In this edition of Thursday Thoughts, we open things up for a mailbag, as we set out to answer some burning questions that were sent to us ahead of today.
Welcome back to another edition of ‘Thursday Thoughts’, a column where we look to take a look around at what’s going on in the Canada Soccer, Whitecaps and CPL world. Today, we open things up Mailbag Style, as we answer some burning questions in the North American footballing sphere.
For this edition, we left the subject open, with the questions coming in mostly surrounding MLS and the Vancouver Whitecaps. There were some interesting queries that came in via both Twitter and Instagram, so for all who took the time to send something in, we extend our thanks!
Without further ado, let’s jump right into proceedings.
After incorrectly predicting that the Whitecaps would finish 6th in 2019, with Kansas, Portland, LAFC, Seattle, LA Galaxy and Minnesota joining them (good thing I didn’t release that piece…), my expectations surrounding the 2020 season are quite different.
This Whitecaps team clearly had the talent to compete, as shown by victories over playoff teams such as Portland, LAFC and the LA Galaxy, but they were never able to ever string together the wins needed to push up the standings. Put it down to a lack of MLS experience, or a shortened preseason, or a little bit of both, but the Whitecaps were just unable to stick together the pieces of their puzzle over the course of the year.
With the long-awaited search for a Sporting Director finally completed, as Axel Schuster was brought in to do some heavy lifting on the football operations side, it seems that the Whitecaps are slowly taking the steps necessary to become a winning team. Along with coach Marc Dos Santos, who promised back in the summer that the Whitecaps would have a much more organized offseason and preseason, it appears that Vancouver has the brain trust needed to revitalize a wounded club.
While the team is yet to make any signings, which is certainly surprising considering their high positions in both the MLS Waiver and Re-Entry Drafts, they have a lot less work to do than this time last offseason. Consider that they brought in over 15 new players last year, despite that offseason starting on December 9th, which would be 4 days from now, the 2020 outlook looks rosier.
They still do need a good amount of new players this year, with a wishlist including at least 3 new midfielders (depth and starters), along with 2 or 3 wingers/strikers and 2 defenders. But with the MLS Super Draft expected to help out for the defenders, and Free Agency likely taking care of 1 or 2 of those depth options all over the pitch, they’ll be able to focus on bringing the right impact players, a chance from the last offseason, where it seemed that they just needed enough players.
So all things considered, my expectations for the Whitecaps pre-signings will be to at least flirt with the 7th playoff spot in the West (a 14 point jump from their 2019 total), along with noticeable improvements on the pitch, with MDS having 1 year of experience under his belt (and a full preseason), to get his team where he needs it to be.
Depending on those signings that they do bring in, those expectations may rise to a playoff appearance, but even without them, their needs to at least be an improvement a la San Jose. Even though the Earthquakes only made 2 signings, they improved to 44 points last year, 10 points ahead of Vancouver in last, only 4 behind Dallas for the final playoff spot.
Answer: Flirting with 7th in the West, while also playing cohesive and unified football, no matter the style of play chosen.
INSTAGRAM (bg.media) Does the fact that MLS teams won’t play every other team in the regular season take away any claim it may have to be a top 10 league?
While the MLS’s claim towards being a top 10 league also being ripped apart by their roster rules and restrictions, which were originally (smartly) imposed to avoid having the league go bankrupt, the new unbalanced schedule also brings all sorts of headaches.
For those unfamiliar with the changes, due to the MLS now reaching 26 teams with the additions of Nashville and Miami, they completely changed the schedule for 2020. Now, teams will play the other sides within their conference twice home-and-away for a total of 24 games, with the other 10 games coming against the other conference, keeping teams at the usual slate of 34 games total.
With both conferences having 13 teams, it means that for the first time in 25 years of existence, teams won’t play everyone within the league over the course of the season. With an already unbalanced schedule due to the conference system, it devalues trophies such as the Supporters Shield, awarded to the winner of the MLS Regular Season, as a theoretically a weaker conference could help a teams claim to that award.
So from a top 10 league in the world standpoint, it puts a big dent in any claim towards that distinction, as along with the lack of promotion-relegation, it continues to separate MLS further and further from their competitors.
On the other hand, the MLS has embraced being a North American league, so if they want to continue down this route, why stop here? Make 4 divisions of 6 or 7 teams, make each team play home-and-away within the division, and make them play all the other teams at least once to fill out the rest of the games.
Either way, teams need to play other teams at least once, preferably twice, if they want to continue to strive towards being a top 10 league. Whether that means playing more games, introducing promotion-relegation, changing the playoff system, scrapping/revamping the conference system, or all of the above, is yet to be seen, but changes do need to be made to avoid a similar scheduling mishap in the future.
Answer: It doesn’t help them in the quest towards top 10, but more because of the bigger picture of the league.
While I’m unsure exactly how many players Schuster and Dos Santos would bring in the next window, I’d imagine it would be a decent amount. Had they picked up some players in the Re-Entry and Waiver drafts, I’d be thinking maybe 4 or 5 at most, but given that they passed on both occasions, I can now imagine anywhere from 5 to 9 players.
They need at least 7 or 8 players to fill out their squad as it is, and given that some players are likely to be on the move, that number could quickly reach double-digits. While some of that will be remedied by the Super Draft and Free Agency, as I mentioned earlier, it’s still a good amount of players to bring in.
As for needs, the big things would be a central midfielder, a defensive midfielder and a creative winger. A striker would also be a nice addition, but if we had to be picky, those first 3 positions are probably the biggest area of need. With 1, maybe 2 DP spots available, they need to ensure that one of those spots is filled by a midfielder, preferably a transition player, as that was the biggest hole on the roster last season.
So I’d expect Schuster and company to be busy, as they ensure that they get their hands on those key pieces. Dos Santos has long said that his team needed more in the midfield and up front, now they just need to bring in the right names to help this team get better next year.
Given that they’ve been surely looking for those DP/TAM difference-makers since Schuster’s appointment (November 15th), having started that process back in September with their playoff elimination, it’s nearly impossible not to imagine them not bringing in some of those guys when the International Transfer Window opens in January. Whether those players are big-name talents (World Cup winners anyone?) or unknown South Americans (LAFC model!) is yet to be seen, but given all the time they’ve had, you’d figure they bring in those guys.
And with that self-imposed January 30th deadline looming, they’ll have every reason to want to have that business done in the next window.
Answer: Crucial needs are 1 DP transition midfielder, 1 TAM level defensive midfielder, 1 TAM level creative winger and 1 DP/TAM level Striker. The other needs (Centre back and left back depth, midfield and winger depth) should sort themselves out.
INSTAGRAM (bg.media) If you could pick one non-DP Player from every MLS Club, who would you pick and why?
A tough yet good question again from BG Media, as there are some teams with several good non-DP players (LAFC), and others not so much (SKC). Here is what I came up with for each team, along with an honourable mention from each team. From that list, I also picked my top 5, which I’ll break down a little more in-depth down below.
Atlanta United: Julian Gressel (Honourable Mention: Miles Robinson)
Chicago Fire: Nicolas Gaitan (HM: Przemyslaw Frankowski)
FC Cincinnati: Greg Garza (HM: Harris Medunjanin)
Colorado Rapids: Kei Kamara (HM: Lalas Abubakar)
Columbus Crew SC: Darlington Nagbe (HM: Artur)
FC Dallas: Paxton Pomykal (HM: Reggie Cannon)
DC United: Lucho Acosta (HM: Felipe)
Houston Dynamo: Mauro Manotas (HM: Darwin Quintero)
Inter Miami CF: Lee Nguyen (HM: Norman Jr)
LAFC: Mark Anthony Kaye (HM: Latif Blessing, Eddie Segura, Eduard Atuesta…)
LA Galaxy: Cristian Pavon (HM: Efrain Alvarez)
Minnesota United FC: Ike Opara (HM: Mason Toye)
Montreal Impact: Bojan (HM: Samuel Piette)
Nashville United SC: Dominique Badji (HM: Jalil Anibaba)
New England Revolution: Diego Fagundez (HM: Kelyn Rowe)
NYCFC: Alex Ring (HM: Heber)
New York Red Bulls: Aaron Long (HM: Tim Parker)
Orlando City SC: Tesho Akindele (HM: Kamal Miller)
Philadelphia Union: Kacper Przylbylko (HM: Brendan Aaronson)
Portland Timbers: Jeremy Ebobisse (HM: Diego Chara)
Real Salt Lake: Justen Glad (HM: Corey Baird)
San Jose Earthquakes: Cristian Espinoza (HM: Jackson Yueill)
Seattle Sounders FC: Jordan Morris (HM: Gustav Svensson)
Sporting Kansas City: Ilie Sanchez (HM: Erik Hurtado)
Toronto FC: Jonathan Osorio (HM: Richie Laryea)
Top 5: Julian Gressel, Paxton Pomykal, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Cristian Pavon, Jonathan Osorio
3 central midfielders, 1 hybrid midfield/full back/winger and 1 winger round out my top 5, which also gives an idea of where I believe the Whitecaps could stand to improve the most this offseason. While the question didn’t specifically ask for the choices to be Whitecaps-centered, I did it that way, based on my question to the previous answer, just to guide my choices in a certain direction.
Selections wise, Kaye, Pomykal and Osorio are all quality at pushing the ball forward, creating offence, while still being defensively solid. Considering that the Whitecaps struggled most in that area of the pitch this season, it would be incredible to get players of this midfield calibre in alongside Hwang In Beom for Dos Santos to tinker around with.
I mean, imagine a midfield trio of Hwang, Kaye and Pomykal/Osorio…
For the other choices, Gressel and Pavon, they would both bring dynamic elements to the Vancouver attack. Gressel is an elite passer and crosser of the ball, which would aid a Whitecaps side that struggled at transitioning the ball forward, while Pavon is an excellent dribbler and chance creator, which are attributes that Vancouver lacked at the wing position last year.
While all of the 5 would be nearly impossible to get, as some of these players are on obscene value deals that those teams wouldn’t give up on (Pavon, Pomykal, Kaye), even throwing a boatload of TAM and GAM at an Osorio or Gressel would be a huge coup for a Whitecaps team looking to contend in 2020.
Answer: Julian Gressel, Jonathan Osorio, Mark Anthony Kaye, Paxton Pomykal and Cristian Pavon.
INSTAGRAM (Keveren Guillou) Out of Julian Gressel, Lucas Cavallini, Steven Eustaquio and Justin Meram, who would you sign if you were only allowed to pick one?
Tough question from our photographer Keveren (follow him on twitter @keverenguillou) as he throws a list of 4 players that the Whitecaps have either been linked to (Eustaquio, Cavallini) or would supposedly be after (Gressel, Meram). Given that all of them could be upgrades on the 2019 squad, picking only 1 won’t be easy, but here is my shot at it.
Meram gets eliminated right away, as his age and salary already makes it enough of a headache, and unlike the other options, he wouldn’t change the complexion of the team. That’s not to say he’s a bad player, but in this scenario, he gets the early chop.
Things get tough after Meram, as Gressel, Eustaquio and Cavallini would all bring different yet necessary improvements to Vancouver. In a dream world, all 3 would compliment each other nicely, but having to choose just 1 is a lot harder.
Gressel would provide both midfield and wide help, as he can play a multitude of positions. Despite that versatility, his production doesn’t drop, as seen by his 0.20 xG/96 and 0.24 xA/96, as he constantly finds a way to put the ball in good positions no matter where he plays. Considering that he only turns 26 before next season, he still has a lot to bring to an MLS team, and would help Vancouver in an area they struggled with heavily last year, which is creating chances.
Cavallini brings a different approach, as he is a deadly poacher, even despite playing on a mediocre Puebla side in Liga MX. He can get involved in build-up play, but thrives in the box, creating a good chunk of non-penalty goals, which he finishes at a high rate. Take this radar, created by Peter Galindo of Sportsnet around a month ago, as an example. If the Whitecaps could bring in Cavallini and someone in to provide the chances last year’s team were unable to give strikers Fredy Montero and Joaquin Ardaiz, watch out…
Lastly, it’s the biggest wildcard of them all, Eustaquio. Only 22, he is less than a year removed from a serious knee injury, but he looked good in his Canada debut against the US last month. Despite that, he has yet to play with Cruz Azul, as they appear to be looking to move on from the midfielder. After his high-profile move from Chaves in Portugal last year, it hasn’t worked out in Mexico, prompting rumours that he might be on his way to a new destination.
If he came to Vancouver, he would provide tenacious tackling, good passing and bring a presence sorely lacking at the #6 last year for the Whitecaps. While he isn’t the regista Marc Dos Santos desires to unlock defences, he passes the ball well enough, and could free up Hwang In Beom and another new midfield to focus on creating thanks to the defensive cover that he brings to the table.
So with all of that in mind, the choice is… Eustaquio. His tackling ability would bring the Whitecaps a Laba-esque presence in the middle, which would open up space for the other midfielders to shine. While a Cavallini, Gressel and Eustaquio trio would be nothing to scoff at, only being able to pick 1, Eustaquio would be the guy, as he would improve the Whitecaps in one of their biggest positions of need.
After Eustaquio, the next choice would be Gressel, as even though Cavallini is a higher-profile name, chance creation is a bigger Whitecaps issue than finishing. Given that Gressel would be unlikely to come close to a DP in terms of salary, what he would bring to the team on the field, along with his price, makes him the attractive second option.
Answer: Eustaquio, Gressel, Cavallini and Meram. In that order.
Ah, the big question, one that will probably be implanted on my grave at this rate…
But to answer the question seriously, it’s a multitude of factors. Turf is one of them, but then again, Seattle, Portland and other big teams aren’t hampered by it, so it’s only part of the equation.
Another thing is reputation, because even though Vancouver is a beautiful city, it doesn’t carry the same weight as a Los Angeles or a Miami does in the footballing world. That’s a lot harder to change, but if they can start winning, and give players a positive impression on and off the field, they can start to chip away at it.
The last thing would be ambition. That’s not to say it’s the sole factor, as the first two things certainly contributed to them not having much of a chance to flex their financial muscle, but that still shouldn’t stop them, either.
I think if Vancouver is to bring in any stars, and build up a reputation for more players to come in, here is the formula that they’d have to use for that to happen:
- Convince the players this is a city worth living in
Among MLS teams, Vancouver is one of the best cities to live in. If they can bring players into tour the city, giving them a chance to see what it’s all about, they can definitely convince some more people to come.
- Find that player that is willing to play on turf and give his all
Kind of a given, but it is part of the process….
- Overpay if you need to!
Once you have that heart-and-soul guy, your Giovinco, Lodeiro or Valeri if you will, pay him! You have that DP spot, use it! Most importantly, it will give them a reason to come, and once you have that player in, your reputation will grow immensely. Look at Giovinco in Toronto. They paid him a handsome deal, the biggest in MLS, but it paid off, both on the field with the results, and off of it, as their recruitment is among the best in the league now. From being linked to Mario Gotze, to pulling an in-prime Alejandro Pozuelo from Belgium in as a Giovinco replacement, they have star power now, thanks to the reputation boost brought by the mercurial Italian.
While players like Steven Gerrard, who flamed out in LA as an underperforming DP, can put a crimp on this plan, securing that first big-name goes a long way. If Schuster and company can find a way to follow through with Dos Santos’s links with World Cup Winners, and they can use that to build up a good reputation, it’ll go a long way in future transfer dealings.
Answer: You pave the way and they will come.
There we have it folks, our first-ever Thursday Thoughts mailbag! Thanks to all of those who sent in a question, as it was fun to dive into some MLS and Whitecaps related questions, while the team navigates through the quiet part of the MLS offseason.
We will be doing more of these in the future, with possible different themes at play, so stay tuned for the next one! Maybe by then, Vancouver will have some signings to talk about, but either way, as seen by today, they’ll never be any shortage of topics in Whitecaps, MLS and CPL land to discuss.