When we bloggers are analyzing signings (or re-signings) we are at a serious disadvantage. This is because, in most cases, we won’t know until later how much a player is making. When you have a salary cap to deal with, whether or not a player is good is only part of the equation. You also have to consider if signing that player is going to take up too much space for you to sign somebody better or grow your squad in other ways.
This brings us nicely to Cristian Dájome, who the Whitecaps managed to offload on D.C United earlier this week. Dájome was one of the highest-paid players on the team, making a guaranteed compensation of 815k last season and signed through the 2024 season. The Whitecaps will pay half of his salary for this season but are off the hook next year. Dájome was far from the worst player to ever pull on a Whitecaps jersey but he wasn’t even coming close to justifying his contract. So moving him has to be seen as a big win. Except it’s a win that was only necessary because the Whitecaps put themselves in that position in the first place.
Dájome signed that contract after a season in which he racked up 10 goals and 4 assists. On the face of it, locking a player with that kind of production up long-term seems like the smart move. But were there any red flags that suggested that the level of production would not continue? Yes, dear reader, there were many. First and foremost, Dájome took penalties for Vancouver that season. Take those away and that’s 40% of his goals and nearly 30% of his overall production lost right there. Secondly, prior to that point, Dájome had only managed over 0.4 G+A/90 once in his career prior to this. That was on an Atletico Nacional side that topped the Colombian league (or at least the Apertura portion of it). Thirdly, Dájome had his big season at age 27. This is the age that studies generally indicate players are at their peak. Signing a player who has just had a big outlier season, heavily boosted by taking penalties, and who is only likely to decline is basically the trifecta of bad soccer decision-making.
Of course, at the time of the re-signing, we didn’t know the dollar amount. It was maybe a little questionable to be keeping a player who was surely about to decline, but Dájome had a lot of qualities that made him desirable (even though re-signing him for that much money was really stupid). He has a very high work ethic, he stretches the field, based on the videos the club posts to its social channels he seems like a fun guy, and until this season, he was able to reliably put up reasonable though unspectacular production. But this is not a collection of traits that you should be paying top dollar for. It should have been obvious, even at the time, that the contract was a huge mistake.
It is vitally important to learn lessons from this episode. It may not have sunk in for everyone yet, but the Whitecaps are good this season. They have been a bit unlucky with poor finishing, so their record is not super impressive, but their underlying data (even if you include the two spankings LAFC gave them) absolutely blows all of their previous MLS seasons out of the water. Their moment is now and it won’t last that much longer. Although the Whitecaps have one of the younger squads in the league in terms of average age, the bulk of their key players are in the age 26-29 range, their late peak. They simply cannot afford any more anchors holding them back. We have seen, from their 6-0 aggregate loss to LAFC, that there is still a significant distance between the ‘Caps and the league’s apex. If that gap is going to be closed then every single dollar has to be maximized.
Under Axel Schuster, the Whitecaps have made steady improvements. Their talent identification has improved tremendously (although we’ll see how long that lasts in light of recent events). But his tenure has been marked by a lack of ruthlessness. The ‘Caps have seemed absolutely desperate to keep any player that turns in decent performances and reticent to cut loose players who aren’t good enough to contribute to a title-winning side. There have been some improvements in this regard recently. They walked away from Lucas Cavallini’s option, despite a strong season, as well as several other players that they paid transfer fees for. But Russell Teibert remains on the squad, even though he has declined from “not amazing but useful in certain contexts” to “unplayable” and they re-signed Luis Martins (can’t wait to see that number) after about four good games which is already looking like a mistake. We have already discussed Brian White’s contract at length on this website.
All of this is to say that I am anxious about the immediate future. The Whitecaps might be signing fewer duds these days but their management of those assets does not fill me with confidence. I hope that the increased urgency we saw in the last window represents a genuine change in mindset. But we will see.
(Image Credit: Major League Soccer)