In this piece, ahead of the start of MLS is Back for the Vancouver Whitecaps, we take a look at the club’s roster down in Orlando, project their starting lineup, pick some players to watch and talk some tactics.
In a matter of days, things are going to get real for the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are going to kick off their MLS is Back tournament against the San Jose Earthquakes down in Orlando.
After waiting over 130 days since their last competitive game, a timely victory against the LA Galaxy down in California, the ‘Caps are going to get back to business on the other side of the continent, albeit in much different conditions to what they faced back in March.
Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic that saw many aspects of normal life shut down for months, sports included, this is the start of a return towards a new normal, one that has slowly been beginning these past few months.
This tournament is the latest step in the MLS’s version of a push towards their version of a new normal, as the league devised this venture as a way to bring eyeballs, sponsors and money back to the league, especially after numbers took a big hit during the pandemic.
The plan has not gone as smoothly as hoped, and the intentions of the league have certainly been questioned at times, but if we look at it from a pure footballing perspective, the games have been fun and entertaining so far, which should lead to a good end of the tournament, health permitting.
As we cycle through the first round of matches, the ‘Caps themselves are now getting to set to throw their names in the hat this week, with their first game coming on Wednesday against the aforementioned Earthquakes.
While these won’t be ideal circumstances for the ‘Caps, who will be playing at a neutral site without 5 key squad members, they are not alone in that plight, with Vancouver being far from the only team to have to deal with personal and health-related absences.
Despite that, it should be a fun tournament for the ‘Caps, who are hoping to play some exciting football down in Orlando. They might be missing forwards Lucas Cavallini (personal), Tosaint Ricketts (health concern) and Fredy Montero (personal), along with midfielder Andy Rose (personal) and defender Georges Mukumbilwa (visa issues), but they’ve got an otherwise full selection of players, of which will be expected to make a difference in their quest towards lifting a trophy.
There are still things to ponder, such as figuring out who will be expected to carry the reins offensively, seeing how the ‘Caps set up tactically and figuring out their best line up, but as we will see in this piece, there are some pretty interesting answers to those queries.
Breaking down the squad
To start answering those questions, however, we have to take a look at who’s made the trip down to Orlando. Here is the official breakdown (with some quick analysis).
Goalkeepers (Maxime Crepeau, Bryan Meredith, Thomas Hasal)
Maybe the ‘Caps most solid position. Crepeau often played like a top 5 goalkeeper in MLS last season, while Meredith is a really solid #2, with Hasal remaining in the wings as the emerging youngster who could very easily supplant Meredith from his backup role.
Centre Backs (Derek Cornelius, Erik Godoy, Jhesser Khmiri, Ranko Veselinovic)
The ‘Caps are also very set at centre back. Cornelius is an emerging Canadian pillar, Khmiri has done well to return to fitness after some knee troubles, and Veselinovic is one that many are projecting to be a perfect example of the modern centre back.
Godoy is the wild card here, as he’s easily the best Whitecaps centre back, but he’s a doubt for this tournament as he works back from a quad strain. If he does play, though, watch out, as he can certainly bring a presence to the Vancouver backline.
Full Backs (Ali Adnan, Jake Nerwinski, Cristian Gutierrez)
Ali Adnan is the star of the show at full back, as the DP left back and league-record signing at the position has shown throughout his time in Vancouver, but after him, things are still solid.
Gutierrez is a solid deputy left back who may see minutes due to Adnan’s fitness concerns, while Nerwinski can be counted on for dependable play on the right. If needed, Janio Bikel can also supplant Nerwinski and provide more of a defensive presence, as well.
Midfielders (Michael Baldisimo, Janio Bikel, Simon Colyn, Inbeom Hwang, Patrick Metcalfe, Leonard Owusu, Damiano Pecile, Russell Teibert)
An intriguing mix of established names and unknown faces. In Beom is the leader of the pack here, as the South Korean young DP hopes to finally show the full potential that had many so excited for his signing last year, but after him, new arrivals Owusu and Bikel are no slouches, either.
Owusu is the kind of tempo-setting #6 and #8 that In Beom lacked beside him last year, and Bikel is the kind of pure #6 that the ‘Caps haven’t really seen since Matias Laba, making them ideal partners for the South Korean.
At the same time, don’t sleep on Russel Teibert, either, as the veteran Canadian should definitely get heavy minutes as well, after a strong start to 2020. If Bikel plays out at right back, a midfield three of Owusu, Hwang and Teibert would not be fun to play against, either, as they showed for a handful of minutes against the Galaxy in March.
After them, it’s all about the youngsters, as Academy graduates, Baldisimo, Metcalfe, Pecile and Colyn, will all angle for spot minutes in Orlando. With the 5 substitutes rule, it would be good to see them get game time, as they’ve all shown significant promise as prospects throughout their time in Vancouver.
Attackers (Theo Bair, Cristian Dájome, David Milinković, Ryan Raposo, Yordy Reyna)
Up front is where things get interesting for Vancouver, who are missing 3 huge names in Cavallini, Montero and Ricketts. Despite that, they’ve still got some intriguing faces, for a multitude of reasons.
On the wing, new arrivals Dajome and Milinkovic are the headliners, as they are the kind of fluid, dynamic and defensively relentless wingers that Marc Dos Santos covets.
You throw in the electric Yordy Reyna, who captivates as much as he frustrates, along with youngsters Theo Bair, whose mix of size, speed and IQ is devastating, and Ryan Raposo, the ‘Caps 2020 super draft pick who has already made a quick impact for the team thanks to his work rate and ability to process the game, there are options.
The big question, however, will be about who plays up front. According to Dos Santos, it will be a mix of Bair and Reyna, who can both play as a striker, but they both bring different attributes to the position.
Look at Dos Santos to maximize those based on their opponents, as he may mix up Bair’s and Reyna’s minutes between playing up front and out on the wing, potentially destabilizing his rivals’ plans.
Projected XI/Depth chart
So with that in mind, here is what we’re likely to expect from the ‘Caps, at least from the first game.
(Yes, Bikel, Bair and Reyna are on here twice, but given the fact that they might play different positions for the ‘Caps, they’re put in those respective spots)
It might lack for star power, but it’s a solid lineup nonetheless. What’s important is that the spine of the team is intact, with the big absences mostly coming up front for Vancouver.
If the ‘Caps can find a way to generate enough chances for their forwards to latch onto, while also keeping things tight at the back, that could prove to be a framework for success.
They’ve worked with most of these back 5 and midfielders since the new year, so the latter is a possibility, and considering the hot start Milinkovic was on to start the season, along with Dajome’s flashes, the former isn’t also that outlandish, either.
With Crepeau holding down the fort in goal, it’s hoped that the ‘Caps can properly impose a defence-first mentality, electing to use their press and defensive solidity as their main lines of attack.
There are going to need to be some strong individual performances, along with some cohesive teamwork, but those things can be said of pretty much every team in MLS, so in that regard, that shouldn’t be anything to worry about for Vancouver.
3 players to watch:
So, given what we know, here are 3 ‘Caps players to watch down in Orlando, as these figures promise to play a big role in the team’s potential success or failure in this MLS is Back tournament.
He may be a left back, but make no mistake, a lot of the Whitecaps offensive success will hinge on Adnan’s ability to get involved in the Vancouver attack.
As we saw last year, there’s arguably no player in MLS that can make the sort of impact that Adnan can make from left back, but the big question surrounding the Iraqi international will be if he can find a way to consistently make that impact over 90 minutes.
When he’s on, he can destabilize defences, and free up room for the ‘Caps to operate in centrally, making it hard for opposing defenders to track the runs that are made by his teammates.
But when he’s off, however, he can often struggle to get involved in the game, and his work rate can dip, making him an offensive liability. At the other end of the pitch, he’s actually a solid defender when engaged, but the big thing with him is making sure that he’s locked in all game, because he has a tendency to lose concentration at the back.
We’ve seen glimpses of what he can do, such as his assist early on this year against the Galaxy, or his sparkling goal against FC Dallas last season, so let’s hope that this recharged Adnan produces more moments like those, and less of the mistakes that his worn-down self sometimes produced towards the end of last season.
Up next on the list of players to watch is someone who’s only played a couple of minutes for the ‘Caps this season, Owusu, whose late arrival to the team delayed his integration into the first-team squad.
But despite his limited minutes, he quickly impressed, as his late-game cameo against the Galaxy played a big part in Vancouver’s scurry to grab all 3 points down in Carson, California.
He might not be the biggest piece in the ‘Caps midfield, nor is he the flashiest, but he’s arguably the most important, as his job will allow In Beom to be free in his best position.
Given that Owusu can comfortably play as a box-to-box #8, as well as a passing #6, he’ll be crucial in ensuring that In Beom has someone to share midfield duties with, heping the South Korean avoid overworking himself in the middle of the park, as he often did last year.
Depending on where Janio Bikel slots in, Owusu may get minutes at both roles, but from what we’ve seen, he can fill either one quite well, as his strong work rate, clean passing and solid technical ability will be crucial to making sure that his teammates get the offensive opportunities that they crave.
If the ‘Caps are to generate chances for their forwards, while also keep things tidy at the back, having Owusu’s influence on both ends, which will ease the workload on the centre backs, In Beom and the forwards, may prove to be crucial.
Last on our list is the enigmatic Reyna, who is expected to get significant minutes up top for the ‘Caps, at least according to Marc Dos Santos.
As we explored before the season, getting the most out of Reyna can be the key to the ‘Caps offensive success, and that will be no different down in Orlando. While he might not be playing in his preferred #10/#9 hybrid role, he can more than do a job up top as a false nine, as he showed at times last season.
Considering the absences of Cavallini, Montero and Ricketts, the Whitecaps are going to need Reyna to be locked in up top, as his offensive creativity will be a huge asset for a team not sure about where the goals will come from this tournament.
So keep an eye on him in this tournament. With Cristian Dajome and David Milinkovic expected to play off of him out wide, seeing how Reyna connects with them will be certainly intriguing to watch.
If Reyna can find a way to free them up offensively, while also finding half-spaces to operate in for himself, there’s no reason that he can’t both play as a facilitator and as a finisher, filling the false nine role to a tee.
It’s a tall ask, but with limited striking options, having him do that would be massive for the ‘Caps, as it would A) alleviate their scoring questions, and B) allow Theo Bair to get more minutes in his preferred wide position, of which would benefit the team, especially considering Bair’s ability to wreak havoc from wide areas.
Fitting all of that together is going to be another question, but we do have an idea of how the ‘Caps are going to play.
If preseason, along with the first 2 games of the regular season, are to be any indication, this Whitecaps side is going to want to press high, play a mid-to-high line, have aggressive full backs, a fluid front 3 and play through the midfield to wide areas.
That’s important to note ahead of this tournament,, because if we look at some of those attributes listed, a lot of the players that will be key to their success are still in the squad. Yes, missing the finishing and energy that Cavallini, Montero and Ricketts up top is going to make a negative difference, but elsewhere, the ‘Caps are equipped to handle the absences of Rose and Mukumbilwa.
Considering the importance that the back 4 and midfield 3 are going to have in building up the play for Vancouver, having almost all of their midfielders (Rose is a midfielder, but looks to be centre back under MDS this year) make the trip is huge.
In preseason, we saw the ‘Caps drop a midfielder in between the defenders when building up, allowing the full backs to push up high, which they should be able to still do with their current players. With Reyna playing up top, they will partly lose his creativity in between the midfield and attacking lines, but with Owusu and In Beom expected to play together, that should atone for that absence.
With Milinkovic and Dajome on the wings, cutting in and out at their free will, along with the expected overlap threat of Adnan, if they can get the ball through the midfield, the framework is there for them to annoy teams in wide channels.
We explored a lot of this in-depth in a preseason tactical preview, so check that out if you haven’t already, but it’s expected that a lot of what we saw stays the same.
While they won’t play the 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 they started the season with, as we explored in that piece, they should be able to impose the same ideas by being fluid in their play.
Defensively, they’ll be able to have that compact 4-4-2 by sending a midfielder, most likely In Beom, up to join Reyna in the press, allowing Dajome and Milinkovic to tuck back into their defensive roles as wide midfielders.
Offensively, having an extra body in the midfield will give them more to build up with, so provided that In Beom and Owusu can break lines with their passing, and Reyna can find a way to both effectively make runs and play in between the lines, they can generate chances.
Finishing is a genuine concern, as there are a lot more creators than there are goalscorers on this roster, but if they can press from the front, stay defensively compact in the right areas, and generate chances, there’s very much potential for some snatch-and-grab 1-0s and 2-1s in Vancouver’s future.
Either way, it’s expected that the ‘Caps play some exciting football down in Orlando. It’s too early to tell how successful they’ll be, as they find themselves in the midst of what is a pretty wide-open group, but despite the key absences, they do have a framework to build around.
As the old adage goes, defence wins championships, so we’ll see how true that is for Vancouver, who are going to have to lean heavily on the work done by their defenders and midfielders in order to even dream of winning.
At the very least, this tournament should provide several key opportunities for ‘Caps youngsters to see the pitch, while also giving a chance for some key players (In Beom, Bikel, Owusu, Adnan, Cornelius, Veselniovic and Crepeau, amongst others) to get used to the system, and give us more of a look at some of the new guys that came in this offseason.
So we’ll stay tuned, and see how all of that goes, as Vancouver looks to surprise teams, starting with its return to MLS action later this week.
Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs San Jose Earthquakes, Wednesday, July 15th, 2020, 18:00 PST/21:00 EST