Secondary Strike: Assessing the Vancouver Whitecaps options to replace Lucas Cavallini over the next 6 weeks

With the news that Vancouver Whitecaps striker, Lucas Cavallini, will be out for the next 6 weeks with a knee injury, we look at potential replacements for ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos to consider trying in his absence. 

It was a tough blow, but it might now open the door for a new face to emerge from the shadows.

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, it was tough to see them wake up to the news on Wednesday that their DP striker, Lucas Cavallini, would be out for the next 6 weeks due to a knee injury, but at the same time, that injury does open the door for some new faces to step up now. 

Having already missed 5 games this season due to absences related to playing for the Canadian National Team, the ‘Caps have already gotten a taste of what life without Cavallini will look like, but now they must deal with potentially being without their striker for anywhere from 5-10 more games, many of them crucial if the ‘Caps are indeed to make a push to make the MLS playoffs and try and win the Canadian Championship.

Plus, with the ‘Caps finally signing a long-awaited DP #10, Ryan Gauld, who was supposed to give Cavallini the sort of service he’s long been starved of, the timing of this injury couldn’t come at a worse time for the Canadian striker, who has often been on an island up front this season.

But while it’s bad timing for Cavallini, Gauld’s arrival does make life easier for whoever plays up front, as they’ll now have a bonafide playmaker to feed them chances. 

Because of that, it’ll be interesting now to see what the plan will be for head coach Marc Dos Santos to replace his #9, as he does have some options to do so, many of whom could potentially even take a big step forward in this role with that newfound service. 

From recalling some players out on loan, to trying some new faces in a new position, Dos Santos will be saddled with a tough decision to try and help revitalize an already struggling offence, one that sits 4th-worst in MLS with just 19 goals in 17 games. 

So assuming they stick in their 4-3-3 formation, one that has allowed them to pick up some good results as of late, here’s a look at what the best options could be for Dos Santos to replace Cavallini, allowing them to not skip a beat in the coming weeks. 

To do that, we’ve split up potential replacements into 3 categories, which are the loanees, the backup strikers and the out-of-position players, looking at candidates from each section. 

First up, the loanees. 

Category 1: The loanees:

And to start, the ‘Caps have 2 intriguing names to look at who are out on loan, David Egbo and Theo Bair, the pair of early 20-year-old strikers who were sent out in search of meaningful minutes this summer. 

Before we look at them, however, it’s worth noting that Dos Santos has already put cold water on them returning from their loans to replace Cavallini, so this is more for hypothetical purposes, as we’ll see if Dos Santos is making the right decision there or not. 

David Egbo:

Up first, there’s Egbo, who’s been on loan for 2 months now down in the USL Championship with Phoenix Rising, where he’s shown a lot of good flashes for a rookie playing his first pro season. 

He’s a bit older than most rookies at 22, but having played 3 seasons for the Akron Zips at the college level, he’s not your typical rookie, having come to the ‘Caps via the MLS SuperDraft earlier this year, where they picked him 9th overall. 

Coming out of a Zips program that is known for churning out MLS talent, most notably Darlington Nagbe, there were high hopes for Egbo heading into this season, as those who’d watched him in the NCAA were saying good things about him. 

But after picking up a whopping 0 minutes through the first 2 and a half months of the campaign, the ‘Caps sent him out to Phoenix, giving him a chance to strut his stuff for the rest of the 2021 season. 

And to give him credit, he’s so far done pretty well for himself down in the USL, picking up 4 goals and 1 assist in 9 games, helping the Rising to 1st in the Pacific division, and 2nd in the league overall. 

Playing as an out-and-out #9, he’s been doing a good job at getting on the end of chances and finishing them, scoring those 4 goals on 12 shots and 3.3 worth of Expected Goals (xG), showing his strong finishing ability. 

Along with his decent hold-up play, which has seen him pick up 10 key passes, he’s appeared to be the sort of #9 the ‘Caps could use now with Cavallini out. 

So although he won’t get that opportunity until next year, the good news is that his role with the Rising has been growing with each game, and with their recent sale of fellow striker Rufat Dadashov, the door appears open for him to get even more minutes for the rest of the year. 

Verdict: Could’ve been nice. 

Theo Bair:

Then, there’s the other intriguing young striker out on loan for the ‘Caps, and that’s Bair, who just left to Norway to go play for Norweigan 2nd division side, Hamarkameratene, also known as HamKam, as he’ll look to help them push for promotion to the 1st division. 

Currently sitting 1st in the league through 13 games, HamKam will offer Bair a good opportunity to get the minutes he desperately needs, while also giving him a taste of the intense and competitive environment that should be inside a team pushing for promotion. 

And make no mistake, he needs these minutes, as he’s only played a whopping 26 minutes for the ‘Caps so far in 2021, which along with the 532 minutes he got last year, means he’s barely past the halfway mark to the minutes he got in all of 2019 (913) in these last 2 seasons. 

Because of that, it’ll be good to see him go pick up those minutes in Norway, giving him the sort of platform that he’ll need to get back to the level that he showed back in 2019. 

With 3 goals and 2 assists in just over 1400 MLS minutes, he’s clearly got the ability to produce, especially considering he’s played on a Whitecaps team that has struggled to score goals these past few years. 

So with the aforementioned arrival of Gauld, one could only wonder what Bair would do with someone like that playing underneath him, as he’s shown to have pretty good finishing ability when he did get into the box for the ‘Caps. 

But due to him just leaving for Norway, it’s probably for the best that he stays there and gets into a rhythm, even though one could only wonder what he’d look like in front of Gauld. 

Considering that he just got those 26 minutes despite the prior Cavallini absences, minutes would’ve already been at a premium, but it’s a tantalizing possibility to ponder, one that might need to happen in the future. 

Verdict: Unlucky timing

Category 2: The backup strikers

Moving down, we shift back into the realm of strikers who could actually get a shot at filling Cavallini’s shoes, as all of these players are now still on the roster, giving them a chance of playing. 

To lead that off, there’s Cavallini’s 2 main backups, Brian White and Tosaint Ricketts, who should both get a chance at replacing the ‘Caps #9. 

Brian White:

And beginning with White, the ‘Caps do appear to have a decent replacement in the 25-year-old American, who was brought in for $400 000 in GAM earlier this season from the New York Red Bulls. 

Originally signed as Cavallini insurance for his international absences, as Dos Santos didn’t want to run with Egbo and Bair as his main options when Cavallini was with Canada, White’s acquisition all of a sudden looks a lot better now than it did a few months ago. 

He’s so far been decent with the ‘Caps in his short time with the team, picking up 1 goal and 1 assist in 10 games, which certainly isn’t great, but isn’t that bad either, especially considering that he’s just had 6 shots, 4 of them on target, giving him a measly 1.3 xG. 

So although the argument could be made that he’s responsible for not getting more chances, it’s fair to say that he’s been starved for service, so this stretch of him playing in front of Gauld could prove to be huge for him. 

Considering that he scored 5 goals in 18 games (872 minutes) in 2020, and 9 goals in 19 games (1345 minutes), doing so on a New York Red Bulls team with playmakers such as Kaku and Daniel Royer, he has a history of producing in a starting role when he gets decent service. 

As we saw when his trade to Vancouver first came about, he’s got all of the attributes needed to be a striker that Dos Santos likes, but the big question with him came down more to the price he cost, as many wondered if it was an overpayment for someone who’d be a backup. 

But now, with a chance for him to start a good run of games, he could certainly make this deal a lot more valuable for the ‘Caps, so it’ll be interesting to see what he can do. 

He was brought in to be Cavallini insurance, and the ‘Caps need to cash in on that clause now, likely making him the front-runner to replace him. 

Verdict: You get what you paid for. 

Tosaint Ricketts:

But while White is a very solid option, the ‘Caps do have another striker option to consider, and that’s Ricketts, who at 34, is the oldest Whitecap on this roster. 

With over 200 games of pro experience, including 80 in MLS, he’s a veteran presence on a team that doesn’t have many of them, so one does wonder if Dos Santos could throw him in to be a calming head on this younger team. 

Having scored just 16 goals at the MLS level, he’s been less proficient than someone like White, but that’s mostly been because he’s played a super-sub, making it harder for him to pick up lofty goal totals. 

As he showed last year, where he picked up 2 goals in 16 games (456 minutes), both goals coming on games which he started, he can make an impact in that sort of role, too, which is something for Dos Santos to consider. 

Thanks to his speed, he’d offer a different look than Cavallini or White up front, giving them a bit more verticality in possession, while giving them someone who is really good at pressing opponents from the front. 

The one worry, though? At his age, coming off of a niggling Achilles injury, he’s been eased back into action, playing just 68 minutes across 5 appearances this year, all of them off of the bench. 

So although he’d certainly be a candidate to consider up front, he might not be physically ready for a bigger output, at least not yet. 

Plus, with White in the fold, the likelier option is that we see White start games, and Ricketts finish them, which could be a good way to get the best out of both of them, with White being best as a starter, while Ricketts has that history of being an effective super-sub. 

But seeing how decent Ricketts looked last year when he started, it’s certainly an option worth considering for Dos Santos and company. 

Verdict: Proceed with caution. 

Category 3: The out of position players

But while the likes of White and Ricketts are the safe options to replace Cavallini, Dos Santos does have a few other options to consider, as he could shift a player from a different position to fill the hole up front. 

It might seem bold for a team struggling to score, but it could prove to be the tonic they were looking for, so it’s not as outlandish as it might seem. 

Cristian Dajome:

And to start, there’s a perfect option in Dajome, who as the ‘Caps current leading scorer, wouldn’t be that wild of a candidate to try deploying up front in Cavallini’s absence. 

He might be currently playing as a winger, but he did start the year as a 2nd forward in a 4-4-2, so it’s not as if he’s unfamiliar with playing centrally, either. 

With 8 goals and 2 assists in 16 games, he’s arguably been the ‘Caps MVP so far this season, sitting in the top 10 in MLS for goals as of writing, which considering the ‘Caps offensive struggles, is quite impressive. 

There’s a reason why he’s scored 42% of his team’s 19 goals, and has been directly involved in 52% of them, and that’s because he’s quietly been playing at an all-star level for the ‘Caps this year, no matter where he’s played.

So considering that he’s done most of that from wide areas, though, one can only imagine what he can do as the team’s main focal point offensively, especially with someone like Gauld underneath him. 

With his ability to play vertically, but also play horizontally, he could have the sort of skills that Dos Santos will look for from his striker when in possession, which could be interesting to see. 

Along with his strong defensive ability, including his strong pressing ability, he could give the ‘Caps a mix of some of White’s and Rickett’s best attributes, making him a very intriguing player to imagine as Cavallini’s replacement. 

There’s a reason why Dos Santos name-dropped him on his list of names he’s (publicly) considering, and it could be one that even helps the ‘Caps in other ways, allowing them to play someone like Gauld on the wing (where he’s played before), keeping Michael Baldisimo, Janio Bikel and Caio Alexandre together in the midfield. 

Seeing that they’ve played at their best with Bikel, Baldisimo and Alexandre on the park, the fact that Dajome shifting to the middle could keep that trio together, while adding Gauld to the mix, almost makes it the runaway favourite here, even despite White’s intriguing profile. 

Verdict: Almost too good to be true. 

Deiber Caicedo:

But if Dos Santos doesn’t want to mess with a good thing by shifting Dajome to a new position, he could always try shifting his other Colombian winger, Caicedo, into a similar role, one that might unlock more of his offensive abilities. 

With 3 goals and 3 assists in 17 games, he’s got the 2nd-most goal contributions on the ‘Caps behind Dajome, so it’s not that wild of an idea, especially considering that Dos Santos has also played him in a second-striker role at times this season. 

Plus, as someone who is a little quicker than Dajome, he could offer even more verticality up front, helping the ‘Caps stretch out the opponent’s backlines, theoretically freeing up space for Gauld in behind him. 

That could come at the cost of hold-up play, as Caicedo has looked best with the ball at his feet in wide areas, as his decision-making is still improving, but it could certainly give the ‘Caps a different look. 

But with his two-footed ability, Caicedo would be able to occupy pockets on both sides, as he uses his weak foot more often than Dajome does, which is always a good tool to have for someone playing in a central position. 

So although it might be a bit bolder than sticking Dajome up front, it could be something interesting for the ‘Caps to try, giving them more of a different look at the position.

And with Dajome and Caicedo both likely to be on the park at the same time, you could also even try swapping them from the wing to the striker at different points during the game, giving you different looks to help unsettle the opponent. 

It’s a bit less conventional than sticking a true #9 up front, or heck even a false #9, but it’s an option worth considering, and the ‘Caps could use as many of those as possible right now.

Verdict: Unconventionality breeds new results?  

Wildcards:

Lastly, it’s important to end this search by unearthing every possibility, even a few that truly might be quite unconventional, as the ‘Caps could certainly not afford to stop this search for Cavallini’s replacement without turning over every possible stone. 

To start, might someone like Gauld be a good shout to play as a false nine, allowing Dajome and Caicedo to stick out wide, while also keeping Alexandre, Bikel and Baldisimo together? It’s not that wild of an idea, and would make the ‘Caps quite the fluid team offensively, on many levels. 

Seeing that Gauld scored an impressive 9 goals and 7 assists as a #10 in Portugal, he does have a scoring touch, making him an intriguing possibility for the position. 

If not, considering that Leonard Owusu has played as a #10 before, he certainly could be a shout to play up front, even if he’d be deployed as more of a playmaker than Gauld, as his shooting isn’t exactly his strong suit. 

But with his strong passing ability, and considering that he’s come on a big way these past few weeks after finding himself outside of the lineup for most of the summer, he could give the ‘Caps some more solidity in midfield, while also being an outlet for Caicedo and Dajome. 

Otherwise, someone like Kamron Habibullah could play there, as he’s comfortable in central areas, but with Dos Santos still not fully trusting his 17-year-old charge to play in limited cameos in his preferred wing position, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine him becoming his new starting #9. 

And last, but not least, don’t rule out Janio Bikel. 

It’s outlandish, for sure, but at this point, there doesn’t appear to be a position that he can’t play on the field, so may as well see what he could do as a striker. 

Verdict: Never hurts to have options. 

Cavallini looks on during his ‘Caps debut vs SKC last year (Keveren Guillou)

Looking Forward: 

But while we probably won’t see Bikel as a #9 (although it’d be fun to watch), there will certainly be a new face up front for the ‘Caps when they play on the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday, giving them a new look offensively, which should be exciting to see. 

It’ll suck for the ‘Caps to lose their #9 for an extended period of time, but the silver lining with injuries is that they always offer an opportunity for a new face to step up, and as seen here, Dos Santos isn’t short of options to replace Cavallini, even when you take Egbo and Bair out of the equation. 

Because of that, this can certainly be a good chance for Dos Santos to test out some new faces in a new role, giving him a better idea of what he has at his disposal later down the road, where he might need a Cavallini replacement in a more critical situation, such as the 85th minute of a playoff team. 

Obviously, with the ‘Caps quite far out of the playoff picture, it’s a bit early to even utter those words until they start winning some games with more regularity, with just 1 win in their last 13 games, but who knows, maybe this change can spark a good run of form. 

So although Cavallini’s injury will be a big hit, a new opportunity beckons for some new faces, making it interesting to see who will step up in his absence. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs San Jose Earthquakes, Friday, August 13th, 19:30 PDT, 22:30 EDT (PayPal Park, San Jose) 

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