In the next part of our ‘Caps Look Back, we take a look at some of the Vancouver Whitecaps 2020 signings, giving them a score based on how they fared this season.
After a look at the old, it’s time to look at some of the new.
For the second year in a row, the Vancouver Whitecaps had plenty of roster turnover, as they started the season with 8 new players on the roster, a number that grew to 9 as the season went along.
While MLS is a league known for having high numbers of roster turnover year-after-year, the ‘Caps certainly did make a lot of changes compared to most teams, especially when you consider that 6 of their 8 original signings were supposed to be starters.
A year removed from bringing in a whopping 17 first-team players between November of 2018 and the end of 2019 (homegrown signings not included), to see the ‘Caps essentially redo their entire team over a two-year span has been quite the transformation to witness.
But after so many signings from that first year didn’t pan out, with only 8 of those 17 players still with the ‘Caps as of writing, they needed to beef up their roster this season.
And in a sense, they did just that. While the improvements were marginal, there’s no doubt that they were a better team in 2020 than they were in 2019, even though that wasn’t exactly a high bar to reach.
With all but 2 of those signings being 26 or under, there is also upside for growth, as well. Seeing that all but 1 of those players 26 or under will return next year, with the future of David Milinkovic remaining as the only unknown, there is the potential for a step forward in 2021.
There are still some needs to address this offseason, such as a DP #10, among a few others, but seeing that they’ll probably have to make only 4 or 5 signings, instead of the 8 they made last year, there is room for improvement.
Before we dive into how much progress the team might make next year, however, we’ll look back at how the new guys fared in 2020, giving an overall grade for how sporting director Axel Schuster’s first recruitment class panned out in year 1.
Homegrown signings were not counted among the ‘New Guys’.
Goalkeepers: Bryan Meredith, Evan Bush
Meredith was the first goalkeeper to come in, as the ‘Caps traded for him partway through training camp, snatching the longtime backup goalkeeper from Inter Miami. With only Maxime Crepeau and rookie Thomas Hasal in goal, Vancouver wanted some insurance in case something went wrong, and with Meredith being a veteran presence, that made him attractive to this young ‘Caps side.
And while he didn’t play much at all, only playing 3 out of 23 games despite injuries to Crepeau and Hasal in front of him, he was still a good presence to have in the room. Given that his 2021 contract option was declined, making him a free agent, he’ll look to either find another backup role in MLS, or try and find a starting role in the USL.
Seeing that he’s only played a dozen games in the last 8 years, it feels like the latter is the likelier proposition as of now, more for his sake than for a lack of options at the MLS level.
While Meredith’s future in Vancouver seemed murky once Hasal surprisingly stepped up in relief of Crepeau, what further cemented his exit was the acquisition of veteran keeper Bush when Hasal went down, reuniting head coach Marc Dos Santos and goalkeeper coach Youssef Dahha with a keeper that they knew from their time in Montreal.
The move seemed quite surprising at first, especially considering Bush’s struggles in 2019, but to give credit to Dos Santos and Dahha, the veteran keeper stepped up when reunited with his old coaches. After allowing a league-second worst 8.12 goals below his Expected Goals (xG) in 2019, he only allowed 0.12 goals below his xG in 2020, which is no small feat considering that the ‘Caps gave up the most xG in MLS.
As a result, it seems likely that Bush may stick around next year, forming a platoon with Crepeau, who will grab the majority of games. While that may mean a loan for Thomas Hasal, that could be a good thing for him with Crepeau back and healthy, and there’s no doubt that he’s still the long-term option in goal for the ‘Caps.
If anything, the only complaint about Bush heading into 2021 is surrounding his potential salary, which could be anywhere from $300 000 to $500 000, which would be pricey for a starter, let alone a backup. Montreal helped out this year, eating part of his salary in order to facilitate a move to Vancouver, but that won’t be the case in 2021, which could see the ‘Caps with a rather expensive goalkeeping tandem.
That isn’t the end of the world, as the last of the ‘Caps issues under Dos Santos has been goalkeeping, mostly thanks to Dahha, but if the team does find itself unable to upgrade another part of their lineup due to Bush’s presence, their surprising trade to get him could come back to bite them.
Full Back: Cristian Gutierrez
At full back, the ‘Caps only brought in one new face in 2020, the Canadian-Chilean 23-year-old left back, Gutierrez, who came to Vancouver via Colo-Colo.
And while he only ended up playing 12 games, starting 7 of them, that’s a lot more than anyone originally expected to play, especially not with Ali Adnan sitting ahead of him in the pecking order. Seen as a long-term replacement for Adnan, Gutierrez proved to be a lot more ready than anyone expected, forcing Dos Santos to give him a good run of minutes in the second half of the season, sometimes shifting Adnan up to left midfield to allow Gutierrez to slot in behind him.
Analytically, Gutierrez more than held his own at left back, as well, contributing 0.00 goals added (g+) per 96 minutes. While that doesn’t seem like much, the goals added stat can either be positive or negative, with 0 representing an average MLS player. When we factor in that Gutierrez was one of only 7 ‘Caps players to not be in the negative in that stat, it gives you an idea of how solid he was, and why the ‘Caps are excited about his long-term future.
With Adnan’s future in Vancouver remaining as uncertain as ever, knowing that the ‘Caps have a quality replacement in Gutierrez already lined up is good news going forward, allowing them to focus on strengthening other areas in the squad.
If the ‘Caps can get a player similar to Gutierrez at the right back position, giving someone to compete with Jake Nerwinski, they’d be in good hands at the back, even if Adnan decides to move on to greener pastures.
Centre Back: Ranko Veselinovic
And yet another reason why the ‘Caps are so set defensively is due to the acquisition of Ranko Veselinovic, who gave a team already flush with centre backs another intriguing player to count upon.
Seen as a highly-rated prospect, it was surprising to see the ‘Caps snatch the 21-year-old away from Vojvodina in Serbia, as Veselinovic had 3 years of first-team experience on one of the better teams in the Serbian top-flight, as well as some appearances with Serbia’s youth teams.
Originally brought in on loan, the ‘Caps triggered his purchase option this fall, for a fee that was reported to be around $650 000. Given his still young age (21), and maturity at a position that players typically peak at later in their careers, it was seen as a shrewd move, one that the team might profit on later.
But moving away from the business side of the deal, the playing side proved to be much more interesting for Veselinovic this season, as his play yielded mixed reviews. When he was on his game, he was excellent, spraying the ball around with conviction and finding a way to get stuck in whenever possible at the back.
When he was off his game, however, he really struggled, often losing his marker at key moments and failing to stamp the game with his usually strong passing ability.
On the flip side, however, we do have to remember that he’s still only 21, and that many defenders his age are usually still fighting for minutes at a lower level than the one that he’s at.
Even though the stats suggest that the ‘Caps may have been better off pairing Derek Cornelius with Erik Godoy instead of Veselinovic, there’s no doubt that the Serbian formed a solid pairing with the Argentine, at least aside from a few brain cramps.
Given Godoy’s status as a top defender, that Veselinovic has to compete with Cornelius for a spot alongside him is good news, as either he’ll learn by winning that battle and getting starting minutes, or he’ll grow by battling through the adversity of having to work his way back into the lineup from the bench.
Either way, the ‘Caps have had little to worry about at centre back these past 2 years, and that’s due to signings such as the Veselinovic one.
Midfielders: Janio Bikel, Leonard Owusu
But while the ‘Caps have built up a solid cache of players in goal, at full back and at centre back, they’ve still struggled defensively these past 2 years, finishing 5th-worst and 3rd-worst in goals against in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
A big reason for that has been their struggles to build a solid midfield, which has led them to be way too permissive in an important area in the pitch, putting a lot more pressure on the defence than necessary.
And a big reason for that was due to a lack of a true #6, something they haven’t really had ever since Matias Laba left at the end of 2017. As a result, guys like Hwang In Beom and Jon Erice struggled to provide the desired impact in the middle, with a lack of a true #6 often forcing them to do more work than expected on the defensive side.
With the signing of Bikel, however, the ‘Caps finally filled that hole, even if they didn’t maybe originally realize it. Brought in as cover in both midfield and at right back, he actually played his first game for the ‘Caps at that right back position, filling in for an absent Jake Nerwinski against the LA Galaxy in March.
While that was supposed to just be a temporary thing while Nerwinski worked back from a knock, when the season resumed a few months later, Bikel was on track to start at the position during MLS is Back, before an injury forced Nerwinski back into his usual spot.
That proved to be a blessing in disguise, however, as Bikel finally got to play as the #6 when he returned, which as we explored when he was signed, was probably the best position for him to play in.
Not surprisingly, the ‘Caps started to play some of their best football with Bikel at that position, with the midfielder averaging an impressive 2.9 tackles and 0.9 interceptions a game, along with a solid 85% passing percentage going forward.
There’s a reason why the ‘Caps won 7 out of the 12 games where Bikel played, compared to only 2 of the 11 when he didn’t, as he often did a lot of the dirty work that freed up the players around him.
Heading into next year, where he’s expected to be a locked-in starter at the #6 from day 1 onwards, that’ll be good news for the ‘Caps, especially for the new DP #10/#8 the club hopes to bring in.
And it’ll also be good news for Owusu, as well, someone who also benefitted from Bikel’s insertion at the #6. After starting out strongly at the position after the MLS restart, Owusu seemed to be burdened by his responsibilities, making many wonder if he’d be better off playing further forward.
That proved to be exactly the case, as he seemed to get better as the season wore along, especially when he got to play in more of a free role as a #8.
He only ended up averaging 0.05 Expected Goals (xG) and 0.04 Expected Assists (xA) per 96 minutes, along with 0.3 key passes, but that was more due to the struggles of the ‘Caps, as he actually out-performed his expected pass percentage by two points in the final third.
Seeing that his best position is probably as a #8 in a 3-man midfield, instead of the double-pivot the ‘Caps usually played with, if they can shift to a formation with that set-up next year, Owusu should profit from that, especially alongside Bikel and that supposed DP #8/#10.
Either way, the ‘Caps did well with the 2 acquisitions they had in the midfield, with the only complaint being that they just didn’t get the final piece that they so desperately needed, that aforementioned creator.
Forwards: Lucas Cavallini, Cristian Dajome, David Milinkovic:
Up front, the ‘Caps did decently well with their signings, as Cavallini, Dajome and Milinkovic all had positive contributions to the team, scoring a combined 10 goals and picking up 8 assists in 2020.
Despite that, it does feel like they all had more to give, especially Cavallini, who struggled for large parts of the season.
Brought in as the ‘Caps all-time record signing, for a fee reported to be around $6 million, the Canadian did not have the debut season he’d hoped to have, actually finishing with more bookings (8) than goals and assists (6).
But even though he never really seemed to find his form, he had a strong season analytically, finishing 9th in all of MLS in non-penalty xG. On a team that generated the 5th-least xG per game in MLS, it’s good to see Cavallini so high on that list, as he overcame a lack of service to still be a relatively productive striker.
For him, it’ll be all about finishing his chances next year, especially if he continues to generate chances at a high rate. Seeing that the ‘Caps will also be adding that supposed midfield creator into the mix, Cavallini could be a strong candidate for a breakout in 2021, making him an interesting one to watch heading into next year.
Elsewhere, Dajome slowly rounded into form as the season went along, arguably having one of the most consistent seasons of any Whitecap. He scored 3 goals and added 4 assists, as he formed a nice partnership with both Cavallini and fellow Colombian Fredy Montero, a trio that Dos Santos rode a lot as the season went along.
As a result, he finished with a strong 0.14 xG and 0.17 xA per 96 minutes, which over the course of a full season, would likely see him finish with around 5 goals and 6 assists. When you factor in the fact that he only really caught fire in the second half of the year, as well, both of those numbers could each be closer to 10, which would be massive news for a ‘Caps team looking to score more goals.
Seeing how much he caught fire when his family famously finally joined him in Vancouver, he could also be a breakout candidate worth keeping an eye on in 2021, especially when you factor in his chemistry with Cavallini.
While Cavallini and Dajome had campaigns filled with slower starts coupled with strong finishes, Milinkovic’s year was the polar opposite, as he had a very strong start before fizzling out as the campaign went along.
Many questioned the decision to bring in the French winger when he was signed, as he was coming off of a turbulent year with Hull City, one where he dealt with some off-the-field issues.
Despite that, however, he started out very strongly, scoring 1 goal and adding 4 assists in the first 12 games, before only playing 4 of the last 11, including none of the last 7 games, in which he failed to score or assist.
Now, despite his strong start, he seems very unlikely to return, as the ‘Caps have publicly stated that they’re looking for a new club for the winger. With the team looking to bring in a Young DP at his position, it leaves him on the outside looking in, compromising what seemed to be a good relationship between the club and player.
The ‘Caps may see more promise in a potential new winger, and it’s entirely possible that it’s a decision that pays off this year, but it feels surprising to see them move on from someone who was arguably their first-half MVP in 2020, seeing how much they already struggle to generate chances.
But either way, with Cavallini and Dajome both still in the fold, they should be alright up top, but you do wonder what a Cavallini-Dajome-Milinkovic trio could’ve looked like, especially considering that they rarely got a sniff of the field together.
So all-in-all, it was a solid year of recruitment for the ‘Caps, at least when comparing it to 2019. They’ve got some good pieces in Veselinovic, Gutierrez, Bikel, Owusu, Cavallini and Dajome, which along with their batch of returnees, has started to give this team a solid spine.
Where they’ve erred, however, hasn’t been with who they signed, but who they didn’t, as that lack of midfield creator proved to be costly for them this season. Along with some veteran presence in midfield, as well as some depth up front, a few more signings could’ve easily seen them in the playoffs, which is a long-stated goal of this team.
But at the same time, they’ve set themselves up well for the future, as they’ve brought in a good mix of young players and players in their prime, giving them hope for 2021 and beyond.
Yes, they need to absolutely hit on their last few signings, especially that DP one, but at least the foundation is there, which is a good start.
Now, it’s time to do the most important job, which is rounding off the roster, something that is easier said than done, as many teams around MLS will admit.
Can the ‘Caps do that? We’ll find out soon, as they continue their most important offseason in recent memory.
We’ll be back in the next part with a look at the youngsters.
All advanced stats via: American Soccer Analysis