Studying the Squad: Evaluating the Vancouver Whitecaps roster ahead of the start of the 2021 MLS season

The Vancouver Whitecaps will get their 2021 MLS season underway in less than two weeks, as they’ll take on the Portland Timbers at ‘home’ on April 18th. In this, the second part of our 2021 season preview, we look at the state of their roster at the moment, looking at who stands out among the 28 players the ‘Caps currently have signed to first-team deals as of writing. 

They’re almost ready to return to the field again. 

After a long offseason, the start of the new MLS season is now just around the corner, with there now being just under a week and a half until the league kicks off its 26th campaign. 

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, who are entering their 11th season in MLS, they’re hoping that they can take a big step forward this year, making up for a few disappointing last few campaigns. 

Having missed out on the playoffs three years in a row now, the ‘Caps are hoping that this year can finally be the year they return to the big dance, thanks to a roster bolstered by some new signings, as well as some familiar returning faces. 

Heading into their third year under head coach Marc Dos Santos, they’ll feel like they’ve got what it takes to finally take a long-awaited step forward, erasing a few years of pain where it often felt like they were stuck in neutral. 

That’s going to be easier said than done, as they’re not the only team in MLS to improve their squad this offseason, but having had a few years to build up a core group, they’ll be wondering – why not us this year? Having dealt with a tough 2020 season, one where they had to spend parts of the season in Orlando and Portland, they’ll be hoping the stability of a more normal 2021 season helps them, even if they’ll have to start the first few months in Utah, before hopefully returning to Vancouver in the summer. 

But speaking of the squad itself, what can we reasonably make of their roster to date? They’ve made a couple of key signings, such as winger Deiber Caicedo, full back Bruno Gaspar and midfielder Caio Alexandre, but they’ve been quiet in the one area they were hoping to make a big move in — bringing in a DP #10 to stir the pot in midfield. 

Despite that, they’ve still got a pretty good squad, backed by a couple of key faces that stepped up big for them last year, names who you’d expect will be ready to build off of what they started in 2020 with the ‘Caps. 

In MLS, one of the toughest leagues to play in worldwide in terms of travel and schedule, retaining guys on a year-over-year basis actually can be seen as an advantage, and this Whitecaps team is filled with returnees. 

With the ‘Caps having their highest percentage of returnees on this roster than they’ve had in a long time, they’ll hope that gives them an advantage this season, allowing them to take a step forward. 

Heading into the first year of Sporting Director and CEO Axel Schuster working in tandem with Director of Recruitment Nikos Overheul, it’s hoped that the ‘Caps new signing strategy they’ve had in place since the start of 2020 starts to yield fruit soon, helping them cultivate what they’ve worked hard to grow. 

As the days continue to tick towards the start of the season, here’s a primer of their roster at the moment, giving us a better idea of what to expect from them heading into the beginning of 2021. 

The Returnees: 

Starting with the returnees, the ‘Caps have retained a good chunk of players at all positions, allowing them to hopefully take a big step forward this season. Having had one of the youngest teams in MLS last year, they’ll be banking on their several returning players to help them take a step forward in 2021, hopefully making them a playoff team. 

And when we say they’ve brought back a lot of players, that is not an exaggeration, as the ‘Caps enter this year with 22 players on the roster from last year, which has been something new to see compared to the last two offseasons, where roster turnover was heavy. 

As a result of that heavy roster movement, the ‘Caps have had one of the worst records in MLS over the past two years, coinciding with the arrival of Marc Dos Santos as head coach. With Dos Santos putting in plenty of work to try and improve this team this last year, that came at a cost on the pitch, as the Whitecaps didn’t always appear to be pulling the same rope on the field at times over the past two seasons. 

That’ll be expected to change this year, however, as Dos Santos now has a full squad of his signings at his disposal now, meaning that he and his team will now be expected to take a big step forward on the pitch. 

Starting in goal, the ‘Caps have got a pretty good two-headed monster with Maxime Crepeau and Thomas Hasal, giving Vancouver plenty of solidity between the sticks. With Crepeau, their 2019 MVP, now healthy after missing 19 out of 23 games last year due to a fractured thumb, he’ll be expected to compete with Hasal, the 21-year-old goalkeeper who stepped up admirably in his place when called upon in net. Rounding off the group is the 19-year-old Isaac Boehmer, who’ll likely head out on loan, but is seen as a long-term piece for the future, regardless. 

At the back, a centre back core of Erik Godoy, Derek Cornelius, Ranko Veselinovic and Andy Rose are pillars at a position that has become one of the team’s strengths, which was a big reason why the team was comfortable enough to send Jasser Khmiri on loan last month to free up an international spot. Along with 18-year-old defender Gianfranco Facchineri, who is a possible loan candidate after a strong loan stint in the CPL last year, and the ‘Caps have a pretty solid grouping both for the present and the future. 

This will be Godoy’s, Cornelius’s and Rose’s third season in Vancouver, while Veselinovic is entering his second campaign, and with each player all signed through at least this year (Godoy was on loan in 2019, and Veselinovic was on loan in 2020), it’s hoped they can give the ‘Caps solidity at such an important position. 

Shifting over to full back, Ali Adnan was the team’s MVP last year, and with Sporting Director and CEO Axel Schuster now confirming that Adnan can be bought down to a TAM player, his contract has gone from one of the worst to MLS to one of the best. Along with Cristian Gutierrez, who proved to be a capable backup to Adnan, and Jake Nerwinski, who had a quietly good season at right back, the ‘Caps now have a pretty solid returning group at a position that they’ve historically struggled to fill. 

In midfield, the ‘Caps are paced by Michael Baldisimo, Janio Bikel, Russell Teibert, Leonard Owusu, Patrick Metcalfe and Damiano Pecile, who we analyzed in part one of our season previews, but as seen in that piece, there’s plenty to like with this group. There’s a lack of a top midfield creator, but there’s a lot of solid defenders and progressors of the ball, with the main goal now being to see more of them all out on the pitch together, something we didn’t see enough of in 2020. 

On the wings, the ‘Caps are probably at their thinnest, as Cristian Dajome and Ryan Raposo are both good pieces, but there’s not much depth after them. Dajome was a really solid pickup for the team last year, adjusting quickly to MLS and putting up some pretty good numbers (3 goals and 4 assists), while Raposo was solid in spot duty, but just didn’t really get the minutes many expected that the 4th overall pick in the 2020 Super Draft would get. 

Up front, Lucas Cavallini, Theo Bair and Tosaint Ricketts will be expected to lead the line at various points this season. As the club’s record signing, Cavallini will be expected to build off of a decent first season, one where he scored a solid 6 goals in 18 games, as his struggles at finishing chances overshadowed his solid underlying numbers.  Behind him, the young and talented Bair just needs more minutes to grow, while Ricketts will look to continue to be a leader and key super sub at 33 years of age. 

All-in-all, it’s a pretty solid group for the most part, as they’ve got options in goal, across the backline and up through the pitch, giving them a solid core group of players. There are a few gaps that need to be filled, but compared to the last two seasons under Dos Santos, it’s about as complete of a roster as we’ve seen them enter a season with.

Cristian Dajome will be relied upon as one of the key returnees on this ‘Caps squad (Keveren Guillou)

The New Guys: 

And that’s just the players who are returning. That doesn’t mean that there are plenty of new faces, as the ‘Caps have been pretty quiet this offseason (at least compared to the last few), only bringing in 6 new players as of writing. 

Compared to some of the astronomical turnover numbers we’ve gotten used to seeing under Dos Santos, it feels strange to see such few additions, but with a solid group of players now in place, the team didn’t need to go for too many big signings, electing to stay quieter, instead. 

That doesn’t mean they didn’t target any big players, though, as their signings suggest. On top of that, it sounds like they’re not done wheeling and dealing this year yet, either, so there still could be more to come. 

First, in goal, there’s Evan Newton, the 33-year-old goalkeeper brought in as depth via Indy Eleven of the USL, giving the ‘Caps cover for injury or international absences. Consistently one of the best goalkeepers in MLS in recent years, he’s a solid depth piece, solidifying an already good position for the team. 

Elsewhere, Javain Brown is an interesting addition at right back, as he comes to Vancouver as their 23rd overall Super Draft Pick in 2021. Despite that, he’s also a previously capped Jamaican international, giving you an idea of how highly he’s rated in some circles. You do wonder if using an international spot on him is a bit much, but Dos Santos rates him pretty highly, as he sees him as both a right back and centre back, giving the team cover at both positions. 

But a big reason for that skepticism is due to the loan of Bruno Gaspar, who comes to the team on loan via Sporting CP in Portugal. As we saw when he was signed, he has the potential to be a big offensive difference-maker on this team, both in terms of what he’ll be expected to provide himself from right back, on top of what he should do in terms of giving the ‘Caps balance tactically, freeing up Adnan at left back in the process. 

Further up the pitch, there’s Caio Alexandre in midfield, as the ‘Caps spent their second-highest ever transfer fee to bring in the Brazilian, who is pretty highly-rated despite having played on a poor Botafogo side in Brazil last year. Based on what we saw when he signed in Vancouver, he should aid the Whitecaps in their quest to transition the ball forward, something they often struggled with last year, so he’ll be expected to play a big role when he arrives. 

On the wing, Deiber Caicedo offers plenty of promise, arriving as the Whitecaps’ fourth-most expensive signing, giving them needed depth at a position of weakness. Based on what we’ve seen of his stats prior to arriving in Vancouver, as well as in his first full training session before the team departed to Utah for the season, he should be more than a depth piece for the Whitecaps, however, giving them a good replacement for the departed David Milinkovic. 

Lastly, up front, David Egbo rounds off this list, as the ‘Caps 9th overall pick in this year’s Super Draft, and he brings plenty of promise with him. An out-and-out striker, he’s a big guy with plenty of skill and versatility, making him a solid depth piece behind Cavallini, Bair and Ricketts. With the latter three options all candidates to feature for Canada at some point this summer, Egbo will probably get a chance to get a run in the team, which should give fans a glimpse of why he was one of the highest-rated prospects at this year’s draft. 

Globally, it’s a pretty solid crop of new guys, as they’ll be expected to mesh well in with the group of returnees. There may be no number #10 among this group, which is very unfortunate given the ‘Caps need for that type of ‘final action’ type of player, but these 6 players give them a near-complete squad aside from that, with maybe the only missing player being another winger. 

It’s been a bit unfortunate that of these new arrivals, only Caicedo, Newton and Brown have featured in preseason, as all but Newton have dealt with some sort of paperwork issue or another, but it sounds like everyone except Alexandre should be in the squad by first kick on April 18th. 

New signing Deiber Caicedo takes on a defender in a 1v1 dribble in his first full ‘Caps training session (Keveren Guillou)

Three Players to Watch:

So when looking at the list of 28 players currently signed to first team contracts as of writing, here are three players worth keeping an eye out on this year for the ‘Caps. 

Lucas Cavallini:

Up first we’ve got Cavallini, who as the club’s all-time record-signing, had to be on this list. 

After a tough first season, one where he just never really got going due to the pandemic, rustiness and suspensions, he’ll be expected to take a big step forward in 2021. 

With there being plenty of emphasis on bringing in players that can progress the ball up to him, such as Caicedo, Alexandre and Gaspar, along with the likes of Adnan, Baldisimo, Owusu and Dajome, who were already in the squad, and he should have much better service than what he got last year (considering they didn’t sign a #10, that is). 

And that’s good news, as he actually was one of the top 10 strikers in MLS last year in terms of Expected Goals (xG) with 8.91, meaning that he actually had some pretty good chances to score. He struggled to finish them, which was a worry, but despite that, you’ll never fault a striker for getting to the good areas, which he certainly did. 

What’s unique about Cavallini, too,  is how diverse his skillset is, as he’s one of the best defensive strikers in MLS, making him a key part of Dos Santos’s press. The press was often non-existent last year, but with the ‘Caps likely to start the year with Cavallini, Dajome and Caicedo up front, we should see a much more active press than the one we saw last year, where the ‘Caps employed the slower Fredy Montero up top. 

To give you an idea of Cavallini’s skill set, here’s how he stacks up in a few categories compared to his MLS peers, with the stats based on a per-90-minute basis, and the comparisons being percentile-based. 

Offensively, he was actually pretty good at creating and scoring non-penalty goals, shooting the ball and dribbling it forward. Defensively, he made a lot of tackles, interceptions, clearances and won a ton of aerials duels, showcasing some of the dirty work that he does up front. 

You’d like to see him contribute more in the expected assists department (xA), as well as in the actual assists category, but hopefully that’s a part of his game he focuses on this year, along with finishing his chances. 

It feels like in 2021, as Cavallini goes, so will the Whitecaps, and considering that the team had 5 wins and no losses in the 5 matches he scored in last year, you can see why that’ll likely be the case. 

So hopefully for the ‘Caps, Cavallini can find the net more often in 2021, showing why the team spent so much money on him as a DP at the end of 2019. 

Erik Godoy: 

Moving to the back of the field, Godoy comes up next on our list, as he is probably one of the more underrated players on the team. That’s why he won the ‘Caps unsung award in 2019, and why the team struggled defensively the next year with him missing 12 of the team’s 23 games in 2020. 

Heading into this year, health is an issue, but if he can stay fit, he’ll look to show why he may actually be one of the best centre backs in MLS. 

Just look at how he stacks up to his peers, as an example. 

On a Whitecaps team that consistently struggled to push the ball forward, he was one of the best progressors of the ball at his position in MLS, sitting in the 70th percentile in pass completion, 89th percentile in progressive passes, 66th percentile in progressive carries and 93rd percentile in dribbles completed. 

That’s pretty good. 

Defensively, he also sits pretty high in blocks and interceptions, and although he doesn’t have too many tackles, most top centre backs tend to lag a bit behind in that category. 

On a Whitecaps team that has plenty of question marks surrounding their offensive situation heading into the season, having a fit Godoy marshalling their defence could be massive (without mentioning the offensive impact he’ll also bring), so hopefully, for Vancouver’s sake, they see plenty of him in their team this year. 

Maxime Crepeau: 

To round off this list we’ve got Crepeau, who heads into this year as a forgotten man in Vancouver, having missed significant time due to injury last year. 

While the solid play of Hasal as a youngster is a big reason for that, and they should form a solid partnership together, it’s important to forget that Crepeau was really good in 2019, and if he returns to that form this year, that could be huge for the Whitecaps. 

To give you an idea of how good he was in 2019, when accounting for the quality of shots that he faced, Crepeau was top 5 in the league in adjusted save percentage with 73%, showing how good he was on a defensively porous Vancouver side that year. 

For his sake (and Hasal’s), you hope he doesn’t have to face as many shots this year, but as he showed then, it’s something he doesn’t shy away from if needed to. 

Again, much like seen with Godoy, with there being so much uncertainty offensively on this ‘Caps team, strong performances from the likes of Crepeau could go a long way towards stabilizing this team, making him a key contributor.

Honourable Mentions: Janio Bikel and Ali Adnan

Lastly, it’s worth highlighting Bikel and Adnan as honourable mentions for this list, as they easily could’ve found their way into this top three. 

With Bikel, as we also saw in part one of our season preview, which looked at the midfield specifically, he was quietly a pretty darn good #6 for the Whitecaps last year, and when stacked up against his peers, the stats reflect that. 

Plus, there’s the fact that the ‘Caps had a record of 6W-4L-0D when Bikel started at the #6, compared to a record of 3W-10L-0D without him there, showing his impact in midfield. 

If he can stay fit, something he struggled with at the start of last season, he could be a big part of a ‘Caps resurgence. 

Elsewhere, Adnan offers plenty of intrigue at left back, as he was quietly one of the best full backs in MLS last year. 

As a DP, that was expected, but with it now being confirmed that he’s able to be bought down to a TAM player, all of a sudden that makes this chart quite impressive. 

As seen here, he was a force at both ends of the pitch, showcasing his two-way impact. Offensively, he was among the top 20% of full backs in MLS in non-penalty goals, shots, assists, expected assists, non-penalty xG+xA and dribbles completed, and he wasn’t far off in terms of progressive passes, and shot-creating actions. 

Defensively, he was in the top 30% in tackles, interceptions, blocks and aerials won, showing that when he is engaged, he can defend, with his issues more coming in terms of commitment to that side of his game. 

That remains a worry heading into this year, so that’ll be worth keeping an eye on, but if he can keep up the offensive side of his game, while keeping the defensive errors to a minimum, he’ll be an important player once again for this team in 2021. 

Along with the arrival of Gaspar, a move that should free him up even more, hopefully Adnan can take a step forward this year, showing why Dos Santos and the ‘Caps spent an MLS-record fee for a full back to bring him in. 

Projected XI: 

So based on that, here’s what the team should look like on both opening day, and when at full strength. 

First, we have the opening day lineup. With Adnan (visa), Cornelius (injury), Gaspar (visa) and Alexandre (visa) all likely to be absent on opening day, we’ll probably see something like this:

Next, we have the team’s strongest lineup. The battle for a spot alongside Cornelius and Veselinovic appears to be quite open in the coach’s eyes, but we have the Canadian slightly ahead based on his strong play for Canada’s U23’s this year, as well as his quietly good play last year. 

Elsewhere, the battle for spots remains fierce in midfield, so we’ll give a nod to Baldisimo for his strong play last year, but Owusu isn’t far off making it in depending on what Dos Santos is looking for. 

We would’ve liked to see Bair in here, as well, but with the ‘Caps likely to play a variation of the 4-3-3, it’s hard to fit him in, but expect to see a healthy dose of him off of the bench and as a starter, if needed.  

Looking Forward: 

So there we have it with our Vancouver Whitecaps roster preview, giving a better idea of where the squad is at heading into the new season. 

As we saw, it’s a pretty good squad, for the most part, with the lone glaring hole at the moment being the lack of #10. 

Aside from that, though, there’s a good chunk of returning players, along with a handful of intriguing new signings, giving Dos Santos a pretty solid squad to work with heading into the new season. 

Hopefully they can get all their guys in sooner rather than later, but at least they’ve got a core group of guys to lean on from last year, which should theoretically allow them to start off stronger than they have in the past few years. 

But what’s clear is that ever since Axel Schuster came on board as Sporting Director and CEO at the end of 2019, and Nikos Overheul joined him as Director of Recruitment at the beginning of 2021, the ‘Caps seem to be on the right track in terms of roster construction, at least on paper. 

The next step after that is translating that promise into results on the pitch, which is Dos Santos’s job, but there appears to be a solid process, so hopefully they can continue that journey by improving their results this 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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