Splashing the Cash: Axel Schuster, Vancouver Whitecaps aiming to continue to ‘surprise’ on transfer market amid another high-spending offseason

The Vancouver Whitecaps high-spending offseason rolled on last week, as they brought in two new signings, Caio Alexandre and Bruno Gaspar, showing their continued intent to improve after missing the playoffs for 3 years straight. On Friday, CEO and Sporting Director Axel Schuster spoke a bit about all of these signings, as well as some other changes going on at the club. Here is what stood out from that availability. 

Another offseason full of change has rolled on for the Vancouver Whitecaps. 

As they get set to enter their 11th season in MLS, they’re hoping to turn some heads in 2021, having spent this offseason hard at work trying to improve a squad that has missed the playoffs 3 years in a row now. 

To try and do that, they’ve made some big changes all over the shop, giving them a new look on and off the field. Starting with their footballing department, which they’ve bolstered with the hiring of a Director of Recruitment and some new scouts, to their coaching staff, where they’ve added a new assistant coach, finishing with their front office, where they’ve added a new Chief Revenue Officer, the ‘Caps were busy at work on the hiring front. 

But while all of that change should give the ‘Caps a boost off of the field, the main focus for onlookers has been to see what they do on the pitch, as they look to improve on their 17W-30L-10D record under head coach Marc Dos Santos since his hiring at the end of 2018. 

And to do that, they’ve made some big moves so far this offseason, spending $2.5 million dollars on Colombian winger Deiber Caicedo from Deportivo Cali, before paying a further $4 million on Brazilian midfielder Caio Alexandre from Botafogo. On top of their signing of Angolan full back Bruno Gaspar on loan from Sporting CP, someone who they can bring in permanently for a reported fee of $1.75 million dollars, and the ‘Caps have been making moves on the transfer market this offseason. 

With Caicedo and Alexandre being two of the top 5 most expensive ‘Caps transfers in the MLS era, sitting 4th and 2nd on that list, respectively, the Whitecaps haven’t messed around in terms of splashing the cash these past few months, something that always hasn’t been the case in the past. Historically a team that hasn’t always dropped the money on players, that’s reflected in the fact that 8 of their 11 most expensive signings of all time have come since the start of 2019, the first year of the Dos Santos era. 

While it’s no coincidence that the ‘Caps have become big spenders since then, as they sold Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich for a fee of around $15 million dollars, but no one surely saw them spending close to $20 million on players in the 2 years since he left, especially considering their penchant for bringing in players on free transfers and loans in the past. 

But while CONCACAF’s biggest spenders in all of 2020 haven’t been shy at jotting out the chequebook, the big question remains: are they actually getting value for their money with their signings? 

That question remains yet to be answered, but with the ‘Caps putting together a long-needed recruitment department this offseason, headed by their new head of recruitment, Nikos Overheul, it’s hoped that the ‘Caps can start to hit on some of these transfers that they’ve made. 

So for CEO Axel Schuster and the rest of his team on the football operations side, they’ll be hoping that the signings that they’ve both made and are yet to make end up being successes, allowing the ‘Caps to become a team that brings in talent and then sells it on, all while competing for trophies at the same time. They’re not quite there yet, but they’ve clearly got a process to follow now, of which they hope pans out in a big way in terms of achieving success on the pitch. 

Speaking of Schuster, he pulled the curtain back a bit on the ‘Caps busy offseason to date on Friday, sharing some interesting nuggets ranging from the team’s upcoming American adventure that will see them start in Sandy, Utah to start the 2021 season, to their next steps in the transfer market, and some other important tidbits. 

Here is what stood out from that availability, as he went deep on a few subjects relating to the ‘Caps. 

‘Caps continue to improve depth, but may have to move a few players out:

Speaking of going deep, the Whitecaps have been working to make their 2021 squad deep at all positions, allowing them to both handle absences and rotate when necessary, something that hasn’t always been the case in the Dos Santos era. 

That’s why they’ve brought in players like Gaspar and Alexandre at positions where they’ve already got good options, adding more competition to this roster, while bolstering their depth in the process. 

For a ‘Caps team that wants to play an intensive pressing style, one that sees them cover a lot of ground, they’re hoping it allows them to control play more in games, something they’ve struggled to do these past 2 years. 

“We want to be a very physical team, we want to be top three in all physical outputs,” Schuster said on Friday. “That means in the total running distance, in the number of sprints and the number of intensive runs. That means the players also have to recover, and that means you need possibilities to give players time to recover or to have players on the bench that can continue to play with that intensity.”

But while they’ve made plenty of acquisitions to try and make their squad deeper, they’ve caused themselves a few roster headaches in the meantime, especially in terms of the number of international players that they’ve brought in. 

By signing 5 internationals so far this offseason, the ‘Caps now have 12 internationals on the squad, which considering that they only have 10 international spots at the moment, is a bit of a worry heading into the start of the season.

They could still trade for 2 further spots, but with the team still pursuing a DP #10, who’s likely to be an international, they’re better off moving out some of their internationals who are less likely to feature, either selling them or on sending them out on loan.

When asked about the club’s international spot headache, which they’ll have to fix shortly before the start of the season in mid-April, Schuster confirmed as much Friday, as he revealed that his team was considering either bringing in more spots or freeing them up by moving some players out. 

“I can tell you that there are international spots available on the market, and of course there is also interest in our players,” Schuster said. “And there may be also possibilities that they will go on loan or will leave the club if they don’t see the chance of getting in, so we are in discussions with every one of our players about this situation.”

Reading in between the lines, it sounds like Jasser Khmiri would be one of those players the ‘Caps would consider moving, either on transfer or on a loan, as well as 2021 Super Draft pick Javain Brown, who’d be a prime candidate for a loan. 

More on the way?

But while the ‘Caps have done a big chunk of their wheeling and dealing in terms of addressing a few needs they’d highlighted at the end of the 2020 season, they’re not done yet, as they continue their pursuit of a DP #10, of which they’ve been chasing all offseason. 

They’ve been linked to a few names, such as Porto’s Otavio, or Benfica’s Chiquinho, but they’ve yet to finalize a transfer for either of those two names. They’ve also been linked to some unnamed #10s in South America, but no rumours have yet emerged about who those players might end up being. 

Ultimately, the ‘Caps are targeting someone, and as hinted by Schuster, it’s possible that a name not on the radar at the moment ends up surprising everyone. 

“Sometimes we have also to surprise you a little bit,” Schuster said with a smile. “You know I like to surprise you and to have a magic player coming out of nothing that nobody saw him before.”

On the other hand, despite Schuster’s insistence that the ‘Caps will bring in someone, one does have to wonder: is Vancouver going to be able to splash the sort of cash that an Otavio-esque player would require? 

Considering that they’ve already spent $6.5 million dollars this offseason, one does have to wonder if that’s the case, but Schuster revealed a bit of information into how the process of spending this sort of money goes. 

He goes to the owners with a plan and a presentation, where he explains the value of the player and what sort of long-term projections he and the scouts have for him, showing how the transfer could be worth it. From there, the transfer is either red-lighted or green-light, allowing Schuster and co. to try and complete the deal. 

“Here it is about having a good process, to do a good analysis and scouting process, and to develop a deck,” Schuster explained. “And we have a deck about all of those players so the deck about Caio (Alexandre) I think it’s 30 pages long. (In there), there’s an evaluation, there’s also a projection about future value and the development of that future value, and with all of that we go to our owner, and try to go mention that it’s the right project to spend on.”

Instead of having a set budget, one that he’d have to work tirelessly with, he’s able to work within a more relaxed framework, depending on the player they’re targeting, of course. 

As he joked, it’s a big change from his jobs in Germany, where he’d be told a number and would have to work within it, giving him a little less flexibility in that department. 

“If I wanted to sign a player in Germany, my financial guy said that’s the amount of money we have,” Schuster joked. “And if you want to spend more, we have to go to a bank and we have to take a pistol and try to get money from the bank, because they are not giving us money, so you couldn’t change the budget.”

Considering the money they’ve spent so far, it sounds like they’re willing to splash the money for the right players, so it’s now just up to them to find those players, before doing the hardest part of any transfer: actually signing them. 

Roster confusion cleared up:

The ‘Caps record signing, Lucas Cavallini, runs during a training session during the 2020 preseason (Keveren Guillou)

Although the ‘Caps have the will to spend, however, there was a big question looming after the signing of Alexandre this week: do they have the space to bring in such a DP anymore? 

As we explored last week, with Alexandre being a U22 ‘Young Money’ player, the ‘Caps are now unable to add another Senior DP to their roster, with MLS allowing teams to either have 3 Senior DPs or more than 1 ‘Young Money’ player, unless they buy down 1 of their 2 Senior DPs. 

Asked to clarify this, Schuster confirmed those rules, giving a detailed explanation of how all of this works. 

“There are full DP’s, and there is a young DP, that is a full DP, but at the age of 23 or younger. And then there are what the league calls ‘Youth Players’ (U22 Young Money players),” Schuster explained. “And we also call them DP’s, (for us) that is Caio (Alexandre) and (Deiber) Caicedo, and we can spend the transfer fee out of the pocket out of our owner. So this is already a bit tricky, but it is important for the question you’re asking. So, every club can have up to three Youth Players, which means three players that can earn the maximum cap charge for this year, and the transfer fee can be spent out of budget by your owner, but you can only have three.”

He continued: “Now it becomes tricky, (because) if one of your full three DP’s is a Young DP (U23), but Young DP, in this case, is only a player 23 or younger and everything else you can spend whatever you want on salary and on the transfer fee, so this is the real Young DP in the wording of the league, or (if) one of the 3 DPs has to be below the max TAM (threshold), that is $1.6 million in the budget. So if you don’t have one of your 3 full DPs as Young (U23), or (1 that) earns less than max TAM, you can only have one of those Youth Players.”

Doing the math, that explanation confirmed the theory that unless Ali Adnan or Lucas Cavallini were within the TAM threshold, the ‘Caps would only be able to bring in a Youth DP and another Young Money player, giving them 6 DP-type players. 

As we saw in that aforementioned Alexandre deep dive, there was next to no chance that Cavallini was under the TAM threshold of around $1.6 million, given that his transfer fee alone represents a yearly cap hit of $1.6 million, and that’s without even touching his salary. 

For Adnan, however, it was a lot more complicated. With his transfer fee of around $1.96 million, as well as his reported yearly salary of around $1 million, it meant that he was hovering around that TAM threshold, dependent on what his exact salary was, of which no one knew as the MLSPA didn’t release salary numbers last year as they usually did. 

But when asked about that situation, Schuster revealed the very important nugget that the ‘Caps were indeed able to buy down Adnan, allowing them to continue their chase for that Senior DP. 

“So, now I hope nobody got lost in these explanations, I got lost in that several times until I finally understood it,” Schuster continued. “But I can only say we have the possibility to sign players to all six spots, and it has nothing to do with the open DP spot, as one of our existing full DPs is below the max TAM cap charge.”

That means that theoretically, the ‘Caps could sign that Senior DP without any limits, and still have the space to add another Young Money player and a Youth DP on top of that, as well, which shows that they’ve got the space to still make moves. 

Plus, ignoring the roster flexibility that this gives the ‘Caps, the fact that Adnan can be bought down as a DP is huge, as it changes the perception of his signing.

Having him as a DP always felt like a misallocation of resources, but having him on a TAM deal is great value, especially if it allows them to bring in a DP #10 to free him of some of the burden he faced as the primary creator on the ‘Caps last year. 

Ricardo Clark’s contract:

Moving onto to some of the under-the-radar tidbits that Schuster shared on Friday, he also spoke about the details of new assistant coach Ricardo Clark’s contract, as the longtime MLS veteran was brought in to bolster Dos Santos’s staff. 

When his deal was announced, however, there were no details about how long it’d be, leaving that up for interpretation. With Dos Santos’s deal reportedly up at the end of the year, you had to wonder how long Clark’s contract was, as all coaches tend to have similar deals when they’re on the same staff. 

But as confirmed by Schuster on Friday, Clark is someone they hope to have beyond this year, so Dos Santos or no Dos Santos, Clark is likely to be a long-term piece for this club. 

“He’s here for the longer-term, he’s here for a longer deal,” Schuster confirmed. 

And it makes complete sense for Vancouver. With Clark brought in as someone who’d be expected to work more with the younger players, having him for the long-term would allow him to properly help some of these players develop, which he’ll have plenty of time to try and do now. 

“We decided to do that as a long-term project,” Schuster said. “As if you want to have somebody who develops your young players, obviously it’s helpful if he can be with those young players for longer-term, as well.”

Salt Lake:

Lastly, there was plenty of chatter about the ‘Caps upcoming American adventure, as Vancouver gets set to leave for Utah towards the beginning of April, where they’re going to stay indefinitely with the border restrictions between Canada and the US making it impossible for teams to shuttle back and forth between the two countries. 

A few months back, when rumblings of the ‘Caps heading to Utah came out, it felt like the team would be there until September, but with rapid progress in the vaccination rates south of the border, as well as planned ramped up immunization efforts up north, Schuster was optimistic enough to believe that there’d be a chance his team could start playing at home by the end of June. 

“Now, we hope to stay there for a shorter period of time,” Schuster said of staying in Utah. “But all of our bookings right now are for three months. We hope with the International window at the end of June that maybe things will change.”

With the timelines constantly changing due to how fluid the COVID situation has been on both sides of the border, it’s too early to tell if Schuster’s projections are realistic or just blind optimism, but it was interesting to see his thoughts on the matter. 

Looking Forward: 

So now, it’ll be interesting to see how the next few weeks go, as the ‘Caps try to manage a busy period on and off of the pitch. 

On the pitch, they’ll deal with a glut of absences, of which could see them without as many as 15 players for a few weeks due to international duty and visa issues, putting a crimp on their training camp plans. 

Off of the pitch, they’ll continue to try and do some wheeling and dealing in the #10 market, as they look to add that vaunted creative player that has eluded them for much of their MLS tenure. Plus, with the roster flexibility that we saw earlier, as well as Schuster’s cheeky comments about there being some possible ‘surprising’ new signings on the horizon, there seems to be plenty more to come on the transfer front. 

After a long offseason, things are starting to ramp up now, which for Whitecaps fans, has to be exciting to see. 

Heading into a big year for the club, it appears they’re trying to hit the ground running, so now it’s just to see if they can make sure to fly out of the gates, instead of tripping and hitting their face as they have done these past few years. 

Based on what we’ve seen, however, they’ve been going about things the right way in terms of splashing the cash and bringing in promising young players, so now it’s just up to Dos Santos and his staff to put together that puzzle together on the field. 

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