The Vancouver Whitecaps have been interested in strikers all season. From bringing in 2 last winter, to being linked to 2 big-money ones in the summer before signing a cheaper Tosaint Ricketts, the Caps have been enamoured with frontmen this year. Therefore, in light of all of that, we take a look at why all of the rumours seemed curious, and how the Caps need to find a way to make things more favourable for strikers before investing in them in the future.
The Caps can never seem to go too long without any talk about strikers coming up. Whether it’s high-profile names leaving in weird circumstances (Camilo, Kei Kamara), to rumours of new ones coming in, with occasional chatter of the ones they currently have thrown in, the Caps always seem to be involved with news around the position that people rely on in order to fill goals and pick up trophies.
Vancouver was linked to all sorts of transfer talk this last week, for a myriad of reasons. It started off the field, with manager Marc Dos Santos all but confirming last Thursday that the Caps were close to acquiring Korean striker Hwang Uijo for 2.5 million dollars, with the player instead deciding to take his talents to France and joining Ligue 1 side Bordeaux.
More rumours came out a couple of days later, with Mexican outlets reporting that the Caps had made a 5 million dollar inquiry about Canadian national team striker Lucas Cavallini, currently banging in goals for Liga MX side Puebla, with the clubs agreeing to terms, but Cavallini denying the move, citing a need to stay close to where he is now due to the birth of his daughter. The Caps did get a striker, bringing in veteran Tosaint Ricketts, adding to a trove of frontmen that already includes 4 (!!) members.
On the field, the Caps went to Portland and put 3 of those strikers on the pitch at once, because why not, and while they lost, each of them had strong outings. Youngster Theo Bair had a moment of genius, as he bagged a worldie of a volley, channeling his inner Eric Hassli, Marco Van Basten and James Rodriguez to snatch at a bouncing ball and stick it in the side-netting, winning MLS goal of the week in the process. With 3 of the strikers they have playing relatively well as of late, bar actually putting the ball in the net, the addition of Ricketts leaves the question of where he now fits in. With he and the other strikers being relatively flexible in their positioning, there may be room for all of them on the pitch, but just not all as traditional 9s.
What to make of the rumours and additions
Over the last week, yours truly has embarked on reading Soccernomics. An interesting book, it takes a look at different sides of the business of the sport. One point they made relatively early on in the book was that teams often end up overpaying for strikers, due to goals being an overvalued statistic, meaning that teams would often pony up for forwards, not necessarily diving deeper on how the striker actually found his many goals.
Naturally, being someone who watches soccer and more specifically the Whitecaps, the first thought was to link this line of thinking to the Caps. Having seen a lot of strikers come through Vancouver, with many more being linked to the team, it provoked thought about the current situation.
The Caps have 5 players that can play striker, have been linked with more, yet struggle to score. It led to an important question, had the Caps being prudent in their search for their frontman this season? The answer is yes and no. Here is why:
This is probably the most contentious of points. Looking at Cavalini, a top striker in his prime racking up goals in Liga MX, it’s not hard to imagine him celebrating in front of the BC Place fans after putting ball-after-ball in the back of the net, much like he did in his last visit here as part of the Canadian National team fold. For a team with a frugal reputation like the Caps, the fact that they were willing to pony up 5 million dollars is pretty impressive, signalling some good signs of ambition from their crew.
But was it necessarily the right idea? This where discussion gets interesting. Don’t get things twisted, Cavallini and Uijo would be great additions to any team, especially the noticeably inept Caps, but with two DP strikers already in the fold, and a lack of midfield service seeming to be the issue not just for this campaign but last year’s as well, it seemed a bit odd that the Caps were so hot and heavy in negotiations with a couple of frontmen.
This season, the Caps are last in MLS with expected goals, as they have only been expected to score 23.4 times with the chances they have created, compared to the 26 they actually have scored. They spend the least time in the final third, spending 22% of their time there, compared to most teams spending 25-32% of their time there. Add in the fact that the Caps have only 15 goals from open play, 3 less than Carlos Vela has from non-penalty situations on his own, and the picture painted is far from a Picasso.
It also paints a different picture from the one that the Caps are looking at. If the Caps were performing better in those metrics, doing well to generate chances, spending time in the opponent’s final third and generating more shots (they rank second-to-last in that metric as well, with 10.6 shots per game, .1 ahead of Cincinnati), heavy investment in a finisher like Cavallini or Uijo would be in order. But with the Caps outperforming their XG rating, which actually means that they have had decent finishing for what they generate (sounds crazy, right?), the bulk of their problems come from chance generation, with the midfielders, and to a certain extent the wingers, failing in that regard.
All-in-all, these stats lend themselves to the crowd calling for midfield investment, a school of thought gaining credence every day. At this stage of their development, the Caps are better off letting Theo Bair run wild and investing that 5 million into 1 or 2 great midfielders, making the service better for both Bair and the wingers, which in turn will improve the Caps, instead of plugging in a Cavallini and hoping he scores the Caps out of trouble, putting a band-aid on what appears to be the actual problem.
One example of how this works can be seen over in Columbus, where current USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter managed to get them to the playoffs last season, where they beat DC United before falling to the New York Red Bulls. Part of their success was due to Gyasi Zardes, who was brought in cheaply that offseason, scoring 19 goals in a resurgent campaign for him. A big part of his success was through Berhalter, who implemented a system that catered to Zardes, with his talented midfielders and wingers such as Will Trapp, Frederico Higuain and Justin Meram ensuring that the chances created for Zardes would be the kind of one touch finishes that he thrived with, and the system worked wonders. Columbus has fallen off this year, with Berhalter leaving, Meram departing and Higuain suffering with injuries, but the success they had provides an intriguing model for the Caps to follow. (Interesting to note, Zardes now earns DP money after getting a new contract, yet only has 9 goals. Obviously, there is a lot that factors into that, but it shows the volatile nature of strikers)
This ties into the previous point, but it is still relevant to point out. Not to say Cavallini or Uijo are bad fits, but in this case they sort of are, as talented poachers will be in tough to do what they do best unless they have sterling service around them. But in either case, fit is important to consider, with strikers being the way they are.
One example is over on Manchester, with Manchester United, who recently sold on Romelu Lukaku for a huge sum of money to Italian side Inter Milan. Most people would suggest the move would tank United, who lost someone who would consistently scored 20+ goals, but in a way it helped them. For as talented as Lukaku was, he didn’t necessarily suit the way United wanted to play, as they preferred to have a more fluid frontman, with the slicker Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial now thriving as frontman despite lacking the hulking stature and proficiency of Lukaku.
In the case of the Caps, it’s not that Cavallini won’t fit the system in the future, but instead that they have some sorting out to do in other areas before making someone like him a top priority.
Sidenote: People may suggest that Cavallini would be good to get early because then they’ll have him and he’ll be settled in for when they make the moves they need. I’d be inclined to agree, but with the Caps being noticeably bad at chance creation, they will likely need another DP to push the needle in the midfield, and with only 1 spot left (unless the new CBA changes something), locking it up on a forward would put a lot of emphasis on finding the perfect free agents and market efficiencies, which is certainly possible with the new scouting team in place, but it is also rather ambitious.
No Cavallini and no Uijo, so where do the Caps find goals?
Eightysixforever’s Caleb Wilkins did a good job looking at what the Caps need to do ahead of next season in his piece from yesterday, and it links well to what we look at here.
The part that interests us the most in that piece is the talk of the goals, as Caleb suggests that the Caps need to find around 25+ goals to make the playoffs next season. So to sort of add to the discussion generated by Caleb, we’ll pitch a few suggestions ourselves.
1. Invest in creators:
While it would have been hoped the Caps could have pulled a Philadelphia this year, as the Union lead the East playoff race, despite having a similar payroll as Vancouver, the Caps are nowhere close to their Eastern foes. So while they could try and shop the bargain bin to remedy things like Philly has (their new scouting team should give confidence if they are to go to that route), they have shown to be willing to splash cash, as evidenced by the Cavallini talk, so they may as well take some of that money and put it into some quality midfielders and wingers.
2. Re-evaluate the striking situation:
Of the 4 players to play striker this year (Fredy Montero, Joaquin Ardaiz, Yordy Reyna and Theo Bair), the best have been Reyna and Bair, the two options that were not brought in, and they didn’t cost DP money. What does that say? A) strikers are volatile and thrive in different situations and B) the Caps could and should have spent more on creators.
It’s possible the Caps re-circle around the striker wagons this offseason, attempting to bring in a new striker, but no matter if they do or don’t, they should reconsider the approach. It doesn’t matter if their starting striker next year is Robert Lewandowski or Theo Bair, they need to ensure that said striker is able to thrive. To do that, they need to make sure that all the other players are both comfortable with the system and playing in their best positions within the tactical layout, which means the Caps will have a lot of re-jigging to do to ensure that for their forwards.
3. Get everyone comfortable with the system:
This almost goes without saying, but it has played a role in this season. Whether it’s because of the lack of preseason, all the injuries plus the Gold Cup break, or something Dos Santos has done, things haven’t worked out. Dos Santos has hinted that preseason next year will be different, with the Caps expecting to bring in players earlier than they did this year, as well as embarking on a more gruelling preseason tour, allowing them more time to assimilate and understand his ideas, which should improve things overall.
For all the shiny signings they can make, coaching can make a huge difference, as players united behind a group of ideas can go a long way. Big signings always help, but they have to identify both the needs of the group and the system, and bring in people that can help both. So while for the Caps their needs align with tactical assimilation as well as some big money signings, that does not mean those signings can’t be shrewd as well.
So how does this all tie together?
The Caps interest in strikers seems weird with their lack of midfield support, they need to upgrade in other areas, their best strikers were the two that were already here and the system needs to be better assimilate. Great, you might say, but how does it all link together?
The Caps have taken an interesting approach to fill their offensive needs this offseason. Is all of it part of a grand plan that will have everyone questioning them now look like fools? Entirely possible. But until that actually happens and they leave everyone looking foolish, we are left to speculate and put forward suggestions, and in light of the Cavallini and Uijo rumours, this was a good time to do so.
In a dream scenario, everything the Caps touch will turn to gold, and they will win trophies behind the guise of their smart investment. Since that day has yet to come, we will continue to discuss possible avenues to get out of their rut, and in light of their current scenario, the heavy investments up front seemed curious. While the heavy calls for midfield investment may seem repetitive, it will be necessary unless something changes.