When you sign a player to a DP Contract, giving up your first-round draft pick to acquire his MLS rights in the process, and then sell him at cost in less than a year it’s fair to say a mistake was made at some point. But what were these mistakes? When did they occur? Let’s examine that
Before the Signing:
It’s important, when evaluating signings, to not read history backward. Now a few things that obviously make Sergio Cordova as a DP a bad use of resources are clear. For one thing, the Whitecaps are good now. That means that a striker like Brian White, who can reach very high levels with a good team behind him but can’t elevate the team on his own, is a lot more viable. But it wasn’t really clear that would be the case coming into the season, at least not for the outside. We also know that Simon Becher is a capable MLS-level striker, another thing that was not really clear heading into the season. With these two conditions in place, a DP striker really doesn’t make sense. The gains to be made on upgrading a Brian White that’s already hitting at least 0.5 goals per 90 are marginal at best.
But, cast your mind back to the end of the 2022 season. The Whitecaps had started the season dreadfully but regained some stability by dropping the lines low and hitting teams on the counter. In this set-up, the lack of pace up front for the Whitecaps was a serious bottleneck on their ability to create chances. Brian White really struggled in this set-up and some injuries didn’t help either. Meanwhile, Lucas Cavallini was doing Cavallini stuff. So a DP striker made a lot of sense. At least from the outside. Internally though, maybe the Whitecaps should have known better. We don’t get to see pre-season games anymore but Sartini talked openly about how he wanted to play a more possession-heavy attacking style. This sort of thing suits Brian White a lot better, and the Whitecaps had given him a pretty substantial contract on the basis of his ability to succeed in such a situation. So maybe they should have been willing to double down. They also probably should have been on to the level Simon Becher was capable of a lot faster than the rest of us as they have the advantage of seeing him in training and pre-season games.
Picking Cordova Specifically:
We know that Cordova was not the first choice. The Whitecaps were keen on Tai Baribo, who ended up signing with the Philadelphia Union but couldn’t make a deal work. We don’t know how much further down the list Cordova was but he was at least some kind of backup plan. Even at the time, there were definitely some red flags. Cordova’s underlying numbers in MLS were pretty mediocre. In fact, he’d never really been a huge goal-scorer anywhere. Some of the reasoning cited for signing Cordova also didn’t seem that sound. There was a lot of talk about how well he had performed against the Whitecaps the previous season. Signing the guy who scored against you last season is a classic dumb guy move. I’m sure Cordova’s previous performances against the ‘Caps were not the only thing that attracted them to him but it did seem to play a part in the signing. Becoming enamored with one or two big performances usually ends in tears because, in recruitment, longer trends, fit, and consistent performances are what’s most important.
But, to go with these red flags, there were also some green flags. Cordova is not exactly Usain Bolt but he’s much faster than White and he’s also massive. His physical profile should have helped the Whitecaps be more dangerous in transition, which seemed like it was going to be their main way to hurt opponents. Cordova’s performances, though not outstanding, were not too bad relative to the anemic attack of Real Salt Lake. In a better team, it was reasonable to assume he could hit higher levels. But I will remind you, at the time of the signing, there was no real reason to believe the Whitecaps were going to be able to provide better service than RSL was. Sartini and Schuster both seemed pretty confident the team was going to be better, and they were right to be, but if you were that confident internally why not just back White to be the guy?
Once Cordova arrived further red flags began to emerge. Sartini started talking about how the team couldn’t press in the same way as Cordova. He also mused that perhaps Cordova was better suited to playing off a center-forward rather than being the tip of the spear (something Cordova has said about himself in the past). Now, anytime you see coaches talking about a player not fitting the system right after said player was signed you have to ask questions. Questions like “What exactly were you doing during the scouting process?” Surely if you were following the patient and analytical framework the Whitecaps are supposed to be working under it would not be possible to sign a player only for it to be immediately apparent he wasn’t a fit. In the matches I was able to attend this year it was pretty clear that Cordova was not fitting into the pressing scheme. There were times when Gauld and White would chase opponents into a corner only for them to get out really easily because Cordova had not recognized that he needed to step up and press. Shouldn’t this sort of thing have come up at some point before Cordova had signed?
Perhaps most maddeningly of all, the thing the Whitecaps were hoping for was finally starting to happen! Cordova arrived struggling with injuries and match fitness. He did almost nothing for the first several months. But, since June, Cordova has been keeping pace with White on xG and has managed four goals in his last seven appearances. He was coming around! Sure, he was still an awkward fit but he was consistently getting in dangerous scoring areas now. If you just rode out the season his value was only going to go up. Cordova did apparently ask for a move to get more playing time. But would it have been so unreasonable to ask him to wait until the end of the season? Maybe, I don’t have any inside information. But I don’t love it!
It’s pretty fun to be a Whitecaps fan right now. The team is exciting and the results seem to finally be aligned with the underlying performances. But lately, there have been some hints of the old Whitecaps creeping back in. This whole Cordova saga and the recent obsession with bringing national team players home feel, to me at least, like departures from the strategy that put the Whitecaps in this good situation in the first place. Are any of these moves likely to sink the ‘Caps? No. But I think if all they have to show for it at the end of the Gauld and Cubas era is a few Voyageur’s cups that will be a disappointment. This season and the next are probably the best chance we will have to see the Whitecaps lift one of the big three (MLS Cup, CCL, or Supporter’s Shield). Can the Whitecaps, as an institution, convert from the good position in which they find themselves? I guess we’ll see.