Nice Surprise: Cristian Gutierrez and Javain Brown quietly emerging as valuable full back options for Vancouver Whitecaps

Despite being further down the depth chart heading into the start of the 2021 MLS season, full backs Cristian Gutierrez and Javain Brown have emerged as valuable options for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2021. Here’s how. 

After some early concerns, it has quickly become a position of strength for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season. 

Heading into the start of the 2021 MLS season, no one knew what to expect from the Whitecaps full back core, as they made a few acquisitions to shore up a position that they feel plays a big role in how they play, doing their best to ensure they’d have the talent and depth to be confident in their options there. 

With DP Ali Adnan and 2020 surprise Cristian Gutierrez shoring up the left back position, along with the team’s 2020 unsung hero, Jake Nerwinski, at right back, they felt like they had some pretty good options heading into this year, but just wanted to overall improve the depth of the position. 

To do that, they then brought in Bruno Gaspar on loan from Sporting CP to be the starting right back, as well as drafted Javain Brown from the University of South Florida, with the 22-year-old Jamaican being touted as potential depth at right back, left back and centre back. 

Along with someone like midfielder Janio Bikel, who has proven to be a pretty solid option at right back if needed, it gave the ‘Caps 6 good options for the 2 full back positions, making them at least 3 deep at either side, if needed. 

More importantly, they had 2 very good starters in Adnan and Gaspar, giving them a pair that had the potential to be one of, if not the best, full back pairings in the league. 

But then, things didn’t go to plan for the Whitecaps. 

Adnan didn’t play a minute for the ‘Caps due to a visa issue before getting his contract terminated on July 3rd, while Gaspar has yet to really see the field, either, only playing 181 minutes across 4 appearances as he’s dealt with injury. Because of that, we didn’t get to see the pair share the field together, leaving people to forever wonder what they could’ve been like tearing up the flanks for the ‘Caps. 

As a result of that, Gutierrez and Nerwinski were the preferred full back pair to start the year, and they did pretty well together, as Gutierrez had a very strong start to the year, while Nerwinski was his usual solid self at right back, before Gaspar spelled him for a few games before getting injured. 

Around the same time, Nerwinski also picked up an injury, leaving Gutierrez and Brown as the lone natural full backs still on the roster, with the pair playing their first game together on June 18th against Salt Lake, embarking on a run where they’ve played 5 of the last 7 ‘Caps games together as the starting full back pairing. 

And despite both being near the bottom of the full back chart at the start of the year, Brown and Gutierrez have actually been quite good in their time together, helping the ‘Caps embark on a run where they’ve picked up points in 4 of their last 5 games. 

Thanks to that, they’ve made the continuing recovery of Nerwinski and Gaspar feel irrelevant, as the ‘Caps have got some excellent production out of the Brown and Gutierrez pairing, just highlighting the full back depth they talked about at the beginning of the season. 

Now, the ‘Caps full back conversation has just gotten a lot more interesting heading into the rest of the year and into the offseason, as the emergence of Brown and Gutierrez has created all sorts of flexibility for the team at the position, giving them options. 

Here’s why. 

Numbers paint a pretty picture:

To start, it’s important to show that Brown and Gutierrez’s strong performances aren’t just originating from anecdotal viewing, but are supported by the numbers, as well. 

First, let’s dive into Gutierrez’s numbers, as he has certainly been the one catching the most eyeballs with his play, earning multiple call-ups to the Canadian National Team and even some nods to MLS’s TOTW, showing that his strong play hasn’t gone unnoticed in some circles. 

This started last year, when he proved to be good enough at the left back position to allow the ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos to move Adnan into a winger position, getting both of his left backs on the field at the same time, and Gutierrez has only improved upon that despite Adnan’s absence, showing that the ‘Caps have a pretty good piece in him. 

And to get an idea of how good, just look at his FBRef scouting report, which takes his statistical output from the last 365 days on a per 90 minutes basis and compares it to other full backs in MLS, giving an idea of how good Gutierrez is compared to his peers over that same timespan.

And seeing his chart, to quote a famous individual: “Pretty, pretty good!.”. There’s a lot of green, which shows that he’s among the best in MLS in several stats, which is never a bad thing. 

Offensively, he’s in the 75th percentile in assists with 0.15, 86 percentile in Expected Assists with 0.15(xA), and in the 75th percentile in shot-creating actions with 2.12, showing that he’s creating chances at a very high level for his teammates, even if they aren’t finishing them at the rate that they should. 

He’s also in the 81st percentile in passes attempted with 58.49, showing that he’s quite involved in the play compared to most players in his position, showing his offensive chops. 

To nitpick, you’d possibly like to see more progressive passes, progressive carries and progressive passes received from him, as his lack of production there shows that most of his chance-creation comes from deeper positions and set-pieces, but that’s also more down to the ‘Caps not being the most progressive team offensively, meaning that those numbers could get better with a system tweak. 

Just look at his heat map from this year, to get an idea of how much he’s had to touch the ball from deeper positions, not really allowing him to get as far down the touchline as you’d like to see a player of his calibre go. 

Defensively, he’s also not doing too bad for himself, either, sitting in the 96th percentile for interceptions and 82nd percentile for blocks, while sitting firmly average in tackles, and just above-average in pressures, showing that his best defensive asset is his positioning. 

Overall, it shows that he’s quite the well-rounded player, bringing plenty of value to the ‘Caps on both sides of the ball. Despite having to play more of a defensive role, and not being able to get into the final 3rd as often, he’s also got a deadly cross, one that the ‘Caps have managed to weaponize on set pieces, and need to find a way to get more involved in open play. 

Secondly, there’s Brown, who both offers similar output to Gutierrez, but also has proven to be quite productive in some different areas. 

To get an idea of how so, here is his FBRef chart, also compared to the rest of the full backs in MLS based on his play in the last 365 days, but considering that he’s only been in MLS since the start of this year, this is just from the 531 minutes he’s played in 2021, as indicated at the bottom of the chart. 

Much like with Gutierrez’s chart, the first impression? ‘Pretty, pretty good’. 

Similar to Gutierrez, he’s a chance-creation machine, sitting in the 84th percentile in assists with 0.17, 69th percentile for xA with 69, even if he isn’t doing so well in the shot-creating actions department, only sitting in the 41st percentile with 1.53. 

Also similarly to Gutierrez, he’s not as progressive as one would’ve expected, but he’s above-average in the progressive carries, and dribbles completed, and is average in the progressive passes and touches in the opposing penalty area, showing that he’s got a slight edge there. 

That’s also backed up by his heat map, which shows that he plays a bit higher than Gutierrez, while also picking up more actions in the box, demonstrating his intent to get forward both in open play and off of set pieces. 

Defensively, he’s also quite efficient at picking up interceptions, sitting in the 86th percentile in that stat with 1.86, even if he doesn’t block as many shots. 

But then, on top of those numbers, he stands out in a few other categories. 

He’s much better at creating shots for himself, sitting in the 69th percentile for non-penalty xG and in the 75th percentile for shots with 0.85, as a result putting him in the 74th percentile for npXg+xA with 0.17. 

That mostly comes down to him being a good aerial threat off of corners, but he’s also had some really good looks in open play, too, showing that he does appear to have some good offensive chops in his locker. 

Otherwise, he’s much more involved defensively, sitting in the 90th percentile in tackles with 3.22, in the 78th percentile in pressures with 15.93, in the 86th percentile in clearances with 3.56 and 97th percentile in aerials won with 2.54, showing his willingness to get stuck into ground and aerial duels. 

As a former centre back, though, that shouldn’t be that surprising, but that he’s got those chops combined with decent offensive ability is quite surprising, and is what’s made him so important for the ‘Caps in recent weeks. 

All-in-all, though, the pair have quite the impressive array of stats, arguably both sitting in the top 3rd of MLS full backs right now based on their charts, which is all anyone could’ve asked from them and then some at the beginning of the year. 

Brown action for the ‘Caps against the LA Galaxy recently (LA Galaxy/Twitter)

Just the beginning? 

But while Brown and Gutierrez have done well so far this year, is their play sustainable? 

And the answer should be yes. 

Gutierrez is 24 and has been a professional for many years, and his numbers are from over 1700 minutes in the last 365 days. Brown might be a bit younger at 22, and is only in his first professional season, but he’s earned caps for Jamaica for a reason, and that’s because he’s been a talent for a few years now. 

For the ‘Caps, that’s good news, as it now gives them a pair of full backs who are 24 and under and full-blown internationals, doing so without paying a pretty penny, having acquired Gutierrez on a free transfer, and Brown in the Super Draft. 

Plus, their best days are very much ahead of them, as they’re still quite young, yet to really hit their prime. 

Because of that, Dos Santos is quite excited to have the pair of them in the fold, knowing that they’ll be Whitecaps for the considerable future. 

With Brown, he’s got someone who’s got the versatility, smarts, attitude and athletic ability to be a difference-maker at multiple positions, making him not only an asset for the ‘Caps, but the Jamaican National Team, who will likely call him up again soon if he keeps up this form. 

“I think that you have to understand that with Javain, it’s still going to be a process,” Dos Santos said of Brown when asked this week. “Because Javain was playing at the University of South Florida, and he was playing in a back 3 and he was the middle defender, one that played in the middle of the back 3, but with the National Team of Jamaica, he was playing as a right back.”

“So when we drafted him, we thought it was very interesting to see the tools that he has, he has the physical ability, explosiveness, he’s good on the ball, good in the air, aggressive, and we just thought it was very good for our roster to have a player like that and make him grow inside the process of being a first-year professional player. And he’s done that well because he’s coachable, he wants to learn, he’s ready to play any of the 2 positions.”

As for Gutierrez, the ‘Caps also have someone who’s also similarly versatile, while also bringing the same smarts, attitude and athletic ability to the table. 

Plus, having played for one of Chile’s big clubs in Colo-Colo before coming to Canada, picking up nearly 30 appearances in the Chilean first division, he’s got plenty of experience despite his youth, making him an asset for both the ‘Caps and Canada’s National Team, who he finally decided to represent this year despite being eligible to represent Chile. 

Thanks to that, he’s proven to be a good partner for Brown, giving the ‘Caps a good 1-2 punch at the position. 

“Cristian is about experience,” Dos Santos continued. “He played in a big club in Chile, he didn’t play in a small club, he played in big environments, had some big games in big environments if you go back and were able to see some of his games before he even joined us. He wasn’t always a starter, but he has some games with packed stadiums in Chile in difficult environments, he’s a youth international for Chile before becoming an international for Canada, so he’s another young player with very good tools.”

“And these players need a process, they need to keep growing. I always thought that Guti(errez) would be a player that would play a lot of minutes this year, because we always saw the possibility of playing Ali (Adnan) in a higher position, we saw some growth from Guti(errez) last year, and that gave us hope for this year.”

Gutierrez looks on during a preseason game against Minnesota United in 2020 (Keveren Guillou)

Where does this leave Gaspar and Nerwinski?

But while Brown and Gutierrez have impressed as of late, and rightfully so, where does that leave their other two natural full backs on the roster, Nerwinski and Gaspar?

Nerwinski finally made his return to the lineup earlier this week and looked quite good, and is one of the veterans on this team, while Gaspar himself looked very solid before his injuries, so the ‘Caps will most definitely look to find a way to get him on the field whenever possible. 

So the answer right now is probably not there yet, but it’s worth noting that Brown and Gutierrez’s good play opens up options now. 

First, with Gutierrez’s emergence as a good starting left back, the ‘Caps can focus on acquiring a cheap player to back him up, instead of having to look for a more expensive starter to play in front of him, saving them time and money. There are plenty of good players in the CPL who could fill that role, for example, such as Diyyaedine Abzi, Kwame Awuah or Jordan Haynes, among others, just giving an idea of how that search could go. 

Then, with Brown’s emergence, if the ‘Caps still see him as a potential starter in the offseason, they can either choose to not exercise Gaspar’s purchase option, rumoured to be upwards of $1 million, or trade Nerwinski, leaving Brown to compete with the remaining name for a starting spot in 2022. 

With his ability to play multiple positions, as well as his price, he’s a good option to keep around either way, leaving the ‘Caps to decide between keeping Nerwinski and Gaspar (or neither), which should either save them money or get them an asset in return. 

No matter what they do, though, the emergence of Brown and Gutierrez has put them in a solid position, one that can only make their lives easier going forward, especially if they take another step forward before the year is up. 

Looking Forward:

So now, it’ll be interesting to see how Brown and Gutierrez continue to perform, as more and more eyeballs get put on them with each passing game. 

Can they live up to the increased attention that a good run of form provides? 

Gutierrez has so far done well there, but it’ll be something for Brown to have to deal with now for the first time, as well. 

Based on early returns, though, the ‘Caps have to be excited with how the pair of young full backs have progressed so far, giving them some found money at the position. 

As they continue to shore up their roster, with acquisitions such as DP #10 Ryan Gauld not far away from officially signing in Vancouver, having not to worry about their full backs is huge, giving them much-needed stability at the position. 

It might not be the most talked-about position in MLS, but it’s a lot more important than people realize, especially in the modern game, so it’s good to see the ‘Caps find value there in Brown and Gutierrez, becoming bright spots in a topsy-turvy season. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs LAFC, Saturday, July 24th, 2021, 19:30 PDT, 22:30 EDT (Banc of California Stadium, Los Angeles)

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