We break down the comments made by Whitecaps coach Marc Dos Santos this past week, as he made some honest admissions about the lessons he learned on recruitment ahead of a crucial 2019-2020 winter transfer window.
Last week, Marc Dos Santos spoke with the Province’s JJ Adams, and he dropped some interesting nuggets on recruitment, as he delved deeper into the thought process that he’s taken in terms of bringing players to the Whitecaps, as well as what he might consider changing from the path taken so far.
It’s no secret, the Whitecaps have underperformed in terms of the talent they have brought in, and while the structure of the footballing department around Dos Santos didn’t make it easy for him to succeed, he is the face of the whole process, and he (fairly or unfairly) takes the pain accordingly.
The Whitecaps and recruitment has been an interesting subject to dive into this season, as we have already done once this season, and given Dos Santos’s recent comments, as well as the state of the Whitecaps campaign, it’s a good as time as any to jump into his comments while they remain fresh in the minds of all.
The shortcomings of the Process
Vancouver’s process has been much-maligned by critics, as the Whitecaps have struck out on many of the transfers they brought in during the 2018-2019 winter window, playing a big role in the team’s struggles this year. They have hit on a couple of names, as In Beom Hwang, Ali Adnan, Derek Cornelius, Max Crepeau and Erik Godoy have all played big roles for the Caps this season, but they have been unable to find value from plenty of other signings they made, especially further up the pitch.
It has led to an up and down year, as the Caps have been unable to score goals in key moments, with their offence ranking 2nd-worst in MLS. Their defence has been a bright spot, as mid-summer swoon aside they have been one of the better units in MLS, but too often they have been let down by the players expected to fill the opponent’s goals.
For a Whitecaps team that was promised to be a high-pressing team, one that would punish teams mistakes high up the pitch while building things up slowly when starting from deep, it has been frustrating to watch the team struggle to exhibit those properties on the pitch. For Dos Santos, the difficulties he has had in that regard has taught him some valuable lessons.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Dos Santos said in his interview with The Province. “For us to have a model of play, and recruit to maximize that model, for me (to do that) was a mistake. Our window, it’s too big. We have to focus on the best players possible we could bring to the club, and then find what fits better the mould we have.”
It was an honest admission from the Caps manager, but it also begs to be asked a couple of questions, primarily: why was this a lesson to be learned this year, the Caps 9th in MLS? But with the Caps footballing operations currently in a state of flux that has led them to publicly announce the search for a Technical Director to shore up that part of their front office, learning those lessons, no matter how late they come, will be huge if they are to ensure future success. If the Caps are to try and maintain a philosophy across their club both now and in the future, these valuable lessons on recruitment will lend them positively in the future, even if Dos Santos is to move on in the next couple of years.
In MLS, a league where the recruitment of players is impacted by the complexity of the roster rules and restrictions each team has to deal with, teams are aiming to best find a way to maximize the talent the unearth through the various methods available to them. It varies from club-to-club, as some teams will rely more on their own academy, while others will rely on heavy spending, but each club aims to find the way that works best for them.
For Dos Santos, one of the biggest mistakes he felt that he made was that the Caps would be too reliant on using their system as a guide for their recruitment, eschewing some possible higher-profile names to try and instead bring in players that could fit the system. Because when said players failed, it led to the question: would they have been better off pursuing better players instead of chasing “perfect fits”?
“I take a lot of things personally,” Dos Santos said. “Every day I assess what we’ve done, where we’re at. What I admit is, I had a philosophy, an idea of play, and I wanted to bring players into spots to develop that philosophy. And I think that we’re not in that position as a club to do it. We closed windows on other good players.”
Finding the right fit
It’s interesting to note that among the list of players that people would consider successes from the winter, all but one are defenders, and the other player, Hwang In Beom, is a midfielder that has spent time in a more defensive number six role as well as a box-to-box player. The Caps have actually been good at bringing in guys to keep balls out of their net, but their struggle to put them in has been the biggest of their issues to sort out.
And part of that is due to the volatile nature of attackers. Many attackers seem to be prone to swings that depend on many factors, such as city, teammates, system, coaches and more. Defenders can obviously be affected by those things, as the defence from the 2018 Whitecaps season can certainly attest to, but the work Dos Santos has done to rectify that part of the pitch can certainly be applauded.
But on the offensive side of the pitch, for whatever reason, it has just not worked out. So for Dos Santos, the best way to maximize that may just be by shifting their focus on bringing in the best players they can, and then figuring out the best way to compliment them in both the system and the teammates they put out on the pitch.
“Yes, we’ll stay in our principles of being an aggressive team, more dynamic, fast guys that cover more ground, but at the same time, let’s get the best players possible, and then as coaches try to find a way (to) connect everything together. That’s something I questioned a lot this year.”
In MLS, where attackers get paid handsomely, while the salaries of defenders and goalkeepers usually rarely crest above the DP level, bringing in top offensive talent, no matter the fit, seems to be a good direction to take. And for the Whitecaps, who already have a reputation for being thrifty, putting money into a top-level attacker is a foolproof plan, because if they succeed, the fans will be happy, and if it fails, at least it wasn’t because they failed to pony up for top-level talent.
And while it may mean bringing in someone that isn’t a perfect fit for the system, if they get a striker that can score and help the team create more offence despite not being too great at pressing, tweaking the defensive system to fit him in may prove to be a better option than trying to get 11 square pegs for 11 square holes.
“If I’m focused on a right-winger,” Dos Santos said. “Maybe I’m missing on another player (right-winger) that’s maybe not made for my model of play that I’d love to play one day, but will make our team better. So we’ve shifted a lot on our recruitment.”
There is no player that better exemplifies that concept than Jon Erice has for the Caps this season. Brought in to be the midfield #6 that Dos Santos’s system called for, with his ability to spray the ball around the pitch ending up being a big reason for his purchase, he has not been able to help the Caps out offensively as hoped. He hasn’t been bad, as he has had some good moments over the course of the season, but he could certainly benefit from better players around him, so it may have been better for the Caps to get a better 6 that doesn’t necessarily bring the same attributes that Erice brings, but can bring up players around him instead of being a good complementary piece.
Building a foundation
For a Whitecaps team that is looking to build a foundation, they will need to improve in that regard, and while players like Ali Adnan, Derek Cornelius, Hwang In Beom and Max Crepeau have emerged as those kinds of players that they need, they have been unable to replicate that success further up the field. Jon Erice, Lucas Venuto, Fredy Montero and Joaquin Ardaiz all could have been great complementary pieces on a better squad, but with a lack of foundation around them, bringing them in and paying them DP and high TAM salaries has not ended up working out for Vancouver. (Note: People will certainly wonder where PC or Lass Bangoura are on this list, but their salaries are so low that their underperformance is far from the crux of the Caps issues).
Instead, Vancouver might have been better off getting someone such as a forward or midfielder that has shown to drive play, has a bigger pedigree and costs more, even if that player didn’t fit into the profile Dos Santos had in mind. And with the implementation of a new scouting staff and the impending arrival of a Technical Director, they should do a better job of finding those top players to build their core around, on top of finding better complementary pieces.
Dos Santos has shown a willingness to learn and grow on this job, and after having experienced success at all levels, he is embracing the valuable lessons learned at the helm of this turbulent campaign. While he would have hoped the Caps were deep into a playoff race at this time of the year, they aren’t, but the honesty he has shared in regard to his shortcomings has been something to commend him on. As the Whitecaps look to become a consistent powerhouse in MLS, having that sort of consistent vision will go a long way in the winding, twisted road that awaits them on their path to that goal.
“(My approach) It changed,” Dos Santos said. “It changed a lot. I’ve had a lot of great seasons in my life, and this has been a very difficult one. But if you don’t always assess yourself, (you’ll fail).”
Quotes for this article were graciously provided by The Province’s JJ Adams. His piece on the subject can be found here: https://theprovince.com/sports/soccer/mls/vancouver-whitecaps/with-roster-decisions-all-but-made-dos-santos-looks-to-whitecaps-future