On the 2nd day of training camp, the Vancouver Whitecaps added the latest piece to their ‘project 2020’, signing Ghanian midfielder Leonard Owusu to a TAM deal. Here is a look at what their newest signing can bring to Vancouver.
After teasing a new #8 two weeks ago, the Vancouver Whitecaps have found their man.
1 day after 2020 training camp kicked off, the Whitecaps signed 22-year-old Ghanian midfielder Leonard Owusu from Israeli side FC Ashdod, adding a key piece to their threadbare midfield. After it was first reported by The Province’s JJ Adams earlier in the day, the Whitecaps soon confirmed the report, as they announced the Ghanian as their latest offseason acquisition.
Upon first glance, this transfer is certainly an exciting one, especially for a team in desperate need of midfielders. According to many who have followed him, Owusu can play all 3 positions in the middle of the park, but he is at his best at the #8, which fits exactly what Vancouver is looking for.
This signing now leaves Vancouver with only 1 hole left to fill in their starting lineup, which is a #6, which should be signed soon enough, at least if recent teasers are any indication. After a chaotic training camp last season, with a big brunt of the signings coming mere weeks before first kick, it’s been a good offseason for the Whitecaps, who are looking to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
While it is yet to be seen how some of the new faces will transition to Vancouver, they’ve gone out and filled a lot of the holes that they needed to fill, which means that they are already miles ahead of where they were at last year. Most importantly, they’ve now shifted how they recruit players, with all of their signings this window being 26 and under, which should allow them to potentially re-sell them if the right opportunities come up.
Owusu most definitely fills that mould, as the 22-year-old was a hot prospect coming out of Ghana, where he played for Dreams FC, before moving onto Israel. For a country that has produced some top talent over the years, it will be interesting to see what Owusu brings, as the last Ghanian player to don the Whitecaps strip, Gershon Koffie, ended up being a key part of the club before his trade to New England.
What does he bring to the table?
What exactly Owusu will bring to Vancouver is unclear, but upon first glance, there is a lot to like here.
When asking GhanaSoccerNet’s Ridwan Asante, someone who is very familiar with the league, Asante said that Owusu is someone to ‘count on as a #8’, and that ‘his versatility can see him operate smoothly as #6 and #10.’. He also said that he’s ‘like a refined Gershon Koffie’ and that ‘his biggest weapon is ball distribution’, with his passes being described as ‘text message’ connection.
For a team who struggled with chance creation, generating a league-low 10.6 shots per game, while only spending a league-low 23% of their possession in the final third, Owusu seems like a natural fit for the Whitecaps. Considering that Vancouver is likely going to operate in a midfield 3 with two #8s and a #6, having a versatile player like Owusu should help them be more effective on both ends of the pitch, especially as they look to improve their middling defensive and weak offensive records from 2019.
A peek at his statistical profile certainly suggests positive things, at least offensively. He averaged a 90% passing percentage while making 45 passes per game, with 82% of those passes going forward. He also had around 6 passes to the final third, along with nearly 6.8 progressive passes, which can certainly help the Caps woes at getting the ball there.
Defensively, he also seems to be quite involved, winning 60% of his duels, while also adding 3.5 and 2 tackles per game. Considering that Ashdod mostly deployed him at the #6, it’s understandable that his stats are strong in that department, but it also shows that he can help Vancouver defensively in the midfield if needed.
The big question will now be how all of that will translate to MLS. The Israeli league is ranked as the 23rd best league in Europe, with the consensus appearing to be that the quality varies from top to bottom. At the top end, there are some strong teams, as it is not unusual to see Israeli representation in the Champions League and in the Europa League, but at the bottom end, the quality can come into question.
For Owusu’s former side, Ashdod, they’ve mostly been one of the latter sides, as they narrowly avoided relegation by 1 point last season. They only scored 34 goals in 33 games, so while Owusu’s lone assist last year seems low, the strength of his team also certainly factored into that tally.
You also consider the fact that he mostly played as a #6, forcing him to play a lot deeper, and his offensive stats actually look quite good. He can transition the ball forward in a hurry, but he can also move, which should make for a good match alongside the similarily profiled Hwang In Beom. If Vancouver can add a destroyer type #6 to complement them in a trio, allowing them to roam forward, this could prove to be a good signing.
Yet at the same time, there are some risks here. How will he adapt to MLS? He seems physically and technically capable of transitioning over, but it’s never an easy league to move to, as many players have seen in the past. His lack of offensive production also does ring bells for a team needing offence, but the underlying stats also suggest that it could also be due to a team thing, which you’d figure Vancouver is surely banking on.
For a team coming off a rough season, it’s a risky move to acquire an unproven 22-year-old, but from what has been said out there, it looks like it could work. Vancouver has beefed up their attack with the additions of Cristian Dajome and Lucas Cavallini, so if Hwang and Owusu are able to feed those two, along with the likes of Yordy Reyna, Theo Bair, Tosaint Ricketts and Fredy Montero, the goals for total should stand to rise on the West Coast.
By how much? That will depend on the system Vancouver utilizes, along with how the players mesh, but upon first glance, this signing should help them push towards a better total in 2020.
Along with the scoop, JJ Adams also left an interesting highlight video, showcasing some of the skills that Owusu has in his locker. In the video, Owusu seems to be a two-footed passer who can move around well, pinging balls around to teammates accurately, which is an intriguing set of skills for a #8
In the clip below, there’s an example of all of that, as he starts a move deep in his half, playing a one-two with a teammate, before zinging a weak foot pass to a winger.
In the full video, there are plenty of instances of that kind of pass, which fits Asante’s description of text message passes. Alongside Inbeom, who has a pretty strong passing range himself, it should be interesting how they can link to the frontline, as they will need to find a way to work together to get the ball from the #6 up the field.
But if needed, he is also capable at playing those balls from deep. As seen by the next clip, he doesn’t mind dribbling his way into space, before playing long balls into oncoming wingers.
Despite being under pressure, he was calm in opening up space, before zinging a long ball to an onrushing wide plyer. If Vancouver is going to defend deep at times, with the speed they have up front in Cavallini, Dajome and Reyna, having someone who can unleash them in transition is a good asset, especially against teams that flood numbers forward.
But at the same time, there does appear to be some deadly through balls in his locker when deployed further up the pitch. In this next clip, he gets the ball in a dangerous area, where he immediately plays a through ball, meeting a teammate for a dangerous scoring chance.
Once again, you can check out the full video here, but as seen by these couple of clips, his skill set is intriguing. By all accounts, he’s a good passer, but for a team looking to improve their chance creation, signing someone with only 0.06 Key Passes and 0.04 Expected Assists per game is curious.
But at the same time, given his situation as a #6 on a bad team, there does seem to be more there. Given those two factors, he seems like a good undervalued option as an #8, especially with many saying that he plays best at that position.
It won’t please those who think Vancouver is cheap, but if it works out, it could pay off in dividends in the future. African players can tend to be underrated, so picking up a 22-year-old who was a good player on a bad team seems to be a good piece of business, especially if he plays to the level people suggest that he could reach.
While it would certainly be preferable if the Whitecaps were signing finished products, this can sometimes be the reality of signing players in a league in MLS, where restrictions make getting certain players difficult. With Vancouver having 3 DPs already locked down, they were going to need to be creative to get midfield help, and this signing shows that, as they’ve seemingly taken advantage of external factors to get a cheaper deal.
Fit in the team:
Another big question surrounding Owusu will be about how and where he fits into this side. He fills a big hole at the #8, but with the Caps struggling to generate chances last year, and Owusu’s lack of Key Passes and Expected Assists, how much can he help them solve those woes?
But a look at their projected starting 11 does suggest that he should help them in their plan to fix that, at least when you consider how each player around him likes to operate.
Owusu and Inbeom are both transitional midfielders, as they are able to dribble and pass the ball forward, while the new #6 is expected to be a good ball-mover and a destroyer, meaning that he would stay back a little more. With Ali Adnan and Jake Nerwinski both able to get forward from full back, having that #6 stay back is key, while Inbeom and Owusu are both capable of tracking back when needed.
Up front, Cristian Dajome and Yordy Reyna are unique wingers, as they both love to cut inside to operate, as we saw with Dajome in our scouting report ahead of his transfer, while Reyna also carries similar instincts, with the only difference being that Reyna prefers to dribble more than his Colombian counterpart. You add in Lucas Cavallini’s penchant for dropping when needed, and it appears that the front line and full backs can help ease the workload on the midfield, which should get more out of Inbeom and Owusu.
They’ll have to be well-drilled to play like this, as losing possession with high full backs is dangerous, but if they can pull it off, it can help them improve offensively. Owusu and Inbeom can suck in opposing players with their dribbling and passing, while Dajome and Reyna can alternate between cutting inside and helping them and hugging the flanks, which is a space that Adnan and Nerwinski can also push forward into if needed.
You add in an improved press, allowing Vancouver to be less vulnerable when they lose possession, and that lineup could work out. They’ll need to gel, and it’s no guarantee they find the chemistry needed to work together, but at least on paper, there is a lot of potential there.
All in all, this appears to be a decent transfer, at least on paper. How well it ends up being (or not being) will be a tale told with time, but upon first glance, Owusu appears to be a good option for the #8 spot. He can move, he can play the ball, he can get stuck in, so if the Whitecaps can find a way to get those attributes out of him consistently, he could be a force for them.
There’s the boom or bust potential there, but as seen with some smart teams, signing undervalued African players can pay huge dividends. For whatever reason, be it a player deployed out of position, off the field issues or an undervalued league, there can be bargains to be had, it’s just about identifying them and helping them pan out.
Fellow Ghanian Latif Blessing can be a good example, as the winger was brought into SKC, where he was decent, before he moved onto LAFC through the expansion draft. From there, he blossomed into one of the best midfielders in MLS, as Bob Bradley started playing him in a similar #8 role to the one that Owusu will be expected to fill in Vancouver.
For a Whitecaps side strapped by the constraints of the DP system, this is a good way to use their TAM to try and fill some holes, as they look to compete for silverware next year. The fit for Owusu is there, as seen by the current projected lineup, now it’s just time to let all of the players’ gel, and then will see what happens.
And after a disorganized 2019 preseason, where most of the team was signed in the few weeks leading up to first kick, to see most of the signings done by the 2nd day of the 2020 camp is positive. If the Whitecaps are to be more cohesive as an offensive unit, having these 5 extra weeks of preparation time will go a long way, especially considering that most of their key pieces are already in the fold.
Ahead of a crucial 2020 season, things are starting to come together for Vancouver. How well the pieces of this puzzle will gel together is yet to be seen, but things are looking up at surface-level, which after a rough 2019, is promising to see.