Midfield Musings: Have the Vancouver Whitecaps done enough to improve their midfield ahead of the start of the 2021 MLS season?

The Vancouver Whitecaps midfield has been a hot topic of discussion in MLS these past few years — mostly for the wrong reasons. In this, we look at the work the ‘Caps have done this past year and a half to try and fix that, and if they’ve done enough to improve their group ahead of the start of the 2021 season. 

There’s no doubt — the midfield is the most important area of the pitch. 

If you lack control in that part of the field, that’ll quickly be reflected in a team’s output offensively and defensively, and vice versa if you’ve got lots of control, as well.  

For those who’ve followed the Vancouver Whitecaps in recent years, you’ll know the feeling of what it’s like to have the former, as the ‘Caps have consistently struggled to put together a coherent midfield group ever since Marc Dos Santos was hired as a head coach. 

That’s manifested itself on the pitch, as the ‘Caps have amassed a record of 17W-30L-10D (61 PTS) under Dos Santos since the start of 2019, which is one of the worst records in MLS over that period. To get an idea of their struggles, they’ve got the fourth-worst record in MLS over that time, but considering that two of the teams below them, Inter Miami and Nashville SC, only played 23 games each in 2020 as expansion teams, the ‘Caps are essentially second-worst only behind a woeful Cincinnati team that has failed to do much right in their two years in MLS. 

In a sense, it’s not all that surprising to see the ‘Caps ranked that low, as they’ve basically undertaken a rebuilding process that saw them start close to fresh with what could be described as a quasi-expansion team at the start of 2019, but that still doesn’t make those stats any less painful.

There is salvation on the horizon, however, as the Whitecaps finished 2020 off strongly, winning 4 of their last 7 games, and head into this 2021 season as one of the most improved teams in MLS this offseason. 

A big reason for that optimism? Their midfield group, which has slowly improved massively since the start of 2020. 

With the likes of Leonard Owusu, Janio Bikel and Caio Alexandre being transferred in since the start of last year, along with the emergence of Michael Baldisimo, Patrick Metcalfe, all joining the ever-reliable Russell Teibert, the ‘Caps have a decent sextet to rely upon in the middle of the park. 

This group does lack a #10, something the ‘Caps are looking to rectify as soon as possible, but even without that centrepiece in the squad at the moment, you’d feel a lot more confident about this group than you probably would’ve about the ‘Caps midfield say, back at the start of 2019, as an example. 

Can they be enough to help Vancouver take a step forward in 2021, though? 

It’s too early to tell, but on paper, they certainly have the potential to give the ‘Caps an edge in that department.  

The numbers: 

First, it’s important to dive into some numbers to see how the ‘Caps do seem poised to take a step forward in 2021, at least on paper. 

To do that, let’s first return to 2019. 

After struggling to generate much in terms of chances during that season, Vancouver finished bottom in the league with a lowly 1.06 Expected Goals (xG) generated per game, helping explain their meagre 1.08 actual goals per game, second-worst in MLS. 

Moving on to 2020, they took a slight step forward, however, making a marginal jump to 4th-worst in xG/game with 1.09. It might not seem like much, but considering they averaged 1.22 xG/game over that aforementioned 7-game stretch to end the season, they appeared to take a step in the right direction towards the end of the year. 

To be fair, maintaining that mark over a season would’ve only given them a 2-spot jump in the xG charts, giving them the 6th-worst record, so it wasn’t too drastic of a change at surface level. But on the flip side, considering there was a discrepancy of 0.24 xG/game between the bottom 6 teams (21st-26th in MLS), compared to only a split of 0.10 xG/game between the 9 teams ranked above them (12th-20th), and it shows that the ‘Caps improvement gave them closer to an average MLS offence. 

That alone won’t make them a winning team, as they’ll have to fix the fact that they gave up the most xG/game in MLS with 1.72, something that was only compounded further by them underperforming their xG against and conceding 1.91 per game.

That’s not very good. 

Again, there were flashes of life in those last 7 games, though, as they only conceded 1.13 xG per game over that time span, which would’ve tied them for second in MLS, had they kept it up over a full season.

That’s pretty darn good. 

It’s not the most exciting formula — relying on elite defensive numbers to drag their middling offensive output along — but it’s a good base to build off of. 

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do in other areas, though. A look at some other numbers paint a pretty ugly picture, such as their 3rd-worst short passes completed per game, or improving on their league-worst 23% of possession spent in the final third, which considering they had averaged a league-worst 41.8% possession a game, really shows how poor their offensive game was.

A look at the last 7 matches shows that the ‘Caps only improved slightly in that last stat, averaging 44% of possession over that last time, so there is a worry that their offensive improvements in those games came from them switching to a pretty conservative 4-4-2 in those games, instead of general progress. 

There are some acquisitions that should bring some hope, however. Winger Deiber Caiecdo should help them push the ball in the right direction, something a strong start to his training camp backs up, and while fellow acquisitions Bruno Gaspar and Caio Alexandre are yet to arrive in camp due to paperwork issues, they should give the ‘Caps an offensive boost at right back and in central midfield, respectively. 

The lack of #10 might slightly impact the team’s abilities to produce more attacking output, but these other signings *should* help the ‘Caps retain and transition the ball forward better, which considering their improvements in xG in the last 7 games, despite not really having much of the ball, to boot, can only be a good thing. 

And to be fair, considering they’re one of only 10 out of 27 teams to make 3 or more transfers that aren’t from within Canada/USA or that are free agents, that should give them the ability to make up a bit of ground on some of their peers, who haven’t been all that active on the international transfer market so far this offseason. 

To contrast that, there is always a danger in signing commodities from unproven leagues, so that’s not like their dealings are without risk, but with those 3 internationals joining a team that is mostly in place from last year (sans Fredy Montero), it’s not like they’ll be forced to carry the team right away. 

So ultimately, there does appear to be a path towards progress numbers-wise, with said improvements only contingent on said players working out in Dos Santos’s system. 

The faces in midfield:

‘Caps midfielder Michael Baldisimo celebrates after scoring his first MLS goal last year (Keveren Guillou)

Returning to the midfield, however, it’s important to look at what sort of role that group may play in that resurgence, as they would likely play a big role if the ‘Caps took a step forward in 2021. 

Obviously, signing someone like Alexandre will help that, as the numbers suggest, but even among the 5 returning guys, there is plenty of intrigue within that quintet. 

Michael Baldisimo had a sublime breakout season last year as a rookie, while Leonard Owusu showed flashes despite being played out of position in a 2-man midfield, with Janio Bikel proving plenty of value when fit. 

Rounding off that group is the always consistent Russell Teibert, who will play hard minutes when deployed in midfield and on the wing this year, and Patrick Metcalfe, who looked timid but up to standard in his first handful MLS games as a rookie last year, and is coming into this camp in-form after a strong Olympic Qualifying tournament for Canada’s U23 team down in Mexico. You could also add Damiano Pecile to that list, as well, but with a lone MLS minute under the 18-year-old’s belt from 2020, it’s yet to be seen where he factors into the team’s plans in 2021.

All-in-all, it’s a pretty solid group, and more importantly, it’s a group that actually hasn’t played all that much together, with many of their minutes mostly coming at the backend of last season, when the ‘Caps played their best football. 

Teibert got heavy minutes at the beginning of the year, but aside from him, the others had slower starts to the season. 

Baldisimo only made his debut in game 8 of 23, and while Bikel and Owusu both made their debuts in the second game of the year, Bikel started at right back in that game, and Owusu only came off of the bench for a 6-minute cameo. To be fair, Owusu then started the ‘Caps 3rd game of the season (and 13 more after), but Bikel didn’t actually make a start in midfield until the teams’ 11th game of the year due to an injury, only really allowing him to play the second half of the season. 

Lastly, Metcalfe had the fewest opportunities of his teammates, only starting twice, playing a meagre 199 minutes after making his debut in a 1-minute cameo in the ‘Caps 3rd game, but as a rookie, that’s unfortunately was to be expected. 

And when looking at the stats of those 4 midfielders sans Metcalfe, who unfortunately just didn’t really play too many minutes to make a dent statistically, there are plenty of interesting things to analyze, as well. 

To get a better idea of how they performed statistically comparative to their peers, here’s a look at these charts created by FBref, who takes a bunch of stats and ranks them in a percentile based on the output of other players in MLS at the same position over that same time. 

First, here’s a look at how Teibert stacks up to his peers. 

As seen, he was mostly in the bottom percentile in offensive stats, but was good at getting touches, completing passes and defending. To be fair, that could be a pretty decent summation of the ‘Caps as a whole, and considering he played the most minutes of any ‘Caps midfielders, it does explain a lot about how they played. 

He’s a very solid player, and is a solid MLS contributor, but at this stage of his career, his best role on a good team would probably see him as a rotational piece. With the ‘Caps singing of Alexandre, the emergence of Baldisimo and Bikel’s recovered health, however, that is probably where he stands in the midfield hierarchy, though, which is good news for Vancouver (just don’t tell that to MLSSoccer.com, though). 

Next, moving on to Owusu, it’s clear to see why he’s such a fascinating player, and for a multitude of reasons. 

As seen here, he’s decent at racking up assists, is a solid passer, can dribble the ball forward and is an okay defender. Despite that, he played most of his minutes either as a #6 in a 3-man midfield, or as a #8 in a two-man midfield. 

Unfortunately for him, those aren’t his two best roles, and these stats back it up. His best role is probably as an #8 in a three-man midfield, which is a position where you’d want that player to progress the ball forward, create chances and occasionally score, all the while defending decently enough. 

Looking at this chart, he fits that pretty much to a tee, minus the goalscoring, all that coming while deployed out of position. That’s not to say he’d set the league alight at that position, but he has the potential to be a pretty good player if deployed there, at the very least, with the potential for more if the stars were to align. 

In a crowded midfield, he’ll have to fight for every minute he gets, but hopefully that just gets even more out of him, allowing him to play in his natural position at some point or another. 

But moving on from Owusu, we then have Michael Baldisimo, who may just have the most fascinating chart of the 4 ‘Caps midfielders. 

The goalscoring stat does stand out, but that’s more due to the fact that he actually scored a single goal despite limited minutes, putting him ahead of many of his peers. The shot-creating actions, passes attempted and dribbles completed stats all stand out, however, showing his ability to progress the ball forward into good areas. 

It’s surprising to see him rank so low in progressive passes, something he does so well, but that is also a byproduct of the team he was on, as he ranked 7th among progressive passes per 90 minutes on the ‘Caps despite his limited action. 

Defensively, he was no slouch as well, ranking pretty high in nearly every category, showing why he’s a pretty good option to play as a #6 alongside a more defensive-minded partner. 

As seen with Teibert, you do wonder if his defensive output could just be a result of the ‘Caps not having all that much of the ball, but considering that Baldisimo played most of his games in the second half of the year, when the team improved most, there is more plausibility to the idea of his defensive actions contributing to that progress, in this case.

Moving on, though, we finish off with Bikel, who has a very unbalanced but unique chart. 

Offensively, there isn’t much going on here, but defensively he has some pretty good numbers, with his tackling numbers sitting very close to elite. 

As a #6, that’s to be expected, though, and it shows why the ‘Caps had 6 of their 9 wins last year in the 10 games he played in that position, as he quietly was one of the more underrated players in the league in that role. 

Plus, there’s still more to be unlocked with Bikel, so it’s not like this is an indication of him at his best. Obviously, with him being healthy now, that’ll help, but there’s also the fact that he actually was a pretty good transitional player before coming to the Whitecaps, showing that there could be more to come from him in that department. 

So although his lack of passing numbers in that chart is slightly concerning, that is also probably more explained by the ‘Caps offensive struggles as a whole, than it is a slight on Bikel as a player, at least based on past numbers.  

But how to pick the best trio?

After looking at all of this data, however, it’s interesting to now pick the best midfield trio for the ‘Caps to lean on heading into the start of the season, as things stand. 

Based on what we saw in the Alexandre analysis, as well as from those 4 charts, a midfield trio of Bikel, Alexandre and Baldisimo seem like the likeliest option, but that’s far from set in stone. 

It ultimately depends on how Dos Santos wants to set up in midfield. A trio seems like the best option, with Bikel and Alexandre the guaranteed starters at the #6 and #8, respectively. 

From there, though, is where Dos Santos has options. Either Baldisimo plays as a double pivot with Bikel, allowing Alexandre to roam free in front of them as a box-to-box midfielder, or Owusu comes in to pair with Alexandre as a #8, allowing Bikel to roam as a #6. 

At the moment, it’ll be hard to keep Baldisimo off of the team sheet, as he was very good last year, and was excellent for Canada at the aforementioned U23 qualifiers alongside Metcalfe in March, but Owusu does offer intrigue in his natural position. 

Interestingly, though, we might see Owusu and Baldisimo compete against each other on the pitch together to start the year, though, with Alexandre yet to rejoin the team due to paperwork issues. With less than 2 weeks until the start of the season, unless he arrives by the team’s last preseason game on April 10th, it seems like a midfield trio of Baldisimo, Owusu and Bikel will be what Dos Santos starts with versus the Portland Timbers on April 18th. 

Plus, that’ll finally give us a chance to see them start a game together, something that actually didn’t happen last year, as the only times when all 3 saw the field at the same time was later in matches after a substitution. 

While that came down to a mix of bad luck and Dos Santos’s insistence on playing a 4-4-2, there doesn’t appear to be any similar barriers holding them back to start this year, so it’s possible that they are able to give the ‘Caps a bit more juice in midfield to start the season before Alexandre’s arrival. 

As for depth, Teibert and Metcalfe also remain intriguing options, giving the ‘Caps the chance to turn to something different if needed. You always know what you’re getting with Teiebrt, while Metcalfe can be a solid player when he’s got confidence, something he appears to have a bushel of after playing for Canada’s U23s. 

All-in-all, it’s a pretty solid group, and although they’re just missing a #10 to spearhead their offensive efforts, the addition of Alexandre, as well as the chance to see full seasons out of Baldisimo, Bikel and Owusu, should push them forward. 

Looking Forward:

So now, it’ll be time for them to prove they’ve actually taken a step forward in midfield on the field, starting with the ‘Caps exhibition games, before moving onto the real MLS season starting on April 18th. 

After seeing the midfield become a pit of despair in recent campaigns, this group does appear to have a good mix of talent, youth and depth, something that was lacking in all 3 areas in the past 2 years. 

Even without a #10, they should be able to take a pretty good step forward as a unit, which in turn could help the ‘Caps solve a few of their woes at both ends of the pitch. 

There will be other factors in that improvement, such as Erik Godoy’s health at centre back, Maxime Crepeau’s return in goal, Lucas Cavallini finding form at striker and a quick adaptation period for the new players, but the midfield will be what ties all of that together. 

If they can do that, it should give this team a base to build off of, forming a platform for success. 

It won’t be easy, but seeing that they’ve got the ability to do that based on what we’ve seen on paper, at least that’s a good start to build off of heading into the start of this 2021 season. 

Season Opener: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Portland Timbers, Sunday, April 18th, 2021, 19:00 PDT/22:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy)

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