The Vancouver Whitecaps are continuing their preseason in style this weekend, as they get set to head south for some sun and games ahead of the start of the 2022 season. Here’s a look at where the ‘Caps roster is at right now after a busy week of wheeling-and-dealing.
A busy preseason is about to get even busier.
After a few weeks of intense training at home at UBC, the Vancouver Whitecaps are going to escape the weather and head south for 11 days, as they get set to undergo the San Diego portion of their training camp.
And they head down there after a busy couple of weeks back at home.
In what was supposed to be a quiet training camp heading into it, it has quickly turned into one filled with all sorts of storylines, as the ‘Caps have seen some familiar faces depart, and some new ones come in.
So now, it leaves the team in a bit of a different state than when they started preseason. With some departures, including Maxime Crépeau’s surprising trade to LAFC, Theo Bair’s sale to St.Johnstone, and Evan Newton’s loan to El Paso, but also a new arrival, that of 20-year-old midfielder Sebastian Berhalter, they’ve been pretty significant changes to the ‘Caps, too.
But that’s life in MLS, with high turnover just a reality of the league, so if anything, it almost felt surreal to see the ‘Caps make it through the offseason making just one addition and seeing three depart, making this more of a return to normal, in a sense.
And at the same time, it’s not as if this team is in a wildly different place than they were at the end of the 2021 season, where they were fresh off of snapping a 4-year playoff drought. The core of the roster that brought them there is back, and while they lost a key part of that team in Crépeau, they’ll hope to replace his value both internally and externally with some of the options available to them.
As they work through that, though, this San Diego camp will roll on, with 4 games in 11 days, giving a chance for those who are there to get their first taste of game action before the season kicks off on February 26th.
No doubt, all of the movement off the field has certainly been something to monitor, both in terms of who left and who has been brought in, but with an already big roster and a returning head coach in Vanni Sartini, the ‘Caps are in a lot better position than in preseasons past, where it was often an exercise of just getting 20 healthy bodies out on the field on most days.
This camp has almost been the opposite of that, however, with the ‘Caps trotting out nearly 40 players in some sessions, so they’re staying prepared, and they’ll hope that can allow them to fly out of the gates to kick-off 2022, no matter who dons the jersey when that happens.
Sebastian Berhalter acquired:
But speaking of those brought in, it was certainly interesting to see reports from the Daily Hive’s Harjeet Johal on Thursday that the 20-year-old American midfielder, Sebastian Berhalter, would be joining the ‘Caps for $50 000 in GAM and conditional payments from the Columbus Crew, and those reports were later confirmed on Friday.
Beyond the jokes that Berhalter, son of USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter, would be joining the son of CanMNT head coach John Herdman, Jay, in the ‘Caps system, it was a curious move for a team already with strong midfield depth.
Having already traded midfielder Janio Bikel to clear up a bit of a logjam in the middle, it felt like the ‘Caps would only move for someone in the centre of the park to come in as a starter, but while Berhalter has a lot of promise, it doesn’t feel like he’ll be that guy quite yet.
The good news, though, is that he comes quite cheap, won’t fill an international spot, and could certainly both see time with the ‘Caps first team and their MLS Next Pro team, which certainly helps explain the move.
Plus, it’s worth noting that the ‘Caps are a tad bit thin in midfield in that 20-23 age group, especially with someone like 19-year-old midfield prospect, Damiano Pecile, currently on loan to Venezia, seeming likely to stick around there in their system long-term.
So seeing this move, it seems likeliest that Berhalter will join preseason and see if he can crack the first-team roster, but if not, he could be set to be shuttled between the first team and the second team as the year goes along, especially based on the wording in the release for his arrival.
But obviously, that all depends on what Berhalter shows in training camp, so it feels a bit early to project what might happen.
Stepping away from that for a second, however, it’s worth noting that while it’s unsure yet where Berhalter fits in the system, he does have some MLS minutes under his belt, giving a better idea of where he might project on the ‘Caps heading into this season.
So to better know what the ‘Caps are getting in the midfielder, here’s a look at his FBref scouting report from 2021, which takes all of his stats on a per-90 basis, and compares it to all other MLS midfielders who played a minimum of 450 minutes (Berhalter played 651 for Austin FC on loan last year from Columbus).
And when looking at that, there are some things that stand out. Obviously, it’s worth noting that this did come in a rather limited sample size, as Berhalter played just 18 out of 34 games for Austin last year, including just 5 starts.
At the same time, though, it still gives us a pretty good idea of what he’s good at. Which, when seeing the chart, is two things – passing and defending.
Firstly, there’s his passing, as he was among the 97th percentile in passes attempted per 90 minutes with 72.22, and 84th percentile in progressive passes per 90 minutes with 5.21. He might not have completed as many passes as you would like, sitting in the 42nd percentile for passes completed % with 84.1%, but it looks like that is because he was attempting a lot of difficult passes.
Otherwise, he didn’t really score that high in other ball progression metrics such as progressive carries (37th percentile), dribbles completed (1st percentile), and progressive passes received (26th percentile), but it’s also worth noting that Austin wasn’t a great team, which probably influenced his ability to be involved in the attack.
That’s also probably reflected in the fact that he didn’t score too high in the goals, assists, Expected Goals (xG), Expected Assists (xA), and xG+xA, although it is impressive that he scored in the 43rd percentile in shot-creating actions, showing his ability to set-up his teammates in certain situations.
So when looking at those stats, the best way to describe Berhalter last season was that he was someone who passes the ball a lot, and tries to complete a lot of difficult passes, sometimes putting his teammates in good positions. Also, he preferred to pass the ball than to dribble it, and didn’t often receive the ball in great positions, but he did well to pass his way out of those situations when he found himself in them.
That’s reflected in his heat map, which shows that he most often touched the ball deeper in his half, more like a #6, versus as a #8 (which is what most project him to be, interestingly) which makes sense based on what the numbers show.
If anything, though, that positional shift seems to be as much on Austin’s struggles, as it is on Berhalter, especially given that Berhalter is still young.
But elsewhere, for all of the positive things that he showed in possession last year, it’s worth talking about his defence, as that’s also a shining light in his game.
There, he showed a strong ability to get stuck in as a sort of pressing midfielder, which is reflected in the fact that he sat in the 94th percentile in pressures with 28.04 and 97th percentile in tackles with 3.83.
He lagged behind a bit in interceptions (28th percentile), which isn’t always ideal for midfielders, but again, with Austin being a team that struggled a lot, sitting back in a low block in most games, it also probably reduced his chance to make those sorts of plays (especially given how much he was pressing and making tackles).
Otherwise, he did well to get his body in front of the ball in certain situations, sitting in the 96th percentile in blocks with 2.05, and did well to pounce on loose balls, sitting in the 71st percentile for clearances with 1.50, which reflects well.
So overall, it looks like Berhalter best projects as a pressing #8 on the ‘Caps, as with his passing and defending stats on a bad team, he could do well on a Whitecaps side that played with more aggressive #8s under Vanni Sartini, which seems to fit Berhalter’s game pretty well.
He’ll be a long shot to start at that position, of course, but it does bode well to see that he fits the ‘Caps game in midfield, which could make him someone to monitor as the season goes along and he gets comfortable.
And with how cheap he cost them, it makes it seem like a good bet for the ‘Caps, who if they get what he showed last year, should recoup the value they paid for him. Plus, with how young he is, there’s a great chance that he improves on what he showed last year, especially given Austin’s struggles, which would make this an even better trade for the ‘Caps.
Because of that, while it was a move that was surprising, given the ‘Caps needs in the middle, it should be a decent bet, one that has a good chance at paying off for Vancouver.
Goalkeeper situation remains fluid:
But while the Berhalter trade was surprising, the next move that the ‘Caps make shouldn’t be all that unexpected, as they remain in the hunt for a goalkeeper as they head to San Diego.
When they traded Crépeau, you wondered if they’d chase after a goalkeeper, but with Thomas Hasal set to hold down the fort, and Evan Newton likely to back him up, it seemed like the ‘Caps were content with staying put with what they had.
Then, that all changed when it was revealed by Johal that Newton also wanted out, and his wish was soon granted, as he was then loaned to El Paso in the USL not long after.
Now, that leaves Hasal as the only goalkeeper on the roster under an MLS contract, as the other two goalkeepers in camp, Isaac Boehmer and Max Anchor, are currently unsigned. That could change, of course, but with Boehmer and Anchor having limited and no pro experience, respectively, it’s unlikely that either of them will start as the backup on the MLS team.
So because of that, it has all of a sudden put the ‘Caps from maybe being on the market for a goalkeeper, to definitely being on the hunt for one.
The good news, however, is that it sounds like they’re pursuing options, but with Hasal already pencilled in as the #1, it looks likely that the guy brought in will either be a veteran name to be the backup, or a younger player who will push Hasal.
There are a lot of good goalkeepers out there, so it shouldn’t take too long, but with each passing day, you can only start to worry as the start of the season gets closer, making it a slow race against time for the ‘Caps to complete a move there.
The striker situation clears up:
But while the time ticks for the ‘Caps to figure out their goalkeeping situation, they were much more efficient with their clogged forward corps, clearing up the hierarchy there this week.
Based on last year, the hierarchy was clear – Brian White led the way, with Cristian Dajome not far behind him, and then Lucas Cavallini and Deiber Caicedo as the next two, and Tosaint Ricketts rounding off the group.
Then, that left Theo Bair and David Egbo to head out on loan, with the hope that they could return and compete for minutes this year. For that to happen for,, though, barring a miracle, that would also require some space to be cleared out, and while Ricketts still being unsigned helps that, with White, Dajome, Cavallini and Caicedo still there, it left things a bit tight for both Bair and Egbo to compete for minutes (even with Dajome looking likely to get a lot of minutes at wing back again this year).
So because of that, the ‘Caps decided to sell Bair to Scottish Premiership side, St.Johnstone, last week, in a move that benefits both parties.
On the ‘Caps end, they clear a roster spot and recoup a fee for a player who they didn’t have that high up on the depth chart, and on Bair’s end, he gets the chance to build off of what he showed on loan in the Norwegian 2nd division last year, doing so while helping a team in a survival battle in a good league.
Because of that, while it would’ve been nice to see Bair get a shot with the ‘Caps, as he’s always shown some great flashes in limited minutes, this is ultimately an exciting move for him on a personal level, one that can help his progression as a player, and potentially even shoot him back up onto the CanMNT radar ahead of the World Cup later this year.
And for the ‘Caps, it helps clear up their forward situation big-time. With Bair now gone, Dajome likely to start at wing back, and Ricketts likely only coming back in a depth role , things are a lot more clear now, with White, Cavallini, Caicedo and Egbo looking set to round off the forward corps.
So seeing that, it’s no coincidence that shortly after Bair’s sale, White signed a contract extension, as while he was always likely to be back after his white-hot run of form to end last season (pun very much intended), there was always a slim chance the ‘Caps sold high on him to open things up with how it was looking.
Now, though, White is here to stay, and with Cavallini also likely to stick around despite rumours, it gives the ‘Caps a pretty good 1-2 punch up front, with some solid depth options underneath them, putting the ‘Caps in a good position in this department as they get set to start the season.
Kwame Awuah’s trial comes to an end:
Lastly, though, speaking of areas of need for the ‘Caps, there is one last area of concern heading into the season, and that’s left wing back depth, as at the moment, the only true left wing back signed on the Vancouver roster is Cristian Gutierrez.
To be fair, Cristian Dajome and Javain Brown can play there, and the ‘Caps do have Ali Ahmed coming up the ranks who has looked good at wing back this preseason, but with Dajome and Brown being useful elsewhere, and Ahmed being quite young, it would be nice to have a natural backup for Gutierrez, especially after he struggled with injury in 2022.
And it looked like the ‘Caps would have someone to fill that role to start training camp, as Forge FC left back, Kwame Awuah, joined the team on trial.
But despite impressing with the ‘Caps, making some wonder if it was only a matter of when, not if, he signed, he was then released from his trial this past week.
It looks to be a mutual decision, as a lack of space on the ‘Caps roster, and a lack of clarity over Awuah’s role, both led to the move, but it was still surprising to see him go.
So now, it’ll be interesting to see if anyone else is brought in to fill the backup left back role, or if the ‘Caps are truly fine with their options. Right now, all the options they have now should be good, as Gutierrez is a very good starting option, and Dajome/Brown/Ahmed can fill in nicely, but a few injuries could throw a wrench into everything, and given the ‘Caps history with those, you would like to see them err on the side of caution.
Otherwise, though, it’ll also be intriguing to see where Awuah lands, be it back with Forge, elsewhere in MLS, over in Europe, or even with the ‘Caps (who didn’t close the door to that happening). He was humble over his time in Vancouver, and has done a great job with Forge, so it would be nice to see him pick up a move that can push his career to the next level, no matter where that is.
But for now, that won’t be with the ‘Caps, who will head to San Diego without him, only adding intrigue to a position that already had its fair share of eyes on it heading into preseason.