The Vancouver Whitecaps held their year-end media availabilities on Thursday, as they took time to answer questions about this past season and the upcoming offseason. Here is what stood out from that, as they get set to go into an important transfer window for this club.
You can be excused if you’ve heard this story before.
For the third straight offseason, the Vancouver Whitecaps are heading into the break with more questions than answers, as they continue their quest towards one day becoming an MLS side that consistently makes the playoffs.
Having missed the big dance three years in a row now, having dealt with roster turnover numbers akin to what you might see in a university sports team, with not many results to show for it, you wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling ‘offseason fatigued’.
Despite that, things do feel different heading into this winter transfer window, which much like the ones that have come before it, has been labelled ‘the most important in the club’s history’.
After years of haphazard recruitment, a plan does indeed appear to finally be in place, giving some hope that the ‘Caps can hit on their last few signings, allowing them to be a playoff team in 2020.
Even though Marc Dos Santos was only hired 2 years ago, there are only 3 players he signed that started in his first MLS game against Minnesota on March 2nd, 2019 who could start on opening day next year: goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau and defenders Erik Godoy and Derek Cornelius.
The rest are all either gone or holdovers from the Carl Robinson era, such as Jake Nerwinski, as the ‘Caps have gone through players the way a car mechanic shuffles around used parts.
But since that first game under Dos Santos, they’ve started to put some of their puzzle together.
Ali Adnan may be the most expensive full back in MLS history, but he’s also one of the best in the league right now, giving the ‘Caps quality in that position if he does indeed stick around next year.
In midfield, Janio Bikel looks like he has all of the tools to be a top defensive midfielder in this league, while the underlying metrics on Leonard Owusu suggest that despite an up-and-down first season, he could be a chance-creating #8 with the right players alongside him.
Up front, Lucas Cavallini has the tools to be a top striker in MLS, finishing 7th in the whole league in Expected Goals (xG) despite a topsy turvy debut campaign that saw him pick up more cards than goals. Alongside him, Cristian Dajome proved to be an attacking bright spot on a team short of them, overcoming some adversity to become one of the team’s biggest difference-makers at the end of the year.
Along with some promising youngsters such as Michael Baldisimo, Theo Bair, Ryan Raposo, Patrick Metcalfe and Thomas Hasal, they’ve also got some players who seem ready to push into the side.
So now, this offseason will be all about hitting on a few targets, instead of a whole plethora of them, as the ‘Caps have appeared to build up a decent cache of players to build around.
While there is one big missing piece, a DP #10/#8 that can dominate a game, they don’t have to do what they’ve done in recent offseasons, which is bring in 12 or 13 players and hope for the best.
Instead, they can finally rely on one thing they haven’t been able to rely on much in their MLS history – continuity.
Heading into their offseason, which officially started this week, it’s felt that they’re a lot closer to the playoffs than they were just last year, when they had the 2nd-worst record in the league.
A few missteps, and they could be right back where they started, but with Sporting Director Axel Schuster now heading into his second year at the helm, it’s hoped that he can continue to add spices to the pot that he started brewing in the first year on the job.
Earlier this week, Schuster and Dos Santos both spoke ahead of the start of the offseason, so here is some of what they’ve had to say about their postseason plans, as they embark on a crucial period for the club.
The kids are alright, but they need some guidance:
While Schuster’s signings mostly seemed to bring positive energy to the squad last year, there was one common theme: they were all young.
That has its benefits, especially in terms of potential resale value and playing exciting football, but that comes at its own risks, as the ‘Caps learned this year.
Inconsistency was a big problem for the team this season, as they could look like world-beaters one game, before reverting to something more akin to an amateur side the next one.
There’s a reason why they had the 9th-most wins in MLS with 9, which bested their 2019 total in 11 fewer games, while also putting up the 2nd-most losses in MLS with 14, which was only 2 lesser than their 2019 total.
They struggled to grind out games, becoming the first MLS team since the regular-season shootout era not to finish with a draw, which cost them valuable points which could’ve seen them comfortably qualify for the playoffs.
For that reason, chasing experience is a priority for the club this offseason, as Dos Santos made sure to note when asked about potential transfer targets last week.
“The number one thing we’re focusing on right now is the responsibility that we have on those X amount of players that are going to join us next year,” Dos Santos told reporters on November 6th, in the lead-up to their season finale. “And one of the spots we have is a DP spot that we’re taking extremely seriously. So all of our focus is on those three, four key new guys that we need to bring to the team.”
“And not only talking about quality, but also experience, personality that these players can bring, leadership. We’re looking for all those things. But then, we’re looking for a couple (of players) that could make our team tick in these key moments, and our focus, as of Monday morning, is going to be to do our exit meetings, medicals, go through the process of ending this season and start focusing very well with who’s joining and how we can become better.”
So while the ‘Caps, along with the rest of MLS, will have 3 brand-new young DP spots to fill this offseason thanks to some rule changes, as well as at least one normal DP spot, experience is a priority for Dos Santos and company.
In a league where young players steal the show but veterans win championships, Dos Santos and Schuster are banking on adding a bit more spine to this side, giving them the guile required to grind out the sort of games that get you into the playoffs at the end of a long season.
“Yes, yes, you said everything that we’re thinking,” Dos Santos continued, when asked about bringing in more veterans to his team’s spine. “Yes, we feel that even if we have spots for young DPs, and in those spots we’re working on to bring the best young DPs possible, but we need to have a few pieces that bring more maturity, more leadership in the key moments, that’s important for us to move forward.”
Finding the perfect formation:
And then, once he and Schuster bring in the right guys, the next big question looms: what will be the best way to line up?
Having built up a reputation as a tinkerer this season, as the ‘Caps tried over a half-dozen formations, Dos Santos will want a bit more consistency next year.
The ‘Caps did find their best form in a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1, with Fredy Montero operating as a sort of second-striker/#10 depending on the opponent, but with Montero’s future at the club remaining uncertain, they could very well move on from that formation.
If Ali Adnan is still around, a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 could make a lot of sense, but aside from that, the early favourite is for the ‘Caps to shift to a 4-3-3, which Dos Santos has seemed to prefer in the past.
While he denied his affinity for it when asked about it at the year-end availability on Thursday, he admitted that he believes it helps teams press higher and hold more possession, two things he has long said the ‘Caps need to be better at.
“I don’t know where people exactly got that I like the 4-3-3,” Dos Santos said Thursday. “Of course, I like the system, it’s a system that I think allows you to maximize if you want to press higher on the field, if you want to have more possession.”
But then comes another big question: should the ‘Caps prioritize a formation and build around it? Or should they just get the best players available, and then go from there?
Given that they appear to be one midfielder and one winger away from having a solid 4-3-3, the former seems more prudent, but a couple of surprise acquisitions could sway them to stick with the latter, as they did this year.
For Dos Santos, he appears to be more on the side of just letting things happen before seeing what he does, but you do wonder if his affinity for the 4-3-3 will possibly change his mind.
“When I look at a system, I look at what maximizes the players you have,” he continued. “So for me to tell you right now, if we’re gonna work in a 4-3-3, a 4-4-2 or a 3-4-3, it’s gonna depend a lot on how the rest of the recruitment goes.”
At the very least, if he does indeed stick with a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, given the low amount of roster turnover that is predicted for this team, that could also be a good thing.
They did play their best in 2020 in those 2 formations, and while it’s not the 4-3-3 that many are hoping for, there is not much that separates the 3 formations other than a few nuanced changes, such as the deployment of the wingers, midfielders and strikers.
Continuity has been a big issue these past 2 seasons, as well, so at the very least, they’ll be building off what they built this year if they choose to continue down the same road.
“What I think is that the way we worked in preseason, and going towards the first couple of games before COVID, I think it was very clear the way we wanted to play in the system that we were using which was more in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1,” Dos Santos said. “And then, with COVID started a lot of changes, because we didn’t have always the same group of guys. We had to change a lot of times the players that were on the field, and then we were almost obliged to change our system, but I think what we saw in the last 10-12 games of the season gives us a clear indication of how we want to be on the field next season.”
“And I think that the numbers, the improvement in balls recovered in the opponent’s half, shots on target versus shots against, in the last 10-12 games all that side was improved due to us being able to maximize the guys that we have. And that was more in a 4-4-2, or kind of a 4-2-3-1 where Fredy (Montero) was acting as this false-10 or false second forward. I think that we put the pattern that I would say we could build on for next season, so I don’t want to be here saying it’s going to be a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, but I can tell you that’s going to depend on how the rest of the recruitment goes, but I will tell you that what we saw in the last 10-12 games has a lot of the foundations of what we want to be about next year, we just want to bring this to the next level now.”
Lessons learned in year 1 for Schuster:
While Dos Santos is entering his 3rd season in charge, Schuster is a year behind, as he was hired on November 15th of 2019, giving him less than a year on the job as of writing.
Thrust into a tough role at a club who has faced its fair share of ups and downs over the past few years, it was far from an ideal job for anyone to have to dive into, especially when you factor in the pandemic.
He had to hit the ground running in year one, setting the table for a busy year in which he certainly logged the air miles and punched in hours at the office.
Having been through the fire now, Schuster hopes that he’s better off for it in this offseason, which will be his first full offseason with the ‘Caps.
“I hope, and if I speak about development and growth, that also (applies) to me,” Schuster said on Thursday. “So I was able to learn a lot in this last year, about the league. I think I have a good overview about a lot of teams, players. I have a much better understanding of what are the main needs in this league. I think it helps me also a lot now with Marc to find the additional pieces that we need.”
“And it was a kind of rushed offseason last year for me, coming in, being new, looking for so many players, and at the same time still evaluating what we really need. We signed (Lucas) Cavallini shortly before Christmas, and went on with other signings after that, and were going into the (2019 preseason) preparation already with still a lot of players not being there and (dealing with) immigration issues and all of that.”
Now, with that experience under his belt, Schuster is hoping the lessons learned in year 1 can serve him well in year 2, as he and Dos Santos look to get this team back to the playoffs.
“I had to learn a lot about that also, immigration issues, and the process to get the contract done,” he continued. “We had a moment where we were close to signing a player, (but) lost him in the last minute to (a team in) Mexico. So, (those are) things that will not happen again, and I think we are now in a much better position today, and also me, I’m much better prepared for that with the experience of one year, and all of that gives us the confidence of saying: ‘next year we go to the playoffs’.”
“It’s not about (saying) if we would reach the playoffs, that would be great and that’s our target, no, we want to be very offensive with that (to make sure) that next year we’re an organization that goes to the playoffs.”
In the Mixer:
Lastly, before wrapping things up, here are some other interesting nuggets that stood out from the ‘Caps year-end availability on Thursday, as Dos Santos and Schuster held court with reporters for nearly an hour.
Milinkovic looking unlikely to return:
The biggest news that came out of Thursday was that winger, David Milinkovic, would not be returning in 2020.
Despite coming to the ‘Caps with low expectations after having dealt with off-field issues at his last club, Hull City, the French winger quickly settled into life in Vancouver, as he was arguably the team’s MVP through the first half of the year.
But after that, something went wrong, as he disappeared from the lineup for a good chunk of the second half.
His absence was labelled as being because of a ‘non-Covid related illness’, but given that Schuster said that both sides decided it was best for him to pursue “another option”, you do have to wonder what happened.
We’ll dive into more what the ‘Caps lose with Milinkovic gone in a future piece, but given that he was tied for the team-lead in primary assists with 4, his skill set will be especially missed on a ‘Caps team that already struggles to generate chances.
Montero’s future also remains uncertain:
But while the Milinkovic news came as a shock to many, Schuster said nothing too surprising when asked about the future of Fredy Montero, saying that they’re still in “talks” with the forward, with both sides looking to find a solution where “everyone is satisfied”.
Given that Montero is a free agent, it’s positive that they’re still having talks, but that’s also expected considering it’s only November.
As the team’s second-leading goalscorer with 5 goals, and team-leading set-up man with 5 assists (primary+secondary), the ‘Caps would lose a lot of offence with his departure, but there are questions to be had about his fit in the squad based on the ‘Caps desire to bring in a DP offensive #8/#10.
The ideal scenario for Vancouver would be to bring him at a reduced cost as a rotation piece, but seeing how good he was for the team as a starter in the second half, you’d figure that Montero feels like he could get more money and playing time compared to what the ‘Caps might offer.
What to do in goal?
The last big thing that was brought up in terms of questions related to the actual squad itself was about goalkeeping, as the ‘Caps currently have 4 goalkeepers on their roster.
While the popular Bryan Meredith unfortunately appears to be an odd-man-out, Evan Bush, Maxime Crepeau and Thomas Hasal are all quality #1 options.
In terms of the future, giving Thomas Hasal the reigns in goal would be the best option, but given Crepeau’s standout play in 2019, as well as in 2020 before getting injured, it would be hard to move on from him.
For Bush, it’s clear that he’d be a great veteran backup, but with his option supposedly being rather expensive for that role, his future is also up in the air.
But considering that Schuster said that if Hasal “Is not our number one, he has to play somewhere”, you do wonder if the plan is to ride with Maxime Crepeau and Evan Bush this year, while loaning out Hasal for now.
Either way, given that Schuster says that he sees Hasal as a long-term number 1, his immediate future is the most interesting to keep an eye on.
Knowing that he could be a year or two away from moving onto Europe, the ‘Caps may have to factor that into their plans for Crepeau and Bush, as well.
Now, the ‘Caps have officially started their offsesaon, leaving them to start laying the groundwork in order to start doing the many things they’ve said they aim to do over this past week.
While it will be a while until we see too much other news, with mid-December being the MLS’s option deadline, it’s possible that the ‘Caps announce a signing or two before then.
Either way, they’ll be surely working the phones and spending long hours in meetings, doing all that they can to ensure that they can take a big step forward next season.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, they’re in a better spot than they were two years ago, but they’re also at a crucial point where they can’t afford to take a step back, making this a critical offseason.
So we’ll be following along carefully, keeping an eye on the ‘Caps plans as they maneuver through a unique transfer period, having already dealt with a season like no other this year.