Bargain Bin: Analyzing some MLS Free Agents for the Vancouver Whitecaps to target ahead of 2021

With MLS’s Free Agency process officially now underway, we look at some names for the ‘Caps to potentially look at via that avenue, as a need for MLS experience could see them dive into the bargain bin for some new faces ahead of the 2021 season. 

Often overlooked, it could be worth diving into. 

As the Vancouver Whitecaps look to fill out their 2021 MLS roster, one good way for them to pick up some good talent could be through MLS’s Free Agency process, which officially opened up last week. 

While they’ll be hard-pressed to find the sort of top-end difference makers that are at the top of their offseason shopping list, they can still find some quality MLS players, ones that can certainly make a difference on this team. Seeing that this ‘Caps side was one of the youngest in MLS this season, and that head coach Marc Dos Santos is targeting some veteran players to add to his lineup this offseason, it does feel like one easy way for them to fill that hole is via free agency. 

Even though free agency isn’t the veteran-laden bargain bin it used to almost exclusively be, with the rules now eased to allow players 24 or older with 5 or more years of MLS service to be eligible for the process, there is still plenty of experience on display. 

And with the ‘Caps need for experience being something that would be better served by players who actually have played in MLS, not just old players in general, it would make sense for them to target some players via free agency.    

So in this piece, we’ll bring back something we did last offseason, where we looked at a couple of free agents that could possibly be of interest to this Vancouver side. That’s not to say any of these deals are going to happen, but there is certainly reason for the ‘Caps to be interested in these players, for one reason or another. 

Without further ado, here are some of the names. 

Matt Besler: 

Besler is an interesting case study, one that both makes a lot of sense and not a lot of it at the same time, which is why he could be a smart pickup for the Whitecaps. 

First, there’s the obvious: he’s still a pretty darn good centre back. He may be about to turn 34 years old, but as shown by 86 Forever’s Caleb Wilkins below, he’s still one of the top defenders in MLS. 

Anytime that you can pick up a defender who is in the 50th to 99th percentile in most defensive stats, apart from interceptions, you certainly have to at least inquire about the price. As seen in Wilkins’ chart, Besler was in the top 25% in MLS for tackle success, verticality and goals added in 2020, with his contributions in terms of goals added (G+) placing him 2nd among MLS centre backs only behind Philadelphia’s Mark McKenzie. 

With the G+ stat looking at contributions at both ends and seeing how they contribute to a team’s overall ability to get goals, to see Besler rank so high makes him an interesting piece for the ‘Caps to look at, as they didn’t fare so well at both ends of the pitch statistically in 2020. A big part of a team’s offensive struggles often start in their own end, and seeing that the ‘Caps struggles are actually mostly driven by their inability to create chances, something that Besler helped SKC do, then you can start to see why this could be a deal worth exploring. 

Sporting KC allowed the 6th-fewest goals in MLS last season, and while the left-footed Besler only played in 10 of their 21 games, that’s still a decent contribution, and as seen by the numbers, clearly he performed rather well when he did play, at least from an analytical standpoint. 

Having also put up 1.3 tackles, 1.4 interceptions and 3 clearances a game this season, he seems to fit the mould of defender the ‘Caps have targeted in recent years. 

Also interestingly, there is a connection between Besler and Marc Dos Santos, as the current ‘Caps coach worked with Sporting KC in a role as head coach of their USL affiliate and as a first-team assistant coach back in 2016, which would’ve meant he’s interacted with Besler, who’s been with SKC since 2009. 

That’s not to say that could be enough to sway his decision, but those sort of connections could make a difference in negotiations, potentially helping the ‘Caps snap Besler up. 

But while there is a lot that makes sense with this sort of move, there are still some worries with a potential move. 

Firstly, there’s the ‘Caps defensive situation, which is rather murky. Seeing that Besler would have immense value as a starter at a lot of teams in MLS, with expansion side Austin FC immediately coming to mind, you’d have to imagine he’d have to be an everyday starter at his new club. 

In Vancouver, with Erik Godoy, Ranko Veselinovic and Derek Cornelius all in the ranks, it’s hard to imagine Besler slotting ahead of any of them right now. Barring a surprise departure or a formation change, the ‘Caps would probably just stick with their current options, especially considering that they’ve dropped around $3 million dollars just to keep Veselinovic and Godoy in the fold after their respective loans. 

It’d be very hard to imagine them moving on from either of those players just to fit in Besler, who could be destined for a decline at any moment, and is probably going to attract good interest from around MLS. 

So for this one, it’s hard to imagine much happening. If the ‘Caps could find a way to sign him and fit him into their rotation, that would be a solid move, but if not, centre back is a position of strength. While they do lack a bit of experience at the position, something that an MLS Cup-winning defender like Besler could provide, it would require some interesting gymnastics to make happen. 

Dejan Jakovic: 

So if Besler doesn’t end up being a feasible signing, you do wonder if the ‘Caps kick the tires on Jakovic, who at 35 years of age, has a fair bit of experience under his belt. 

While he might not be of the same pedigree as Besler, he fits the ‘Caps need for experience, and unlike Besler, he fits more into the current ‘Caps rotation. For LAFC, he was mostly a #3 or #4 guy, and he’d probably slot in around there in Vancouver. 

Interestingly enough, he also had 0.02 G+ this year, which would’ve placed him 3rd among Vancouver centre backs, behind Erik Godoy and Andy Rose. He did mostly only get his minutes due to an injury crisis at the back this season, but the Canadian international stayed afloat, producing at what can be described as an average MLS level. 

Along with the 1.3 tackles and 1.4 interceptions that he added per game on average, as well as his pass rate of above 90%, he is the sort of well-rounded defender the ‘Caps would need in order to continue their quest to be a team that plays out of the back more often. At his age, he’s not fully suited to playing a run and gun style, but he can play it to a certain level, as having played for a high-tempo team like LAFC might suggest. 

And almost more importantly, he brings plenty of experience to the table. Having spent time in Serbia, Japan and at various levels of the North American Soccer pyramid, he has the sort of veteran presence that the ‘Caps seem to lack at the back. 

Seeing that he brings that, but can also still play at a decent level, it could make sense for the ‘Caps to bring him in and throw him in the rotation in the place of Jasser Khmiri, who could very well be on his way out. 

With Jakovic also being a former Dos Santos understudy, having played under the coach at LAFC in 2018 as an assistant, there is also that link to keep in mind, as well, making this a possibility. 

He might not get as much noise or fanfare or Besler, but make no mistake, this is a signing that could very well fit the ‘Caps need of veteran players to slot into their spine, while also coming at a reasonable cost. With the ‘Caps being mostly set at the back, that cost-factor could come in huge, making him potentially attractive to Dos Santos and company.

Kelyn Rowe: 

Kelyn Rowe goes in for a tackle against Philadelphia’s Jose Martinez at MLS is Back (Andrew Zwarych)

Up next on our list is Rowe, who is the only player to have featured in last year’s article, in which we said he could’ve provided solid midfield and winger depth for a ‘Caps team that could sorely use some. 

Well, fast forward a year and guess what, the ‘Caps still need midfield and winger depth, and Rowe remains available after having been released from New England this offseason. 

And interestingly enough, Rowe could be an under the radar pickup because he mostly played as a #6 and as a full back in New England, whereas the ‘Caps could play him further forward as a #8. 

Take a look at this chart comparing his 2019 and 2020 statistical outputs to see why that could work. 

As we saw in 2019, he can do some damage offensively, as indicated by his impressive Expected Goals (xG) and Expected Assists (xA) per 96 minutes, which slightly dipped this year. 

He improved in nearly every other category, however, putting up better key pass, dribbling, tackling and interception numbers in 2020 than he did in 2019. While the ‘Caps could use the 2019 version of Rowe in terms of xG and xA, they should also be intrigued by his improvements in the key pass and dribbling department. 

Along with his G+ of 0.19, which suggests that he was an above-average MLS player when he played, every advanced metric seems to suggest that he could add to this ‘Caps offence in some way or another. 

And having scored 29 goals and generated 42 assists over his career in MLS, he’s produced in this league before. Even though he’s only scored 2 goals in his last 4 seasons, after having scored between 5 to 7 goals in the 4 before that, that he’s put up 11 assists in the last 4 years is slightly more positive. 

Yes, he only has 4 assists in the last 3 seasons, as most of those 11 assists came in 2017, but seeing the inconsistent 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons that he’s dealt with, you do wonder if a fresh start in 2021 could be good for him. 

But more importantly, when looking at his key pass and xA numbers, there is still something worth being excited about. While the slight dip in xA between 2019 and 2020 would likely cost him 1 or 2 assists, he does have the potential to be a 5+ assist man in the right setup.

On a ‘Caps team desperately needing midfielders who can progress the ball, either as starters or off of the bench, that could make Rowe a good piece, one who could hop into the rotation as the third or fourth midfielder, mostly putting in shifts as a #8, while also filling in where needed. 

While you do wonder what a signing like this could do in terms of someone like Michael Baldisimo’s minutes, as long as Baldisimo gets his reps in at the #6 position, while Rowe plays further forward, that should be less of an issue. 

If anything, Rowe could get into an interesting battle with someone like Russell Teibert, who has been a workhorse for the ‘Caps, but has often found himself overworked due to the lack of midfield depth. 

When comparing the two’s stats, Rowe beats Teibert in every category, so it could be interesting to see them compete against each other in a midfield also comprised of Baldisimo, Janio Bikel, Leonard Owusu and whoever the new DP #8/#10 ends up being. 

As long as Rowe commands a reasonable salary (he made around $350 000 in 2019), he seems like the sort of free agent the ‘Caps should target, as he’d bring both 9 years of MLS experience and quality to the lineup. 

Diego Fagundez: 

But while Rowe would be a smart depth pickup for the ‘Caps, it’ll be interesting to see if the ‘Caps instead elect to go for broke and chase after his longtime New England teammate, Diego Fagundez, who at only 25 years of age, has an absurd 10 years of MLS experience to his name. 

Anytime a midfielder with 53 goals and 45 MLS assists comes available, you certainly have to kick the tires on them, and while Fagundez might fetch a decent salary, he does tick a lot of the ‘Caps potential boxes. 

He’s young enough to still fit into the age of the ‘Caps core group of players, but he has the MLS experience that most of this squad lacks, and plays at a #8/#10 position where they do need bodies. 

And looking at the stats, he certainly fits the profile of midfielder that the ‘Caps lack. Seeing that someone like Rowe fit the Whitecaps’ need for chance-creation from the midfield, well, let’s just say that Fagundez kind of blew him out of the water in that department, despite being in a lesser role than usual this season. 

Just to give an idea of what he could add to the ‘Caps, his key pass/96 numbers would’ve had him #1 in that category on their 2020 team, showing their desperate need for a player like him. 

Along with his solid xG output, as he often found himself in several good shooting positions, he brings versatility at the position as well. He can also defend relatively well, as indicated by his defensive stats, which aren’t elite, but are adequate for an attacking midfielder. 

As indicated by his G+, which is a solid 0.36, he found a way to positively contribute to the New England offence, finishing 5th on the team among players with 500+ minutes in that stat. He performed well above the average MLS midfielder, contributing to potential Revolution goals with his actions, which at his still-young age, makes him a relatively valuable commodity. 

And that’s where the biggest question mark surrounding him lies. 

Is it worth it for a team like the ‘Caps to pursue Fagundez, when they need a big-money creator, of which they’re expected to splash the cash on? They could get both a big DP and Fagundez, but could they make that work, knowing that the former Revolution midfielder could cash in on a decently sized deal elsewhere in MLS? 

So much like with Besler, a deal with Fagundez is centred around two things: can they get him at a good price? And if not, can they get him at a price that would befit his potential role in the team? 

Given what he can bring to a team, along with his intriguing profile, if the question is yes to any of those questions, the ‘Caps should be all over signing him, doing what they can to add them to their midfield. 

Kevin Molino:

Rounding off our list is a bit of a fantastical signing, one that would require extreme maneuvering to pull off, but one that could certainly bring a big impact to this ‘Caps side. 

It’s not often that you see someone who put up 9 goals and 4 assists in 18 regular-season games, along with a further 4 goals in 3 playoff games, become available via free agency, but due to MLS’s weird salary rules, that’s Molino’s current situation.

So all of a sudden, despite putting up a magical season in Minnesota, the 30-year-old finds himself looking for a new club, as it doesn’t appear that the Loons will be able to offer him what he’s worth. 

To be fair, from what MLS’s rules state, given that all teams are only allowed to offer deals with “certain restrictions” to players, it doesn’t sound like any team will be able to offer him what he’s worth, either. 

In that case, it makes a return to Minnesota more likely, and if not, he seems all but likely to head to a new league, but if a team could poach him, it would be an excellent signing. 

Just take a look at his stats compared to those of Fagundez’s to get an idea why. 

While his key pass stats are actually lower than Fagundez’s, his xG, xA, shot and dribbles numbers more than make up for it, as he was more than capable of creating for himself and for others. 

That’s why he had the 19th best G+ in all of MLS in 2020 with 1.57, only 0.01 behind… Matt Besler. On a Minnesota team with options such as Robin Lod, Emmanuel Reynoso and Jan Gregus, he was their leading G+ performer, as well, showing his importance to their top 10 goals for output in 2020. 

So while a deal seems likely almost impossible to fathom, if the ‘Caps could somehow poach him to play on the left wing, along with Lucas Cavallini, Cristian Dajome and the ‘Caps new DP #8/10 up front, you can only imagine how much the ‘Caps offence could improve. 

On the other hand, given his contract situation, and that he’s had two major knee injuries over recent years, making coming to a team that plays exclusively on artificial turf a risky endeavour, there is also a lot that could go against him in a potential deal. 

But at the same time, you never know, so chalk this one up in the fantastical category, with a tad hint of realism keeping the slight possibility of it happening alive. 

Looking Forward: 

So with all that in mind, it’ll be interesting to see if the ‘Caps end up targeting any of the names on this list, if any free agents at all. 

Seeing that they haven’t really signed many MLS free agents in recent years, it would be a shock to see them sign any of these players, or any of the others that are available, but given their need for MLS experience this offseason, that does open up the possibility of them changing that trend soon. 

At the very least, you have to imagine that they’re kicking tires on some of these players, which could potentially lead to some concrete actions. 

But until that happens, we’ll avoid holding our breath, even though there are some potential pieces that could be worth looking at if you’re Vancouver. 

All stats via WhoScored and American Soccer Analysis. 

Cover Photo via: MLS/Devin L’Amoreaux and Matthew Stith

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