Thrift Shopping: A statistical look at some MLS free agents that the Vancouver Whitecaps could sign

With the opening of the MLS Free Agent period this week, we analyze some potential names that the Vancouver Whitecaps could look at, as they aim to acquire some MLS Experience ahead of 2020. 

MLS’s Free Agent Period opened earlier this week, giving out of contract players aged 28 and older, with 8+ years of MLS, experience under the belt, a chance to find a new team within the league. While it isn’t Free Agency in the European sense, where there are no service-year restrictions required in order to be free to negotiate with every team, it is still a good chance for teams to pick up MLS quality talent. 

It’s the kind of talent that can benefit teams such as the Vancouver Whitecaps, with manager Marc Dos Santos suggesting that his team lacked MLS experience in 2019, which would make them a natural candidate to be active on the Free Agent market. On top of a second overall pick in Stage 2 of the MLS Re-Entry draft, as well as what is seen as a decent cache of tradeable assets, they figure to be active in the coming weeks. 

As they look to fill some holes in their roster, some of which we saw last week when analyzing the outgoing transfer of Doneil Henry, free agency presents itself as a good avenue for Vancouver to venture down. While it won’t help them solve all of their depth problems, as they are only allowed to sign 2 free-agents (without mentioning that they have to convince the players to come!), they can still pick up some pieces to help complete their 2020 lineup puzzle. 

Here are 5 names that could possibly aid them in that quest. 

  1. Justin Meram

As soon as his name hit the market, Whitecaps fans were suggesting that he could be a fit in Vancouver, largely aided by his relationship with Iraqi National Team friend, and starting Vancouver left back, Ali Adnan. On top of that link, he’s been a solid contributor over his time in MLS, usually flirting with 5+ goals and assists a season, which would give Vancouver some punch in attack. 

Considering that that 2019 Vancouver wingers Lass Bangoura, Lucas Venuto, Yordy Reyna, Michaell Chirinos, PC and Theo Bair combined for a grand total of 14 goals and 7 assists, they’ll take any production they can get from the position. Factor in that Reyna’s best moments came at striker, it gives an idea of how badly Vancouver needs Vancouver depth, hence the Meram links.

There are some concerns with Meram, mainly based around the fact that he turns 31 later this year, which doesn’t bode well considering that he only had 4 goals and 0 assists last season. Considering that he played 29 of 34 possible games across both Columbus and Atlanta, it wasn’t the most flattering of offensive statlines for the Iraqi international. 

All hope isn’t lost, however, especially when you dive a little deeper into his stats. His season was anchored by a poor start to the year in Columbus, a start so slow that it sparked an early-season trade to Atlanta. From there, he started to rediscover his form, filling in at all sorts of positions for manager Frank De Boer, including at full back, scoring all 4 of his 2019 goals with the 5 Stripes. 

When you compare his stats since the trade, he improved massively across the board, as he recovered nicely from that Columbus Fog. All his key offensive stats at least doubled, even tripling in some cases, which is not that surprising in some sense, especially with the talent that Atlanta has at their disposal, but it still reflects well on Meram. 

Take his stats with Atlanta compared with late 2019 Whitecaps loanee Michaell Chirinos, for example. Chirinos, a Honduran International, shone in his short time in Vancouver, prompting calls to sign him on a permanent basis this offseason. Considering that if Meram came to Vancouver his main competition would be with the speedy Honduran, this gives an idea of how they would stack up heading into a potential battle.  

As seen by the graph, Meram comes out on top over in Chirinos in Expected Assists/96 minutes (XA), Key Passes/96 and dribbles per game. Considering that Vancouver’s biggest struggles came from getting the ball to the final third of the pitch, as they were last in the league in terms of possession spent there, his ability to dribble and pass his way there would aid Vancouver massively on the offensive front. 

If Vancouver were able to pick up Meram, it would give them more chance creation on the offensive end of the pitch, which would go a long way to ensuring better performance from their underperforming strikers. That’s not a slight on Chirinos, whos key pass, dribbles and XA numbers look impressive when considering how much Vancouver’s offence struggled last year, but it does also reflect well on Meram, even despite the difference in level between their teams. 

As with Chirinos, who is still yet to ink a deal with Vancouver for 2020, the big question with Meram would be salary, as he collected just over $650 000 last year. If they can at least halve that, if not more, he’d be worth it, but at anything more, it would be a risk to invest that much on a 31-year-old. If they can bring him at a reasonable tag, one that would allow him to be a starter/backup without too much financial risk, it’s definitely a move they would be well-served by looking into.

As long as he doesn’t have a repeat of his 2019 start in Columbus…

  1. Kelyn Rowe
Kelyn Rowe takes on Erik Godoy at BC Place in September (Keveren Guillou)

Rowe has also been a name on the lips of many in Whitecaps land as of late, with this not being the 1st time that Vancouver fans have clamoured for a move to bring in the versatile midfielder. Only 27, he’s an MLS veteran with over 200 games under his belt, having been a longtime New England Revolution regular, before moving on to Sporting Kansas City, and later Real Salt Lake, this season. 

What makes Rowe attractive for Vancouver would be his versatility, as he played as a winger and a midfielder last year, which are both big positions of need for the Whitecaps. Considering that he hails from the neighbouring Washington State, he seems like a perfect fit to bring in on a decent ticket, shoring up Vancouver’s depth in two key areas of need. 

While he has tailed off offensively the last 2 years, only scoring 1 goal and adding 4 assists across 2 seasons, he seemingly used to always flirt with 5+ goals and assists before that, much like Meram. Considering that he only played 18 games this season, 9 as a starter, it’s not a stretch to imagine him finding more offensive joy if he were to receive more minutes. 

And in a Vancouver team starved for offence, there would definitely be opportunities to do that, especially in the midfield. While the goal is for Vancouver to add a DP-calibre talent to slot in alongside DP Hwang In Beom at the position, Rowe would still be a good option if needed to fill in, as he looks to be an upgrade over Russell Teibert, at least in terms of pushing up the pitch.  Considering that Teibert is an excellent presser of the ball, and is a bulldog defensively, having him and Rowe as depth for the midfield would give Marc Dos Santos plenty of options to work with.

To get an idea of what he could bring to the Vancouver midfield, take a look at this chart comparing the outputs of Rowe, Teibert and Felipe Martins (before he was traded from Vancouver) last season. Rowe leads the way in terms of all of the offensive stats, while Teibert takes the lead in all of the defensive categories, which does show what they could bring as backup options in a revamped Dos Santos midfield. 

When you factor in that adding Rowe also supplements Vancouver’s thin winger depth,  it seems a no-brainer to court Rowe, giving him the option for him to come to the Whitecaps if he desires. Even when comparing him to Vancouver’s main winger options heading into 2020, Yordy Reyna and Theo Bair, he still fares well statistically, especially considering that he wouldn’t be relied on as anything more than winger depth if signed. 

  1. Steven Beitashour

Up next on the list is a familiar face, as Beitashour was a stalwart for the Whitecaps earlier this decade, even making Iran’s 2014 World Cup squad while he was with the Caps. His move to Toronto was seen as one of the moves that pushed TFC over the top defensively, as they made 2 MLS Cup finals, winning 1, with Beitashour playing a big role as a regular starter at right back for them. 

He is fresh off his latest stint, 2 years with LAFC, where he and his teammates became the most successful MLS franchise ever in their 1st season, before they broke the all-time MLS regular season point record this year. While they fell short in the playoffs, succumbing to eventual MLS champions Seattle in the Western Conference finals, it was still a memorable campaign for the LA-based side. 

Much like when was in Toronto, he played a big part of LA’s success, as his ability both offensively and defensively made him a key cog in Bob Bradley’s system. Despite that, he appears to be expandable for LA this offseason, after they brought in some big-name young players such as Brian Rodriguez and Diego Palacios over the summer. Considering that Marc Dos Santos was an assistant with LAFC for their first season, adding another link to this franchise, it would make for an easier transition if his next destination were to be Vancouver. 

At nearly $300 000 per season, it’s understandable that LAFC opted not to renew his deal, as they either look to find a cheaper replacement, or even settle for new terms with Beitashour. If that doesn’t happen, Beitashour will be a wanted commodity, especially for teams like Vancouver. If they can get him at a cheaper price tag, he can form a solid partnership with current right back Jake Nerwinski, as he presents an upgrade on the outgoing Scott Sutter, who was good for the Whitecaps last season.

As seen when comparing Sutter, Nerwinski and Beitashour, Beitashour would give Vancouver a good 1-2 punch at right back, improving their depth at an often forgotten position in MLS. Considering that the Whitecaps have stated that they want to compete in both MLS and the Voyageurs Cup next year, that kind of depth will go a long way to accomplishing those goals. 

The only question mark, in this case, would be around what to do with 20-year-old Georges Mukumbilwa, who earned a contract late last season. It appears that he would be ready to compete for more minutes, as he often stood out in games he played with his peers, which would complicate a potential Beitashour signing. 

But considering that Nerwinski would be great trade bait if needed, as he is a cheap and young domestic player in an undervalued position, it gives the Whitecaps options to be flexible. If they enter the season with Nerwinski and Mukumbilwa, there will be little reason to worry, but rest assured that Dos Santos will be looking at all the options that are available, such as the veteran Beitashour. 

  1. Jordan Harvey

Speaking of former Whitecaps full backs playing in LA, Harvey is coming off a solid season in the sunny state as well, as he and Beitashour formed a reliable partnership at the back for the ‘Goats’. With the incoming Palacios, who is a young, high-priced Ecuadorian left back, it seems to spell the end of his tenure in LA, but at 35, he still appears to have gas left in the tank, making him attractive for some teams within MLS. 

Like Beitashour, he is familiar with Vancouver, having spent 7 seasons in the Pacific Northwest, moving on to join LA at the start of their 2018 expansion season. His departure created a big hole at left back for the Caps, a hole that they only seemingly filled this year with the arrival of Ali Adnan, so in a sense, things would be coming full circle with a return. 

With the option on 2019 backup left back Brett Levis being declined, it leaves a spot open behind Adnan in Vancouver, which Harvey seems more than capable of filling. He loves to venture forward, as seen by his career-high 5 assists this season, which would help a Vancouver team looking for offence. Consider that he still has his defensive chops, even despite concerns that his speed had declined, he can fit into the Whitecaps squad rather nicely. 

As is the case with Beitashour, Harvey is also familiar with Dos Santos from the 2018 season, which would ease the transition even more. At a ticket of only $165 000 last year, he wouldn’t hurt the Caps financially either, especially considering that one would think a slight pay cut would be in order in his next deal. 

When comparing the stats of Adnan, Harvey and Levis, it’s clear that Harvey would at least be an upgrade on Levis, especially defensively. While Levis was excellent offensively in the few games that he played this year, boosting his per 96 rates, Harvey is no slouch there either, which could give the Whitecaps a nice 1-2 punch at left back. 

On a young team lacking MLS experience last season, Harvey’s 13+ seasons of experience could go a long way on this Whitecaps squad, and considering his familiarity with Dos Santos and Vancouver, it could prove to be a good fit. 

  1. Benny Feilhaber

After signing for Colorado in Free Agency last season, Feilhaber finds himself in a similar situation once again, as he finds himself hunting for a new team to call home. With him turning 35 in January of 2020, it’s wondered how much he has left in the tank, but considering that he played 17 times since a trade back to Sporting Kansas in May, it appears he still has some juice left to help a team in MLS.

Much like Beitashour and Harvey, Feilhaber has links to Dos Santos, having played for LAFC in 2018, where he appeared in every game for them in their inaugural season. With over 250+ MLS games of experience, he would bring a veteran presence to the Vancouver midfield, something that it felt like they lacked at times this season. 

Most importantly, he still appears to be able and create offence, which would aid with Vancouver’s biggest issue, something that they are looking to fix this offseason. Even despite playing for a poor early-season Colorado Rapids side, before his move to an SKC side that wasn’t much better, his stats still held up relatively well, as he had 4 goals and 4 assists in 26 appearances (20 starts). 

When you factor in some key stats, comparing them to Vancouver’s Teibert and Felipe like we did with Rowe, it shows that he can be an upgrade in the Vancouver midfield, even despite his age.

Even at 34, while playing on two middling Western Conference teams, he had over a key pass per game, while still shooting and dribbling the ball at a good rate. Defensively, he wasn’t too bad either, with his tackling and intercepting rates being nothing to scoff at, faring well compared to Teibert and Felipe. 

The big question with Feilhaber, besides his age, remains his salary, as his latest ticket came in at a cool $463 000, which is a hefty investment for a player at his age. If Vancouver could bring him in on a discount from that, maybe somewhere between $200 000 and $300 000 (which is still half of what Jon Erice makes!), it seems like Feilhaber could be something worth bringing to the Vancouver midfield next season. 

Considering that he stacks up favourably even when compared to young Vancouver DP Hwang In Beom, who was excellent despite a lack of support from his teammates, it’s a veteran move that would give Dos Santos some of that coveted MLS experience, while still adding some quality at a position that they certainly need it at. 

Looking Forward: 

It’s unclear if Vancouver will make a splash in Free Agency this year, but as seen when comparing what’s available to what they have, as well as what are looking to replace, there are some good players to be had. If they can convince some of these players to come to Vancouver at a reasonable salary, it would be a great way to load up on some much-needed MLS experience, which will be needed to compete for a playoff spot next year. 

As seen by the last few champions, no matter how good your top-level talent is, you need to surround it with veterans who know the league. With Vancouver on the hunt to find more of the former, implementing more of the latter will give them a good spine to build with, as they look to bounce back after 2 disappointing campaigns. 

With an eye on the future, it’s that kind of long-term stability that will go a long way to sustained success. While these free agents won’t be the be-all-end-all pieces needed to make Vancouver a competitor, picking up those veteran pieces to help build a culture can help, as Dos Santos has admitted to. 

In a long offseason, these are the kinds of moves that Dos Santos and new Technical Director Axel Schuster will be mulling over, as they look to navigate their way through a complicated MLS landscape. 

Per game stats via: Whoscored

Per 96 stats via: americansocceranalysis.com

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