Pieces of the Puzzle: A look at how the Whitecaps 2020 rebuild stacks up from a statistical standpoint

The Vancouver Whitecaps added their latest player to their roster on Monday, bringing in winger David Milinkovic on a 1-year loan with an option to buy, pushing their roster 1 step closer to full completion. We break down the signing, and also take a look at how the rebuild has gone so far from a statistical standpoint, as the Caps look to find enough goals to make the postseason in 2020.

It might not have come about in the most conventional matter, but it came nonetheless, as the Vancouver Whitecaps announced their latest addition to their squad on Monday.

After whispers of a possible deal for winger David Milinkovic emerged on Sunday evening, the Whitecaps wasted little time in making it official on Monday, announcing the Hull City man as their newest arrival. 

With reports out there suggesting that the Whitecaps were only a winger and 1 or 2 midfielders away from fully completing their squad, the addition of Milinkovic pushes them 1 step closer to that finish line, with the rest of the player(s) expected to be announced sooner rather than later.  

As the 2019 rebuild continues, it’s another intriguing signing for the team, as Milinkovic looks to be another project for the team to take a punt on. With a dearth of DP spots, at least for now, it’s a cheap way to bring in a buy-low, sell-high project, one that when you scratch beneath the surface, does seem to have a decent potential for yield. 

While there are signs of trouble at the surface, at least based off his latest stint in his footballing career, which is troubling in a sense, he does so far look ready to come in and make some noise, which for a Whitecaps side looking for offence, they’ll be glad to see the hunger. 

So with his signing officially locked down, we look at what he can bring to the Whitecaps, before shifting our attention over to the current squad on a whole, as we take an in-depth statistical look at how the team stacks up heading into the new season.

Milinkovic signs, what can he bring?

On Sunday, it was suggested that the Whitecaps could be looking at the French-born Milinkovic, after a Jhasser Khemiri Instagram story accidentally revealed a Whitecaps #7 kit with the winger’s name on it. Early on Monday, those reports were confirmed, as the Caps’ officially announced the arrival of their latest signing, with the deal revealed to be a loan with an option to buy. 

For a Vancouver side already filled to the brim with attackers, it was a curious signing, at least upon first glance. With intriguing youngsters such as Theo Bair and Ryan Raposo already looking to be squeezed for minutes next year due to the arrival of attackers Cristian Dajome and Lucas Cavallini, without mentioning the already-present veterans Tosaint Ricketts, Fredy Montero and Yordy Reyna, bringing in Milinkovic seems to be a bit of a redundant move at the moment. 

Especially when you hear about his time at Hull, the side who are loaning him out to Vancouver, and things start to look really worrying. Frozen out of the squad due to attitude problems, his arrival looks to be the first Whitecaps signing to not be a direct proponent of the ‘4 cornerstones’ mantra that the Caps’ have been preaching this offseason. 

But at the same time, there is still plenty of upside to the deal, which you’d assume Vancouver is banking on working in their favour. Milinkovic may have had a rough go of things at Hull, but by all accounts, his loan to Hearts 2 years prior was a lot more positive, as he performed quite well during his stint in Scotland.

A peek at his statistical profile over these past 3 years certainly backs that up, as from a pure numbers standpoint, there are a lot of data points that are interesting to look at. 

He appears to be a creative winger, one that doesn’t necessarily chase down goals, but instead one that likes to pass and cross to set up teammates. With the Vancouver Whitecaps already having shot-fiend type wingers such as Cristian Dajome and Yordy Reyna, Milinkovic’s skillset does bring something new to this Vancouver side. 

0.13 Expected Goals per 90 minutes is nothing to write home about, but his 0.18 Expected Assists is nothing to scoff at, as that number translates to around 5 or 6 primary assists when prorated over 30 games of action. Will he play 30 games? Way too early to tell, but for a team whos best assist man bagged 5 assists in 2019 (and remember, in MLS they count secondary assists as well), the addition of 5 primary helpers would feel massive for this team.

A look at some of the other stats shows how he gets the ball into assist-making situations, as well. He averaged 4.18 passes into the box per 90 minutes, along with 2.27 passes to the final third and 3.2 crosses, as he wasn’t afraid to get the ball up to his strikers, hence his impressive 1.62 key passes a game. 

How he got the ball to his favoured attacking positions varied, however. He was a good passer (around a 75% clip), allowing him to play off of his teammates, but he also was a strong dribbler averaging around 2.7 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. Along with Dajome, who was an excellent dribbler at Independiente Del Valle, they could form a pair of wingers unafraid to take on defenders in wide areas, while also being a pair who are both capable of linking up with teammates through short passes. 

Although some of those stats are impressive, there’s one that stands out a lot, at least for a winger. He averaged nearly 2.92 interceptions per 90 minutes, which for a winger, is quite a lofty total. It shows that he likes to press high, pushing his way into passing lanes and making life difficult for defenders, which is exactly what the Whitecaps want from their wingers. 

So while the questions surrounding his attitude suggests that he hasn’t always committed himself to the game, at least aside from matchday, his play on the pitch shows that when it’s game time, he’s ready for business. It is a concern to see reports of him being late to Hull’s training, missing matches and playing video games on matchdays, no doubt, but if the Whitecaps can find a way to nurture more of on-field Milinkovic out of that, while diminishing his attitude concerns, then this could be a successful reclamation project. 

It is important to remember that he is only 25, which even though it’s an age where one would expect someone to have figured it all out by now, is still an age where not everyone has yet. By bringing him to a brand new city in a brand new league, it’s a chance for him to ditch his reputation at a young club looking to grow itself, which is why the Whitecaps were surely attracted to him. 

His leash in Vancouver will be short, as this deal only being a loan shows that Vancouver will reserve judgement before considering a longer-term option, which may be the best way to get Milinkovic back on track. If he doesn’t, he’ll be back in Hull before he knows it, which may present him with little other options to revive his career, which will make taking advantage of this stint vital for him. 

So even though he doesn’t fit the 4 cornerstones the Whitecaps talk about at first glance, he is a good buy-low sell-high candidate, which could prove to be equally as prosperous as it could be disastrous. It’s risky, for sure, but with flexibility limited by questions of TAM and DP spots, it’s the kind of flyers they have to take right now.

It also now leaves Vancouver with an interesting winger situation, as Milinkovic, Bair, Reyna and Dajome all present different options for Marc Dos Santos to choose from heading into the start of the campaign.

The current Whitecaps statistical profile

Yordy Reyna on the ball against Colorado (Keveren Guillou)

With Milnkovic signed, it now leaves the Whitecaps with pretty much what is going to be their 2020 starting roster, bar the 1 or 2 midfielders that are expected to be on the way. They’ve now got 20 first-team players signed, along with 5 triallists and a handful of development squad players, so besides midfield help, what you see is what you get. 

And when you look a little deeper, there’s an interesting smattering of players, ranging from veterans, young prospects, reclamation projects and everything between. From hefty investments, such as Lucas Cavallini, to free transfers, such as Cristian Dajome, it seems like every avenue of player acquisition was utilized to put together this squad, as the Whitecaps used what was available to them in order to bring in players. 

Upon first glance, they’re a lot further ahead than they were last year, which isn’t all that surprising, to be fair, but it’s still a positive start. Just having nearly everyone in at camp this early already represents a better chance at winning games, and the players they have added, such as Lucas Cavallini and Cristian Dajome, has improved the Caps’ offensive punch significantly. 

But at the same time, the midfield isn’t yet where you’d hope to be, at least without those last signings made. When they’re completed, maybe it’ll be good enough for improvement, but as it stands, as solid as Owusu can be, he alone does not push the needle towards where you’d hope to be heading into 2020.

There are other things that can happen, as improvement won’t just come from outside, for example. A rested Hwang In Beom and Ali Adnan will surely push the needle forward, especially considering that both will be fighting for potential moves abroad, while this could also be the year that someone like Yordy Reyna avoids the slow starts that have plagued him his 3 years in Vancouver, as he finally seems to have ditched the cloud of injury, new coach and drama that hampered prior campaigns.

When looking at the overall statistical profile of the squad, improvement is there in some key areas, and less in others, which kind of fits the overall sentiment around the squad, as many are on the fence with how to feel about how things have gone so far this offseason.

If you do cobble together what is the best Whitecaps lineup at the moment, at least until no #6 is signed, the numbers paint an interesting picture. 

Written out below is a chart of some key offensive numbers for each player (no goalkeepers) in 2019 (adjusted Milinkovic’s numbers) that we have access to (sadly for Ryan Raposo), with a breakdown of what they all represent below. The starting 11 is at the beginning of the chart, with their cumulative totals, while at the bottom is the substitutes and the whole squad’s combined numbers. 

Player (No GK)XG/90Shots/90Key Passes/90
Ali Adnan0.081.310.93
Derek Cornelius0.040.310.25
Erik Godoy0.030.410.19
Jake Nerwinski0.020.240.24
Leonard Owusu (ASH)0.020.690.46
Hwang In Beom0.091.421.45
David Milinkovic (Hearts+Hull)0.131.021.62
Cristian Dajome (IDV)0.312.621.09
Yordy Reyna0.172.521.01
Lucas Cavallini (PUE)0.452.560.56
STARTING XI TOTALS1.3413.107.80
Theo Bair0.231.210.91
Fredy Montero0.322.41.24
Tosaint Ricketts0.331.760.88
Russell Teibert0.020.300.54
Andy Rose0.060.620.18
Cristian Gutierrez0.010.380.57
New #6
SUBSTITUTE TOTALS0.976.674.32
SQUAD TOTAL2.3119.7712.12

When looking at this list, a couple of things stand out. First, the shot totals look a lot more promising than they did last year, which is why playing Yordy Reyna as a #10 could work out. Considering that Owusu and Hwang are both capable of sitting a little deeper in a double-pivot, this deployment could aid Vancouver offensively, while not taking much away defensively. 

By the same token, Vancouver does need a #6, and they’d probably be better off with a 4-3-3, but with the lack of one, for now, we’ll operate in that 4-2-3-1 frame of mind. 

This expected total of around 13 shots per game would have ranked them around 11th-15th in MLS (out of 24 teams last year, there are 26 now), which considering they had a paltry 10.6 in 2019, does improve them quite a bit. Along with their cumulative starting 11 XG of 1.34, that adds up to 45 XG, which puts them close to what it takes in order to be a playoff team, with 50 usually being the standard to strive for in MLS. 

The 7.8 key passes aren’t too great, with the MLS average being around 10, as Caleb Wilkins from our friends over at 86Forever uncovered, but with Owusu playing on a struggling Ashdod side, along with the expected step forward of In Beom, could stand to improve. With a lot of the new signings being decent shooters (Cavallini, Dajome), along with the insertion of noted volume shooter, Reyna, you’d figure that the key passes also stand to benefit from the presence of those playere on the pitch.

But at the same time, these numbers are far from telling the whole story. We can’t assume that those 10 players will play all 90 minutes in a game without substitutions, and there are some intriguing players to potentially bring off of the bench. So if you adjust the numbers, assuming that 7 of the players will go the distance (and that the GK likely won’t be subbed off, either!), you’d expect the 3 other starters to come off after playing around 60 minutes each. 

So with that in mind, using the average stats of both the starters and the substitutes here is an updated distribution chart, with the minutes being allocated to represent the 900 minutes that the 10 players would reach, sub or no sub.

Minutes distributionXG/gameShots/gameKey passes/game
7 starters (630 minutes)0.9389.174.71
3 starters subbed off (180 minutes)0.2112.792.03
3 substitutes (90 minutes)0.1921.2580.72
Game total (900 minutes)1.36612.877.74

But wait, the numbers get….worse? The XG improves, but the shots and key passes go down, painting a different picture. 

Hope is not all lost, however, as we can account for the difference by recalculating. This chart treats all players the same, which we know not to be true. Defenders and midfielders tend to be subbed off less than attackers, while defenders would usually be subbed in for injuries or to protect a lead. 

So assuming that the centre backs and full backs and 1 midfielder (we’ll say 2019 ironman, Hwang In Beom) doesn’t come off, and that forwards and midfielders typically sub on (sorry Cristian Gutierrez), here is an updated chart*.

*The 7 90 minute starters in this case are Lucas Cavallini, Cristian Dajome, Hwang In Beom, Ali Adnan, Jake Nerwinski, Erik Godoy and Derek Cornelius. 

**David Milinkovic, Yordy Reyna and Leonard Owusu are the starters subbed off. 

***The subs numbers are an average of Andy Roses’s, Russell Teibert’s, Theo Bair’s, Tosaint Ricketts’ and Fredy Montero’s numbers.  

Minutes distributionXG/gameShots/gameKey passes/game
7 starters (630 minutes)1.018.875.46
3 starters subbed off (180 minutes)0.2682.61.56
3 substitutes (90 minutes)0.161.10.75
Game total (900 minutes)1.43812.577.77

Here, the XG gets significantly better, while the shots sit at a below MLS average of 12.57 and the key passes at a mere 7.77. How does that work? With the Whitecaps having some decent XG performers on the bench from last year (Montero, Bair and Ricketts) it boosts their numbers, which does make sense, as they’d also be going out against tired defenders. 

With those XG numbers, that would put the Whitecaps a hair under 49 expected goals, which is a total 17 teams hit last year, with 12 out of them making the playoffs. The quality of MLS is improving, while 2 expansion teams are coming in, but overall, you’d expect 50 goals to give you a strong shot at making the final dance, as long as you keep your goals against down. 

Which, as we explored in the past, they have the potential to do, starting by lowering the number of shots that they concede. They defended well last year, they just need to stop shipping shots at exorbitant rates, and improvement should be in order. 

And if they shoot more, score more, hold the ball more and press more, you’d stand to think that the shots against diminish. Signing a quality #6 will help, as well, either to replace Owusu in a 4-2-3-1, or to slot alongside the Ghanian and In Beom in a 4-3-3, especially if he can win tackles, intercept the ball and transition the play forward, improving the XG, shots and key passes of everyone around him. 

But what does seem clear is that the Whitecaps have made upgrades in key areas in the pitch, they just need their final piece, the #6, and most importantly, they need to find a way to best deploy all of their talent in order to find results. Our model is not the be-all-end-all of statistics, far from that, as it just assumes that the Whitecaps will play the same 15 guys over and over (far from true in such a dynamic season), but it does show that there are some positive signs in what has been done so far, but also that the work is also far from over. 

Looking Forward:

The Whitecaps continue their preseason down in San Diego, with their first game coming today, against Colombus, before they play FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy in a span of a week, all in closed-door friendlies. Everyone in the squad has arrived except Owusu, who’s hoped to join before the end of San Diego, which should make these friendlies very interesting, with lots of players vying for valuable spots in both the starting 11 and in the club’s roster. 

With all of this talk about an improved preseason, we’re also going to finally see how that translates into game-situations, which will allow us to gain an idea of how the offseason shaped things up. On paper, there have been several upgrades, but now the blueprints need to be assembled, as the Whitecaps look to avoid the troubles that struck them in 2019. 

But at the very least, there is potential for things to be better, at the very minimum, with the possibility for more depending on how things go. After the uncertainty of last season, that’s a good next jump to take, and now we’ll see how big that leap is exactly going to end up being over the coming weeks and months. 

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