miguel Almiron did last fall.
For a team trying to compete while maintaining a healthy bottom line, what’s more enticing than that? The Whitecaps have realized it with a couple of their acquisitions so far, most notably Hwang In Beom, who doesn’t fit the profile of recruitment in MLS quite yet, but he is the face of a future in which he will definitely have been the poster boy for, with the Chinese, Korean and Japanese leagues starting to be looked at as good leagues to poach talent from.
Brought to Vancouver for a healthy fee of around 2 million, Hwang is providing value for Vancouver today, as he is a talented midfielder. The key, however, is that he will provide value not only today, but in the future as well, as he is a growing player that is still learning a lot about the professional game. So while he may help Vancouver win on the field in the next couple of seasons, he will likely be sold on for a big fee when it’s all said and done, providing cash and boosting the clubs reputation to help attract more good young players to repeat the formula all over again.
It’s great for MLS, as it starts to accept that it can become a selling league, instead of pandering for ageing or mediocre talent that does well enough to put a watchable product on the pitch, but not much to boost the profile of the league. While seeing guys like Frank Lampard come to MLS in his late 30s may give a good impression for some guys looking for options later in their career, it doesn’t exactly inspire guys in their primes to come over. Seeing guys like Pity Martinez, Miguel Almiron and Alejandro Pozuelo, guys either in or close to reaching their primes, come over and play in MLS, ar the exact kind of guys the league needs to bring in, as it entices more players in that phase of their career to follow suit.
But while the league is doing well to attract more stars, teams must still find a way to compete for trophies, through the various means available to them. While teams will do things differently, with teams like New York and Dallas succeeding through the academy, Atlanta and LAFC through youthful spending, and LA Galaxy through hefty investment into both old and young, teams must find a way to compete within the complex framework set out by the league. It has coined an important term within the league, and that is “Market Efficiency”.
What are market efficiencies within MLS?
All around the world, teams try to do their best to win as cheaply as possible. In Europe, where the only restriction is a Financial Fair Play system that doesn’t really do much, teams will try to combine good youth academy development and strong investment to win. But, since their lack of spending restrictions, they’re able to buy their way out of gaps, buying as many players as they need to fill their squad. Look at Barcelona, for example, who won a couple of Champions League on the back of a ridiculously strong generation from their academy, with Leo Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pique, Jordi Alba, Pedro and so many more becoming the backbone of their squad. It was one of their best teams ever, and they barely had to spend to achieve it. Now that it’s dying down, we’re seeing big purchases from them, as they are able to still stay competitive by spending at will.
In MLS, spending helps, but due to the complicated roster system, market efficiencies and inefficiencies become key. Only 3 players can get paid whatever they want, while around a handful per team can earn up to 1.5 million, depending on the amount of Target Allocation Money (TAM) the club has. Other regulations hampering the ability to build a team, such as a rule that transfer fees get added to their budget charge, meaning that a 3 million player on a 3-year contract at 750K per year, who would have been a TAM player otherwise, becomes a DP, with his budget charge being 1.75 mil.
With all of this set out by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) of the league, teams must follow the framework, as it was agreed upon by all teams and the commissioner. The CBA does expire this winter, which may be pivotal as a lot of these rules will get much-needed updating and spending rules may be loosened, but for now, these are a couple of market efficiencies that teams have picked up on to compete.
Cheap Goalkeeping: This one has come up this week, with the Whitecaps extending their goalkeeper, Max Crepeau, to a contract extension. A look at goalkeepers on top teams around the league, and a picture is painted: good teams succeed with non-DP, domestic goalkeepers. LAFC, Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, New York and countless other top teams can attest to that. Despite having teams filled with international talent, one constant remains, and that is the goalkeeper is often cheap and domestic. There are only two good teams that buck the trend, Minnesota and Philadelphia, who have international keepers Andre Blake and Vito Mannone, but at least they’re not DPs, which still fits the trend to an extent. The Colorado Rapids made that costly mistake a couple of seasons ago, as they invested 2.5 (!) million dollars per season in an ageing Tim Howard, paying 5-6 times more than they could have for other keepers. It was a big mistake, and it shows, with Colorado consistently being among the worst in MLS, despite having some decent players.
Domestics in general: To expand on the premise of domestic goalkeeping, domestic players, in general, are a good MLS investment. With the top-end of rosters filled out with the big DPs and TAM+GAM players, it leaves the rest of the roster needing to be filled out on the cheap, which is where domestic players come in. A good example was Atlanta last season, who was headlined by their stars in Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez et al, but filled out their roster with veterans like Darlington Nagbe, Jeff Larentowicz, Micheal Parkhurst, and many more, giving them both the experience and depth to compete. So while teams may get headlined by all the big names, it’s the guys that fill out the roster who ensure success. One aspect Vancouver failed in this offseason was bringing in domestic players that know the league, and it shows, as many of the Caps have struggled to adjust to MLS, as the league’s intensive travel and schedule can often be a steep curve for internationals to overcome in one year.
Free and Expiring Contracts: This is one of the more underrated aspects of team building that can get overlooked by teams. Due to the transfer fee being added to budget charge rule as alluded to before, free and expiring contracts can become a huge boost for a team trying to add some skilled TAM players to their roster. While the transfer fee rule could change in the new CBA, it remains in, for now, so teams will look to gain an advantage by pursuing these kinds of players to work around it.
DPs: While these are not much of a market efficiency, they can be easy to botch, making careful investment key. There are a few options to bring in the right DPs. Firstly, there are young DPs, which reduce the budget charge a team faces on the cap, which in turn means they can invest in more TAM players to fill out their roster. Secondly, they’re the players you spend heavy on because they’re the 3 players on the squad that have no limit in terms of how much they receive. Lastly, its best if these DPs are attacking and midfield players, as defenders have shown to be capable as either domestics or TAM players, but goals are always harder to come by.
The future for the Whitecaps?
The Whitecaps are facing all sorts of trials and tribulations in trying to rebuild their squad, having blown it all up last year. Marc Dos Santos has acknowledged a lot of those mistakes, as he touched on in that interview linked earlier. While a lot of it was schedule-induced, with players coming in late and preseason being a mess, both things he has promised to rectify, he still has to make sure his player acquisitions are home runs. Here are some things that he can do to ensure that happens:
Cheap Goalkeeping: The Caps are set in this regard, with Max Crepeau having signed an extension that keeps him as the face of Vancouver’s net for at least 3 and a half more seasons. Picked up for cheap, he’s the exact kind of young and talented domestic goalkeeping teams need to succeed. Zac MacMath is a great backup option, but he could also be trade bait, with Thomas Hasal and Sean Melvin possibly pushing for more minutes soon.
Domestics (with experience): This will kind of rectify itself on its own, as a lot of the new players learned a lot about MLS. As seen with San Jose, who has gone from terrible to great despite not many changes, a lot of it comes down to the manager, of course, but don’t discount the fact that the players have adjusted well with a season under their belt. MLS is funny like that, so don’t discount the experience factor aiding Vancouver next year. Despite that, they should still pursue some veteran options, as it never hurts to have a couple of hands around that do know the league.
Free and expiring contracts: This will be huge for Vancouver, who are already locked into two DP spots with Hwang and Ali Adnan. For the rest of this window, and the next one, Vancouver should be looking into players that are out of contract or really close to it, picking up players on the cheap. One player that is a great example of that is Mehdi Zeffane, who the Caps have been linked to. A right-back who is arguably pretty similar in quality to Adnan (here is what transfermarkt says to compare the two) he would only be a TAM player for Vancouver, thanks to his free-agent status. If the Caps can sign him, a midfielder, a winger and maybe a striker all on free or cheap deals, the team will be golden. Even if they only get 2 of those guys in, it will be a big coup from Dos Santos, who will still have that last DP spot to play with.
DP: Speaking of that last DP spot, this is where things get interesting for Vancouver. From the sounds of it, Vancouver will pay at least 2 million to bring in this player, maybe paying more if the player is really worth it. While MDS has said he wants to look at leagues that overlap with the MLS schedule and have a similar schedule (South America and China are the big comparisons), any top-name player available from Europe would be a good shout right now, as he would get the 6 month adjustment period before next years pre-season. Either way, this player should likely be a midfielder or number 10, with the Caps needing someone that can transition the ball from midfield to attack, giving Hwang some much-needed assistance in the middle. If no European names are brought in during the last week of the summer transfer window, keep an eye out on players from China, as they have similar travel to MLS, and they have the same season overlap, meaning a lot of good players are available for free or for cheap in January. South America is also the same, but with MLS creating a pipeline from those countries, China might provide them with options that are less-heralded but equally as valuable.
While this lineup could be subject to change, with the futures of Erice and Reyna, amongst others, unclear, it would put Vancouver more in line with the top squads in MLS. Obviously, a lot will depend on who the Caps are able to bring in and how they gel together, but it’s the kind of framework Vancouver can build around. With the Caps being close to 2-3 players before the end of this window, as per MDS, that’s half of the business done, so they’ll be able to pursue the last few guys in the winter and come into preseason ready to gel and assimilate the MDS tactics to come out flying. While it’s been a tough season so far, things are not totally bleak, but as has been the case for much of their MLS tenure, it’s up for Vancouver now to invest smartly, implement their style and have a good preseason, which we’ll now wait and see if MDS can do, as well as if he gets the proper backing from ownership that he’ll require to do so.