Long-Read: Axel Schuster looking to build off Cavallini signing in next steps of Project Whitecaps

After the recent signing of the Vancouver Whitecaps latest DP, striker Lucas Cavallini, we analyze some of the thoughts shared by Sporting Director Axel Schuster during Cavallini’s press conference this week, as he gives us an idea of what the rest of the offseason may look like for Vancouver.

It took some time, but Vancouver finally made their much-anticipated big splash this week. 

The Vancouver Whitecaps got a tidy piece of business done on Monday, as they brought in Canadian Men’s National Team player, Lucas Cavallini, with a package described by Whitecaps Technical Director, Axel Schuster, as being “8 figures”. While the actual amount spent was not disclosed, it appears to have massively eclipsed the existing Whitecaps transfer record, with reports suggesting that Vancouver shelled out approximately $6 million dollars for Cavallini.

After an offseason so far mostly defined by players leaving the club, it was Vancouver’s first splash on the winter transfer market, and boy was it a big one. As they look to finally secure their long-term #9, something that has eluded them despite having flashes from an assortment of players in the past, Cavallini’s signature is expected to be the start of Vancouver’s push into MLS 3.0/4.0. 

Along with the appointment of Schuster, a hiring that filled a much-needed gap in the structure of their footballing operations team, the Whitecaps appear to have finally started turning a corner they have promised to turn in recent years.

A lot of work is still yet to be done, especially in areas such as improving the current roster, sorting out the youth development model and repairing some of the damage done from past controversies off of the pitch, but they have slowly started to make the right steps on it.

What’s next for the signings?

Schuster speaks during Cavallini’s introduction on Monday (Keveren Guillou)

While some of their other work may end up being done as part of longer-term projects, the immediate future does still present itself with some intriguing challenges, such as surrounding Cavallini with a squad that can make Vancouver a winning outfit in 2020. Cavallini will make a difference on his own, no doubt, especially given his tireless work rate, but as a striker, he’ll need help, with Vancouver’s primary worry being to surround him with that assistance.

As for what those immediate needs are, it starts and ends with chance creation, something that dogged the team last year, and will continue to dog them unless they make some serious strides to rectify it. The crux of the problem is an underwhelming amount of offensive punch in the midfield, which along with a threadbare wingers corps, makes for an easy priority list for Schuster and manager Marc Dos Santos to shop for.  

With Cavallini’s signature now secured, it now allows them to ramp up their effort level in order to push some potential midfield and winger upgrades over the finish line, something that Schuster did confirm they are working on when asked on Monday.

“Yes, of course, we are working on some other things,” Schuster said. “And the type of work we had to do has not stopped us to work on other profiles as well. But we are trying to find the right profile, the best profile, and we are now some steps ahead in some of the positions, but not far enough to be ready to tell you something about that.”

While it’s unsure what those profiles will be, especially given the question marks surrounding their possible formation choices for 2020, to see that there is some sort of coherence being established is positive to see. It has been a long offseason so far, with the Whitecaps last game coming well over 2 months ago in early October, but it is easy to forget that the offseason started a lot later last year due to the later MLS Cup, and they still signed nearly 20 new players, so there can still be lots to come. 

It’s easy to forget that in a complex off the field landscape, where deals are now brokered through the aid of several stakeholders, deals can change by the minute, making things complicated. As Schuster said in Cavallini’s case, in that instance it was the club holding things up, not the player nor the agent, but in other situations, the player and the agent can be the reluctant party, making things a lot more complicated than it ever used to be. 

So with that in mind, Schuster and his staff are continuing to pursue multiple players that they believe have the profile needed to upgrade this team, and from there they will see what happens. It meant for some uncomfortable answers, as he is unable to give a concrete date by which he expects some new blood to come in, but his team has and will continue to hunt for the next profiles to complete their on the field restructuring.

“There are still some days in the month so yes, we are working on that,” Schuster said when asked if there will be any more signings before January. “But, as I said before, it is not only about us, maybe we already have an agreement with a player and we are absolutely clear that he is the right profile, but we have to work with his club, and as you know the transfer period in a lot of markets (means) that there are a lot of clubs that are still playing.”

“So sometimes we have to respect that the club says that they want to focus first on our last games and then we want to work on those things.”

Get in formation

After the players are assembled, the next piece of the puzzle will be finding a way to best deploy them on the pitch, as they attempt to maximize the talent at their disposal. It’s a question that we have already started exploring, as we looked at why their current personnel suggests a move to the 3-5-2 could be in the cards, instead of their preferred 2019 set-up, the 4-3-3. 

There appears to be merit with both systems, as seen by the fine gentlemen over at 86Forever as they formulated a rebuttal for our formation discussions, which has led to more questions than answers headed into the preseason. Part of that is due to the fact that the Whitecaps only recently signed their 1st new player, leading to many premature conversations, but there are genuine questions to be answered ahead of the new season. 

Due to Vancouver’s backlog of strikers, with Fredy Montero, Yordy Reyna, Tosaint Ricketts and Theo Bair all more than capable #9s, it leads to the burning question: where do some of those names end up next season? While Ricketts and Bair are sure to remain along with Cavallini, as they can both operate centrally and on the wing as starters and off the bench, Reyna and Montero are less assured of their place, not because of their quality, but because of concerns surrounding their price, as well as their fit in the 2020 Whitecaps squad. 

Montero would be a quality backup striker, as he fared well when placed in that role last year, but he makes too much money to imagine him sticking there long term, hence why the idea of a trade makes sense for the veteran MLS man. Along with Reyna, who is likelier to stay considering that he can operate everywhere across the forward line, but he is most comfortable when operating in central areas, which makes for a complicated striking situation, one that was not made any easier with the arrival of Cavallini. 

On Monday, Schuster’s comments on the formation situation did little to defuse the idea that Vancouver would need to make a move, with the Whitecaps Technical Director suggesting that a 4-3-3 appears to be their plan A, at least for now.

“It depends a little bit on the situation,” Schuster said. “But I think for sure he (Cavallini) is our central striker and he is in the system Marc (Dos Santos) likes most, in the 433, as the striker on the top.”

Given that a 4-3-3 leaves little room for the Colombian, you’d have to imagine that a move will be in the cards this winter, as it seems that he still has some value in certain MLS corners. Vancouver would surely love to keep him, as he is still a talented player, and his experience would be a valuable asset on a younger team, but given that the MLS is a Salary Capped league, he may prove to be a casualty of that cash-strapped reality.

With the Whitecaps still looking to find the profiles of players that can upgrade on the 4-3-3 alluded to by Schuster, it may mean that they will need to sacrifice something to get what they need, and given the state of their roster, that may just mean moving on from one of the many frontmen at their disposal.

Considering that Schuster said that Vancouver is competing for signings that he described as “difficult”, hinting that they aren’t quite done bringing in some more high-profile names, that may mean that some pieces will have to be on the move in order to facilitate such transactions. 

“Yes, of course, we try to put the puzzle pieces together,” Schuster said. “And we are competing for the best profiles at every position we are looking for. The easy work can be done easily, so we are competing for difficult and good solutions, so we are still working on everything.”

Style of play

Where does Fredy Montero fit in the 2020 plans? (Keveren Guillou)

Part of why the 4-3-3 makes the most sense for Dos Santos is due to the style of play he hopes to impose next year, as he looks to build off of some of the philosophies he instilled in his first year at the helm, even despite the negative results. While they didn’t end up where they wanted to be, as their offensive woes provided to be too burdensome to compete, they made key strides on the defensive side of their game, which is expected to carry over into 2020. 

On the other hand, there were several aspects of Dos Santos’s system that did weren’t up to the standard he’s come to expect from his teams, with the biggest part being their play in the final third. They struggled to create chances, they failed to press high up the pitch, and on some nights just seemed unable to do much when they found themselves close to their opponent’s goal. 

That is expected to change next season, sparked on by the Cavallini transfer, as they now try and rectify some of their shortcomings of seasons past. While the move is always going to help the team offensively, as his goalscoring pedigree would boost most franchises in MLS, a big part of the deal is based on some of the other attributes that the frontman can offer. 

Even despite his hulking stature, he can move around the pitch well, as his work-rate off the ball is as impressive as the work he does on it. It’s something that Schuster took the time to showcase during the press conference, as he highlighted a clip of Cavallini running back 30 yards to make a tackle despite his team being up 3-0 in the 90th minute, showing some of the more underappreciated aspects of the strikers game.

Considering that it was expected that Dos Santos would employ a high-pressing system last season, as he cited some teams like Liverpool and Chelsea as clubs to model his style of play around, it appears that this signing was the beginning of a return towards that. 

With Dos Santos often appearing to be held back by some of the personnel at his disposal, it seems that he will now have the tools to take his system to the next level, which should mean that fans can expect some more pressing at BC Place next season.

Schuster confirmed as much on Monday, when asked if he expects his team to shift towards a high-pressing system in the future.

“Yes, but because of the four cornerstones (mentality, team spirit, discipline and work ethic)”, Schuster said. “If everybody (we sign) is good at those, that helps to press, because pressing is already in the next step. That is something tactically, for me, you have to have the right mentality, work ethic, discipline and the team spirit to do that together. So of course, we want to be very clear with that, and we don’t want to sign any player who was not good at that.”

On the flip side, he also preached flexibility as another thing to expect from his squad, which is why the formation question also remains in the balance as of now. 

“As I said before, it depends always on the situation, and it depends on all the players we get together,” he said when discussing his team being flexible tactically. “So there is not a must that we only play with one striker, and we should be flexible at that as well, because sometimes even another system is a better solution for the next opponent. But in the end, it leaves everybody needing to compete hard for the first position, because there are no guarantees for anybody to play.”

Basically, you can expect the unexpected when it comes to this team next season. With a revamped preseason schedule on the way, something the Whitecaps confirmed would be released fairly soon, Vancouver will look to use that enhanced preparation time to ensure that they fly out of the starting blocks next season. 

After the 2019 preseason that was far from anything Dos Santos could have imagined, only compounded by the lack of a complete roster at his disposal, it’s also hoped that these changes lead to better results. Factor in Schuster suggesting that all of their signings should be in before the start of that preseason, and it’s not hard to imagine them looking more tactically sound next season, as they look to rectify the mistakes of offseason’s past. 

Splashing their way into MLS 3.0?

Part of what made the Cavallini signing so big for Vancouver was the intention shown by the investment, as they splashed out the kind of money that has rarely been seen in these parts over the years, fulfilling a long-awaited promise to spend. 

With other usually thrifty sides San Jose, Sporting Kansas City and Columbus crew all shelling hefty amounts of cash for big signings of their own, it’s signalling a shift in the MLS landscape, brought on by the likes of LAFC, the Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United. 

You have always needed to either spend a lot or spend wisely to find success in this league, but as seen by the threadbare trophy cabinets of recent smart-spending teams such as Philadelphia, New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas, at the very least it appears that the big money can push you over the line.

While spending smart is the ultimate goal, as in a dream world all of a team’s best players are brought in for minimum fees, sometimes hefty amounts of money does need to exchange hands to broker the right deals. If you can bring in the right DP-level talent, surrounded by shrewdly acquired complementary pieces, recent history suggests that you’re on the right path to success, hence the recent slew of teams attempting to fulfill the premises of that model.

So for the Whitecaps and Cavallini, it wasn’t necessarily just about spending the money, but when they sat back and considered the whole picture, as well as what Cavallini could potentially bring, it made the most sense to make him their latest DP. While the exact shrewdness of the rest of their signings may end up making or breaking Cavallini’s tenure in Vancouver, as quality service will be the difference between a 13 goal and a 20 goal season, just having that known marksman was enough for the ‘Caps at this point in time.

“It was not about spending money, it was about finding the right profile, the right player, and then to find the solution with the owners, if we are able to do it and if they are open to spending that money that is necessary for this player,” Schuster said. “And I think we are working on the best possible solutions. And the best possible solution is not always about money, to spend a lot of money is easy, but if you don’t spend it in the right way, it will not help you.”

With a lack of flexibility in terms of bringing in another DP, at least until it’s confirmed that fellow DP Hwang In Beom is actually able to be bought down, look now for those mid-tiered signings to start coming in. Given the overall failure of those level of players last season, they’ll be wanting to hit some singles and doubles on those acquisitions, as they look to avoid the many strikeouts that plagued them in 2019.

“So in the end, that’s the reason why we might not have many signings right now, because we’re still working on the best possible solutions and those are usually not the easiest ones. So, yeah, then you have to take your time to work out to make it happen,” Schuster finished.

CBA Flux heading into camp?

Up next for Vancouver? Finalizing all of their signings ahead of January 18th, when their training camp begins. While that might not be possible, with many of the best deals usually materializing later in the month, they’ll be looking to be as complete as they can be by that date, avoiding some of the mistakes they made last season. 

A big uncertainty heading into that date surrounds current talks about the MLS Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is set to expire at the beginning of January. Given that some current MLS mechanisms may cease to exist with a new deal, such as player acquisition methods such as the use of TAM and GAM, there is a lot to still be answered heading into the new year. 

It’s also wondered if that uncertainty has led to a slow offseason for the acquisition of mid-tiered players, the ones that fall under what is currently defined as a TAM player. With DPs unlikely to be influenced, while cheap players will always find themselves valuable to teams, the group of players in the middle seem to be caught in no man’s land, supposedly slowing movement on that front. 

Schuster says it has had no bearings on his moves so far, when he was asked about the situation, but it still remains an intriguing situation to monitor nonetheless.

“No, I haven’t,” Schuster replied when asked about being influenced by pending CBA negotiations. “Even Greg Anderson, who is my expert for all the MLS rules and things going on here doesn’t have an idea about that right now. But to be honest, every player we are speaking with right now, and there are also players in this league, (for them) that was not an issue, so it does not influence our negotiations right now.”

So for Vancouver, it looks like the next step will be bringing in their next signings, the ones that may end up defining the 2020 season. It won’t be easy, as they have to find a way to bring in as many quality players for as cheap as possible, but luckily (or unluckily) for them, the rest of their opposition is doing the same, so they’re not alone in that regard. 

What is clear is that they are setting out to avoid some of the mistakes of Whitecaps past, all while paving their own path into the new eras of MLS, something that won’t be easy, but at least it’s something they appear to finally be embarking on without second thought. It started with the hirings of Dos Santos and Schuster, and has continued onto their big signings such as Hwang In Beom, Ali Adnan and now Cavallini, which they’re hoping is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what they can now get done.

But while a lot is expected to change in the long-term, work continues to get done in the short term. Schuster and his team have been busy on the job since the German was hired back in November, and they still have lots to get done, as they look to compete in 2020.

That will mean more signings that fit the profiles they have started to define for themselves, as their quest to be a team that is high-pressing, defensively sound and comfortable in possession continues. It won’t be done overnight, but the wheels have been set in motion for over a year now, so they’re now just looking to continue putting together the pieces of their ‘Project Whitecaps’.

Expect those signings to be a sign of not only just how the team will play next season, but also in the future, from the academy, all the way up to the first team. The hiring of Schuster was never done with just the short term in mind, and we’re slowly starting to see the shape of that longer team future coming together, one piece at a time. 

And based on the comments given by the Whitecaps Sporting Director, you can anticipate that some more business gets done before this month even finishes up, continuing a crucial offseason for the club.

“The wish of Marc and myself is to bring in some more signings before the 18th of January, so that they can start with the team to train,” Schuster finished. “But then, of course, if we have something very good in our minds, and it’s not possible to do that, then we are hoping to do it before the end of January. But yeah, I’m optimistic that we get some more signings before that first training.”

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