Youthful Spring: Some players 24 and under for the Whitecaps to build around in 2020

With the Vancouver Whitecaps looking to improve their squad over the transfer window, we look at 5 players 24 and under that should also help them get better from within, as the journey towards 2020 continues. 

As the calendar turns from winter to spring next year, will the Whitecaps see some budding growth?

That question could be easily asked of the plants and grass at their UBC training ground, but it also applies to their squad for next season, as they look to count on some key 2019 pillars to compliment some possible new faces in the white and blue for 2020.

While it’s clear that the Vancouver Whitecaps are busy looking to upgrade their roster in time for next year, they still do have a good chunk of talent to lean on from last season, including some solid young pieces. With manager Marc Dos Santos looking to add some players that would push this team towards being playoff-calibre, the Caps will need to ensure that they bring in the right people to push them towards that end goal, while still maintaining continuity for the year prior. 

After a campaign where they finished 2nd last in MLS, some people might wonder: why would continuity be important? 

But after a campaign where changes were rampant, as the Caps picked up the pieces left behind from a fragmented 2018 team, it was understandable that there were some growing pains. While no one expected the pains to hit as hard as they did, they did still learn some valuable lessons from the season, and they will look to brings those over as they attempt to bounce back in 2020. 

As seen by the last match of the campaign, where the age of 12 of the 18 players in the matchday squad was 26 and under, there is still lots to growth to come, meaning improvement should be due, no matter the acquisitions. A top player of any age would boost the squad, there’s no denying that, but it appears that there are also some players on the Caps that are poised to make contributions next season. 

So, as aspired by MLS’s 24 under 24, a ranking each year where they looked at the top players under the age of 24 around the league, here are some players 24 and under that should make a difference next season for the Caps. Despite the Caps struggles, they put up improving performances all year long, and should take more big steps forward next season. 

Some might wonder where the likes of Michael Baldisimo, Simon Colyn, Georges Mukumbilwa, Thomas Hasal and some other academy graduates are on this list, as they certainly might play a role for Dos Santos next season, but they have yet to feature much in MLS, so sadly they do not make this list.

Derek Cornelius:

Derek Cornelius in the midst of a man of the match performance vs DC United (Keveren Guillou)

It’s almost easy to forget that Derek Cornelius is only 21, as he came to Vancouver having played overseas for a couple of years, having moved to Germany at a younger age to pursue his professional dreams. With all the hype sent the way of Doneil Henry and Erik Godoy at the start of the season, when the Caps were putting up strong defensive performances, Cornelius’s growth flew under the radar at times over the course of the year. With the late emergence of Jesser Khemiri, who looked good in his lone game after his recovery from the knee injury, Cornelius seems almost like a forgotten man heading into next season, despite having some memorable games at the heart of the Vancouver defensive line. 

He started the season slowly, making a few costly errors in the first few matches this year, as he struggled to adapt both first as an out of position left back, and later in the middle when he moved to his natural position over at centre back. With the strong play of Godoy and Henry, who looked good together as a pairing, it meant that Cornelius had to content himself with the bench for a period, after having featured in 2 of the first 3 games of 2019. Only playing in 1 of the 9 next games after that point, with that 1 game coming in a match where Dos Santos when rotation heavy in Orlando, Cornelius didn’t have much time to make his stamp on the Caps lineup. 

And then he got his shot vs Kansas in May, as he came on as a halftime substitute for left winger PC, with Marc Dos Santos shifting to a 3 at the back formation to free up Ali Adnan down the left-hand side. It’s a move that worked marvellously, as Cornelius, formerly a striker until only 3 years ago, jumped up in the 94th minute and latched onto an Adnan cross with a volley, rescuing 1 point for the Caps as they drew 1-1. With Doneil Henry leaving that same game with an injury, it was a huge moment for Cornelius to step up, as he announced himself to the Caps faithful with the goal. 

From that point on, he featured in 14 of the next 23 games (all competitions), with 5 of those missed games coming due to his participation and recovery from the summer’s Gold Cup. 

And there were some big performances in there, such as helping the Caps keep a huge clean sheet away to Minnesota as they recovered from their midsummer swoon, or his Man of the Match performance vs DC at the end of August, as they managed to shut out Wayne Rooney and company in their hunt for a playoff spot. Along with helping Canada’s men’s national team keep a clean sheet against the US, as they beat their rivals for the first time in over 35 years, it was a strong end to the campaign for Cornelius, with more hopefully to come as another game against the US looms in Orlando next month. 

When looking at Cornelius, there a few things that stand out. Even though he is 6’2”, he is good with his feet, averaging a pass percentage of 82%, as he shows a good ability to pick out teammates. That number will only go up, since he often looked nervous at the beginning of the year, as he adjusted to the pace of MLS. As seen with his 1 goal, where he aptly volleyed home first time with his left foot, he has good technical ability, he just needs more confidence to use it in games. 

Defensively, he excels at clearances and blocks, clearing the ball 6.1 times per game, which is top 3 in MLS for all defenders (minimum 10 apps), as well as adding 1.2 blocks per game, which is also a top 3 mark. While he isn’t as strong at tackling and intercepting, Doneil Henry and Erik Godoy both do well in that regard, which is why Cornelius had complimented them well. While many could point to his high numbers in blocks and clearances and say that it was due to the Caps sitting back and absorbing pressure, his high numbers are certainly high enough where those thoughts can be somewhat quieted. 

In a position where players typically hit their peak later than attackers, and considering Cornelius is technically behind due to his late transition from striker to where he is now, he will only improve on those numbers next season. As he grows into his role, as shown with performances for both the Whitecaps and Canada, he can be a top player, now it’s to see how much he grows in his quest to do that.

Hwang In Beom

In Beom, dynamic as always, in action vs the Crew (Keveren Guillou)

In Beom looks to be a player to watch for next year, as he, along with Ali Adnan, stands to be someone that will take good advantage of this 4+ month break afforded by an early end to the season. After playing for nearly a year and a half non-stop, he faded at times in 2019, as he just seemed too worn out to make a difference. Along with a Whitecaps midfield that put a brunt of the offensive load on his slender shoulders, it made for an up and down campaign for the South Korean international.

His best attribute looks to be his passing, as he led the way for Vancouver in primary assists, tied with Russell Teibert and Ali Adnan with 3. It doesn’t look impressive, but if you consider that he ranked 30th among all midfielders in MLS(attacking or defensive) in key passes per game, ahead of some quality players such as Latif Blessing, Sebastian Lletget, Jonathan Dos Santos and Damir Kreilach, it showed some of his offensive quality. Along with an 86% passing percentage on around 50 passes a game, In Beom passes the ball around accurately, while also putting his teammates in positions to shoot and play off each other. 

Add in his 1.4 shots per game, and his average of around 1 dribble per game, he makes for a complete offensive package. He only scored 3 goals, but 2 of them did come during the last 10 games, as he started to pick up some offensive life. Along with his 2 (or 3 if you’re MLS) assist performance against the Galaxy in the second-to-last game of the MLS season, he gave some glimpses of what to expect next year. 

Part of what makes him a presence in the midfield, as well, is his defensive strength. He intercepts the ball very well, sitting 8th in MLS among all midfielders (minimum 10 appearances) with 1.8 interceptions a game, as he reads the play smartly. He tackles less frequently, around 1.5 times a game, which is still a top 45 rate, which isn’t great but is in the top half among midfielders in MLS. 

So even despite his long and tiring season, as he was the only Whitecaps player to feature in every game, he put up good numbers in the midfield. With the rest ahead of him, he should come back strongly, which should be exciting for Caps fans. 

If Vancouver can compliment him with 2 quality midfielders, one of which being a ball-winning and passing #6, In Beom should have a breakout offensive year. If they add a #10 on top of that, someone who can operate in between the lines and unlock defences with shots, through-balls and 1-2s with fellow midfielders, In Beom could very well put up some excellent numbers. At only 23, he has a lot to still come, and if he wants to get that move to Europe that he supposedly strongly desired before coming to MLS, he’ll definitely be one to watch for Vancouver next year. 

Theo Bair

Theo Bair taking flight after opening his MLS account down in Portland (Keveren Guillou)

Theo Bair emerged a little later in the season, making his first appearance at the end of May, before becoming a regular by June. After playing a few minutes against Seattle on June 30th, he featured in every MLS game for the rest of the year, either as a substitute or starter, and also went 90 in one of the two games against Cavalry in the Voyageurs Cup. After barely even training with the first team at the beginning of the year, as he struggled to gain the trust of Dos Santos, he grabbed his chance and never looked back, becoming a huge success story for the Whitecaps Academy. 

With 2 goals and 2 assists in 10 starts (17 total appearances), he showed flashes of what to expect for next year. A versatile forward, he started out the year through the middle, before shifting out wide, where he played a good role as a sort of second forward. As seen by his 0.30 XG+XA per 96 minutes, which was 0.01 better than Yordy Reyna’s 0.29 XG+XA (his actual stats were 7 G, 1A), he could have stood to produce well with more minutes and better luck. He hit a few posts and crossbars that could have gone either way, so with more growth this offseason, him producing around 6G+6A or more isn’t out of the realm of possibility. 

Considering only 25 players in MLS got both at least 6 goals and 6 assists in 2019, the Caps would be ecstatic if he could hit those numbers. With his 6’4” stature and his good speed, he will only continue to grow in comfort, as evidenced by the noticeable improvement in his touch and dribbling at the professional level from the preseason to the end of the year. 

If the Caps improve their midfield, and maybe add a strong overlapping right back, it’s not hard to imagine a front three of Michaell Chirinos, a DP and Bair doing some damage with good service. 

Michaell Chirinos

Michaell Chirinos running vs the Crew (Keveren Guillou)

Speaking of Chirinos, the 24-year-old Honduran International that came to the Caps on loan at the end of summer, he is one that should be exciting to watch in 2020 (if he stays). It’s whether or not he returns that is the big question for Vancouver, but if he does, he’ll give a big boost. While he only scored 1 goal and added 1 assist in 7 games, he had great underlying numbers, with a strong 0.49 XG+XA per 96 minutes. Add in 1.4 successful dribbles per game, as well as 0.9 key passes, he looked both good both visually and statistically in his short time in Vancouver. 

He also will be a good fit with how Vancouver will try to play, as he loves to cut in from the left and occupy central areas. With Ali Adnan being the zealous overlapper from left back that he is, it creates matchup problems for opposing right backs and centre backs, as they have to deal with the threat of Chirinos, Adnan and a midfielder and/or a striker all running at them. With his 1.4 shots a game, he isn’t afraid to shoot the ball from inside, but he has the passing and dribbling to keep teams on their toes. 

Now the big question for him will be how they attempt to retain him, as they try to keep him under a good threshold. Much like Bair, with his current numbers, and possible improvement, it’s not impossible to imagine him producing upwards of 6 goals and 6 assists next year. 

If they add that big-name DP striker they have so badly chased, who would be expected to add at least 15 goals, that’s 27 goals right there between a supposed front three of Bair-Chirinos-DP, only 10 shy of the 37 the Caps scored as a team this season. With a rested Ali Adnan and In Beom, as well as midfield upgrades and other forwards producing, it would be a big improvement on a tough 2019 offensive campaign.  

So now it’s to see where the negotiations go. It appears Chirinos has a desire to come to MLS, the Caps want him, and he has the pedigree to help the team, it’s now just about finding the right number that works for all parties. As the Caps look to improve on their offensive struggles, it would be a low-hanging fruit that they could easily pick from and yield positive results, so it’ll be in their best interests to do so. 

Jasser Khemiri

Khemiri in action during a training session (Keveren Guillou)

The big wildcard for 2020, the Tunisian has all sorts of question marks surrounding him, as he hopes to come in next year ready to go after a long season rehabbing his knee. He only appeared in one game, where he put up an absurd 19 clearances in a Caps win vs the Galaxy, making many wonder where he’ll be at for next season. 

At 6’4”, he looks to be a good aerial threat, but he still looks nimble for his height, giving him an interesting package. In his highlight packs, as well as his appearance against the Galaxy, he has shown that he can pick out a pass with both feet, even creating the Caps winning goal down in LA with a long ball. He looked sluggish at times in that game, as he gets used to moving laterally after the injury, but he has good straightaway speed and it didn’t look like his athleticism was too impacted by the surgery. 

If he has a good winter of rehabbing and physical growth, he will be one to watch next year. He has the physical tools to defend both in the air and on the ground, while still being able to play with his feet, which will help Dos Santos play the attractive football he badly desires. Whether or not the Caps move on from Erik Godoy, as they look to retain the on-loan Argentine, and Doneil Henry, who is still in contract negotiations, Khemiri and Cornelius should give them some confidence at centre back. 

And if they keep all of them, it should be another improved defensive campaign, as Max Crepeau looks to build on his breakout year, while the Caps midfield improvements will bring much-needed stability to bring down the Goals Against numbers. As Vancouver looks to improve offensively, it gives them a good foundation to build off of, as Dos Santos appears to have a good back-to-front foundation going forward. 

Looking Forward:

While much of the attention will be centred around the new signings that come in, and rightfully so, it’ll be interesting to monitor the progress of these 5 players. In a volatile league environment, where MLS experience remains a valuable commodity (as evidenced by the growth of San Jose last year), the continuity the 5 will bring to the Caps should be a good asset to have. 

As Dos Santos looks to build around a core of players for his future, these players should make a case to join that Whitecaps nucleus next year, if they’re not already a part of it. With a look to return to the playoffs next year, growth from their players currently around will only push them forward, no matter who they bring in. 

And after a trying 2019 campaign, growth and improvement will at least show that the project is still going somewhere, with many tentative fans stand on the fence about their commitment to the team. As the Whitecaps project continues, keeping them on board would be a huge boost in the hunt to become big in MLS.