The Vancouver Whitecaps kicked off training camp on Monday, officially putting an end to a long offseason. Here are some important storylines ahead of this first week of camp, including an analysis of a potential signing, the ‘Caps goals for the first week and an ode to paperwork.
Don’t look now, but the start of the MLS season is slowly starting to sneak up on us.
With the Vancouver Whitecaps kicking off their training camp on Monday, it was an important milestone for them to breach en route to the start of their 2021 MLS campaign, which officially kicks off on April 17th.
While the main camp itself isn’t officially underway yet, with this week being comprised of what is described as “voluntary on-field sessions” by the club, you can still chalk it up as an official but unofficial start to camp, given that the only absences were either due to quarantine or paperwork issues (except for Simon Colyn, who remains signed to the ‘Caps but on loan to Serie B’s SPAL in Italy).
Along with 3 invitees from the ‘Caps academy, Kamron Habibullah, Matteo Campagna and Emiliano Brienza, this 25 player group seemed to get into good spirits while getting put through their paces on Monday, setting the tone for what is hoped to be a productive week of training.
It’s worth noting that players had started individual workouts at UBC last week, as was permitted by MLS, but with every available player tapping into these voluntary group sessions, it’s a good sign for a ‘Caps team surely hungry to put a few poor MLS seasons behind them.
Unfortunately, they had to start without a few willing but unable participants, with Ali Adnan, Deiber Caicedo, Javain Brown and David Egbo all yet to arrive in Canada due to paperwork issues, while goalkeeper Evan Newton remains sidelined in quarantine after his arrival to Vancouver.
But aside from those absences, it was a positive start to the day for the team, who will look to leverage that positive ‘back to school’ feeling into a good rest of training camp.
A last Gasp(ar) signing?
As is tradition with the start of Whitecaps camp, however, the big topic was not centred around who was there, but about who wasn’t.
More specifically, it wasn’t about the likes of Adnan, Caicedo, Brown and Egbo (although I’m sure the ‘Caps would love for Adnan and Caicedo, in particular, to be in Vancouver as soon as possible), but instead the lack of new signings, with Caicedo and Newton being the only new non-Super Draft acquisitions as of Monday.
Caicedo, Egbo, Brown and Newton are all important signings in their own regard, but for a ‘Caps team that is coming off 3 consecutive playoff absences, a 20-year-old winger, 2 draft picks and a 32-year-old backup goalkeeper isn’t expected to be enough to really change the fortunes of this team.
With the need for a #10 being made a priority this offseason by Axel Schuster, and an open DP spot that would allow them to splash the appropriate expenditures to make that happen, to see the ‘Caps open the camp without said player after a 4-month offseason is certainly interesting.
But while that process was always going to be an arduous one, despite the ‘Caps best efforts to chase after the likes of Benfica’s Chiquinho and Porto’s Otavio, two possible names that still might yet to come to Vancouver, that makes the lack of signings elsewhere more surprising.
With a need for depth in the midfield, as well as on the wings, it was expected that the ‘Caps make some moves to bring in such players, either from within MLS or elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean things are far from finished, however, and that was reflected early on last week, as it was reported by Transfermarkt, who confirmed reports from Portugal that the ‘Caps had shown interest in bringing in right back Bruno Gaspar from Sporting CP in the Primeira Liga.
Those reports were later all but confirmed by JJ Adams of the Province this weekend, as he reported that the ‘Caps were finalizing the paperwork to bring in Gaspar on loan with a purchase option of around $2.7 million dollars.
So with the defender seemingly set to become a Whitecap, there are a few things to unpack.
First off, it was surprising to see the ‘Caps linked to a right back of Gaspar’s quality given the breakout of 2017 Super Draft pick Jake Nerwinski in 2020, who took some massive strides forward as a professional in his 4th season with the ‘Caps, as well as the fact that the ‘Caps have a pretty darn good backup option in defensive midfielder Janio Bikel, if needed.
Secondly, with the presence of Adnan, who the ‘Caps paid a record-fee of nearly $2 million dollars to sign in 2019, Gaspar’s presence would give Vancouver two pretty darn valuable and expensive players at a position where we’ve hardly seen any teams spend much money on in MLS.
Those aren’t bad things, however.
While the idea of having Adnan on a DP contract is not exactly the most efficient spending of resources, due to the imbalance caused by having so much money and talent at left back, bringing in a right back like Gaspar to balance the field could help get more out of Adnan, while also giving the ‘Caps a boost on that right flank.
With Gaspar averaging a solid 0.5 key passes, 0.3 shots and 0.1 dribbles a game offensively in 2018/2019 for Sporting, as well as 1.4 tackles, 0.9 interceptions and 1.2 clearances a game defensively, he seems like he has the potential to be a pretty good full back in MLS.
To give you an idea of what Gaspar could bring, here are those stats put alongside those of Nerwinski, who was one of the most consistent ‘Caps in 2020.
Despite playing in a harder league, Gaspar put up more key passes, tackles and shots per game, and was close to Nerwinski in terms of interceptions. While Nerwinski has him dominated in terms of clearances and dribbles, that is more indicative of the ‘Caps struggles to build up play from the back, forcing Nerwinski to either clear the ball out or make individualistic forrays forward.
With the ‘Caps having a clear need to create more chances, as well as a need to stop leaking so many of them, you could see why Gaspar’s ability to push forward while still having a solid impact offensively would be attractive to them.
Considering the ‘Caps generated the 6th-fewest Expected Goals (xG) per game in 2020, while also giving up the most xG, any steps made to improve the team in either area would be seen as a plus, making Gaspar’s signing key.
Further solidifying Gaspar’s potential of being a pretty good MLS full back, here is how he compares to Adnan, who for reference, had the 6th-highest average rating on Whoscored among MLS full backs in both 2019 and 2020.
While Adnan is ahead in every category statistically, given the contrast in difficulty between MLS and the Portuguese first division, which is one of the more underrated circuits in Europe, that is expected.
And it’s not like Gaspar is miles behind Adnan, as well, aside from in the dribbling category, which, similarly to Nerwinski, mostly comes down to a mix of Adnan’s talents and the ‘Caps build up play struggles. Gaspar’s key pass, shot and tackling numbers all match up pretty well to Adnan, however, with the two former categories rather key for the ‘Caps needs, as mentioned earlier.
With Adnan often being one of the lone sources of creativity for Vancouver in 2020, leading the team in primary assists (4) and Expected Assists (xA) (3.91), as well as having the 3rd most key passes per game (0.8), for Gaspar to even be in the neighbourhood of Adnan’s key pass number, the root of the other two statistics, is positive.
When factoring in the possible statistical boost his numbers would be expected to receive in MLS, he compares nicely to Adnan, which is good. No matter what some may think of the enigmatic Adnan, there’s no doubt that he’s a talented player, and that’s reflected in the fact that he rates so high among MLS full backs these past 2 years, despite being the offensive focal point on a team who couldn’t create much.
You add in the fact that throwing in a running mate like Gaspar would probably help Adnan out as well, given that the ‘Caps would no longer be so reliant on one side of the field to attack through (48% of all ‘Caps attacks went down that side in 2020), and that makes his signing that much more important.
Financially, the deal makes sense, as well, given the fact that him coming in loan will mean he’ll avoid filling a DP spot, allowing the ‘Caps to still bring in a DP #10.
That’s not to say that a move like this is not filled without risk, however.
There is the fact that the ‘Caps are tying up loads of money at a position where teams have shown you don’t need to spend much on to win could haunt them, especially given their deficiencies elsewhere in the lineup.
On top of that, there’s also the fact that Gaspar just hasn’t played all that much these past two years. A loan move to Olympiacos in 2019 proved to be underwhelming, and since returning to Sporting at the end of the 19-20 season, he’s yet to feature for the Portuguese giants, which is concerning.
It’s never ideal to be bringing in an out-of-form player, much less one that hasn’t played in a season, banking on him returning to a level he played at 2 years ago.
Plus, the reported purchase option fee suggests that if he plays well for Vancouver, he might price himself out of Vancouver if he plays well, leaving the ‘Caps in a sort of catch-22 situation, in which they’ll hope he plays well but are still able to negotiate a cheaper, non-DPesque fee.
But to round this section off, it’s worth noting that with the recent arrival of Nikos Overheul as the ‘Caps director of recruitment, that means that if a signing like this officially goes through, he and his team will have carefully scouted him before approving his arrival, showing that there is some sort of process in signing him.
So while this signing looks like a bit of an all-too-familiar agency signing, with Gaspar sharing the same agency as Maxime Crepeau, Proeleven, one would expect that the recent changes to the ‘Caps football department quells the idea of this being the sort of panic buy one has come to expect from Vancouver in the past.
Ultimately, when studying all of these factors, this Gaspar signing is a good one on paper if you bank on him returning to his 2019 form, given that his recent struggles have allowed him to come to the ‘Caps at a cheaper price. It’s a curious one, but it could be an under-the-radar one that could pay off nicely if all goes to plan.
It’s a big if, but it’s one that the ‘Caps will look to potentially gamble on by bringing him in.
Growth and maximization of talent going to be key to next few weeks of camp:
Now, the onus will be on Marc Dos Santos to continue moulding his identity onto this ‘Caps roster, a process that hasn’t always gone smoothly these past few seasons.
With the #10 situation likely to hang over the team until they actually bring one in, Dos Santos has to start setting the foundation so that when the #10 is slotted in, this team can truly push through to that next level.
Given how young this ‘Caps team was last year, and the fact that we’re still yet to see some combinations play together due to injuries and bad luck (a midfield trio of Michael Baldisimo, Leonard Owusu and Janio Bikel, anyone?), there is lots of stuff for Dos Santos still to go over.
Along with the return of Maxime Crepeau in goal, the possibility of an Adnan-Gaspar partnership at full back, a full season of Erik Godoy and Lucas Cavallini playing regularly and the potential for a Cristian Dajome- Deiber Caicedo winger partnership, there are positive things for the ‘Caps to look forward to trying out.
You throw in the likes of youngsters Theo Bair, Thomas Hasal, Derek Cornelius, Cristian Gutierrez and Michael Baldisimo, who could be poised for breakout years, and there is plenty of stuff for the ‘Caps to be positive about.
But without a #10, it feels like the ‘Caps are building a strong ship without a rudder. Typically, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but seeing that they haven’t had that rudder for much of their MLS period, Pedro Morales and flashes of Yordy Reyna aside, the sooner they change that, the better.
For Dos Santos, it’ll be an interesting challenge to undertake, seeing how much giving his ship a rudder would help him, but he’s still got a lot to figure out about this team.
There is growth that is still to come, and with that, improvement, but until that famed #10 finally dons the ‘Caps white and blue, we will be left with Caleb Wilkins’ apt description of the current state of affairs, in which he turns the ship metaphor into a quite accurate robot one from ‘Pacific Rim’.
Paperwork causing pain at work:
Lastly, it feels important to touch on the paperwork question, as it’s continued to dog the ‘Caps recently.
This offseason alone, the Caicedo signing faced massive hitches because of paperwork, with the player is still yet to arrive in Vancouver nearly 3 months after his transfer due to issues in that department, and that was before the news now that 2 other of his teammates, Egbo and Brown, are facing the same problem. On top of Ali Adnan, who is a returning player, and that’s a further issue.
And if we go back to the start of 2020, there are more stories. Leonard Owusu’s signing got delayed a few weeks because of paperwork, something Ranko Veselinovic also faced in that preseason as well. Later in the year, after the pandemic hit, Georges Mukumbilwa was unable to travel to the US for any games due to visa issues, and Owusu randomly missed out on the last game of the season to go some paperwork.
So let’s just say that the ‘Caps have had their fair share of issues at dealing with paperwork as of late.
While that’s just a forgotten aspect of pro sports (one that seems to affect Vancouver a bit more than others for some reason), the ‘Caps have to plan transactions with that in mind.
That’s what makes the lack of #10 heading into camp all the more concerning. In a normal year, it wouldn’t be much of a worry, but with the quarantine, as well as the likelihood for a visa/paperwork hold up, even if the ‘Caps signed a #10 tomorrow, it’d be hard to imagine them training before mid to late March. And even that’s probably being optimistic.
Ultimately, it’s something that they have to deal with, whether they like it or not, but it has to be frustrating for them to see how much it has impacted their roster, both with the players they have and the ones they haven’t quite been able to bring in yet.
Heading into the rest of this first week of this unofficial yet partly official start to training camp, it’ll be interesting to see if any players start to stand out early on.
From day one, it’s worth noting that Theo Bair scored the camp’s first goal, so that could be a potential springboard for him to use as a launching pad, especially after scoring the first intra-squad goal during the Canadian Men’s National Camp back in January. He’s poised for a breakout, and this camp could be the start of that.
Although the potential of international duty may potentially disrupt that (in a good way), which is something that the ‘Caps will have to watch out for, not only for Bair but for the near dozen potential call-ups they have in their squad, a strong start in camp usually only means good things.
And with so much focus likely to go what’s happening off of the pitch, such as the movement on the signings front, as well as that aforementioned looming international purging, it’ll be good for some positive on-the-field storylines to steal the headlines each day.
As the ‘Caps head into a pivotal third season under Marc Dos Santos, it’ll be what he and the fans will want to get this year off on the right note, before trying to continuing that momentum into the rest of the campaign.