Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Brian White (At Least Not For This Season)

Brian White has only scored two league goals this season. This has generated a lot of commentaries that are, in my estimation, misguided and wrong. So let’s talk about Brian White, his season so far, and why there really is no need to worry (at least not in the short term; there is a lot of reason to worry in the long term).

Who is Brian White and What Does he do?

The key to not getting frustrated with Brian White is, in my experience, to understand what he is and make peace with it. Brian White has one (1) elite-level skill. I would be comfortable saying there are very few strikers in MLS who are better than him at this one thing. That thing is off-the-ball movement. White is exceptionally good at evading markers and receiving the ball in high-danger areas.

If you have not been convinced of this by watching him over the past 2.5 years, there are many stats to back this up. Firstly, White’s xG per shot, throughout his MLS career is extremely high. His average is 0.18 but he has been as high as 0.22 in some seasons. The average for a striker is somewhere around 0.14. In practical terms, this means that the average shot taken by Brian White is from a more dangerous position, by quite some margin than the average MLS striker.

Another area we can look at is the receiving category of American Soccer Analysis’ G+ model. You will recall from my article earlier this week that this is a measure of a player’s ability to receive the ball in locations that increase their team’s chances of scoring. Looking at strikers with at least 1000 minutes since White joined the ‘Caps, he ranks 5th. The list of strikers this is better than includes but is not limited to Jhon Duran, Chicharito, Valentin Castellanos, Brandon Vazquez, Ola Kamara, Julian Carranza, and Diego Rossi.

But if you are not convinced by the stats, here is a selection of some of his chances from this season. Don’t focus so much on if the ball goes in or not (we’ll get to that shortly), just pay attention to where he is receiving the ball.

As you can see, there has been no shortage of shots from, and receptions in, dangerous positions. The goals may not be flowing this season, but Brian White’s greatest strength has not abandoned him.

But, if he is so great at off-the-ball movement, why is he an MLS lifer with a modest reputation? Well, as I’m sure most of you reading this will know, the problem is everything else. White is very slow. A lot of potentially dangerous fast breaks fizzle out because he just is not fast enough (though I do like that his teammates will still sometimes try to play a ball in behind him; there’s something nice about them believing in their friend in the face of all evidence). Similarly, his technical skills are limited, you wouldn’t back him to beat many defenders 1v1. He is reasonable in the air and works hard defensively but other than that the rest of his game is pretty poor. There are many situations where a player who was quicker or more technically gifted might be able to generate a chance but White just can’t.

But, despite these shortcomings, his brilliant off-the-ball movement remains. In the right circumstances, he can be genuinely lethal. When the team is cooking, his ability to evade markers means that he is very capable of making the most of the increased time on the attack. It goes a little under-remarked upon, thanks to years of resentment and disappointing results, but the Whitecaps are playing a more exciting passing-oriented style this season. I think that suits White very well. It puts less pressure on him to get in behind or to drop off and receive the ball deeper and instead plays to his strengths. Julian Gressel’s fantastic season has also been a contributor to White’s success (at least as far as getting chances goes). I think this is why White has an astonishing 4.26 shots and 0.75 xG/90 so far this season, all without taking penalties (albeit in a small sample size).

So, that’s Brian White. He has severe limitations but his one elite skill balances that out enough that he works out to him being a slightly above-average MLS striker, who can produce a great one in the right circumstances. If you just accept that’s what he is and don’t worry too much about what he isn’t, he becomes a lot less frustrating.

But, so far this year, the goals aren’t going in. Should we be worried about that? Well…

Is Finishing Even Real?

This might seem like a silly question. But it is a natural one to ask with xG becoming more prevalent. If this statistic can so reliably predict a team or player’s goal-scoring based only on shot locations (and some other bits of information) does that mean that finishing (i.e scoring a higher percentage of shots than the average) is fake?

Well, the boffins have been working on this problem for quite some time and the consensus they seem to have come to is that finishing is real. It’s just that it takes a lot of time and many shots to establish if a player is an above-average finisher or not. There are some players who consistently beat their xG, season after season. The most prominent example is a fellow you may have heard of by the name of Lionel Messi. But the vast majority of players end up more or less where their xG would predict on a long enough time scale. There may be little bursts where they are over-scoring or under-scoring their xG but eventually, most will regress to the mean.

Of course, there are some players who consistently under-score their xG. Vancouver has had a lot of them! Your eyes did not deceive you, Darren Mattocks, Octavio Rivero, and Erik Hurtado all under-performed xG pretty significantly during their time in a Whitecaps shirt. So, naturally one feels anxious when another striker seems to be having this problem. But, when you compare the numbers across their time as a Whitecap, it’s pretty clear that White is a level above the rest.

Player Shots/96 NPxG/96 NPG/96 NPxG/shot
Octavio Rivero 3.09 0.32 0.23 0.1035598706
Darren Mattocks 2.98 0.36 0.27 0.1208053691
Erik Hurtado 2.32 0.3 0.22 0.1293103448
Brian White 2.39 0.39 0.39 0.1631799163

A few things stand out here. Firstly, even with this year’s slump, White is performing exactly to xG during the 2.5 years he has been in Vancouver. The others all woefully underperformed. Secondly, White is generating quite a bit more xG than the rest of them (except for Darren Mattocks). This is important because, although finishing is real, it isn’t as valuable as generating more high-danger chances. A player who generates a lot of chances but is a poor finisher is almost always going to score more than a player who finishes a smaller number of chances very efficiently.

We also have data from White’s time with the New York Red Bulls and that only makes it more clear that he is not a chronic xG under-performer. It’s most probable, therefore, that this start to the season is just a blip. It will probably even out over time.

So, White is doing what he has always done (maybe more effectively than ever before), what he does has produced goals consistently in the past, and there is every reason to believe that it will lead to goals in the future. So everything is all right and there is no need to worry, right? Well…

A Ticking Time Bomb:

Would you make the player that I have described in this article one of the highest-paid strikers in MLS? Probably not, right? True, it would be hard to find another striker whose off-the-ball movement is on White’s level but his overall contributions are probably replaceable. But, after his impressive finish to the 2021 season, the Whitecaps gave White a pretty hefty contract. According to Manuel Veth’s reporting for Transfermarkt White will make 510k this year, 675k in 2024, 780k in 2025, and will have a 1.2 million option for 2026.

Now, we should be fair here. The cost of acquiring White was very low so his cap hit is not necessarily that different from a player on a smaller salary who cost a million+ to acquire. Furthermore, if you look at the 500-800k range of player salaries from last season, it has to be said that there are a lot of misses in that range.

But you do have to question if that’s the best use of that money. MLS is a salary cap league and that means every signing comes with an opportunity cost. If you give a player a 780k contract, that’s 780k you can’t give to somebody else. This means that even if a player is good, signing him can still be the wrong move if the wrong dollar amount is attached to it. As I outlined in the first part of this article, I think White is good. But I think giving him that contract was probably a mistake. Brian White’s strengths and weaknesses had already been known for some time, and the Whitecaps already got a window into how ineffective he could be in the wrong circumstances earlier that very season. The contract is made worse by White’s age. He is 27, which is generally the age after which players tend to regress. That does not mean that White will be garbage next season, but the fact of the matter is he’s only going to get older and slower from here. True, speed is not a big part of his game right now but there’s always a point at which a player simply becomes too slow. 

This may come across as nitpicking or overly critical. But with Vancouver’s budget-conscious model, we really have no option but to be hyper-critical about how every single dollar is spent. The only way this team is going anywhere is if they absolutely nail every single thing from top-to-bottom. Vancouver’s talent identification has improved a lot in recent years (we will see if that continues) but their management of that talent once it is in the door, both on the field and in terms of what contracts they hand out, has been concerning. But that’s a topic for another day. 

One thought on “Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Brian White (At Least Not For This Season)

  1. He is a not a “slightly above average MLS striker.” He simply does not have enough tools in his tool kit to be more than a just-another-guy type of interchangeable player, but one with a contract which makes him unmoveable unless the Caps eat part of it as part of a trade in this league.

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