Free the Bair: Analyzing why Theo Bair could have a breakout season in 2021 with more minutes

Heading into the start of the 2021 season, the ‘Caps are looking to once again be a team that gives significant minutes to young players. One such young player that is looking to earn a significant chunk of those minutes is forward Theo Bair, who will be looking to have a strong 2021 season, building off of what he’s shown in flashes since making his MLS debut in 2019. 

The play your kids movement continues to be in full force on the West Coast. 

After a landmark 2020 season in terms of playing young Canadian talent, the Vancouver Whitecaps are heading into the 2021 campaign with a similar intention to repeat that feat, continuing to be a club that gets young Canadian talent on the field on a consistent basis. 

In 2020, Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos gave minutes to 8 different U23 Canadian players, including 6 homegrowns, as part of a landmark year in that area for the club. So far through one game in 2021, he seems keen on repeating that feat again this year, having put 3 U23 Canadians out on the field against the Portland Timbers (starting left back Cristian Gutierrez would’ve been number 4, but he just turned 24 in February). 

But while the youth movement seems to be in full force this year, there was one player who didn’t see the pitch against Portland who was a bit of a surprise omission from that game, and that was Theo Bair, the young 21-year-old Whitecaps homegrown striker. Despite being the most seasoned professional on what was a very young bench, he didn’t even see the field at all, which was quite surprising to see considering he is one of best young players on this ‘Caps team. 

And in light of some recent comments from head coach Marc Dos Santos leading up to that Timbers game, where he brought up Bair’s name unannounced when talking about the progression of his young players as a whole, it makes that omission versus Portland even more glaring. 

“That we’re gonna dig into young players, that’s always gonna happen in our club, because we’re one of the youngest teams in the league,” Dos Santos said when asked about his young team. “So when we put a Deiber Caicedo on the field, he’s young, Caio (Alexandre) is young, (Michael) Baldi(simo) is young, (Cristian) Guti(errez) is still young, Ranko (Veselinovic) is young, so we’re always gonna have young players on the field, that’s always going to be there, it’s part of our philosophy and mentality as a club, but of course that the door opens more for players like a Theo (Bair) or players like a (Michael) Baldi(simo), the door opens more.”

Then, he dropped the zinger.

“But right now, let me be clear with one thing, let me be clear, (Michael) Baldi(simo) is at a different stage right now in his development as a player than Theo (Bair),” Dos Santos continued. “That’s an example I could give, so it’s not because you’re a young player that you’re already ready, or I’m gonna take right away and bring one up. The reality is that the young players are all in different stages of their development and some are more ready than others.”

From one perspective, he’s not totally wrong in saying that young players are all in different stages of their development, far from it. 

That’s a realistic assessment of players in a sport where people tend to bloom at all different ages, ranging from as early as 15 to as late as in their 30s. 

On the other hand, it was then quite curious to see Dos Santos go out and play Baldisimo for 90 minutes against Portland, leaving Bair on the bench, especially after having made those comments a few days earlier. Considering his assessment of both players, it certainly seems like he considers Baldisimo to be further along in his development than Bair, providing further clarity to what he said. 

And there’s nothing false in suggesting that Baldisimo is a really good player – far from it. 

He’s one of the most talented youngsters in MLS for a reason, and has rightfully earned the reputation as a player to watch on the ‘Caps in 2021, as he’s been excellent ever since making his debut in 2020.

But where things get interesting are with Bair, who despite making his debut a full season earlier than Baldisimo, now finds himself much further down the depth chart than his fellow academy graduate. 

So it begs the question – is that assessment of Bair completely valid? Might he be capable of providing a similar impact to Baldisimo if given the right opportunity?

As the numbers show, there could be some credence to that theory, and here’s why. 

Stats paint an interesting picture:

Even though it may feel like it came quite a long time ago, Bair actually only made his MLS debut less than 2 years ago, when he played 20 minutes off of the bench for the ‘Caps against FC Dallas on May 25th. 

As part of a 2019 rookie season where he’d go on and play 823 minutes across 17 games (10 starts), scoring 2 goals and 2 assists in the process, it was a strong start to his MLS career, one he was supposed to build off of in 2020. 

Instead, despite playing 16 games last season, he only actually saw the field for 445 minutes in 2020, scoring one goal and picking up no assists in the process. After having looked like a player for the future for the ‘Caps in 2019, he became an afterthought under Dos Santos the next year, only making 5 starts under the ‘Caps head coach in 2020. 

And when you look at his stats from 2019, the question starts to arise – should the ‘Caps have played Bair more often last year?

When looking back  at his 2019 numbers on Football Reference (fbref), his closest statistical comparables were the likes of Damir Kreilach, CJ Sapong and Dominique Badji, suggesting that the answer to that question is probably a resounding yes. 

Considering that Bair played on a ‘Caps team that finished second-last in the league in 2019, only narrowly ahead of a porous FC Cincinnati team, that his statistical profile compared similarly to Kreilach (6 goals, 4 assists in 2019), Badji (6G, 3A) and Sapong (13G,1A) is quite impressive, especially when you remember that the ‘Caps only scored 37 goals in 34 games that year, which was the second-worst total in all of MLS. 

Diving a little deeper into his stats, however, is where you see how good Bair really was for the ‘Caps in 2019. 

Stacked up against his fellow positional peers in MLS from that season, he was in the 97th percentile with a shots on target percentage of 53.8%, was in the 77th percentile in terms of his goals to shot ratio with 0.15, and was in the 93rd percentile in terms of average shot distance, which was just over 13 yards from goal (meaning that he was quite good at getting shots off close to other team’s nets). 

Looking at some other categories, he also was in the 86th percentile in non-penalty Expected Goals (xG) per shot with 0.14, was in the 67th percentile in assists/90 with 0.22, and was in the 58th percentile in terms of non-penalty xG with 0.20 xG. 

He was also quite dominant in the air, finding himself in the 94th percentile in terms of headed passes attempted per game with 2.19, was in the 97th percentile in terms of aerials won per game with 2.63, and was in the 89th percentile in terms of percentage of aerials won with 51.1%. 

That’s pretty darn solid. 

Elsewhere, he also had some really good defensive stats, but considering that the ‘Caps rarely had the ball as one of the worst possession teams in MLS, those stats are slightly inflated by the fact that he had to defend more than most players at his position (he did find himself in the 93rd percentile for success rate of dribblers tackled with 40%, though). 

But returning to the offensive stats, considering that he did all of that while playing as a rookie on a struggling ‘Caps offence, truly gives you an idea of what he could do if given more minutes. Seeing that the ‘Caps only averaged a league-worst 1.07 xG for per game (36.51 total), their offence just didn’t create all that much, making Bair’s output even more impressive. 

To be fair, there is the caveat that we can’t look at how Bair’s 2020 numbers stacked up compared to his peers to make this discussion more interesting, as he fell 5 minutes short of the requirement that fbref has in order to make a percentile chart, but seeing how good he was in 2019, that he didn’t play more in 2020 doesn’t make all that much sense. 

Especially when you see that the Whitecaps were once again one of the worst teams in MLS in terms of xG for per game, finishing 5th-worst in the league with 1.05 xG for per game, which was actually worse than their 2019 total despite their improve ranking (a few teams having historically bad seasons in that department actually helped out the ‘Caps in that case). 

Obviously, numbers don’t paint the whole picture, but they can do a pretty darn good job at filling in most of one, and from what we’ve seen here, this 2019 portrait of Bair certainly deserved more of a chance to get painted on more often in 2020. 

(Here’s Bair’s 2019 percentile chart for those interested.)

Bair celebrates after scoring vs Montreal in September of 2020 (Keveren Guillou)

So what’s next in 2021?

And that leads us to 2021, which should be a breakout year for Bair as a third-year player in this league, but is instead filled with a lot more questions than answers at the moment. 

Obviously, he wasn’t helped out last year by the pandemic and the fact that the ‘Caps had two really good strikers ahead of him in the forward pecking order in Lucas Cavallini and Fredy Montero, which certainly contributed to the downtick in minutes. 

On the other hand, with there being 5 subs in games for most of the season, the ‘Caps had ample opportunity to bring him off of the bench for significant cameos late in games, something they didn’t do all that much of last season. 

Now, with Montero gone, he should theoretically be 2nd in the striker depth chart behind Cavallini, as veteran Tosaint Ricketts is more of a supersub at this stage of his career, while Draft Pick David Egbo remains untested at the MLS level, for now. 

Looking at that first game, however, you do fear that Dos Santos isn’t as trustworthy of Bair now as he was 2 years ago, considering he didn’t bring him on despite being the most experienced player available to his head coach off of the bench.

You don’t want to read too much into that first game, as Dos Santos also clearly wanted to give 90 minutes to a few of his attackers, which he did, but at the same time, you do feel like Bair could’ve been a good impact sub for the last 30+ minutes of that match against Portland. 

Plus, to be fair, there’s entirely the possibility that this is a motivational ploy from Dos Santos, who has previously been tough on Bair in the past, with an example being when he sent him to play with the ‘Caps U23 team despite being on a first-team contract. Bair responded well to that, and then became a regular in the team afterwards, so it’s possible the ‘Caps coach is looking for a similar reaction from him again. 

So for now, it’s much too early to fully sound the alarm bells, but the situation will be an interesting one to monitor, because if Bair continues to struggle in his quest to get more minutes, a loan elsewhere will start to look more and more attractive by the day. 

He’s good enough to play in MLS, as the stats suggest, but he just needs minutes, and considering his age, if those don’t come in Vancouver, a loan would be beneficial for him just to make sure he sees the field consistently in 2021.

If he does stay in Vancouver, there should be ample opportunity for him to play, especially with the congested schedule, the continued use of 5 subs in MLS, and the impending international duty that awaits Lucas Cavallini, which should all give a chance for Bair to see good minutes. 

Starting with the ‘Caps second game of the season, where they’ll be shorthanded once again in a midday clash in the Florida heat against Toronto FC, that should be a good chance for Bair to get some minutes considering Dos Santos said that he wants to use all 5 of his subs during that match. 

Either way, the goal has to be to get him minutes, be it with the Whitecaps or elsewhere, but seeing what he did in 2019, hopefully Vancouver ends up being the spot where he makes the most noise in 2021. 

Looking Forward: 

Now, it’ll be curious to see what happens with Bair going forward, starting with their next game this weekend. 

As Dos Santos has shown with his trust in younger Canadian players such as Michael Baldisimo and Cristian Gutierrez, and even with Bair in the past, he isn’t shy in playing his younger charges, but only if he feels like they deserve it. 

So for Bair, the goal has to be to find a way to earn those minutes in Dos Santos’s eyes, and continue to build off of what he showed in flashes in both 2019 and 2020. 

Considering his potential, the more he sees the field can only benefit the ‘Caps and the Canadian National Team, who have been keeping an eye on him, as they showed with his selection for the U23 Men’s Olympic Qualifying team down in Mexico, along with a nod to the senior team earlier this year in January. 

He has what it takes to make an impact, he just needs to find his way onto the field, and hopefully some minutes against TFC will be exactly what the doctor ordered so that he can get his 2021 up and running once again. 

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Toronto FC, Saturday, April 24th, 2021, 12:00 PDT, 15:00 EDT (Exploria Stadium, Orlando)

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