Image from: Vancouver Whitecaps (whitecapsfc.com)
(In this short 3 part series leading up to our predictions for the season, we look at the Caps changes to 3 key phases of the field: Defense, Midfield and Attack. Today, we continue with a look at the Midfield)
Often touted as the most important position on a football pitch, midfielders are always relied on to provide solid performances, playing key roles in both the defensive and attacking phases of play. Midfielders come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and roles, as we can attest to in Vancouver having seen a myriad of different characters come through BC place, ranging from the enigmatic Davide Chiumiento to the bruising and energetic Matias Laba. With Marc Dos Santos looking to employ his versatile 4-3-3 that has become a buzzword to those covering the team, the Caps were looking to become more flexible in the position, looking for midfielders that are more comfortable in playing the ball on the ground and pushing up the field. By allowing some high-profile names such as former Mexican international Efrain Juarez and current Egyptian international Aly Ghazal to move on to new clubs, Dos Santos made it very clear that there was a profile of player he is looking to bring in, and that the technically deficient Ghazal and Juarez were not gonna fit that mould. However, it appears Robinson did end up having a few midfielders that will meet the standard Dos Santos is searching for this season, with Dos Santos retaining 3 key players from last seasons midfield unit, on top of the 3 he ended up bringing in so far this window. For now, it appears that Dos Santos has made the right decisions in that regard, but it is entirely possible that changes, especially with the chatter rumbling around that the Caps want to target a talented DP midfielder over the summer transfer window. Before that could potentially come to fruition, it still looks like the Caps have built up a pretty formidable unit, and one that has a lot of potential to work with.
The three main holdovers in the midfield positions are the energetic workhorse in Russell Teibert, the talented MLS veteran in Felipe and the skilled spark plug in Yordy Reyna. Reyna in particular is going to be a key player to monitor, becoming an important player over his 2 seasons with the club. Despite starting last season slowly as he was mired with an offseason controversy, he finished with 6 goals and 11 assists, leading the club in the latter category. His per game rates were similar to the skilled Miguel Almiron, which is pretty impressive considering Almiron was able to feed a striker in Josef Martinez (31 goals) that scored 17(!!) more goals than the leading scorer on the Caps, Kei Kamara (14 goals). It is unknown if Dos Santos sees Reynas best role as a false nine, inverted winger or as a number 10, but having played the majority of last season as a number 10 or a wide midfielder, we include him in both this category and the forward one. One frustration with Reyna is his lack of ball movement at times, but when he decides to move the ball he does it well, as evidenced by his stats last season. It appears that Dos Santos has started to get to him already, showing off a good balance of skilled dribbling runs and ball movement in his cameo at the false nine position against Iwaki FC last week. Likewise, another key cog for the Caps last season was Felipe, a veteran of MLS that has played in the league for 7 seasons running now. Felipe was a big topic of discussion amongst Caps fans and media last year, primarily due to the fact that he was acquired for outgoing fan favourite Tim Parker, who ended up flourishing in New York for the Red Bulls last year. It was a trying year for the Brazilian, with many off-field issues plaguing him and his on-field play, on top of being played out of position and not scoring his first goal until October. Despite all that, he still performed relatively well, leading the team in key chances created for most of the season despite the presence of well-known providers in Reyna and Alphonso Davies. Despite having all that going on, he was eventually displaced at the end of the season for the energetic Teibert, leaving fans to wonder where that left the Brazilian coming into the season. Despite rumours flying around about a potential exit, Dos Santos decided to stick with him, providing him with a contract extension, and it appears that he will be one of the biggest beneficiaries from the change to the Dos Santos style from the direct Hoofball style Robinson employed. That leaves Teibert, the last of the trio of regulars returning this season. As mentioned, he displaced Felipe at the end of the season, becoming a regular starter under Robinson and then under interim manager Craig Dalrymple. However, it is unclear what kind of role he will play for Dos Santos, with him not featuring in preseason yet due to injury. Despite providing tenacity and having improved his technical ability immensely over the years, it appears the only original MLS Whitecap left will once again to start the new coaching tenure as a bench player. It will be beneficial he gets minutes as the season progresses, as keeping him fit and active will aid the Caps in their energetic press, along with keeping him in shape for the important games the Canadian National team will have to play in 2019, including hopefully an appearance at the Gold Cup. Also included amongst the returnees are the young Simon Colyn and David Norman.Jr, with each picking up one match last season, Colyn in the last MLS game and Norman.Jr in the Canadian Championship in Montreal before heading out on loan. It is not quite clear yet how big of a role the two are to play, but they have looked good in preseason and at the very least should compete for minutes on a more regular basis this season.
The New Guys:
The three new guys brought in by Dos Santos are all very different but are coming to MLS with different ambitions and experience. Firstly, we got the veteran in Jon Erice, who is a very poised deep-lying midfielder who comes to Vancouver at 32 years of age having been around the different levels of the Spanish footballing pyramid, primarily plying his trade in the second division. Despite that, he seems to be a very good signing so far, distributing the ball with ease and showing off decent defensive acumen. A good comparison to understand what he brings would be to look at other popular deep-lying midfielders such as Jorginho at Chelsea or Toni Kroos at Real Madrid. It is expected that when he plays that he helps the defenders get the ball up to the wingers and strikers, jumpstarting the attack when building up from deep. Another player that can play that deep role would be the 29-year-old Andy Rose, brought in as a veteran presence and a hounding midfielder that can be effective in that deeper role or as a box-to-box player. He will not be out on the pitch spraying the ball like Erice, or providing assists and goals, but he will be able to provide solid cover in the position and should be a good option considering he has experience in the league already and what he has taken from his time in the UK. Lastly, we got the most intriguing out of the 3 brought in, the 22-year-old South Korean international In-Beom Hwang. Hwang is going to be a huge signing for the Caps, considering his technical ability and how highly touted he was by some other big European clubs, including Hannover in the German Bundesliga. There was some controversy with agents and how his negotiations with the European clubs were handled, but it appears that Hwang has his head screwed on very tightly, showcasing incredible class and humility during his interviews, which will make him another fan favourite Korean wherever he plays like his fellow countrymen such as Heung Min Son, Park Ji Sung and YP Lee. He looks enthusiastic to join this up and coming Vancouver squad, and it is not impossible to imagine him playing a big role in the rise of this squad. He is a very versatile midfielder, with good mobility and tackling that allows him to play deeper if needed, but pinpoint passing and shooting ability with both feet that allows him to play further up the pitch as well. The only knock on him at this point would be his size, but once he adjusts to the physicality of the MLS he will not be hindered by it whatsoever. No one quite knows how long this adjustment period will be, but seeing him shine in South Korea’s national team despite playing in the second division of the K-League in Korea is a good indication that it probably won’t take too long before he becomes a key cog in the Whitecaps midfield.
Where that leaves the Caps:
In a season where the Caps will face an enormous schedule crunch due to a shortened window of months to play games, an expanded Canadian Championship and several key global tournaments that may affect their squad such as the African Cup of Nations, Copa America and the Gold Cup, depth is going to be paramount for them to have any sort of success. Injuries are hard to predict, but the travel that Vancouver endures is never good for that kind of stuff, as evidenced by the troubles that always plague another major league sports outfit in Vancouver, the Canucks. As mentioned by Dos Santos, with the league being as unforgiving as it can be in it’s scheduling, he plans to be smart in his rotation and tactics based on what is ahead, so having some versatile pieces in the midfield will definitely aid that. Rose, Teibert, Hwang and Felipe are rather flexible in where they can play, with Reyna and Erice providing more specialized tools, but tools that will nonetheless be key in implementing the Dos Santos way. There is also a lot of youth in Colyn, Norman.Jr, Michael Baldisimo and many other academy players that will push for minutes in training. There will always be a clamour for a bigger name in this market, but so far it appears Dos Santos has done very well with the money spent so far. It is entirely possible the Caps pursue an upgrade in the summer, as mentioned, but for now it appears they are in good hands in the position. On paper, it seems a slight upgrade over the unit in Robinson’s last season, but how the players end up fitting under Dos Santos will truly shape how this year’s unit is rated at the end of the season.
What to expect:
The midfield can always be a hard position to rate, as their success is not as easily counted in numbers and statistics, as we see with the other positions. Yet, when a midfield is on its game it can influence one of the most important statistics of them all, wins and losses. The success of this unit may be impacted by how the other players around them adjust to the system, but it does not appear to be as big of a question mark as the other positions appear to be heading into the beginning of this campaign. Hwang should have a good season, as his class will shine when given the opportunity and gains the confidence needed to succeed. Felipe will have a bounce-back season, making the price paid for him last season look a lot more justifiable. Reyna and Erice will be good in their roles, helping set the tempo going forward for a team looking to be potent in that regard. Teibert and Rose will be solid when called upon, and the youngsters such as Colyn, Norman.Jr and Baldisimo will seize whatever minutes they are able to get. The midfield won’t have as much adjustment to face as the defensive line does, so it is definitely something positive for Caps fans to look at heading into the season.