Options Aplenty: Vancouver Whitecaps get ball rolling on 2020 offseason with latest roster announcements

As expected, the Vancouver Whitecaps released some roster news on Monday, as they confirmed the return of 7 players for 2021, along with the release of 2 others, with a few ‘Caps still remaining in negotiations. Here is what we took away from that news, along with some information from Sporting Director Axel Schuster, who spoke to reporters on Monday. 

Change is on the horizon. 

Just over 3 weeks after their 2020 MLS season ended, the Vancouver Whitecaps made some roster decisions on Monday, kickstarting their 2020-2021 offseason. 

While there wasn’t much to be expected in their roster update, with most of their players either locked up or confirmed to be all but out the door, there was always the potential for a surprise. 

Ultimately, there didn’t prove to be any big surprises, but there was still a smorgasbord of news to tuck into, setting the table for an intriguing offseason. There was no news that really seemed to drastically alter their already laid-out plans, but there was still some info that could prove to be useful down the road, especially in terms of how the club aims to proceed with certain young players. 

So while it seems unlikely that the ‘Caps will make any further moves until after MLS Cup in 2 weeks, barring any big surprises, they set an interesting precedent with some of the decisions they made on Monday. 

Who’s staying? 

Up first, it’s worth noting who’s staying, as the ‘Caps announced that they picked up the options on 7 players, Isaac Boehmer, Thomas Hasal, Jake Nerwinski, Derek Cornelius, Patrick Metcalfe, Michael Baldisimo and Theo Bair. 

There were no surprises in that list, as all of them except for Boehmer got a good chunk of minutes this year, and aside from the 26-year-old Nerwinski, all of them are 23 or under and are Canadian. On a Vancouver team that has made it a priority to give chances to young domestic talent, it would’ve been a surprise to see any of them go, especially considering that they mostly all got a chance to play this season. 

Nerwinski was certainly the one with the most question marks surrounding his future, as it was entirely possible that the club could’ve felt that they could’ve gone in a different direction at the right back position, but given his solid 2020 play, it’s smart to see him return. At the very least, he’ll be a very good backup option, but seeing how much he progressed this season, the ‘Caps should not have to worry if they head into 2021 with him as a starter. 

Cornelius was also another interesting one to watch, as he’s had to fight for minutes in a congested backline, but he was clearly firmly implanted in Marc Dos Santos’s centre back rotation, just behind Erik Godoy and Ranko Veselinovic. Even though the numbers do suggest that he could be the ‘Caps second-best centre back behind Godoy, Dos Santos seemed to prefer Veselinovic to the Canadian, but at the same time, Cornelius did get a good run of games in the middle portion of the season, so he’s definitely not far off being a consistent starter. 

If anything, Cornelius’s signing just made Jasser Khmiri’s future a lot more interesting, as the Tunisian defender has only made 6 appearances since signing 2 years ago, and is behind Godoy, Veselinovic and Cornelius in the pecking order. 

Given that he is taking up a valuable international spot, the ‘Caps could try and move on from Khmiri’s deal, which is through 2021, clearing up space for a cheaper domestic centre back, such as FC Edmonton’s Amer Didic, who trialled with the ‘Caps at the start of 2020.

Aside from that, there isn’t much fallout from these moves, as the ‘Caps did what most people expected them to do, with some moves just having slightly more implications on the rest of the squad than others. 

Who’s gone? 

Not so surprisingly, Bryan Meredith is out the door, as the club declined the veteran goalkeepers option. 

Brought in to be a backup option for Maxime Crepeau, he had to watch as Thomas Hasal and then Evan Bush jump ahead of him in the pecking order, leaving him as the 4th option on the ‘Caps goalkeeping depth chart. 

A popular teammate, he’ll surely land on his feet somewhere, be it as an option for the Austin FC expansion side, somewhere else in MLS, or even in the USL. Unfortunately for him, he just hasn’t had the chance to get many minutes at the MLS level, only playing 4 games since 2012, 3 of them coming this season. 

Also joining Meredith in heading out the door is Georges Mukumbilwa, the 21-year-old Canadian winger/full back whose option was also declined, leaving him eligible for the end-of-year waivers. 

Signed back in 2019 off of the back of a strong preseason, he made his debut on the last game of that year, but didn’t feature in 2020 as he dealt with visa issues prohibiting him from travelling to the US with the team. 

Given his age and profile, unless he gets surprisingly picked up by another team within MLS, he’s a prime candidate to go to the Canadian Premier League, where he has the potential to be a difference-maker for whoever takes a flyer on him. 

It’s unfortunate that he was not able to stick around for next season, as he’s an intriguing prospect, but as Axel Schuster explained, there just wasn’t room for him on the roster. 

“(Releasing) Georges was a difficult one,” Schuster said. “We are also limited by roster places, so it’s not like we can keep every player that we maybe would like to keep and we still think there might be a chance and we put them on loan, or whatever. Because we are limited to 30 roster spots, so there we also wanted to keep some roster spots open for new talent that is now coming up.”

Who’s still negotiating?  

Lastly, the ‘Caps confirmed that while they declined the option of veteran Andy Rose, they remain in negotiations with the midfielder/defender. Given how highly players and coaches speak of him, he’s a very strong candidate to return, likely just at a reduced role and salary. 

Reading between the lines, it’s also possible that the negotiations are also including a look at the future, as it’s no secret that Rose is in line to go into coaching when he retires, especially considering that he recently picked up his UEFA A-license coaching badge. Given that, it’s entirely possible that he and the club are looking at a succession plan that involves him stepping into a coaching role when he chooses to step down, be it in the academy or as a first-team assistant. 

Either way, his negotiations should be rather uneventful, and will likely culminate with Rose re-signing in Vancouver at the end of it. 

On the other hand, no one can say the same about the negotiations with Fredy Montero, which remain as intense as ever. Asked about it on Monday, Schuster did confirm that negotiations started out rocky, saying: “Our first idea of a new contract was not exactly the idea that Fredy and his agent had”, but did later say that the club had a productive meeting with Montero and his agent earlier on Monday. 

From a fit perspective, it’s hard to imagine Montero returning unless he accepts a lesser role and also lesser salary, both things that seem unlikely after he had such a strong end to the season. 

Ultimately, it’s going to come down to him seeing what other opportunities present themselves, and then making a decision from there. He wants to play, but he does seem to like Vancouver, and has a good rapport with his teammates, but if a better opportunity does come his way, he seems likely to take it at this point. 

If Rose’s negotiations see him as 99% staying in Vancouver, you’d probably have to put Montero’s at somewhere between 25 to 50%, with each passing day likely reducing the likelihood that he dons the white and blue in 2021. 

But lastly, the most interesting bit of news from Schuster about potential negotiations was about the future of David Milinkvoic, who seemed to have a 0% chance of returning in 2021, as it seems like that percentage is now closer to 5 or 10%. 

While it was confirmed a few weeks ago that both sides are looking to part ways, Schuster did reveal that if they weren’t able to find a new club for Milinkovic, it’s always possible that he dons the ‘Caps strip in 2021. 

“Yeah, we spoke about that before, both parties right now think that it may be the best that he looks for a new option, and he is doing that very actively,” Schuster said. “So, there’s no question that he has a contract right now in our club, and we are not afraid about that because he showed he showed that he can help this team.”

It’s very unlikely to happen, but it’s interesting to hear Schuster suggest that a return could be a potential option if a solution really does fail to materialize. 

New kids on the block?

When talking about Mukumbilwa, Schuster also dropped an interesting nugget about some youth players, sharing that the ‘Caps are keeping 2 roster spots open for 2 academy signings at the start of 2021. 

“We also want to have to keep some roster spots open for new talent that is now coming up,” he said. “And we will add two players to our training group at the beginning of the next year, we want to give two players a chance to show up, and we’re now in discussions (for) who deserve that (the) most in our youth department.”

While he and his staff have yet to decide who those 2 players will be, and it’s possible that they won’t know until after preseason, it was an intriguing bit of news to hear from Schuster. 

Looking at unsigned ‘Caps academy players, the early favourite is Kamron Habibullah, the tricky winger who made Canada’s 2019 U17 World Cup, as his name has been on the lips of many for a while now. 

Elsewhere, it’s possible that midfielder Emiliano Brienza or defender Nathan Demian could also make the cut, as they did also make that U17 World Cup team, and along with Habibullah, they make up 3 of the only 5 players the ‘Caps currently have signed to their U23 Development squad. 

Either way, it’ll be intriguing to see who makes the jump up and if they’re able to surprise some folks, much like Theo Bair, Thomas Hasal, Patrick Metcalfe and Michael Baldisimo have been able to do over the past few years. 

Logjam could mean loans? 

After getting a good run of games in 2020, it’s possible that goalkeeper Thomas Hasal heads out on loan in 2021 (Keveren Guillou)

And to round things off, the last big thing that Schuster noted was that some ‘Caps youngsters could find themselves on loan next year if things end up going as they plan to, which could see the likes of Hasal, Baldisimo, Bair and Metcalfe at (temporary) new clubs in 2021. 

While Schuster did previously mention that the club was exploring a loan for Hasal next year depending on what happens in goal, he hadn’t talked about the future’s of any other youngsters, but based on what he said Monday, it appears a few of them could join the young goalkeeper on loan. 

If they can’t get good minutes with Vancouver, they want to make sure that they get minutes elsewhere, be it in the CPL or somewhere else, making sure that their development isn’t stunted if there aren’t enough minutes for them with the MLS club. 

“We are really interested in the development process,” Schuster said of his young talent. “So we are looking to support the loan and to help with the salary of the player if he goes on loan because we are much more interested in the development, then to make a business deal on the loan. So, it is also very important that the clubs that are interested in our player offers him a real spot in the first 11.”

As the roster currently stands, the only candidates to go on loan are Metcalfe and Hasal, but based on who the ‘Caps sign up front and in midfield, we could very well see Bair and Baldisimo join them. 

Looking Forward:

So now, we await the next bit of news from the ‘Caps, as their offseason chugs along. 

In the meantime, we’ll be kicking off our 2020 season review soon, so stay tuned for that if that’s your thing. 

As the calendar progresses towards the end of this wild year, it’ll be intriguing to see if things end off with a bang, such as a big signing or a big trade. 

But at least now, the ball is rolling, setting the table for what promises to be an interesting next few months for the Whitecaps. 

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