Crowded Frontline: Analyzing the Lucas Cavallini vs Brian White striker battle heading into the start of the Whitecaps 2022 MLS season

Heading into the start of the 2022 MLS Season, the Vancouver Whitecaps find themselves with some intense competition for spots at striker, led by Brian White and Lucas Cavallini. In this, we look at that battle between the pair, and what it means for the ‘Caps going forward. 

It’s been a question on the mind of many heading into the start of the season. 

Lucas Cavallini or Brian White? 

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, it’s the multi-million dollar question that they’re trying to answer right now as they get set for the 2022 campaign, which gets underway in just over 2 weeks here. 

Fresh off their playoff appearance in 4 seasons, one that came after a late push that coincided with a timely coaching change and some good midseason acquisitions, they’re hoping that they can catch similar lightning in a bottle this year. 

And there’s no reason why they can’t at least dream of being able to do so again. 

They’ve brought back their head coach in Vanni Sartini, and with DP #10 Ryan Gauld set to play his first full season after coming halfway through last year, that gives them two pillars from 2021’s team to rely on. You add in the return of midseason acquisition Florian Jungwirth at the back, and that of promising midfielder Pedro Vite, as well as continued growth from the likes of Deiber Caicedo, Cristian Dajome, Javain Brown, Caio Alexandre, Cristian Gutierrez and Ranko Veselinovic, and they’re really doing alright for themselves here.

Even despite the late trade of star goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau to LAFC right in the first week of training camp, which is one that will certainly hurt them short term, they’ve still got a strong replacement there in Thomas Hasal, who is young but has shown good flashes in his short career so far. 

To be fair, there are a lot of question marks there, as a lot of the key players to last years run haven’t had the sample size to prove if what they showed last year was a fluke, but it feels like at the very least, they should be able to compete again, especially with Sartini and Gauld leading the way. 

But to differentiate themselves from being a competitive team and a contender, there is one thing that must happen (other than Hasal stepping up) – they must find a regular supply of goals. 

To end off last season, their push to the playoffs was only made possible by a run that saw them lose just twice in their last 22 games, winning 10 and drawing 10 matches. Of those 10 wins, they won by more than 1 goal just twice, giving an idea of how important timely scoring was to that run. 

Especially this year, where Hasal will be tasked with filling the shoes of Crépeau, which would make it reasonable to at least expect some growing pains there, that makes it unfair to expect them to go on another run where they allowed more than 1 goal just four times on that 22 game-run. 

Because of that, it’s going to be imperative that the ‘Caps strikers, Cavallini and White, step up big this year, as the ‘Caps are going to need the sort of scoring that they had last year, and maybe even a bit more, putting the spotlight on the pair ahead of this new season.

They might not be the most important players on the ‘Caps attack (see, Ryan Gauld), but as the focal points up front, them being productive can go a long way towards the ‘Caps success, so the team will need them to come up big.  

Who has the edge? 

But then seeing that, it leads to the opening question – do they have what it takes to provide that offence for the ‘Caps? 

And the answer is simple – there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be able to. 

Starting with White, he proved that he’s able to do that last year, leading the team with 12 goals and 5 assists in 27 games in MLS play (as per Transfermarkt), including a run that saw him score 11 goals and add 4 assists in his last 16 games. 

It was a big surprise to see, as he’d never scored more than 8 goals in a season before, but he clicked almost instantly with Gauld, and their magic allowed them to play a massive role in that late push. 

Because of that, the ‘Caps rewarded him with a new contract, and heading into the year, it has made him the favourite to start at striker, and for good reason. 

But that leads to the wildcard, which is Cavallini. It’s no secret that he struggled last year, finding the net just 3 times, none after July 4th, even despite playing 1200 minutes. 

To be fair to him, he also struggled with injury and missed a good chunk of time with international duty, too, but even despite that, 3 goals is a lacklustre return for someone who the ‘Caps spent a club-record transfer fee on back in 2019. 

Especially when you realize that in 2 seasons with the ‘Caps, Cavallini has just 9 goals, a total which White usurped in that 16-game run alone. 

At the same time, Cavallini does have a history of being a dangerous scorer. His two best seasons back in Liga MX (which is seen as a better league than MLS) saw him bag 12 and 11 goals, which is not bad considering that his team was usually among the lower-ranked sides in the circuit. 

Then, when you factor in that he’s scored an impressive 16 times in 29 games for Canada, it shows that he can score, but for whatever reason, the last 2 years with the ‘Caps hasn’t seen him be able to prove that. 

But that now leads to the ‘Caps conundrum – who do they go with between the pair? Last year, they typically only played one of them at a time, with the other coming off the bench, and based on how successful they were with that approach, it’d be reasonable to assume that they’d at least consider doing the same this year. 

And that’s where we come to the advanced stats. 

First, let’s look at the players through their FBRef percentile charts, which takes their stats from the last 365 days on a per 90 basis, and compares them to other players who have played a minimum of 450 minutes in that span. 

So when doing that, here’s what that looks like. 

And when seeing that, White gets the edge here. 

Obviously, he obliterates Cavallini in non-penalty goals, sitting in the 85th percentile with 0.51 npg/90, while Cavallini toils away in the 27th percentile with 0.22/90, but that’s also just a sign of the heater he ended the year off on. 

That continues when looking at the important stats, too, such as non-penalty Expected Goals (xG), and Expected Assists (xA), where White is also ahead by a significant margin, sitting in the 60th percentile in npxG with 0.39/90, and 46th percentile with 0.12 xA/90. You compare that to Cavallini, who was in the 23rd percentile in npxG with 0.26/90, and 10th percentile with 0.06 xA, and it’s not even close. 

Because of that, White is quite far ahead in npxG+xA, sitting in the 54th percentile with 0.52/90, a fair bit ahead of Cavallini, who was in the 7th percentile with 0.31/90. 

Otherwise, not much stands out, other than the fact that White was a very good provider last year (82nd percentile in assists with 0.26/90), while Cavallini was pretty good at dribbling (66th percentile in dribbles completed with 1.31), and that both were quite good at defending, with White among the top 20 percent in pressures, blocks and aerials won, while Cavallini was in the top 20 percent in blocks, clearances and aerials won. 

But based on the actual production, as well as the expected production, White is quite ahead, and it’s not even close, making him the favourite to start the year as the ‘Caps leading #9, and for good reason.  

Lucas Cavallini reacts after missing a chance vs Portland in 2021 (Beau Chevalier)

Wildcard:

So seeing that, it begs the question – why bother comparing the pair’s stats from last season? Obviously, White was going to come ahead, even if there was the small off-chance that Cavallini’s advanced metrics would surprise us. 

And that’s because there’s one wildcard to this question – Cavallini’s 2020 season for the Whitecaps. 

Yes, theoretically it could be cherry-picking to look back at old seasons, as we do have to remember that Cavallini is 29 now, meaning that he might not ever be the Cavallini of old, but the 2020 season is just 1 year removed, and is a year where he didn’t have to deal with injury and constant international duty (although a pandemic certainly didn’t help his cause). 

And there, things get interesting. White is still ahead on goals and assists, of course, as Cavallini’s 6 goals and 1 assist is still a fair bit away from White’s 12 goals and 5 assists, but it’s worth noting that Cavallini’s came in 18 games, so when you prorate it to White’s numbers, which came across 27 appearances, it’s a lot closer. 

‘So the question then becomes this – if you compare Cavallini’s 2020 season to White’s 2021 season, does it become a fair comparison? 

Before coming to an answer, let’s see, using FBRef’s charts, but just looking at the per 90 stats, since there’s no use comparing percentiles from two different seasons.  

(You can find Cavallini’s 2020 report here: https://fbref.com/en/players/dd8de641/scout/10090/Lucas-Cavallini-Scouting-Report).

First, there’s non-penalty goals per 90. White still leads in that stat, as his 0.51 goals/90 is still ahead of Cavallini’s numbers, but with 0.37/90, he isn’t that far behind him. 

Then, there’s where things get interesting, which is in the non-penalty xA, as well as xA. There, White does alright for himself with 0.39 npxG/90, and 0.12 xA/90, but Cavallini is right behind him with 0.38 xG/90, although he lags a bit in the xA department with his 0.05 xA/90. 

Because of that, Cavallini’s 0.43 npxG+xA/90 is a lot closer to White’s 0.52/90, which looks a lot better for Cavallini when you compare his other numbers.

And then, is where we come to the most interesting takeaway, and that’s actually shots per 90, something we didn’t point out before, for good reason. Interestingly, Cavallini actually blows White out of the water in terms of shots/90, firing an impressive 2.72 shots compared to White’s 1.92. 

In theory, that does reflect better on White, as the fact that he was so far ahead in npxG and non-penalty goals despite shooting the ball less often shows his ability to generate (and finish) high-level chances at a high level, but there is one thing to consider – the Gauld effect. 

We have to remember that in 2020, Cavallini was playing on a lacklustre ‘Caps offence missing a #10 like Ryan Gauld, whereas White had the chance to benefit from playing with Gauld, giving him more of an opportunity to receive the ball in dangerous positions. 

Because of that, it does make one want to see what Cavallini could do with Gauld playing underneath him. 

The fact that he was able to generate 6.87 non-penalty xG on 42 shots in 2020 on a team that was 4th-worst in npxG in the league reflects quite well on him (even if White’s 8.48 npxG on 45 shots came on a team that was 2nd-worst in npxG in the league is impressive, although they did were 10th-worst if you filter out before Gauld’s arrival). 

You have to be a bit worried about his volume approach, but in theory, if you can get Cavallini the service to ensure that his shots are coming from better areas, the volume with which he shot could be of benefit to him. 

As a result, it makes the argument a lot less simple than before, where White was the easy option. With Cavallini coming into training camp in great shape, you’d like to hope that his injury woes are behind him, hopefully allowing him to return to his 2020 (and hopefully even Liga MX) form. 

If he is able to do that, as we saw here, that bodes well for him, especially if he can take that a step forward and return to his pre-’Caps form, which was even more impressive than this.  

So because of that, while White still gets the edge here based on the fact that his familiarity with Sartini’s system, his chemistry with Gauld and his 2021 production, a potential return to pre-2021 Cavallini could make things interesting. 

Could they play together?

But then, yet another wrinkle gets thrown into the discussion, as there were rumblings out of training camp that Sartini would want to play the pair together, which is a bit of a chance from what we saw last year, but is still something he did toy around with. 

And that might be the most intriguing part of the discussion. In theory, they have the skills to play together, as White showed to be pretty good at dropping back and linking up with Gauld, while Cavallini is a pure out-and-out #9, so there’s no reason why it can’t work. 

Both are a bit big and clunky at times, which might make for awkward viewing at times, but otherwise, it does have some legs. 

You would lose having the pace of someone like Deiber Caicedo or a Cristian Dajome in this case (although Dajome might fill in at wing back), which certainly hurts, but assuming you find roles for them, it’d certainly open up the door for a Cavallini/White partnership. 

Because of that, while it might not be the ‘Caps best way to go about things, as you’d still like to see someone like Dajome get a chance to build off of a season where he scored 10 goals, or Caicedo get more of a run in his 2nd full season, but it’s not a bad option to have, either. 

Long term implications: 

But no matter if you play Cavallini and White together, or apart, it does lead to the last point, which is the long-term future of the pair. 

In a dream world where money isn’t an equation, it’s not a bad thing to have them both on the roster, as it’s good to have a competitive strike force pushing for minutes. 

At the same, though, this is MLS. With the budget constraints that exist, you can’t be paying big amounts to players to sit on the bench, and with Cavallini being a DP and the team’s second-highest earner, you have to consider that. 

So when it was revealed that both were coming back this year, that was the biggest surprise. Based on conventional wisdom, you likely would’ve expected a move, as either you sell high on White and get money or an asset back and bank on Cavallini returning to form, or you sell a bit lower on Cavallini and ride White, opening up a DP spot elsewhere on the roster. 

But by doing neither, you open yourself up to risks. Assuming both stay healthy, you’d obviously like to see them find a way to both be productive and score 10+ goals, but in reality, it feels like one will prosper while the other struggles a bit. 

And that’s not good in either scenario. 

Say White does great and Cavallini struggles, which while you signed White to a contract extension for that reason, Cavallini’s contract is up at the end of the year (although there is an option for 2023), making you wonder if you could’ve gotten more for him this offseason. And if Cavallini does great and White struggles, you get stuck renegotiating from a bad position, while having signed White long-term when you could’ve sold high on him. 

So seeing all of that, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens. Is there a world where the pair prospers and this is all a moot point? Possibly, but there also feels like there is a fair bit of risk to keeping them both around. 

Be it to choose one or the other, there are compelling arguments on both sides, but to choose both is a bold strategy, one that the ‘Caps will hope pays off with big seasons from the both of them, be it as partners, or by competing against each other. 

Looking Forward:

But it’s a gamble the ‘Caps are willing to take, so as they look to recapture their magic from the 202 season, they’ll hope that they can find a way to make it pay off. 

And based on how a lot of their bets went last year, you won’t question them, but this situation is symbolic of a lot of the roster right now.

On paper, there’s a lot to like, especially after last year, but there are also a lot of questions and gambles, ones that they’ll hope can pay off for them long-term.

So fittingly, we see that dynamic really present itself at the striker position, a spot which is typically the most boom or bust in this sport, with the ‘Caps banking that their bets can be a lot closer to the boom end of the pendulum than bust. 

(All per 90 stats are from FBRef, all other stats are from American Soccer Analysis)

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