Northbound Star: A look at what Lucas Cavallini could bring to the Vancouver Whitecaps

With the recent re-ignition of the rumours that Lucas Cavallini might be on his way to the Vancouver Whitecaps, we decided to take a look at what the dangerous frontman could bring to the West Coast.

Is ‘Air Canada’ going to be on the move over the winter?

The popular airline that goes by that name will certainly be racking up the mileage during this holiday season, as it usually does over the course of the year. In the footballing world, it also looks like ‘Air Canada’, Lucas Cavallini, will be making a big move to a new club during this transfer window. 

After rumblings that his big move out of Puebla would come this past summer, with Canada Soccer even accidentally announced a move to Atlas on their social media platforms, the rumours surrounding the Canadian International just haven’t seemed to die down.

With Puebla restarting their training camp ahead of the 2020 Clausura season this week, news came out Friday that Cavallini hadn’t reported to Puebla to rejoin his teammates, as he and his agent aim to find a resolution for his future. With a couple of offers coming in from MLS, it looks like he’ll be making a move up north this winter, with the destination the only thing yet to be figured out. 

The early favourites in the race for Cavallini’s signature appear to be the Vancouver Whitecaps, who were previously linked to the striker in the summer, where they supposedly made a bid upwards of $5 million dollars for the services of the Canadian. With the move being shut down due to the recent birth of Cavallini’s child, it was expected that they make a new bid for the striker this winter, and based on the recent rumours, it looks like that train has already started rolling. 

Now that the Cavallini saga has opened up once again, TUDN Radio’s Leo Vasquez confirmed that Cavallini had 3 proposals on the table to come to MLS, with the Whitecaps, Sporting Kansas City and the Chicago Fire being the 3 parties interested. 

Of those 3, the Whitecaps remain the frontrunners, because as reported by ESPN earlier this week, they own his Discovery Rights in MLS, which means that they have the first right of refusal on any other offers. Given that they have been attempting to splash the cash on a big striking option all summer, it’s hard to not see them matching any potential offer SKC or Chicago offers, which is why ESPN gave a 45% chance that Cavallini moves to the West Coast this window. 

With this move looking more and more likely that it eventually inches over the finishing line for Vancouver, the next big question will be how exactly he fits in the Whitecaps plans, and how that will shape the rest of their moves this offseason. 

Here is how that all might play out:

What does he bring from a statistical standpoint?

There’s no doubt about it: bringing in Cavallini would give Vancouver a lethal finisher, probably one of the best they ever had, at least on par with their one-time MLS Golden Boot winner, Camilo. In his prime at 26 years of age, Cavallini has shined both domestically at Puebla and internationally with the Canadian Men’s National Team, and would be coming to a league that has typically favoured attacking talent coming from Liga MX.

The big question, however, will be his fit in the team. Vancouver struggled to create chances last season, so bringing in a finisher of Cavallini’s ilk seems a bit redundant when it’s unsure where his service will come from. When looking at his radar from this Apertura season with Puebla, as created by Peter Galindo of Sportsnet, it appears that there are some positives and negatives surrounding a possible move.

He is an elite finisher, as suggested by his 0.45 Expected Goals per 90 minutes, which along with his 2.56 shots/90 and a 32.4% shots taken to on target ratio, means that he often gets the ball into good areas on the pitch in order to score. Along with 0.14 Expected Assists/90, he actually links up with his teammates quite well, which is something that would be extremely beneficial if Vancouver were to improve their chance creation statistics in 2020. 

Considering that Puebla finished 18th out of 19 in Liga MX this Apertura, only ahead of Veracruz, who weren’t paying their players and recently folded, Cavallini’s numbers stack up quite well. With his 5 goals and 2 assists over those 18 games, he was involved in 35% of Puebla’s goals, quite impressive considering that he had a run off of the bench as he nursed a minor injury. 

What are some of his key attributes that he would he bring to Vancouver? 

To better understand what Cavallini would potentially bring to this Vancouver team, here is a look at some of his best attributes, with some video examples attached. 


In Cavallini, the Whitecaps would be acquiring a dangerous attacking threat, one that can hurt teams in a multitude of ways. He’s deadly with both feet and in the air, allowing him to lead the line on his own, as his two-footed ability can make him a threat to play off of both shoulders on a defender. Along with his imposing presence in the air, as he uses his frame well to open up chances to head the ball, it makes him a handful for defenders to deal with.

With Vancouver having a strong crosser of the ball in Ali Adnan, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him setting up Cavallini for some thunderous headed chances, much like the one on the clip below. 

While the Whitecaps would much prefer to keep their offensive game on the ground, having an aerial threat like Cavallini is menacing to have on set-piece situations, for a multitude of reasons. Teams will start being timid in their tackling in those wide areas, as they will want to avoid defending a presence like that when possible, which would open up other areas of the pitch for Vancouver to thrive in.

It doesn’t also mean that he’s uncomfortable with his feet, either. Instead, it’s the opposite, as Cavallini can also operate with the ball on the ground, which is how Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos will be expected to play next season. 

Take this next clip, as an example. After a lengthy build-up sequence, Cavallini makes a clever off the ball run to latch onto a pass, which he slams home with conviction on his stronger left foot. 

For many strikers, that is a half-chance at best, as it’s hard to generate that kind of power and accuracy on a first timed strike from that angle. But with Cavallini’s menacing shooting ability, along with his darting runs, it makes him lethal when he gets half a step of room, which makes him a nightmare to defend. 

We can see another instance of that in the next clip. With his team getting the ball in a wide area, Cavallini immediately starts battling with his centre back, before making a quick darting run on the inside shoulder, allowing him to win an easy front post ball.

And, as mentioned earlier, he’s good with both feet, making him even harder to defend in tight areas. Take this goal against the US back in October, as an example. After nodding down a long ball to midfielder Jonathan Osorio, he senses a gap in the US defensive line and pounces, creating a couple of yards of space to latch onto another long ball. 

From there, he makes no mistake with his finish, letting the ball bounce twice before attempting a volley that he described as him wanting to ‘just break the net’, as he tried to eradicate that ball off of the face of this earth. 

With that diverse package of goalscoring options at his disposal, it has allowed Cavallini to be dangerous on a pretty poor offensive team, as his ability to thrive off of half-chances makes him a threat all over the final third. Given that he already has to deal with added attention due to Puebla’s offensive woes, the fact that he continues to produce is a testament to his skills, and it’s why he’s seen as such a hot commodity this transfer window.

On a team that can spread the wealth around a little more offensively, it’s not hard to imagine him thriving with the space that could be opened up as a result, allowing him more freedom to thrive. While it’s unsure if Vancouver would be able to provide that freedom, it’s clear that based on his play on Puebla, he can still also be valuable offensively, no matter the circumstances. 

Passing/Link-up play:

Another big yet underrated part of Cavallini’s game is his hold-up play, even despite what the numbers suggest. He still completes his passes at a 75% clip, which is 4 percentage points better than Fredy Montero’s 71%, even despite the Colombian having a reputation as a better passer. 

Take these 3 clips below as an example of what he can do when the options to shoot aren’t on. 

Up first, he plays a nice one-touch pass to a teammate for a strike. 

And then in this one, he plays another one-touch pass to a winger in space, who almost returns it to him for a good headed chance on goal.

In this last one, he gets the ball in space, after opening up space with an excellent turn. He then plays the ball off to a teammate, giving him a hockey assist, as they manage to score on that sequence of play. 

An important part of these clips? They come both when Puebla is in transition and in possession, which shows that Cavallini can adapt to different styles of play, which may prove to be valuable in Vancouver.

As the Whitecaps continue to find out how they want to set up next season, having those players that are comfortable in all sorts of situational positions goes a long way towards having success, as too often last year the Whitecaps were forced to revert to a simpler style of play when holding possession didn’t work out.  

How does he compare to what they already have?

As seen in those clips, Cavallini can hold up the ball and score. Besides the fact that those attributes would prove to be immediately beneficial on this Vancouver side, another big question is how does it compare to what they already have, as they look to bring in upgrades, instead of just making lateral moves.

When comparing the outputs of Cavallini and regular 2019 Whitecaps striker Fredy Montero, things are rather similar, but Cavallini edges out the Colombian in all categories, even in Expected Assists. Given that he is often seen as a striker that is rather passive in hold-up play, he can get involved, which is another reason why a move for him makes more sense when scratching below the surface.

Considering that the 0.12 difference in XG amounts to a spread of around 4 goals over the course of a 34 games slate, it shows how deadly Cavallini can be in front of goal, and why Vancouver is desperate for his production. You throw in the fact that the Liga MX is seen as a traditionally stingier league than MLS, and that Cavallini was playing on one of the worst offensive units in all of the league, and a move for him starts to make more and more sense for the Whitecaps. 

With strikers that transfer from Liga MX to MLS typically performing at the same rate as before, if not better, Cavallini would be likely to at least continue scoring in the blue and white. Take this comparison of his stats to the stats of star Seattle Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz, who transferred to MLS after a standout season with Moreila in Liga MX. 

Over the 2017-2018 season, Ruidiaz scored 22 times (with playoffs), including 9 times each in the Apertura and the Clausura, prompting a big-money move from Vancouver’s Cascadia rivals. From there, he has only continued his production, helping Seattle win the MLS Cup this season with his exploits. As seen by the chart, his numbers stayed mostly steady, which should give plenty of reason to be optimistic about Cavallini at least doing the same. 

Given that Ruidiaz played on a better Liga MX side, the fact that Cavallini’s numbers are in the same realm as the Peruvian International is impressive. While Ruidiaz was certainly helped in MLS by having elite attacking talent such as Nico Lodeiro pulling the strings for him, he added a new dimension to the Sounders attack with his dynamic ability, along with his lethal finishing, and Cavallini would bring a similar fresh air to Vancouver.

So even though the Whitecaps are in a much different situation than Seattle was at the time, if they can add some creative players to help Cavallini generate chances, things will be alright for the Canadian striker. He might not end up producing like the prolific Peruvian south of the border, but if given the right service, it’s not hard to at least imagine him pushing into the same realm as Ruidiaz. 

And even without the right service, as he’s shown in Mexico, he can still find a way to get things done offensively, so either way, watch out. 

Contract Situation

Concacaf Nations League 15 October 2019 – Toronto, ON, CAN Canada Soccer by Martin Bazyl Lucas Cavallini v Aaron Long

While it looks like a no-brainer to bring in Cavallini when looking from a statistical standpoint, as well from a look at the attributes he brings to the pitch, we can’t pretend to live in a vacuum. As things stand, adding Cavallini on the rumoured fee of $5 million-plus puts him in the DP threshold in terms of salary, which is a bit of a headache to manage in the context of the MLS being a salary capped league.

That could change if the MLS abolishes the DP mechanism in the CBA negotiations this winter, or if the threshold at least increases significantly, but both are unlikely to happen, so we’ll operate in a world where he remains a DP. 

With Vancouver already locking up 2 DP spots in Hwang In Beom and Ali Adnan, that would have them maxed out ahead of 2020, unless one of Hwang or Adnan gets sold. While there are rumours of Adnan being open to a move back to Europe, that is unlikely to happen after just a half-season, so it would be far-fetched to imagine him going this winter.

Luckily for Vancouver, they may get a lifeline through Hwang, as he is apparently really close to the DP threshold. Given that his fee is estimated at around $1.8 million US, and his salary is $655 000 per year, and that MLS still applies the transfer fee over the course of the guaranteed years on a deal, it appears that it would put him right at a cap of $1.65 million a year, $155 000 over the DP threshold. 

Given that the threshold rises every year, and that it has typically usually risen by over $155 000 per season, it’s easy to imagine Hwang falling under the line as a TAM player next year (if that mechanism isn’t abolished, either!). You add in the juicy expansion fees from 2 teams entering the league this year, along with the MLSPA fighting for a higher Salary Cap, it looks likely that Vancouver would have another DP spot heading into 2020, even if they sign Cavallini. 

If that is the case, it makes the move more of a no-brainer, as they will still be open to chase that elusive creative #8 or #10 for the midfield, while not having to set a limitation in terms of price for that player. Given that they’ll probably have to pay a little more for an elite creator, as Vancouver continues to build up its reputation in the Global Transfer Market, having that cushion would be beneficial as they look to fix the holes from their 2019 squad. 

On the other hand, if that DP spot doesn’t free up, things do get a little more complicated. They need that midfielder, and it’ll be hard to find a good one under the DP threshold. While it is certainly possible, as Axel Schuster and Marc Dos Santos have likely been busy on the phone lines negotiating for one, having that freedom through another DP spot would make their lives a lot easier. 

Either way, Cavallini does appear to be a good move, as he can still create on his own. For a Vancouver team lacking that last year, it would definitely help them, and it’s not like they are completely devoid of creation, as Hwang and Adnan would probably thrive from the space a target man like Cavallini could open up in the final third. 

And if they can find a way to add Cavallini in along with a couple of wingers and midfielders (Kevin Quevedo, Michaell Chirinos, Stephen Eustaquio and Mario Gotze anyone?), they’ll definitely have the juice to turn around their 2019 offensive woes. 

Looking Forward:

It’s unclear yet how Cavallini’s future will unfold. Maybe he stays in Puebla, with his early absence at training camp being due to illness or something of that like, or even moves within Mexico to avoid displacing his family too much. Even if he comes to MLS, maybe negotiations will break down with Vancouver, paving the way for a move to Kansas or Chicago.

Either way, as we saw, he’s a talented target man, one that would bring a lot to a Vancouver attack that struggled to score last year. While he won’t be able to turn around the ship on his own, he can still produce in tough situations, as seen by his time in Puebla. 

But if they can bring him in, along with some other key pieces to free up space for him on the pitch, watch out. While we dismissed the rumours earlier in the summer, when we scratch a little deeper below the surface, there appears to be some value in a possible move. 

And for a Vancouver team looking to find an identity after a rough 2 seasons, it would be a move that would send shockwaves through MLS. While it would be ultimately best-served as a big-picture move rather than the sole move they make, it would show that they are willing to push towards joining the MLS Elite, something that people have questioned their willingness to do over the past few years. 

As they look to return to the MLS playoffs, it might just be the push they need to get the boulder to start rolling right downhill, as they aim to move towards bigger and better things.