Rose’s Rise: Breaking down how Andy Rose has quietly been one of the best centre backs in MLS over the past year

31-year-old Vancouver Whitecaps centre back Andy Rose has quietly been one of the best centre backs in MLS over the past 16 months, despite not really playing the position before then. Here’s a look at some of the numbers that suggest that the ‘Caps might have unearthed a hidden gem at centre back in Rose. 

Despite a few injuries to start the season, it has remained a position of strength for the team. 

For most sides, losing a centre back could spell the end of a season, but for the Vancouver Whitecaps, that hasn’t been the case to start the 2021 MLS campaign, as they’ve done well to mostly stomach the absence of star centre back, Erik Godoy, who’s been yet to play this year due to injury. 

Along with an injury to another centre back, Derek Cornelius, who arguably should’ve been the team’s number 2 centre back heading into this year, and a March loan for Jasser Khmiri, what had been a position of strength the last few years had quickly become a position of worry to start the season.  

With the lone two options at centre back being 22-year-old Ranko Veselinovic, who is still quite raw as a player, along with 31-year-old midfielder turned defender, Andy Rose, one had to wonder if the ‘Caps were going to take a step back without Godoy and Cornelius to start the year. 

Despite that, however, that hasn’t been the case, as the ‘Caps have only conceded 3 goals in the first 3 games of the season, with one being a golazo of a 25-yard free-kick, while the other was a result of bad luck of historic proportions. 

After conceding 44 goals in 23 games last year, for an average of 1.91 goals against per game, to be on a pace of only 1 goal allowed against a game is good, even with the small sample size. 

Considering that they’ve been operating with what could be argued to be a second-choice centre back pairing, the defence has done its job and then some, giving the ‘Caps a chance to win games. 

And a big part of that has been the play of Rose. 

Even though he was only really converted into a centre back at the beginning of last year, he’s starting to look like someone who’s been playing it for his whole career, showing off his adaptability. 

“Andy, knowing the game, and being an experienced player inside a younger group, he brings something to the team,” ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos said of Rose this week. “But I think that he is still a player that is still growing even in that position, it’s too bad for me, he should have been playing in that position years ago, in my opinion.”

As Dos Santos mentions, you can only wonder what would’ve happened if this switch was made earlier, but either way, he’s happy that he’s been able to make it now, and his team is continuing to profit off of that move. 

Heading into the start of the year, it’s something that Rose mentioned that he was relishing doing, as he’s fully embraced the challenge of learning this position despite being on what most would consider the back half of his career. 

“Yeah, definitely,” Rose said when he was asked if he was enjoying the switch. “I mean as a player, I think you never stop learning, you should never stop learning. Certainly for me, in the last couple years, kind of moving into a new position as a centre back, learning the game from that position all over again, that’s something that I’ve really really enjoyed, kind of taken in my stride. Every day I try and get better at it, and try and learn something new.”

All of a sudden, Rose has made the discussion very interesting surrounding who might become the two starting centre backs for Vancouver under Dos Santos once everyone is back and fully healthy. 

Most would have expected him to be the fourth-string guy behind Godoy, Cornelius and Veselinovic, but as the numbers show, the discussion might be a lot more wide-open than we think. 

Here’s why. 

Advanced stats paint an interesting picture:

Diving into the numbers, and it’s clear that Rose might be better at this position than what most people think, which is quite interesting to imagine considering that he was just an average MLS midfielder before this switch. 

To get an idea of how good he’s been for the Whitecaps at centre back in the first three games of the season, it’s worth noting that he is the third-highest ranked centre back (and 10th overall) in all of MLS so far in 2021 in terms of Goals Added (G+) with +0.50. 

For those unfamiliar with G+, it’s a stat created by the fine folks over at American Soccer Analysis, who use the stat to judge how players at all positions (other than goalkeepers) impact their team’s ability to create Expected Goals (xG) for and prevent xG against. 

On top of that, they’re able to compare how each player stacks up to their other positional peers based on that number, which means that Rose’s +0.50 means that he’s helping his team create more than 0.50 G+ compared to the average MLS centre back, highlighting his impact even further. 

And what’s interesting is that this isn’t just the case of a small sample size from Rose, either, as he had a +0.60 G+ over 939 minutes in 2020, which made him one of only 5 Whitecaps that finished above MLS average in that stat. 

Quietly, he’s been one of the most efficient MLS centre backs in terms of helping put his team in the best position to win games, even despite the fact that he hadn’t really consistently played centre back until the beginning of last year. 

Plus, it’s not just ASA’s G+ model that rates him so highly, either. 

When looking at Football Reference’s scouting report tool, which takes each player who’s played at least 450 minutes over the last 365 days and compares their per 90 numbers to their positional peers, Rose also fares pretty well there, too. 

Obviously, his biggest impact is on the offensive side of things, as his non-penalty goals/90 is in the 80th percentile, his non-penalty xG is in the 75th percentile, which along with his assists, xA and npxG+xA, all have him among the best in MLS at his position. 

Defensively, he’s a bit quieter, but given the ‘Caps struggles at defending for chunks of last year, that probably played a big part in that. 

Overall, though, Rose ranks very favourably in fbref’s system, as they listed current and former MLS centre backs Mark McKenzie, Walker Zimmerman, Reto Ziegler and Omar Gonzalez as 4 of his top 10 most similar players statistically over that time frame, which is quite impressive. 

Considering that Zimmerman was MLS’s 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, McKenzie moved to Genk after winning the Supporters’ Shield, Ziegler was part of Dallas’s stingy defence and Gonzalez’s TFC narrowly missed out on the Shield, that’s pretty good company to hold for a recently converted centre back in Rose. 

He might not be the most flashy defender, or be the most high-impact one, either, but for whatever reason, he’s quietly been a statistical machine for the ‘Caps at centre back in the past 16 months for Dos Santos, much to the pleasure of his head coach. 

“We were never surprised based on the signs that Andy showed last year,” Dos Santos said. “Playing in that position, that was a good transition for him as a player, he reads the game well, he’s smart with the line, so he understands the positional play, he communicates well with the guys.”

Eye test backs it up, too:

Rose in action for the Whitecaps in 2019 (Keveren Guillou)

But while the stats suggest that Rose is a pretty darn good MLS defender, what about the eye test? 

And it’s a good question, as Rose can be as equally tantalizing as he can be frustrating at times when it comes to defending. 

When it comes to anything in the air, he seems to hoover up anything, be it at both ends of the pitch, which does add a bit of stability to a backline who has struggled with those sorts of balls in the past. 

Otherwise, he’s okay at defending the balls on the ground, and has decent pace, meaning that he’s usually comfortable playing in a mid-line defensively if needed, which has been nice for the ‘Caps to be able to deploy. 

The big hole in his game, however, is his passing. 

He can be a decent passer, as he has a good long ball on him, but the problem is that he over relies on that long ball, which the ‘Caps just aren’t suited to playing. 

That can be managed, especially when Michael Baldisimo is on the pitch, as the young Canadian midfielder is good at dropping back between the centre backs and playing as an offensive quarterback of sorts, but when Baldisimo is absent, as he was for 65 minutes against the Rapids this past Sunday, is where the problems start for Rose. 

Had Erik Godoy been in the lineup, that could’ve been stomached, and it’s no doubt that playing someone like Caio Alexandre or Leonard Owusu in the Baldisimo role instead of Russell Teibert would’ve also made a difference, but it was still a worry to see Rose struggle in that area. 

Otherwise, though, he’s been excellent as of late, so those problems can be managed, especially with the right personnel around him. Given the ‘Caps defensive struggles, you’ll take the trade-off of him being a little worse on the ball if he’s going to keep defending well, as they can’t afford to be going down 2 or 3 down in games if they want to consistently win games. 

And what’s a bonus about Rose is his offensive proficiency on wide balls, which was reflected in his fbref chart. It seems like every time he’s in the box on a wide set piece, he finds a way to come close to scoring, which has helped the ‘Caps quietly become a really good team on offensive set plays. 

Seeing that it’s pretty much the only way they’re generating offence right now, as they’ve only scored 4 times from open play in their last 8 games dating back to last year, that skill has proven to be quite valuable at the moment. 

So overall, Rose’s eye test is mostly backing up what the numbers say, even though it is still a bit surprising to see how well he actually ranks compared to his peers. 

Based on what we’ve seen of him in games, you’d probably suggest that he’s a slightly above-average defender, but clearly, as the numbers say, that is actually quite the understatement. 

So what’s the plan?

Now, the interesting thing will be to see what happens to Rose once everyone is back and healthy. 

According to Dos Santos, Godoy is training at 75% of full capacity, meaning that he’s probably a week or two out from being fully ready, while Derek Cornelius has trained fully for over a week now, and has been an option to use for the last two games. 

So for the next few games, things will get really interesting. Obviously, when Godoy’s back, he’ll start, but the question is who to play alongside him when that happens. 

Until then, though, the 3 other names will get a chance to audition for that spot in the next few games, as the ‘Caps have a busy schedule for the next 10 days, in which they’ll play 3 games against tough opposition. 

Based on what we’ve seen from 3 games of Rose and Veselinovic, however, Rose has the clear advantage at the moment, as Veselinovic has struggled to start the season, while Rose has come out flying as shown by the stats. 

Heading into the next ‘Caps game, a clash with CF Montreal on the weekend, that makes a pairing of Rose and Cornelius for the game the best option, as that would allow Dos Santos to give Cornelius minutes, ride the hot hand in Rose and give Veselinovic a rest. 

And with the schedule being so busy, he’d be able to throw Veselinovic back in right away in a few days, as the ‘Caps play Minnesota a few short days after Montreal, before taking on Kansas just over a week from now. 

But at the very least, competition remains high, which has been goal #1 for Dos Santos to have at all positions this season, so at least he’s got that going for him. 

“He’s aware that in that position, the level of competition is very high, right,” Dos Santos said. “Ranko (Veselinovic) has been playing with Andy (Rose), but we still have players like Derek (Cornelius) or Erik Godoy outside that are getting ready and want to have a chance, but now, in a week like this one, where you play against Montreal, Minnesota and Kansas City, it’s a big week, and in a week like that, you need to make sure that you have everybody ready.”

With Rose’s form, though, it’s going to become harder and harder to ignore him, but until Godoy returns, hopefully we get to see some of him with Cornelius, seeing what that partnership could do in minutes together. 

Looking Forward:

All things considered, however, Rose’s conversion into a centre back continues to fascinate, and for good reason. 

Somehow, it has proven to be a quiet stroke of fortune, just further bolstering what was an already solid position of strength for the ‘Caps. 

For all we know, this run could come to an end soon, but considering that Rose has now been doing this for 16 months, and has over 1000 minutes of data to look back on, it’s becoming clear that it might be time to recognize that he’s turned into a pretty good centre back, and that he should be very much in a battle for minutes with Cornelius and Veselinovic. 

Again, based on what we’ve seen so far, it would be nice to see some Cornelius and Rose until Godoy returns, but either way, there aren’t many bad choices at this position, which hasn’t always been the case in the past. 

Returning to Rose, however, it’ll be interesting to see how he progresses going forward now, but from what we’ve seen, he’s exceeded expectations and then some. 

On a young ‘Caps team short of experience, he’s provided that in abundance, while quietly putting up good numbers, making him a key piece for Dos Santos to rely on. 

Now, the goal obviously is for Rose to keep this up, but from what we’ve seen from him so far, if he continues to do so, the ‘Caps won’t have much to worry about at centre back despite the early absences at the position.

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs CF Montreal, Saturday, May 8th, 2021, 12:00 PDT, 15:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy) 

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