‘Caps Look Back: Breaking down how the Vancouver Whitecaps U23 homegrowns and draftees did in 2020

In the next part of our ‘Caps Look Back, we take a look at how the Vancouver Whitecaps Homegrowns and draftees aged 23 and under fared in 2020, giving an overall grade for how they handled themselves this season. 

The ‘next wave’ took a step forward this season. 

Ever since Marc Dos Santos was hired as head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps, he’s given a chance to countless young players, leading the way as the ‘Caps became one of the youngest teams in MLS in 2020. 

While that number was boosted by a couple of younger international signings, the ‘Caps did also give a good chunk of minutes to U23 homegrowns and draftees, as 6 players who fit that description saw the field in 2020. 

In 2019, that number was only 3, with two of them, Brendan McDonaugh and Georges Mukumbilwa, combining for a measly 75 minutes, as Theo Bair carried the homegrown torch with a solid 824 minutes. 

This year, despite a shortened season, the ‘Caps blew away those totals, as of the 6 homegrowns and draftees that saw the field in 2020, only Damiano Pecile failed to breach 200-minute mark, as he only played a measly 30 seconds in the last game of the season. 

The other 5, however, consisting of Ryan Raposo, Patrick Metcalfe, Michael Baldisimo, Thomas Hasal and Theo Bair, combined for an impressive 2476 minutes, with Hasal leading the way with 752 of those minutes. 

Even though a good chunk of those minutes were circumstantial, such as Hasal’s, who got his shot filling in for an injured Maxime Crepeau during the summer before picking up an injury of his own, you can’t knock the contributions that these youngsters made this season. 

And what’s interesting is that despite these solid totals, it does feel like some of these youngsters could’ve gotten even more time on the pitch, so that’ll be something to keep an eye out for next year. 

Can Theo Bair push for over 1000 minutes after dropping to 446 in 2020? Will the ‘Caps two 700+ minutes youngsters, Hasal and Baldisimo, continue to earn playing time next year? 

Those are both questions we do not know the answer to yet, but before we even try to answer them in the future, let’s take a look back at how these youngsters handled themselves this season. 

Goalkeepers: Thomas Hasal, Isaac Boehmer

Up first is the 21-year-old Hasal, who quickly turned into the surprise story of the season when deputizing for the injured Maxime Crepeau during MLS is Back. Pressed into action after a surprise injury to Crepeau’s hand, Hasal didn’t concede for over 200 minutes to start his MLS career, only allowing his first goal to a Pablo Piatti wonder-strike in Toronto in August. 

After coming into this year as a third goalkeeper, one who seemed likely to head out on loan, Hasal’s stock has risen considerably, as one would expect with his strong play. After only really making his debut due to the absence of backup Bryan Meredith for personal reasons during MLS is Back, he’s now positioned to be the ‘Caps long-term starter a lot sooner than some previously thought. 

While his numbers slipped after a strong start, as a rough patch during the Canadian Series brought him back to earth, he was seemingly just getting back into form before he suffered a concussion versus Real Salt Lake in the first game of phase 2 MLS play for the ‘Caps. 

As a result, he finished with a +1.81 Goals-Expected Goals (G-xG), which is slightly below average, but still solid. Considering how much the ‘Caps struggled at defending during the Canadian Series, in which Hasal conceded 13 of the 14 goals he conceded all year, as they were outscored 13-8 in those 6 games, you can give him a pass in that category. 

Still only 21, he’s got a lot of growing ahead of him, which at a position where players tend to bloom a little bit later, is good news. With Bryan Meredith and Evan Bush now gone for next year, Hasal and Crepeau will be expected to form a solid tandem, in which Crepeau will lead the way, with Hasal filling in when needed. 

With Crepeau likely gone for good chunks of next season due to Canada’s World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup schedule that will see them play a lot of games in June and July, Hasal will have a good run of games ahead of him 2020. While a potential call-up to Canada’s U23 team could change those plans, as well as a potential call-up to the Olympics if they do make it there, either way those would be good learning experiences for the young Saskatoon native, anyways

Elsewhere, the 19-year-old Boehmer hasn’t done enough to say much about his play, but as a still-young goalkeeper, expect him to get some good minutes with the ‘Caps U-23 squad next year. Much like Hasal, he’s still super young, and has plenty of growth to come in a position where experience tends to triumph youth. 

Full Backs: Georges Mukumbilwa

At full back, it was a year to forget for Mukumbilwa, who played 0 games and finished the year without a contract, leaving him to look for a new club. 

After looking good in preseason of 2019, eventually working his way up to a first-team contract and a debut on the last day of the 2019 campaign against Real Salt Lake, he just didn’t get much of a chance to play in 2020, mostly due to circumstance and bad luck. 

A visa issue prohibited him from playing much after July, as he was unable to travel to the US for MLS is Back and Phase 2 of MLS play, and he didn’t feature in any of the 6 Canadian Series games he was eligible for. 

Still only 21, however, it was surprising to see the ‘Caps cut Mukumbilwa loose this offseason, leaving him to pursue a new opportunity. 

Given his talent, and that he’s a Canadian player who just desperately needs minutes at this stage of his career, he seems destined to head to the Canadian Premier League, with his hometown Valour FC seeming like a pretty good fit upon first glance, among others. 

Seeing what he showed during glimpses in 2019, he feels like someone who the ‘Caps might come to rue letting go in a few years, but alas, he ended up being one of the casualties of this strange 2020 season. 

Centre Backs: Gianfranco Facchineri

Over at centre back, Facchineri had a better go of things, as he had a solid loan stint with Atletico Ottawa at the CPL’s ‘Island Games’ tournament, before returning to Vancouver for the end of the campaign. 

He didn’t end up getting any MLS minutes, but the 18-year-old defender got 4 appearances in the CPL, doing well to stand out on an expansion Ottawa side that ended up being a lot better than anyone expected during the summer tournament. 

Given that he plays at a position that, much like in goal, sees players bloom at a later age, Facchineri is miles ahead of the curve at his position, so the ‘Caps are in no rush to get him into the first team, and understandably so. 

What seems likeliest for him next year is a return to Ottawa, allowing him to play his first real professional season, before returning and competing for minutes in 2022. 

Seeing the logjam of players at the centre back position for Vancouver, that seems like a compromise that could work best for the ‘Caps, Facchineri and Ottawa, making it a rare win-win-win deal. 

Midfielders: Michael Baldisimo, Patrick Metcalfe, Damiano Pecile, Simon Colyn

Baldisimo celebrates a goal versus TFC in September (Keveren Guillou)

In the middle of the park, the ‘Caps see their biggest logjam of young players, as they had a plethora of options, with Baldisimo, Metcalfe and Pecile the 3 who eventually saw the field in 2020. 

So starting with the lone outlier, Colyn, it’s safe to say he had an interesting campaign. After making his MLS debut at 16-years-old on the last game of the 2018 season, he’s yet to make a second appearance since then, bouncing between the ‘Caps first team and Development squad. 

A very talented midfielder, there appears to be some concern about his ability to handle the physicality of MLS, which has seemed to hold him back in recent years. That’s why he was finally loaned out to SPAL in Italy’s Serie B this fall, in which he was placed right into their U19 setup, which plays in the top level of U19 Italian football, in order to get minutes. 

Given that SPAL has an option to extend the loan in June of 2019, and holds a purchase option on Colyn, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see him back in Vancouver, and if he does indeed return, you feel like it’ll be sometime in 2022. 

Up next, fellow 2002-born midfielder, Pecile, has faced a different path to Colyn, earning his first MLS appearance during a 30-second cameo versus the LA Galaxy on the last day of the regular season in 2020. 

After grinding his way to a homegrown contract earlier in the season, he’s slowly worked his way into Marc Dos Santos’s good books, making him look like a long-term piece that the ‘Caps want to work with. Hence, it seems likely that he’ll head to the CPL next year, where his status as a young Canadian could be attractive to a team looking to meet their U21 minutes quota.

Either way, he’s still only 18, so if he is able to go out and get professional minutes next year, that’ll put him in a good spot for his age, which will be good for the ‘Caps. 

Elsewhere, Patrick Metcalfe is going to be an interesting one to keep an eye on next year, as the 22-year-old has had a topsy-turvy path these past few years. After getting minutes as an 18-year-old in the USL with Whitecaps 2 in 2017, the folding of that team left him in a tough spot in 2018 and 2019.

But after playing for the TSS Rovers and UBC in 2018, he made it back to the ‘Caps in 2019, joining their newly formed U23 Development Squad, while also featuring in preseason of that year. 

And then, after a strong 2019, he worked his way up to the ‘Caps first-team in 2020, officially signing as a homegrown before the season started. From there, he made his MLS debut this summer, when he came off of the bench against the San Jose Earthquakes at MLS is Back. 

From there, he made 7 appearances, as he put in some good shifts, both as a starter and off of the bench. Seeing that he put up a 92% pass percentage in those games, along with 0.3 tackles and 0.5 interceptions, he did his job whenever he was called upon, playing some good low-event football. 

Seeing how jammed up the ‘Caps midfield could be next year, however, he also seems like a good candidate to be loaned out, with the CPL seen as a likely destination. He could certainly dominate that level, paving the way for a return to the ‘Caps in 2022, in which he could compete for more minutes, but it’s good that he was able to make his debut this year, giving us a taste of what he can do at this level. 

But while Metcalfe floated along when thrown into the deep end, Michael Baldisimo swam, quickly becoming an impact piece on the ‘Caps. He scored and picked up an assist in his second MLS game, and added a further 2 assists as the campaign went along, as he ended up playing 13 games, starting 7 of them. 

Long known to be a top prospect for the ‘Caps, Baldisimo has suffered through various injury woes these past few years, allowing several youngsters to jump ahead of him in the pecking order. As a result, it felt like he was destined to be sent out on loan eventually, allowing him to finally get the minutes he needed to grow as a pro. 

To everyone’s surprise, however, those minutes would come in Vancouver, as a surprising midfield injury crisis paved the way for Baldisimo to make his debut during an away clash with the Montreal Impact, where he immediately looked like a standout player. 

With the 5’6” Baldisimo, however, a big concern was the physicality of MLS, which can be brutal for some youngsters to handle. He wasn’t phased, though, growing into games and quickly making his presence known as a tempo-setting midfielder that isn’t afraid to get stuck in defensively. 

As a result, he averaged decent offensive stats, putting up 0.04 xG, 0.04xA and 0.79 key passes per 96 minutes, but he also did some good work defensively, averaging 1.2 tackles and 0.8 interceptions a game. 

That’s why he finished as one of only 7 ‘Caps to finish with a 0 or higher goals added (G+) stat, which means that he performed at or above the level of an average MLS midfielder, which is pretty impressive for a rookie. 

So all of a sudden, he seems like he’ll be a piece the ‘Caps will rely on for 15-20+ games next season, after seeming like a sure candidate to head out on loan just a few months ago. Seeing how much his presence in midfield helped the ‘Caps shore up some obvious issues they had there, he can be a big piece for them next year, especially if they bring in some impact players for Baldisimo to play alongside and compete against this offseason. 

Given the ‘Caps struggles in that area of the park for years, to see them have a homegrown kid from Burnaby step up and give them solid play was a big story in 2020, one that hopefully continues to progress in 2021. 

Forwards: Theo Bair, Ryan Raposo

Bair takes on Jukka Raitala at BC Place in September of 2020 (Keveren Guillou)

Lastly, up front was Bair and Raposo, who both had similar campaigns in terms of what they battled through and how they performed. 

With a logjam of options up front, it often left Bair and Raposo in tough for minutes, as they only combined for just over 800 of the ‘Caps 2.5k or so U23 homegrown/draftee minutes this year. 

For Raposo, that wasn’t so bad, however, as he was a rookie fresh out of the NCAA this season. He quickly came out of the gates strongly in preseason, scoring a few goals and putting everyone on notice, slotting him in Marc Dos Santos’s good books as the season went along. 

Despite being in his good books, however, he still found himself in a dog fight for minutes all year long, only picking up 375 of them over 15 appearances, with only 2 starts to his name. While it’s always good to see a rookie pick up that many appearances, especially in a 23 game season, it just felt like he earned more minutes than he eventually got, as he was always effective in the limited bursts that he did get. 

So while some might see the measly 1 assist that he picked up despite all of those minutes and write him off, that he even produced offensively despite only playing more than 30 minutes 3 times is solid, especially for a rookie. 

That’s why for Raposo, who’s very young (21-years-old) compared to most MLS Draft Picks, the goal is to get minutes in 2021. Seeing the ‘Caps situation up front, that also makes him a candidate to go on loan, allowing him to get the regular game time that a player like him needs. 

He can be a long-term piece for this team, as he has the versatility and work ethic to play at this level, but he just needs to keep growing as a player. 

But while Raposo can look back on this first season as a stepping stone year, the same can’t be said for Theo Bair, who as we saw in part 1 of our review, just didn’t get the minutes that anyone expected after a strong 2019 campaign, in which he scored 2 goals and added 2 assists. 

Fresh off of scoring his first-ever goal with the Canadian National Team in January, it just felt like he was destined for a breakout season in 2020. 

That didn’t prove to be the case, however. 

While there was a logjam of players up front, Bair just seemed to have a shorter leash than most up front, as his minutes dwindled after getting a good run out during the Canadian Series, in which he scored a very well-taken goal versus Montreal. 

Seeing that he was 5th on the ‘Caps in xG/96 with 0.14, it just felt like the ‘Caps could’ve used him more, either as a substitute or as a starter. That he even generated that much xG despite only playing more than 25 minutes once in the last 12 games is impressive, as he often had to work with very limited opportunities late in-game, as well. 

Clearly, as we’ve seen over the past two years, Bair can be a quality MLS forward, one that can cause problems for defences with his unique mix of size (he’s 6’4” and 215 pounds), speed and skills. As someone who can play anywhere across the forward line, it can give other teams matchup headaches, as the last thing any full back or centre back wants to deal with his someone that big and fast who is equally as likely to attack you with speed as he is to back you down and hold up the ball. 

So next year, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to Bair. Still only 21 years of age, there’s plenty of time for him to grow, but he feels like he’s at an age where it’ll be crucial to get him minutes. While he could go on loan to get them, as some of his teammates will do, it feels like he’d be best-suited to get those minutes in MLS, where he’s shown to be able to hang at that level. 

Hopefully, the ‘Caps recognize that and give him a good run out next year, giving him at least 1000 minutes to continue and prove himself in this league. 

Looking Forward: 

But while some stories went better than others, there is a clear consensus, and it’s that the ‘Caps appear to be on a good path with the number of homegrowns that have made the jump up in recent years. 

They could be doing a better job at developing them and integrating them into their first-team more consistently, but that’s a problem that 90% of MLS struggles with, so they’re hardly alone in that regard. 

With changes coming to MLS’s youth system, creating new circuits at the U19 level and under, as well as a new U23 circuit, that could help the ‘Caps integrate more players, however, which is good news. 

Seeing the quality of the U23 homegrowns and draftees that we saw in this piece, this should be just the start of a good wave of young talent, which will give the ‘Caps young and cost-controlled talent that is perfect to complement a roster. 

So for them, the goal needs to be to continue to push along as many youngsters as possible, making sure there are fewer stories like that of Mukumbilwa, who recently joined the long list of ‘Caps youngsters cast aside due to circumstance, and more stories like Bair’s and Baldisimo’s, who seem like long-term pieces for the club. 

Can they do that? So far, they seem to be on the right track, and with Axel Schuster seeming committed to the youth movement, it does seem like an area they’ll continue to work on in the coming years. 

Score: 8/10

All Stats via: American Soccer Analysis. 

Stay tuned for the next part of this review in the coming weeks

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