Protection Deception: Analyzing the Vancouver Whitecaps Expansion Draft decisions and the Evan Bush trade

The Vancouver Whitecaps 2020 offseason continued to chug along this week, as they made some key decisions surrounding a couple of players. In this, we break down those decisions, and look ahead to what might be next for them in this offseason. 

The offseason continues to move forward at a decent pace. 

While the Vancouver Whitecaps are yet to bring in any talent during this period, there continues to be movement on their roster, as we saw one player leave this week, and a second nearly join him on the way out the door.  

With the MLS’s offseason now officially in full swing, as the various re-entry drafts and the start of free agency have all either happened or are close to happening, things are about to get extra busy. 

So in preparation for what could be a few moves in, Vancouver has started to ship a few pieces out, starting with a trade on Monday. Surprisingly, the ‘Caps found a taker for Evan Bush’s contract, sending him to MLS Cup Champions, Colombus Crew, in exchange for $125 000 in General Allocation Money. 

Later that day, they revealed their expansion draft list, which much to the surprise of some, included some names that many did not expect to be there. Even though Austin FC eventually resisted the temptation to pick some Vancouver players, as expected, there were some interesting discussions in terms of the ‘Caps decision-making process with their protected list. 

Now, with the expansion draft out of the way, and MLS’s free agency window now open, with stage 1 of the re-entry draft looming later in the week, it’ll be interesting if the discussion surrounding the ‘Caps shifts from who might go to who might come in. 

But first, before we talk about that, we’ll look at the move that happened, before shifting to the ones that nearly happened, and look at what could still happen.

Bush’s Vancouver Adventure comes to an end

Up first is Bush, whose trade was equally surprising as it was expected, as he was traded to his home state of Ohio to join the Crew. 

While it always felt like Bush was a pure rental when he was acquired from Montreal, you did wonder if he would stick around for the last year of his contract, allowing him to back up his old friend, Maxime Crepeau, in 2021. 

That would’ve meant a loan for Thomas Hasal, who played well this season, but with Axel Schuster saying that unless he was the ‘Caps #1 in 2021, he’d be loaned, this Bush trade doesn’t really change that timeline. 

Crepeau and Hasal could realistically share the goal next year, but seeing that the ‘Caps view Hasal as a long-term #1, you’d have to imagine that the loan remains the goal. 

But with Bush gone, that’ll just mean that in order to continue through with that idea, they’ll now need to sign a veteran goalkeeper, one who can come in and back up Crepeau in 2021. 

There should be no shortage of those out there, either within MLS or in some of the lower leagues, so it does feel like a matter of time until the ‘Caps bring in a veteran backup to pair with Crepeau.

And for what it’s worth, Bryan Meredith is out there and looking for a club, and seemed to have a good relationship with the ‘Caps, so it’s very possible the team circles back and re-signs the veteran, unless he already has an agreement with a new club. 

Either way, no matter what the ‘Caps do, it feels like it’s a story that will continue to keep moving, with this Bush trade just being the latest example of that. 

At the very least, however, no matter what the ‘Caps do, they should feel confident in goal, especially with goalkeeper coach Youssef Dahha still in the fold. Be it some combination of Crepeau and Hasal, Crepeau and a backup or even Hasal and a backup, there are options at the position, and more importantly, they’re mostly good options. 

With Bush’s hefty salary (mostly) now gone, they’ve avoided tying up too much money in goal, which was goal #1 for them at the position. 

The ‘Caps avoid expansion draft slip-up

Ryan Raposo, Fredy Montero (hidden), Jasser Khmiri, Tosaint Ricketts and Jake Nerwinski celebrate a ‘Caps goal versus Minnesota in 2020 preseason (Keveren Guillou)

But then shortly after the Bush trade, the ‘Caps dropped their protected list ahead of Austin FC’s Expansion draft, which was not received as well as the Bush news. 

A big reason for that? 

23-year-old centre back, Derek Cornelius, was left unprotected, leaving Austin with the choice of selecting him. 

While the ‘Caps avoided trouble, as Austin elected to go elsewhere with their selections, it felt like they made an unnecessary risk by exposing the Canadian National Team regular, Cornelius. 

A big reason for that was a look at who they ended up protecting, which was a list of 12 players, with a further 10 being automatically protected for being either homegrown or generation Adidas players under the age of 25. 

Of the 12 players that the ‘Caps chose to protect, there were many no-brainers, such as Ali Adnan, Janio Bikel, Lucas Cavallini, Leonard Owusu, Erik Godoy, Cristian Dajome, Maxime Crepeau, Cristian Gutierrez and Ranko Veselinovic. Also protected were Russell Teibert and Jake Nerwinski, who could’ve potentially been exposed, but given that they’re the two longest-tenured ‘Caps players currently on the roster, made them easy options to protect. 

Where the questions start to lie is with the last protected player, Tosaint Ricketts, who the ‘Caps chose to expose Cornelius instead of. 

There’s no doubt that Ricketts has a lot of value on these ‘Caps, as his wealth of experience both abroad and in North America on a young team can be argued to be invaluable, but from a pure asset management perspective, protecting him over Cornelius was questionable. 

First, there’s the age question, and with Ricketts being 33 years old, a full 10 years older than Cornelius, that already would’ve made him less valuable than Cornelius. While there is a history of expansion teams doing well with veteran signings, those players tend to be spine players, such as goalkeepers, centre backs and midfielders (think your Dax McCarthy’s, Jeff Larentowicz’s and Michael Parkhurst’s), which would’ve made Ricketts, a striker, less desirable as an expansion draft pick. 

Secondly, there’s the question of external factors, of which Cornelius and Ricketts were both affected by. 

As Canadians whose first clubs or academies were not in MLS (or as part of an affiliated youth club), they both would’ve filled international spots in Austin, immediately making them less valuable to the expansion side. 

Seeing that Ricketts is 33, fresh off of surgery and a forward, versus Cornelius, who’s 23, has had 2 good MLS seasons and is still growing at a position where A) players tend to bloom later and B) tend to be undervalued, would exposing Ricketts not have been the more prudent option? 

But even though the risk of exposing Cornelius didn’t come back to haunt them, you do wonder about the optics of this move. 

As we’ve seen before, Cornelius has been locked in with a fierce battle with Ranko Veselinovic to be the #2 centre back alongside Erik Godoy, a battle which we’ve thought that he’s actually so far won, even though Marc Dos Santos may suggest otherwise. 

Would losing Cornelius to Austin not just confirm the thought that the Canadian has been undervalued in Vancouver this past season, leaving them with a talented but still raw Veselinovic as the sole #2 candidate? 

It might seem so, at least from the outside, making that battle that much more interesting as we inch towards the 2021 training camp. 

To end on the positive side of things to close out this section, while this move came with unnecessary risks from an asset management standpoint, there is still some sense to it, at least from a different perspective. 

By protecting Ricketts, the ‘Caps showed faith to someone who has been a very faithful soldier for them since joining nearly a year-and-a-half ago, giving them some desperately-needed leadership. 

And by leaving Cornelius exposed, the ‘Caps just gave plenty of motivation to a player that will surely already have a fire burning deep within him after a stop-and-start season that saw him struggle to grab a foothold in the squad. 

You can certainly question the actual validity of that plan, but at the very least, with Cornelius still remaining a Whitecap, at least things ended on a good note. 

What will be clear is that he’ll have a tough road to compete with next year, one during which many Canadian fans will be cheering him on, as he looks to finally work his way into the lineup on a consistent basis. 

Any further movement on the horizon?

So for now, the attention will mostly shift to who the ‘Caps could bring in, as they’ve got the first of the many opportunities they’ll have to get new players later this week. 

Up first, is MLS’s Free Agency, which opened up Wednesday morning, of which there is a very intriguing list of players for them to choose from. That’s not to say they’ll even sign any of those players, but seeing the ‘Caps need for veteran MLS talent that can both help this squad and bring leadership to this team, you’d have to imagine they’re kicking the tires on a few players. 

We’ll save a deeper look for a different piece, in which we’ll do what we did last season and look at a few of the names that should interest them, but until then, it’ll be interesting to see if the ‘Caps make a dash for any of those names before bidding gets fierce. 

Also up next is Stage 1 of MLS’s re-entry Draft, which goes on Thursday, in which teams will have the choice to draft from this list of players, which as tends to be the case every season, is filled with intriguing names. 

The catch, however, is that any players selected in stage 1 will have to be signed based on their recent contracts, which means that if there are any contract options in these contracts, they’ll have to trigger them, and if not, they still have to offer a Bona Fide offer for them. 

Often a big reason players are on the re-entry draft list is due to their contracts being rather bloated, so it is usually surprising to see any big names taken in Stage 1 unless a team has massively undervalued one of their players. 

If not, there’s stage 2, where teams are free to negotiate new contracts with their selections, making picks there a more popular option. 

Either way, it’ll be interesting to see if the ‘Caps jump at any of the names available in either Stage 1 on Thursday, or Stage 2 on December 22nd, giving them some more players to add to their squad. 

Looking Forward:

So now, the focus mostly shifts to who the ‘Caps bring in, after a few weeks where the focus was mostly on who might be shipped out. 

With the options deadline long passed for Vancouver, and the trade window closed for now, there won’t be any more departures for the near future, allowing them to focus on who they bring in, either through MLS’s many entry facets, or through an actual transfer or loan from outside the league. 

After seeing a bit of a clearing out of some players on the squad, it’ll now be interesting to see what kind of players they bring in, giving an idea of what they aim to do next year. 

Considering this offseason has been labelled the most important offseason in the history of this team, every signing and decision will be judged under that premise, making this a fun time to follow the team’s every move in the transfer market. 

As the team looks to fill out their roster, now we wait and see who they go after, hopefully giving them the pieces needed to take a step forward next season. 

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