The Vancouver Whitecaps had a busy first week of training camp, one that included some surprise departures, as well as some new faces. In this, we look at some of those moves.
After a relatively quiet offseason, the Vancouver Whitecaps opened up their 2022 training camp at UBC without too much fanfare this week.
And coming off of a big 2021 season, one where they overcame a slow start to finish strong and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, that wasn’t all that surprising. With a very low amount of roster turnover this offseason, especially compared to recent years, this Whitecaps squad is expected to contend once again in 2022, especially since the team is filled with players yet to fully adjust to the league.
Because of that, when training camp opened this week, there wasn’t that much new to talk about, at least other than seeing new defender, Tristan Blackmon, for the first time after his trade to Vancouver from LAFC (via Charlotte) in December, as well as new trialist, Kwame Awuah, who is getting a shot with the ‘Caps after 3 big seasons with Forge in the CPL.
So naturally, things quickly turned on their head as the week went along, as they can often do in this league.
Things started out quietly, as heading into the start of the week, there were some absences for the start of training camp to be fair, but that’s common to see across the league as not everyone can make it to preseason in time, be it for paperwork reasons, health reasons or other things of the like.
As one typically might’ve expected, the ‘Caps had a few of those players in their midst, such as Cristian Dajome, Caio Alexandre, Ranko Veselinovic, Maxime Crépeau and Janio Bikel, which wasn’t all that surprising. But, other than Bikel’s imminent departure, which was confirmed by the club, there wasn’t expected to be any other surprises.
Naturally, though, everything changed in the middle of the week, as rumours came out on Wednesday from some very reputable sources within MLS that one of those names, ‘Caps goalkeeper and two-time team MVP, Maxime Crépeau, would be headed to LAFC via trade, with the move being confirmed less than 24 hours later. Plus, adding to that, it was also revealed that Crépeau had requested the trade for family reasons, meaning that this move wasn’t one that the ‘Caps anticipated making either, at least not right now.
So now, as the first week of preseason training closes, that means that the ‘Caps have gone from a team that looked to be the picture of stability heading into the regular season to one that will have to cope with losing a key heartbeat of their team the last 3 years, on and off the field, to a rival club.
The good news is that the ‘Caps do have options at the goalkeeping position now, including some very promising names internally, but at the same time, it’s certainly not ideal to lose one of the top players in the league at that position in Crépeau, especially not to a rival.
But that’s just life in MLS for you. Names come and go more than any other league in the world for a reason, and the ‘Caps just got a reminder of that this week, showing that you can’t truly have a quiet offseason sometimes, no matter how you plan for it.
Crepeau’s surprise trade:
And speaking of the Crépeau trade, it was interesting to hear Whitecaps Sporting Director, Axel Schuster, speak about it on Thursday, as he dove into the news some that caught many fans by surprise when it was made official earlier in the day.
Yet, things really did move that quickly, helping explain the shock.
According to Schuster, it all started when the club had approached Crépeau recently about a potential contract extension, as Crépeau was under contract to the ‘Caps for just one more year (with an option year in 2023), but with that threat of him potentially becoming a free agent after this season, including the fact that he was handsomely underpaid among his peers, they looked to try and sign him to an extension.
But there, instead of entering negotiations with Crépeau, they were then told about what Schuster described as a ‘very special family situation’ by the player, and that he instead needed to be dealt in order to help deal with that situation.
From there, the ‘Caps began shopping him, and that’s when LAFC stepped up with the trade offer of just over $1 million GAM (plus incentives, a draft pick and a sell-on clause), with the deal being finalized soon after.
“LAFC was the only club in the league that were able to give us what we were asking for,” Schuster noted to local media on Thursday.
And overall, there’s a lot to like there. The ‘Caps moved quickly and promptly with the player’s request, and came to a solution quite quickly, all while putting the player first.
“This has nothing to do with his contract, this has to do with his very special personal situation,” Schuster added. “Long story short, from that moment on, we were discussing how we could help, and we want to be an organization that is taking care of all of our players beyond the pitch, and we don’t want to be a problem, we want to be a part of the solution.”
At the same time, though, this move has to be very tough to swallow for ‘Caps fans.
Not only was Crépeau a fan favourite, and a very recognizable figure, but by trading him to LAFC, the ‘Caps are moving him to a team that isn’t only in the same conference, but just missed out on the playoffs by 3 points, nearly snatching a spot from the ‘Caps.
Plus, it’s worth noting that despite missing out on the playoffs, this is an LAFC side that had a league-leading Expected Goal (xG) difference of +21.41, and had the 5th-best xG against in the league with 36.58 in 2022.
That might not mean much at first, but when you realize that LAFC underperformed their xG against by over 15 goals, and their xG difference by a league-leading -21 goals, what that shows is that they struggled to keep goals out of their net even though they weren’t giving up that many goals, leading to them missing out on the playoffs.
And that’s where the trade for Crépeau makes a lot of sense, as the (now former) ‘Caps goalkeeper was 4th in MLS in G-xG with -4.61, which basically just means that he saved the ‘Caps almost 5 goals from their xG.
So to translate that, that means that if Crépeau were in the LA net last year, and put up similar numbers, he would’ve saved the club a whopping 20 goals against, which certainly would’ve moved them up from a playoff tweener to a contender.
And even if he didn’t play at a superhuman level, instead playing like an average MLS goalkeeper, he would’ve still helped LAFC save those 15 goals they underperformed their xG by, which would’ve made an enormous difference, showing why they were willing to pay one of the heftiest fees in MLS history for a goalkeeper to make this happen.
Basically, they badly needed average to decent goalkeeping after their season last year, and not only did they make that happen, they managed to get one of the better goalkeepers in the league in the process, massively boosting their playoff hopes.
And that’s the biggest part of the story for the ‘Caps. It’d be one thing if they traded him to the other conference, or outside MLS, but instead, they’re bolstering a key rival, one that they’ll likely compete with for a playoff spot this year.
So while they did very well by Crépeau to move him on as quickly and efficiently as they did, one can only wonder if they could’ve maybe waited a week or two and seen what other offers would’ve materialized.
Now, though, it’s going to be very interesting to see what the ‘Caps next steps are going to be in goal here. With an extra $1 million in their pockets (although it’ll be spread out across 3 years), they’ve got the money to target someone in the league, should they wish.
Plus, in 22-year-old Thomas Hasal, who has already started 15 games for the club, they’ve got a replacement who long-term arguably projects better than Crépeau, at least considering where Crépeau was at his age (he didn’t get to start in MLS until he was traded to the Whitecaps 3 years ago, when he was 24). He’s so far shown to be closer to average in MLS so far, which just shows how green he is (we have to remember that those numbers came when he was 21 and 22 at a position where players peak much closer to their 30s), but long-term there’s a lot to like there.
It’s a gamble to hand the reins over to Hasal now, as he’s a young goalkeeper getting his first starting role in MLS, but it’s one that could quickly pay off for the team, especially if he starts to reach the potential that many see in him.
But with a veteran backup in the 33-year-old Evan Newton, who is a former USL goalkeeper of the year, the ‘Caps do have it so that Newton can mentor and spell Hasal if needed for now, while allowing him to grow into the role.
“We feel very good with Thomas,” Schuster affirmed. “Thomas has much more experience in games played already than Max when he arrived at this club.”
He later added: “We’re very high on Thomas”
And if they don’t feel completely confident in that yet, there are some intriguing names around MLS worth considering. Dayne St.Clair is an obvious one over at Minnesota, as the 24-year-old Canadian is looking likely to be a backup to Tyler Miller again in 2022, and has shown flashes of having starter potential, while CF Montreal does have a carousel of 3 young Canadian goalkeepers in Sebastian Breza, James Pantemis and Jonathan Sirois all fighting for the same role, which could leave an odd man out (and available for a trade).
So ultimately, while the ‘Caps are certainly less stable in net than they were a week ago, moving on from Crépeau A) gives them the money and roster stability to make a move in goal or elsewhere, B) allows them to turn to some good options internally, and C) and allows them to explore a good market for cheap domestic goalkeepers with potential.
Because of that, this move certainly could look good down the road, especially depending on how Hasal (or any other new signings) get on, but at the same time, there is the potential for some short-term pain if Crépeau fits in as expected at LAFC, potentially hurting the ‘Caps playoff hopes in 2022, making it a tough pill to swallow right now.
Otherwise, quickly going through the news, as mentioned earlier, it’s worth noting that ‘Caps midfielder Janio Bikel is all but gone from the club, with an announcement confirming that seemingly imminent.
It’s not a move many were expecting, as Serie B relegation candidates, Vicenza, are looking to bring in the 26-year-old Guinea-Bissau midfielder on loan, but it sounds like if they were to stay in Serie B, there looks to be a buy clause that would recoup the ‘Caps original fee to get him, reported to be over $2 million dollars by Transfermarkt.
And for the ‘Caps, it’d be a move that’d make a lot of sense for them. Over his 2 seasons in MLS, Bikel has proven to be a very good defensive midfielder, so it’d certainly hurt to lose him, but he just doesn’t have a role in Vancouver right now.
In 2020, for example, Bikel had some of the best defensive stats among midfielders in MLS, as proven here by his FBref percentiles chart, which takes a look at certain per/90 stats and compares them to everyone else at a certain position in MLS.
In the above chart, which shows his defensive numbers in 2020 only, you can see that he was among the better performers in MLS in several key statistics such as tackles, % of dribblers tackled, pressures, successful pressures and blocks.
But the problem was that in 2021, his role was slowly phased out when new head coach Vanni Sartini replaced Marc Dos Santos, as Sartini’s 3-4-2-1 didn’t suit Bikel’s abilities in midfield as much as Dos Santos’s 4-4-2/4-3-3 did, leaving him to sit on the bench for many games under Sartini.
So considering that Bikel is a top 10 earner on the team, and is filling up an international spot, it just made him a likely candidate to be moved this offseason, hence these links.
Because of that, it’s not that surprising to see him on the way out. The ‘Caps will miss him, no doubt, but there just wasn’t a fit for him heading into this year, so seeing that they can free up a valuable international spot, and possibly even recoup what they paid for him is good business, making this a good move.
All that’s left is to make it official, which hopefully shouldn’t take much more time, but when it does, it’ll be a big offseason item to tick off of their to-do list.
Kwame Awuah’s trial:
And speaking of that to-do list, one other big item on it was shoring up the team’s depth at left wing back, as Cristian Gutierrez was the team’s only natural left back on the roster for much of last year after Ali Adnan left, and considering that Gutierrez injury troubles (and that Canada might come calling sometimes this year), it made bringing someone in a priority.
From there, one name quickly cropped up – Kwame Awuah, left back on Canadian Premier League side, Forge FC, and from there, things happened quickly to bring the Canadian in on trial for this training camp.
“My agent told me there was some interest from the Whitecaps,” Awuah explained to the Third Sub Podcast in an interview this week. “I know the club fondly, as I have a couple of friends already on the team, and it was something that I took interest to, because it’s something that I’ve been having the ambition for.”
And coming off of 3 big years in the CPL with Forge, where he won 2 championships and played in some big CONCACAF League and Canadian Championship games, even helping the team reach the CONCACAF Champions League this past season, this is a very deserved opportunity for the 26-year-old.
Regarded as one of the better left backs in the CPL, many wondered if the former NYCFC draft pick would get another chance in MLS, where he only got to play 10 games in his first go-around, so when this trial was announced, it wasn’t all that surprising to see.
So now, it’ll be interesting to see how he fits into this team this training camp. A more attacking left back, he seems tailor-made to fit Sartini’s 3-4-2-1 as a wing back, and has so far looked very sharp in his first few sessions for the club.
Plus, with his big-match experience for Forge, it looks like that’s allowed him to come into this trial with confidence, which is key as some might be a bit timid to make a jump up like this.
Because of that, it feels like a matter of when, not if, the ‘Caps sign Awuah. It’s too early to say if that’ll be the case, but the need is there, and he’s so far looked to have gotten acclimated quite quickly, so if he keeps that up heading into the exhibition games, you have to imagine that it will happen soon after that.
And that’d be huge news for the ‘Caps, the player, and the CPL. For the ‘Caps, they’d shore up a key position of need with a very good player, while Awuah would get a much-deserved shot at a higher level, and the CPL of course would get a boost to their reputation that they can help move players onto the next level.
So seeing that, it’ll be interesting to monitor Awuah’s progress over the next few weeks. Based on what he’s saying, he wants to be in Vancouver, and has so far shown that with his play, something he’ll look to keep up as we reach the nitty-gritty of training camp.
He wants to be here, the ‘Caps look to be interested, all that’s left is for things to continue on the path where it so far looks to be heading.
“They’re ambitious, just like I am,” Awuah said of his experience so far. “They finished the season well last year, I think they have more goals and more ambitions to make a deeper run in the playoffs, and I’m wanting to be a part of that, so hopefully my qualities on the pitch off the pitch can bring something to the team, and hopefully I can become a steady contributor.”
What’s next for the ‘Caps?
Otherwise, though, all that’s left is to now see where the next dominoes fall for the ‘Caps.
With this bonus windfall of GAM, which just adds to an already full coffer of it, the ‘Caps do have the power to make a pretty big move within MLS, and they do still have an open Young DP spot.
Based on what Axel Schuster has said, it looks like the ‘Caps will take their time with any big moves now, as they do really like their team and don’t want to rush any signings that they feel could mess with that, but at the same time, they’ll keep looking.
Seeing what the team looks like, they’ve mostly shored up most of their needs, assuming Awuah signs, but with a need for a goalkeeper, and seeing that they’re not fully loaded in midfield, we could see some moves there.
Plus, with a very bloated roster, one that has a lot of extra names, we could stand to see some more departures soon, be it via sale, trade or loan, so these Bikel and Crépeau moves might not be the only ‘Caps exits we see before the start of the season.
So while not much has changed compared to a week ago, at least in terms of where the roster is at and the team’s needs, with that extra money in the fold, and some departures happening (and still to come), there could be some moves on the horizon here.
“We want to use that (GAM) to strengthen our squad in various positions,” Schuster noted on Thursday.
But until then, the ‘Caps have a lot to look forward to on the pitch, as they continue preseason training at UBC this month, before heading down to San Diego in a few weeks for the next part of training camp, where they’ve lined up some friendlies.
And then, it’ll almost already be the start of the regular season, where we’ll have a better idea of what the roster might look like, both in terms of any potential departures and acquisitions, as well as players earning spots and contracts.
So while these moves this week certainly caught many off-guard, that’s just the reality of the MLS offseason sometimes, and at least this is happening early, hopefully allowing the ‘Caps to be ready to go by the start of the season.
After a big 2021 season, they’ll want to follow it up with an even better 2022, and while that won’t be easy, the work towards that has already begun, making it a fun time of year to follow along with that process throughout training camp, on and off the field.