Starting the Tank: After a tough debut MLS season, could Lucas Cavallini be primed for a 2021 breakout?

It was far from the ideal debut season for the Vancouver Whitecaps’ most-expensive signing, Lucas Cavallini, but as we look at in this piece, things weren’t all that bad this year, suggesting a strong 2021 could be on the cards for the Canadian international. 

Nearly a year ago, the ‘Caps splashed the cash. 

After some not-so-secret negotiations that had supposedly started months earlier, the Vancouver Whitecaps brought in Canadian International, Lucas Cavallini, as their newest Designated Player on December 16th, 2019. 

Purchased for a fee that made him the most expensive player in ‘Caps history, it was hoped that the striker could bring some life to a struggling Vancouver offence, one that finished 2nd-last (23rd out of 24) in goals for in MLS in 2019. 

And while he technically did that, as the ‘Caps offence jumped 7 spots to tied for 8th-worst (18th out of 26), with Cavallini leading the way with 6 goals, it felt like he and the team had much more to give in the final third. 

A big reason for that? Cavallini’s inconsistent finishing, which certainly cost the striker they call ‘El Tanque’ a few goals this season, denying him a chance to flirt with the top 15 scorers in MLS. Instead, he toiled down in 27th, where he was tied with several others with his 6 goals. 

So looking back, it’s clear that while Cavallini wasn’t actually that far off of living up to the expectations that were placed on him upon arrival, he still has a lot more to give in MLS, which for a ‘Caps team looking to make the playoffs in 2021, is good news. 

Considering that he was among the top 30 scorers in MLS despite only featuring in 18 of his team’s 23 games (16 starts), as he dealt with a topsy-turvy season filled with adjustment, suspensions and heavy travel, there is a lot to look forward to from Cavallini, even if he hasn’t lived up his reported $6 million fee quite yet. 

Underlying stats paint a surprising picture:

But aside from the obvious reasons, such as adjusting to a new league or dealing with the ‘Caps brutal travel schedule, why does Cavallini seem like a strong 2021 breakout candidate? 

It isn’t obvious when looking at the counting stats, but when shifting to the advanced stats, we can see why. 

In 2020, he finished 7th in all of MLS in Expected Goals (xG), with 8.91 xG, which means that despite missing a few games, he was an elite chance creator. While that was boosted by the fact that he took (and missed!) 2 penalties, even when adjusting for non-penalty xG, he was still 9th in MLS with 7.41 xG. 

On a ‘Caps team that only generated 1.11 xG per game, good for 5th-worst in MLS, that Cavallini is anywhere near the top 10 is pretty impressive, especially when considering the black hole that was the ‘Caps chance generation from midfield. 

What surprisingly let him down was his finishing, as he underperformed his xG by a whopping 2.91 goals, and underperformed his non-penalty xG by a still-shocking 1.41 goals, which shows that he was due for a few more goals than he ended up with. 

And while he did generate a solid 44 shots, good for 21st in MLS, on a ‘Caps team that only generated 8.48 shots per game, fewest in all of MLS, you can only imagine what he could do on a team that generates shots at an average MLS rate of say, around 12. 

As we saw back when Cavallini was signed, it was expected that he’d be an xG-creation machine as he was, but the under-the-radar takeaway should’ve maybe been that he was underperforming his xG back at Puebla, as well. 

When looking at his radar from back when he was signed, which was created by Peter Galindo of Sportsnet, he also underperformed his xG by nearly 4 goals, so maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise to do the same in Vancouver. 

So for Cavallini, while his finishing is something worth honing in on, making sure he generates as many chances as possible should also be a big focus, especially if he continues to underperform his xG. 

If he continues to generate 0.176 xG per shot in open play, and finishes as he has, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him get close to 14 or 15 non-penalty xG, assuming he manages to get the 80 to 100 shots a striker of his calibre would be expected to get. 

While he’d also need to finish those chances, which could be the difference between him finishing with 10 or 15 goals, that he’s projected to that well is a positive sign. For him to get 80 shots, all he would have to do is continue at the same rate as he did this season, and just play double the games, getting him to 32 starts, an ambitious but not ridiculous number of starts in a 34-game season.  

And if, on top of that, the ‘Caps find a way to start generating more chances as a team, while also creating more for Cavallini, that number can only go up. Along with the potential to find his finishing boots, he could get closer to 15-20 goals, which for a striker in MLS, is never a bad tally to finish with.

It’s going to take a lot of these ifs turning into whens, which for the Whitecaps, hasn’t always been the case these past few years, but at the very least, a framework for personal success appears to be there for Cavallini. 

The adjustment period:

Cavallini looks on during a game versus Toronto back in September of 2020 (Keveren Guillou)

And that’s what makes Cavallini an interesting case study for the 2021 season. 

While the stats certainly suggest that he’s due for a big season, there are a multitude of factors that could prohibit that, such as the team around him, his luck and his continued adjustment to what MLS has to offer. 

It doesn’t feel too ambitious to suggest that he’ll be more used to playing in MLS next year, especially as a Canadian that has dealt with travel like this in the past, but some players do never adjust to the rigours that a typical MLS schedule can offer up. That should impact Cavallini less than most high-profile acquisitions, but you never do know how that’ll affect each individual, so it is worth pointing out. 

But on the other hand, this was a season like no other, so to see Cavallini on a decent track is positive, especially when you factor in his nightmare start to the campaign. He was scoreless in the first 5 games of the year, missing 2 penalties in the process, before finally finding his first goal in the 6th game of the year, against TFC. As well as his well-noted discipline issues, as he had more yellow and red cards (8 yellows, 1 red) than goal contributions (7, 6 goals and 1 assist), it was far from the ideal start to life in MLS. 

On a Vancouver team that only played 4 of their 23 games at home (17%), spending a large chunk of their season down in Orlando and in Portland, the former in which Cavallini didn’t even travel to, it certainly wasn’t an easy season for anyone, much less for someone new to MLS. 

While the ‘Caps still have some work to do before becoming a playoff team, they did show some progress from the year before, even if it wasn’t the big step forward that some were hoping for.  

With the prospect of a more normal season seeming a possibility in 2021, that could be good news for Cavallini and the rest of the ‘Caps, as well as the new faces that they bring in. As a young squad, there is still lots of room to grow, it’s just up to the club to find what they need to take that next step forward. 

Highlighting the obvious need:

But while progression from Cavallini and his teammates will go a long way, looking at Cavallini’s season also highlights an obvious need: more chance creation. 

For those who’ve followed the ‘Caps in recent years, that’s not too surprising, but it only amplifies the calls for a DP midfield creator who can set the tempo and make the team around him better. 

With Sporting Director Axel Schuster publicly promising a DP #8/10 in that mould, it finally appears like the ‘Caps will get the sort of player fans have long been clamouring for, making them a more dangerous offensive team. 

And for Cavallini, that’s massive news, as any sort of chance creation would be huge for him, both in terms of the improved service that he would get, as well as the space that would open up for him to continue and create for himself. 

Yes, it’s positive that he was able to create on one of the weaker offensive units in MLS, but if he can get the sort of creation that you’d expect a DP #10 to bring, you can only help but wonder what he’ll do with that support. 

That’s not to say that signing that player will instantly turn Cavallini into a goalscoring machine, but it can only help, especially when looking at how the ‘Caps fared this season. Of course, Marc Dos Santos and his staff then have to put all of the puzzle together, at least in terms of Cavallini, the #10/8 and whoever else is on the roster, but it’s a lot easier job than, say, getting goals out of the roster he currently has at his disposal. 

When looking at the ‘Caps, they now have solid goalkeeping, a good foundation defensively, and their #9 in Cavallini, it’s just about finding that right #DP piece to complement their striker, while also adding support in midfield and wherever else possible. 

If they can do that, along with the possible improvement that Cavallini seems bound for, the framework is there for a solid season, provided they can continue to build on the project that they’ve laid the groundwork for in Vancouver. 

Looking Forward:

So stay tuned, as we follow the ‘Caps quest to put together that project this offseason. While things have been mostly quiet in the few weeks following the end of their MLS season, things will start to ramp up in December, setting the table for an entertaining transfer period.

As we get closer to the end of the MLS playoffs, and the start of the MLS offseason, we’ll continue to look back at the year that was for Vancouver in 2020, while also looking forward to what 2021 may offer. 

Led by names such as Cavallini, they promise to be an intriguing team next year, but now it’s just a matter of turning that intrigue into success, starting with an improved season from ‘El Tanque’. 

Given his talent and passion, he’ll be one to watch, as he looks to establish himself among the top strikers in MLS. 

Expected Goals numbers via American Soccer Analysis.

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