In part 1 of our Vancouver Whitecaps 2020 round-up, we take a look back at their returnees and how they fared this season, one that proved to be like no other.
It was a memorable season for many reasons.
While for the Vancouver Whitecaps, not all of those memories were positive ones, there is no doubt that the 2020 MLS season was one for the history books.
From a normal start to the MLS season, to a surprising pandemic-imposed 3-month break, before spending weeks in a bubble down in Orlando for the MLS is Back tournament, finally playing a handful of games back in Canada, and then finishing with 12 games south of the border, the ‘Caps saw it all in 2020.
Even though it didn’t end the way they would’ve hoped it would’ve, there were certainly a lot of lessons to be learned, as they dove headfirst into a year that really tried to chew them up and spit them out. Despite that, they kept their heads high, bonding well as a group, hopefully setting the table for a good 2021 campaign.
There’s a lot of work to be done ahead of then, as they navigate the challenges of a unique offseason, but having been fortunate enough to complete a season many did not expect to be completed, the ‘Caps can head into the offseason with a sense of purpose.
So in this season-in-review series, we’ll be looking back at the season that was, reflecting on the ‘Caps unique 2020 season.
Up first, we’ll take a look at the individuals that shaped this season, splitting them up into 3 categories: returnees, arrivals and youngsters. In this piece, part 1 of the review, we’ll kick things off with a look at the returnees from head coach Marc Dos Santos’s first season in charge.
Goalkeeper: Maxime Crepeau
After sharing his goal with Zac MacMath in 2019, a season in which Crepeau grabbed the reigns as the ‘Caps starting goalkeeper, starting 28 games out of 36 (all competitions), Crepeau was supposed to be the #1 guy in 2020.
Fresh off of winning the ‘Caps MVP award for his efforts, it was hoped that his 2019 heroics could carry over into 2020, giving them a bonafide top 5 goalkeeper in MLS. With the ‘Caps having traded away MacMath to Real Salt Lake in the offseason, Crepeau was supposed to be the main guy this season, further solidifying his rock-solid claim to the Vancouver goal.
And in a sense, that’s what could’ve happened in a normal year, but unfortunately for Crepeau, he fractured his hand at MLS is Back, cutting his season short after only 3 and a half games.
To give him credit, he did well in that limited playing time, keeping 1 of the only 3 clean sheets the ‘Caps ended up getting over the course of the full season, even despite facing an astounding 22 shots and 10.51 Expected Goals (xG) in his 3.5 games.
With Crepeau expected back at full-strength in 2021, that’s good news for the ‘Caps, who will be more than glad to have him back in goal. Considering that despite being injured, he travelled with the team during the second half of the season, he’s well-integrated into this group, making his return all that more important.
One area in which Dos Santos’s recruitment has been good has been in goal, with Crepeau being the biggest example of that.
Full backs: Ali Adnan, Jake Nerwinski
At full back, both Nerwinski and Adnan had strong seasons, ones that culminated with Adnan winning the team’s MVP trophy, while Nerwinski took home the ‘Caps Unsung Hero award.
While Adnan’s MVP credentials could be debated, especially since he won the trophy via a fan vote, something that his notorious Iraqi fanbase is known for giving him a leg up in, he still put together a strong season.
Offensively, he put up 2 goals and added 5 assists, doubling his 2019 goal total and matching his 2019 assist total in 6 fewer games. On the defensive end, however, was where he saw noticeable improvement, becoming a more and more reliable defender as the year went on.
Volume-wise, his defensive output didn’t really change, as he averaged 1.8 tackles and 1.7 interceptions a game in 2020, compared to 2 tackles and 1.5 interceptions a game back in 2019, but he cut out a lot of the brain farts that could tend to plague him at times.
So even though his best position is as a wing back in a 5 at the back formation, he proved that he can still make a difference at both ends of the pitch in a 4 at the back set-up, especially when he’s locked in at the defensive end. While what he brings to the position maybe doesn’t justify the astronomical price tag he carries as a Designated Player, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the ‘Caps had to keep him for another year or two.
At the other full back position, Nerwinski had a very strong season, solidifying his spot in the lineup with his consistent play. He scored a career-high 2 goals, showing off his offensive chops, but his biggest improvement was in his defensive play and transition game.
Statistically, the 1.2 tackles and 1.3 interceptions that he averaged a game in 2020 barely differ from the 1.5 tackles and 1.3 interceptions that he averaged in 2019, but a lot of those were important tackles, and most importantly, he cut out his penchant for recklessly lunging in and giving away penalties.
Often paired with Ranko Veselinovic at right centre back, he also often had to do this despite being overworked at right back, as the talented but still green Veselinovic sometimes struggled with helping Nerwinski mark players, giving him an increased workload.
Ultimately, after often seeing their full backs cause them problems in 2019, the ‘Caps got improved performances from them in 2020, which certainly helped them find some defensive stability. Their effect was especially noticeable at the end of the season, where they conceded 2 or fewer goals in their last 7 games, after having only done so in 8 of their previous 16 games.
With Adnan’s future still up in the air, no one knows if he’ll return in 2021, but with Nerwinski now re-signed, expect him to have another strong campaign again next year.
And if Adnan does join him, great, but if not, as we’ll see in part 2 of this review, the ‘Caps should be in good hands thanks to the emergence of one Cristian Gutierrez.
Centre backs: Erik Godoy, Derek Cornelius, Jasser Khmiri, Andy Rose
After starting the Dos Santos era with only 1 returning centre back in 2019, Doneil Henry, the ‘Caps had a little more continuity in 2020, bringing back Godoy, Cornelius and Khmiri, while Rose made the shift to centre back from midfield.
And when looking at how they fared, the least of the Whitecaps problems appear to be at centre back.
As we explored just over a month ago, Godoy is a top centre back, Cornelius is solid #2 option, and Rose proved to be good depth. While Khmiri remains the true wild card, as he has #1 potential but has so far looked more like a #3 or #4 for Vancouver, that’s a pretty good group to have, especially when you factor in ‘newcomer’ Ranko Veselinovic.
For Godoy, he had a rough start to the season, only making his debut 9 games into the campaign, as he dealt with ankle and quad injuries. When he did play, however, he made a big impact, as the ‘Caps only allowed 3 or more goals in 2 of the 9 games in which he played more than 60 minutes, both of those games coming during the first 3 games in which he passed that threshold.
The more Godoy played, the better the ‘Caps got, so for them, their priority will to be keep him healthy this offseason, helping him hit the ground running in 2021.
Elsewhere, Cornelius had a solid season, but just struggled to get regular game time, as Dos Santos often preferred to play Veselinovic or Rose over him. Statistically, however, that might not have been wise, as we saw in that aforementioned piece looking at the ‘Caps centre back situation, but with Cornelius now re-signed for 2021, that might change.
He ended up making a respectable 11 starts, but considering his standing in the Canadian National Team set-up, in which he’s arguably the #1 guy right now, if not close to it, he needs more minutes, of which he’ll hopefully get in 2021.
Rose was the interesting one, as he ended up playing 13 games, starting 10 of them, mostly at centre back. Shifted there to add depth, he ended up looking a lot more comfortable at the position than anyone expected, even helping keep a clean sheet against the Galaxy back in March.
It’s hard to know how much he’ll play next year, as the ‘Caps depth at centre back currently probably leaves Rose as the #4 or #5 guy, but he’s popular in the room, and as he showed, he’s no slouch when he needs to fill in. It’s also worth noting that among ‘Caps centre backs, only he and Godoy finished with a positive Goals Added, meaning that his contributions both defensively and offensively helped the ‘Caps be a stronger team analytically.
As for Khmiri, it’s looking more and more likely that his days in Vancouver might be numbered, as he’s only started 6 games out of a possible 56 games so far, mostly due to injury and inconsistency. He took a step forward this year, starting 5 of 23 games, an improvement from the 1 of 34 that he started in 2019, but he’s yet to find a groove in Vancouver.
He’s a talented player, no doubt, but considering that he’s likely going to start the year as the #4 centre back, the ‘Caps might look to move on from him, freeing up an international spot for elsewhere in the lineup.
All-in-all, the ‘Caps are well-stocked in this department, which is why we could see them have 5 returnees at the position next year, as they’ve done well to restock the cupboard after the departures of Kendall Waston and Tim Parker in 2018.
Midfielders: Russell Teibert, Hwang In Beom
In midfield, the ‘Caps didn’t exactly have a lot of continuity in 2020, as only Teibert and In Beom returned, as the ‘Caps traded Felipe in summer of 2019, sent Jon Erice back to Spain and moved Andy Rose back to centre back.
And unfortunately for both of them, they had far from ideal campaigns, as Teibert saw an injury slow down a strong start from him, while In Beom moved to Russia halfway through the year.
For In Beom, it marked a fitting end to a complicated ‘Caps tenure, as there was no doubt that the South Korean had talent, but things just didn’t seem to work out on the field in Vancouver.
That’s not to say that he struggled in MLS, as he put up 3 goals and 5 assists in 2019, and had 1 assist and averaged just over 2 key passes per game in 5 matches this year, but it just felt like he had more to give.
Considering that he’s gone to Russia and immediately become a contributor, scoring goals, picking up assists and looking more and more like the In Beom many people thought they’d one day see in Vancouver, that sentiment certainly hasn’t changed since.
Seeing the ‘Caps struggles to generate chances, you do wonder what a freed up In Beom could’ve done with Janio Bikel doing the dirty work behind him and Lucas Cavallini in front of him, a trio that we did not actually see play together in those positions.
Alongside him, Teibert had a solid if not unspectacular season, starting out strongly in the first 12 games, before suffering an injury, one that kept him out for a handful of games. When he returned, he was deployed at left midfield, a position that seemed to help out Ali Adnan behind him, but didn’t necessarily seem to fit Teibert’s industrial style of play.
For someone who averaged 1.5 interceptions and 0.8 tackles per game, he felt a bit wasted out wide, especially seeing the ‘Caps struggles in midfield.
While the insertion of Janio Bikel and Michael Baldisimo as the season went along helped out some of their defensive issues, Teibert can still be a good rotation piece in midfield, one whose energy and stamina can make a difference as a starter or off of the bench.
As long that Dos Santos doesn’t run him into the ground again, having played him in all but 27 of the first 1080 minutes of the ‘Caps season, the ‘Caps lone remaining original MLS man still has lots to give to his team.
Forwards: Fredy Montero, Tosaint Ricketts, Theo Bair, Yordy Reyna
Up front, the ‘Caps brought back 4 players, Montero, Ricketts, Bair and Reyna, with Montero being the headliner, for a multitude of reasons.
When he played, Reyna was solid, scoring 1 goal and adding 1 assist, but he was traded to DC United in September, as the mercurial forward just didn’t seem to fit in the Dos Santos system. He had flashes of brilliance, such as his strong showing at the MLS is Back tournament, but discipline was an issue, as he was benched for showing up late to a game with Toronto FC in August.
As the third-longest tenured Whitecap, it was surprising to see him leave as he did, especially considering he had the second-highest xG per 96 minutes on the ‘Caps with 0.27 at the time of his departure, but it always felt like the writing was on the wall for him.
Having already re-signed in DC, he’s appeared to have found a decent fit there, so even though the ‘Caps might have missed Reyna’s offence at the end of the season, the move appeared to work out for all parties involved.
Moving on from Reyna, Ricketts had a solid season, as he did exactly what was expected of him in his role as a super-sub/vocal veteran. With 2 goals in only 5 starts and 456 minutes of game time over 16 appearances, he proved to be a calibre of MLS veteran that the ‘Caps could use in other areas of their lineup.
Signed to a surprising contract extension at the start of the year, he showed why the ‘Caps were so eager to keep the former MLS Cup winner in Vancouver, as his mentorship has been a big help for youngsters like Theo Bair, in particular.
And speaking of Bair, it was a productive but frustrating year for him, as he took a step forward this season, but didn’t necessarily get the minutes that such an improvement probably merited. Much to the chagrin of fans, his minutes plummeted from 824 in 2019 to 446 in 2020, even though he looked dangerous every time he was on the pitch.
Especially after seeing him start and score a very well-taken goal versus the Montreal Impact in game #5 of the Canadian set of games, he only played in 9 of the next 13 ‘Caps games after that, starting twice and only playing more than 22 minutes once.
Heading into 2021, he has become a candidate to be sent on loan, which feels surprising to say when looking at how good he’s been in MLS for the ‘Caps. Hopefully, they keep him and get him the minutes that he needs, but if not, it may be best for him to get a loan and use it to prove that there is not much stopping him from at least being a solid MLS contributor, if not more.
Lastly, Fredy Montero rounds up the returnees up front, as the Colombian veteran followed up an 8 goal and 3 assist 2019 season with a 5 goal and 5 assist 2020 campaign. More impressively, his 10 goal contributions came over a span of 13 games (11 starts) to close out the season, as he went from outcast to team MVP candidate.
After starting the season on the bench, at his low point even missing out on the ‘Caps 3-game road trip to Toronto and Montreal due to a ‘technical decision’, Montero showed off his skills to close out the year, even making Dos Santos question his earlier decision to bench the veteran.
While he appears to be all but gone in 2021, leaving the ‘Caps scrambling to replace the team’s second-most xG per/96 (0.43) and shots per/96 (2.57), the fit just doesn’t appear right in Vancouver right now.
With the ‘Caps looking to bring in a DP #10, which will likely be someone that will replace Montero underneath striker Lucas Cavallini, it would either take a formation rejig or Montero moving to the bench for him to return, both of which seem unlikely.
Seeing Bair’s need for more minutes, that could prove to be a good thing, but after the year that Montero had, as well with the intangibles that he provides, it would be a loss that would be felt in the short-term.
At least, there’s depth and continuity up front, which having seen the carousel of forwards that have come through Vancouver in recent years, can be seen as good news.
So all-in-all, the ‘Caps got some good seasons out of some of their returnees, which helped them take a decent step forward. After only really bringing back 6 regular returnees in 2020 (Brett Levis, Doneil Henry, Felipe, Reyna, Teibert and Nerwinski), that they had 13 returnees to start 2020 was a good step, even though only 11 made it through the full season.
With there likely to be closer to 15 or 20 returnees next season, that could be good news for the ‘Caps, who are looking more to add to their roster than rebuild it for the first offseason in a while.
The first step towards winning in MLS usually requires building a core, and no matter how you feel about the quality of said core, the ‘Caps do finally seem to have one, especially when factoring in how some of the newcomers have gelled in.
But when looking at the returnees in particular, to give a score of how they fared in 2020, we’ll give a 6 out of 10, as some certainly played a big role in the team’s success, while others struggled, either with form or injuries.
It wasn’t great, but it was far from bad, either, so it’s hoped that they can continue to build off of this, especially considering that 2021 is expected to be a lot more normal of a season than what 2020 ended up being like.
Final Score: 6/10
We’ll be back in the next part with a look at the newcomers, before looking at the youngsters in part 3.
Expected Goals data via: American Soccer Analysis