Welcome to our fourth and final Vancouver Whitecaps statistical snapshot from the MLS is Back tournament, our series in which we will dive into the stats of some standout performers for the ‘Caps down in Orlando. In this one, we take a look at Theo Bair, the Vancouver Whitecaps homegrown forward, who made a claim for more minutes with his play down in Orlando.
Much like in 2019, when he saw the field, he left a lasting impression.
Now in his second full professional season, Vancouver Whitecaps forward Theo Bair was among the team’s standout players down in Orlando at the MLS is Back tournament, where he laid a good claim towards earning more minutes with his strong play.
After quickly growing into a key role player for the ‘Caps in his rookie season last year, Bair was expected to take another step forward in 2020, and so far, he’s seemed to do that.
While this season has been far from ideal for both he and his teammates, with the COVID-19 pandemic throwing a wrench in their plans for this year, when he’s seen the field, he’s impressed, even though it’s mostly been in a limited role.
At MLS is Back, he played in all 4 of the ‘Caps games, making a noticeable impact in each of his appearances, 2 of which came off the bench, the other 2 coming as a starter, helping him stake a claim for more minutes.
As the ‘Caps found themselves down 3 of their regular forwards for the MLS is Back Tournament, Bair was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the playing time that opened up for him, with his play certainly among the bright spots of the trip to Orlando.
With the Whitecaps getting set to restart their MLS season on August 18th, this time with their full complement of forwards, his play down in Orlando is going to force head coach Marc Dos Santos to make some tough decisions.
Which for a head coach, is an ideal situation to be in, so good on Bair for taking an opportunity and running with it as he has.
Theo Bair: Is it time to ‘release the Bair’ off of the bench and into a starting role?
Certainly, at least among ‘Caps youngsters, Bair has had one of the more interesting pathways into the Whitecaps first team.
After coming up through the Whitecaps Academy, he signed his first-team contract in 2018, but didn’t see the field that year, as former ‘Caps coach Carl Robinson didn’t find a chance for Bair to make his MLS debut.
Under Marc Dos Santos in 2019, that was expected to change, with Dos Santos being a well-known supporter of Canadian talent, especially after doing so well to integrate Canadian players wherever he’s been.
Unfortunately for Bair, that didn’t happen right away, as he spent most of the beginning of the 2019 season with the U23 development squad, after he was unable to impress Dos Santos in preseason training.
With the U23’s, Bair stepped up his game, however, putting himself back on Dos Santos’s radar with impressive training habits and some solid games, including some standout play on a Development Squad trip to England, pushing him back into the ‘Caps first-team plans.
As a result of his hard work, he made his debut in late-May of 2019, against Dallas, showing some good flashes in a short cameo off of the bench. While he would return to the U23’s for a trip to South Korea in June, he pretty much graduated to the first team after that point, as his much-improved training form helped him get into Dos Santos’s good books.
All-in-all, he would make 17 total MLS appearances in his first season, including 10 starts, along with 1 Canadian Championship appearance. In those games, he scored 2 goals, and added 2 assists, but put up chance creation numbers well beyond that, as he showed that he can make an impact at the MLS level.
So heading into this season, it was hoped that he could take a big step forward, becoming a true regular in Dos Santos’s squad, even despite the arrival of some big attacking signings that seemed likely to take away some of Bair’s minutes.
And unfortunately, to start the season, the latter rung true. In the first 2 games of the 2020 MLS season, Bair didn’t see the pitch at all, and in 1 of the 2 games, he wasn’t even in the squad, as the intense battle for places saw him on the outside looking in.
But then, the pandemic hit, leaving him and his teammates in limbo for a few months, until they finally starting training again back in May. As a result of that, it put everyone back at square 1 in terms of squad hierarchy battles, leaving Bair to fight it out again for minutes.
Despite that, Bair was in tough heading into the MLS is Back tournament, as the ‘Caps forward depth made it hard to imagine him getting many minutes. It was hoped that he could get some game time, especially with the new 5 substitutes rule giving more youngsters a chance off of the bench, but aside from that, he didn’t look likely to get much else in terms of minutes as a starting role.
Then a week before the tournament got underway, a break came for him. Fredy Montero, Lucas Cavallini and Tosaint Ricketts, 3 of the ‘Caps main forwards, all opted out from the tournament for either personal or medical reasons, leaving the forward depth thin for Vancouver.
While it was a blow to Vancouver’s hopes, it was a chance for someone like Bair, as he was one of only 5 ‘Caps forwards to make the trip down to Orlando, giving hope that he might get some regular game time at the tournament.
And boy, did he ever.
He started the first two games on the bench, but ended up playing a noticeable role when he came onto the pitch as a substitute, with his 45 minutes of play over the two games one of the biggest bright spots in a pair of ‘Caps losses against San Jose and Seattle.
As a result of that, he earned a start in the last ‘Caps game of the group stages against Chicago, a game in which the Whitecaps rode a dramatic second-half to win 2-0, allowing them to qualify to the Round of 16 as one of the best third-place teams.
Off the back of his solid play over 62 minutes in that one, he would earn another start against Sporting KC in that Round of 16 tie, and in that one, he would end up going the full 90, as his bright play up front helped his team create chances in a tough game, one they ended up losing on penalties after finishing 0-0.
So all-in-all, it was a solid trip to Orlando for Bair, who certainly staked a good claim to earn more minutes as this season goes along, even with everyone now back in the fold.
Thanks to his versatility (he can play anywhere across the forward line or out wide), and his work effort, combined with his much-improved technical play and willingness to take players on 1v1, he poses a matchup problem for opponents whenever he plays.
Not often do you see a 6’4” forward with the feet skills that Bair has, so for a team like the ‘Caps, who are looking to improve their offence this season, he can be an asset for them going forward, as he showed this tournament.
Crunching the numbers:
And the numbers certainly back up that claim, at least when put in some context.
The thing with Bair’s numbers is that they were really good after the first two games, but dropped after the third one, before levelling up in the 4th and final game.
In the first two games, in a free role off of the bench, he had an impressive 0.23 Expected Goals and 0.15 Expected Assists per 96 minutes, as he did a solid job at getting the ball to his teammates and towards the net when he was on.
But after the third game, his numbers dropped to 0.12 xG and 0.08 xA per 96 minutes, as in his 62 minutes vs Chicago, he was effectively marked out of the final third, with the ‘Caps breakthrough offensively only coming when he came off in the second half.
Against SKC, however, he bumped his numbers back up again, as he generated 0.34 xG worth of chances per 96 minutes (given that he played 103 minutes due to injury time), bumping his overall tournament numbers back up to a solid 0.22 xG per 96, to go along with his 0.04 xA/96.
Put contextually, however, it shows the importance of what Bair can bring to the offence. In the first 2 games, he made work of some tired defences when he came on, showing that he can be an efficient super-sub, something that he showed last year in his cameos off of the bench.
That doesn’t mean that he fades out when he starts, though, as he has shown to be a consistent xG generator when he’s starting or if he’s coming off of the bench, showing his abilities as a player.
There’s a reason why he generated 0.25 xG and 0.04 xA/96 last year, which is pretty much exactly what he put up this year, showing that he’s a pretty consistent player, something which coaches love.
While you would like his numbers, especially the xG one, to turn into more concrete results, to generate at that sort of rate as a young player is impressive, and it certainly shows why he’s a good shout for more minutes.
He’s shown to get better game-by-game, and he’s certainly hungrier and more confident this year than he was last year, as indicated by the fact that he’s now completing 1 dribble and attempting 1 shot a game, compared to the 0.4 dribbles and 0.7 shots he had in 2019.
As we’ve seen from him when he gets the ball, he’s a good dribbler, and from what we’ve seen in training and in games, he’s got a good shot in him, so to see him push the needle more and be more confident is another good sign from a youngster.
The only thing he needs to improve on offensively is his key pass rate, which is only 0.3 per game, actually down from the 0.5 a game he averaged last year.
While it’s a volatile stat, as it can be impacted by teammates and position, it’s certainly something that he’ll want to work on, especially if he’s playing with someone like Lucas Cavallini, who can really shoot the ball.
Bair’s shown to be a good distributor of the ball, at least when you consider the eye test, as he can play good short balls and crosses into the box, but not a lot of those passes have turned into key passes and expected assists.
But at the same time, we do have to remember that he’s played a lot of his time as a #9, instead of out on the wing, so there are some factors possibly prohibiting from pushing those numbers up.
On the other hand, it’s also important to note that he had 0.02 goals added/96 with his passing, and 0.02 with his dribbling at MLS is Back, which on a team in which only 4 and 5 players were positive in those respective stats during the tournament, showed that he can get the ball into good areas and make things happen.
What that shows is that while he maybe hasn’t generated as many key passes as you would’ve liked, that also reflects on his teammates, who haven’t always done the right thing when he passes them the ball, even when in good positions.
Elsewhere, he’s shown to be a decent presser of the ball, as indicated by his 0.03 goal added/96 via interrupting, along with a solid 0.5 tackles and interceptions/96, which for a forward, are pretty solid defensive numbers.
So all-in-all, we can see that Bair showed off his versatility, work rate and chance generation skills during this MLS is Back tournament, backing up a claim for more minutes.
He might not have Lionel Messi-esque numbers, but he has really good MLS ones, and while he certainly needs to increase his sample size, that’s something that he’ll do with time.
After this tournament, he’s certainly shown to be deserving of more minutes, anyways, which should give him that chance in upcoming MLS games.
Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of role Bair plays in the next 6 ‘Caps games, which will all be against Canadian opposition, as Vancouver kicks off Phase 1 of its MLS restart this week.
Dos Santos trusts him, so he’ll certainly get to play, but given Vancouver’s depth at forward, it’ll be interesting to see how much he plays, and where he slots in, as Dos Santos will try to find a way to get his many forwards the playing time they all need.
But when he does play, be it as a starter or off of the bench, keep a close eye on him. Both in 2019, and now in 2020, whenever he’s been on, he’s shown good glimpses, which if he continues to show more of, will certainly lead to more concrete results.
As one of the key youngsters on this ‘Caps team, it’ll be interesting to see how he progresses going forward, especially after seeing some of the growth that he’s showcased so far.
Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Toronto FC, Tuesday, August 18th, 2020, 17:00 PST, 20:00 EST (BMO Field, Toronto)
(All stats taken from American Soccer Analysis and WhoScored)
Cover Photo via: Matthew Stith/MLS