The Vancouver Whitecaps have recently been linked to 22-year-old Brazilian midfielder Caio Alexandre of Botafogo, as reports out of Brazil suggest that the talented #6 could soon find his way to MLS with Vancouver. In this, we look at what he could bring to the ‘Caps, as well as why this transfer has as much promise as it does potential headache.
It looks like some midfield help is on the way to the West Coast.
In a surprising development, news came out of Brazil on Friday that the Vancouver Whitecaps were interested in signing 22-year-old midfielder Caio Alexandre of Botafogo, in a move that could cost the ‘Caps upwards of $2 million dollars.
The first reports out of Brazil seemed a bit outlandish, but as it was quickly confirmed by the always reliable Manuel Veth of Transfermarkt, there actually appears to be some substance when it comes to this potential transfer.
And much like most transfers for promising youngsters of this calibre, there is a lot of complexity in a move like this, making it a very intriguing one for a ‘Caps team looking to upgrade in the midfield after a tough 2020 season.
But at the same time, it’s a bit of a puzzling one at first. Alexandre is a highly promising player, yes, but he’s also listed as a defensive midfielder, which is a position where Vancouver already has the solid Janio Bikel and the promising Michael Baldisimo fighting for minutes.
As one would expect, it begs the question: why would the ‘Caps drop a 7 figure fee on a player at a position they already have solid depth? For a team that has other pressing needs, such as a DP #10, it seems a bit strange for them to be throwing money to bring in yet another defensive midfielder, no matter how talented Alexandre is.
Unlike the Bruno Gaspar links, which we explored last week, it doesn’t appear that Alexandre is offering the team a clear upgrade at his position, at least upon first glance, making these reports all the more curious.
Plus considering that his signing would possibly even hold back Baldisimo’s path towards more first-team minutes, something that Badlsiimo desperately needs at this stage of his development, there is a lot of reason to be skeptical about Alexandre’s arrival.
On the other hand, it’d be foolish to be completely dismissive of this potential signing. There’s clearly a reason why Alexandre is very highly-rated in Brazil, even despite playing on a Botafogo side that got relegated from the Braseileirao this year, so this could prove to be a decent coup for the ‘Caps if they can work him into their squad before selling him on for a profit in the future.
So what would the ‘Caps be getting in Alexandre, and how could they potentially make this signing work? Let’s dive in a little deeper and find out.
His statistical profile suggests… a position change could be in the works?
Immediately, there are a few things that stand out by Alexandre when looking at his stats from this past season.
Firstly, what stands out most is that despite being listed as a defensive midfielder, he scored 4 non-penalty goals in 34 games for Botafogo this season, which is pretty impressive for a young player in that position.
Making it even more impressive is that Botafogo had the 3rd-fewest goals for in the Brazilian league last season, only scoring 1 fewer goal than both Sport Recife and Cortiba, who were tied at the bottom of the goalscoring charts with 31 goals.
He didn’t add any assists, however, which is a bit of a cause for concern, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying, as he averaged 0.9 key passes a game, suggesting that he did a decent job at getting the ball to his teammates, who often let him down with their finishing.
On top of the average of 43 passes that he delivered per game at an 86% clip, only 3 of them a match being long passes, and it shows that he did seem to have good instincts in terms of knowing how to move the ball around.
Defensively, he had solid numbers as well, putting up 1.5 tackles and 0.5 interceptions per game, which is pretty good for a midfielder. As a #6, you’d like to see him put up a few more interceptions, but the number of tackles he put in is indicative of someone who knows how to get stuck in well, even despite the 8 yellow cards he picked up along the way.
And to be fair, he never did get sent off in a game, so he knew where the line was to a certain extent, which is always a good quality to see in a youngster.
So from looking at those numbers, it’s clear to see that he was a pretty good player despite playing on a bad team, showing why teams abroad would be interested in bringing him in.
But with the ‘Caps having two pretty good #6’s emerge last year in Michael Baldisimo and Janio Bikel, how does Alexandre stack up to his two potential future teammates and competitors at his position? Here is a chart comparing the three.
When looking at that chart, Alexandre holds up pretty well against both Baldisimo and Bikel, especially in the offensive categories. He blows away both of them in shots per game, leads the way in key passes per game and is tied with Baldisimo in dribbles per game, which shows that he pushes the ball in the right direction.
Defensively, however, is where he falls behind. He is ahead of Baldisimo in tackles, but Bikel blows both of them away, while both Baldisimo and Bikel are a fair bit ahead of him in the interception category, often seen as a key stat for most top defensive midfielders.
While one could certainly argue the quality of competition is negatively affecting his stats, as the Brasileirao is definitely ahead of MLS in terms of its level, given that Alexandre played on a very poor team, that is less of an issue compared to if he played on, say, Flamengo, for example.
His stats would probably be expected to receive a slight boost in MLS, but probably not a massive one, especially not on the ‘Caps, who seemed to have a pretty similar statistical profile to Botafogo.
Returning to the stats for a second, though, there is something that you start to wonder from those numbers: do the ‘Caps, with his strong offensive output, consider bringing in Alexandre as a potential #8 upgrade?
With only Leonard Owusu to compete with at that position, it would help explain why the ‘Caps would want to bring in the Brazilian, especially when you see that he’s not really that much better defensively than the pair that the ‘Caps already have in place at the #6.
So with that in mind, let’s repeat the same comparison exercise, but this time between Alexandre and Owusu.
When we do that, the Alexandre links make a lot more sense, all of a sudden.
It’s worth noting that Owusu, much like Alexandre, didn’t actually play much as a #8 this season, but given that they both faced that same issue, they both should have theoretically suffered similar consequences statistically, rendering that point moot.
And boy, do Alexandre’s stats look good when put up against Owusu’s.
He blows away the Ghanian in shots and key passes per game, and is slightly ahead in tackles, as well, showing his offensive chops. Owusu is the slightly better dribbler and interceptor, but the former is more an indication of Owusu’s strong skill in that area, whereas the latter shows that he did well at the #6 despite being better suited to playing further up the pitch.
Given the ‘Caps need to progress and shoot the ball more, something they struggled to consistently do last year, plugging Alexandre in a bit further up the field makes a lot of sense, especially considering his ability to shoot and progress from further back on the field.
As one would logically suggest, it’d make sense that if he were moved into a more attacking role, those numbers would only improve, further supporting the idea that the ‘Caps are looking to bring him in as a #8 instead of a #6.
It’d be a strange way for the ‘Caps to address those aforementioned ball progression needs, but based on the statistics, it could be a shrewd ‘Moneyball-esque’ signing, where they try and take advantage of certain circumstances, such as a player being played out of position, to fix a need at a cheaper price.
You do have to wonder what that means for Owusu, who has a lot more to give in a ‘Caps shirt, but at the very least, a signing like this could give him some motivational fuel, forcing him to step up his game in order to fight for a starting spot.
In this strange 2021 campaign, depth is going to be needed, as well, with a congested schedule and a busy international season expected to stretch the rosters of all teams across the league, so you could see why the ‘Caps would be more than happy to have competition at the #8 position.
Does it all add up, though?
But while this is a move that makes sense from a statistical and roster-building standpoint, when looking at some of the other external factors, a few potential queries pop up.
Financially, there’s the question of dropping a lot of money for a 22-year-old when you have other more pressing needs that still are yet to be filled on your roster. While Veth’s Transfermarkt report confirms that Alexandre’s reported signing won’t prohibit the ‘Caps expansive search for a #10, you do wonder about the optics of making this move when their need for a true midfield creator looms larger.
At least, with Botafogo’s relegation, the ‘Caps could be well-positioned to get him for much cheaper than he’s worth, as their situation probably pushed him to want to make a big move abroad, but the reported fee of upwards of $2 million dollars is still a steep price to pay for a youngster.
Yes, signing Alexandre would help them fix that aforementioned chance creation problem, but they need a straw to stir the drink, and while he could have the potential to be that player one day, the ‘Caps would seem to be better served in just spending all of that money on someone who’s more of a completed product.
And shifting to a roster construction viewpoint, almost ironically, it appears that Alexandre’s signing could actually make that harder to do, as he’d become ‘Caps second ‘Young Money’ U22 signing, along with Deiber Caicedo. By doing that, they’d avoid making him a DP, but at the same time, they’d cause a whole other DP-related headache.
While the Young Money rules haven’t been yet clarified by MLS, reports seem to indicate that teams have to choose between having 3 senior DP’s or 2 or more Young Money players (but not both), and given that the ‘Caps already have 2 senior DP’s in Ali Adnan and Lucas Cavallini, as well as one Young Money player in Caicedo, signing Alexandre would take away their ability to sign a 3rd senior DP.
They could still fill their #10 hole with a U23 DP, or another Young Money player, but given that the two biggest links this ‘Caps have had to #10’s this season have been to Benfica’s Chiquinho and Porto’s Otavio, who are both high-priced players in their mid-20s, they haven’t appeared to look for a #10 that fits into either of those two categories, at least not yet that is.
Lastly, there’s the question surrounding the lack of international spots currently available on the ‘Caps. If they sign Alexandre, Gaspar and a #10, they’d need to either trade for or clear 2 international roster spots, which is a lot easier said than done.
So while the Alexandre signing would be a good one on its own, seeing that the ‘Caps would potentially hamstring their ability to sign a #10 by bringing him in dampens the mood surrounding his potential signing, at least upon first glance.
The Adnan conundrum:
But there is a big if to point out there, and it surrounds one player in particular: Ali Adnan.
Many did wonder if he’d be sold on this offseason, opening up a senior DP spot, but with his arrival back in Vancouver last week ahead of training camp, that speculation can go out the window for now.
There is another potential roster mechanism in play involving Adnan, however, one that could be in play depending on his salary and the transfer fee that the ‘Caps paid for him.
If you are to go off of Adnan’s 2019 salary, which according to the MLSPA was $1 277 499, that alone fell below the maximum TAM threshold, which was $1 612 500 in 2020 as per Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer. But with the MLS rule that if a club pays a transfer fee for a player, the total amount they paid is split by the number of guaranteed years on the contract and then added to the salary in order to determine if a player was over that TAM threshold or not, that meant that Adnan was a DP in 2020.
Depending on what his actual transfer fee was, and what his salary is, that might not have to be the case in 2021, however.
With there being no salary figures released in 2020, we have no idea if he earned a raise from 2019 (which is usually the case for most MLS players), or if he kept a similar salary, so we’d have to operate under the premise that his 2019 salary numbers are similar to what he’s making now.
Seeing that his reported transfer fee has been anywhere from $2 million to $2.5 million, that salary number is especially important, as the ‘Caps signed him to a three-year deal back in 2019, meaning that his transfer fee would be split into 3 when calculating his salary cap charge.
If his fee was $2.5 million, that would mean $833 333 would be added to his supposed 2019 salary of $1.2 million, giving him a salary charge of over $2 million dollars, putting him well over the 2021 TAM threshold, which was supposed to be $1 651 250 before the pandemic hit.
With that high salary, the ‘Caps would’ve had to pay around $1.2 million for Adnan to be bought down, which considering they broke the MLS record of $1.5 million for a full back to bring him in, is impossible.
But there is one potential thing to mention with his salary. Given that he signed his 2019 contract in July after he spent the first few months on loan, it’s entirely possible that those numbers are just prorated over the full year based on what he made both on the loan and when he was actually signed. That would mean that it’s possible that he makes closer to $1 million or even below that, easily keeping him below the TAM threshold, even if he cost around $2.2 million.
That’s what makes the lack of release from the MLSPA concerning 2020 salary numbers so frustrating in Adnan’s case, as they would’ve cleared up what he actually makes, giving us a better idea of how close to the TAM threshold he actually is. Understandably, with the pandemic, and the 3 different sets of CBA negotiations that they had to endure, the MLSPA had bigger priorities to deal with, and fair enough, but it just adds a further layer of complication to this Adnan story.
Without those numbers, we are left to speculate, as no one knows if the ‘Caps are actually able to buy down Adnan or not. If they are, it makes the Alexandre signing a no-brainer, but if they aren’t able to, it makes his transfer a lot riskier one, especially given that it’d impact their ability to bring in a third senior DP.
For a ‘Caps team that needs that #10 so bad, to the point where both their Head Coach and Sporting Director have spoken about that need publicly on several occasions, it’d seem short-sighted to reduce their ability to sign said player just to improve at a different position where there’s less of a pressing need.
It’d be very foolish, but as many longtime ‘Caps fans might suggest, it’d certainly be par for the course for this franchise.
On the other hand, they surely have an idea of how to make this all work, or else this signing wouldn’t be close to happening. Change has been happening at a radical pace in the ‘Caps footballing department over the past 2 years, as they now have a Sporting Director, a Director of Recruitment and a team of scouts, something most top footballing teams have, but is infrastructure that the ‘Caps have desperately lacked for several years.
Clearly, if they’d want Alexandre and still be confident in their ability to sign a #10, you’d give them a bit more leash in their attempts to do that now than you would’ve, say, under the Carl Robinson era or the first year of Marc Dos Santos’s reign, where both coaches had to rely on agents and connections in order to make transfers happen.
Knowing how complicated it can be to jump around the MLS’s various rules and mechanisms, you’d have to think they’ve got an idea in terms of how to put it all together, either be it by buying down Adnan or figuring out another way to chase that #10 while also bringing in Alexandre.
So to sum things up, while we’re not quite sure if Adnan is under the TAM threshold or not, the ‘Caps seem to have a plan by making this signing, which hasn’t always been the case in the past with other transfers like this one.
That doesn’t mean that their plan is foolproof, or without risks, but as a wise person once said, if you fail to plan you usually plan to fail, so the ‘Caps have taken a good first step forward in that regard.
They have the money to spend on Alexandre, and he won’t cost much on the Salary Cap as a Young Money player, so if they find a way to bring him in, and still chase after a #10, why not go after him?
There are the concerns of holding back Baldisimo’s development, but if he’s played further up the pitch as his stats suggest he should be, that point would be rendered moot.
He’s a good player, and good teams have quality depth at every position, so his signing would certainly add to a squad that should be in a position where they’re looking to add this sort of talent, if it’s available, especially considering their league position in 2020.
Ultimately, with that in mind, all of that will just mean that this transfer will be judged on how it impacts the ‘Caps ability to bring in other players, due to the hitch relating to the Young Money rule and what it does in terms of a team’s ability to sign senior DP’s.
It’s a tough way to look at things, but alas, that can be the way things go in a league where roster and salary cap constraints play such a big role in the team-building process.
With the ‘Caps being at such a crucial stage of that roster construction stage, it makes this transfer all the more interesting, as they look to find a way to upgrade their squad ahead of what’s expected to be a crucial year for both head coach Marc Dos Santos and the club as a whole.