The schedule moves quickly in the MLS off-season. While talk for lots of teams has moved to the playoffs, the Vancouver Whitecaps are cleaning their lockers and wondering about what could have been.
Many more still are wondering whether they will be back next season. A large number of players are in the final year of their contracts. Some have club options and will be waiting to see whether they are exercised.
But fans sometimes have different ideas than coaches. Coaches have to manage players in regard to their squad position, contract type, wage and expiry. And all of this has the added difficulty of the bonkers MLS roster rules.
Fans want the players they want and want others to leave regardless of all of these other factors.
In this off-season, I take a snapshot look at the Whitecaps now and try to discern how they may approach their off-season. I’ll take this look starting at the back and working my way forward.
This is also part one of my review. In part two next week, I’ll look at the Whitecaps 2 roster and see whether there are players who could potentially make the jump into the first-team squad.
They are the last line of defence. Ideally, they are not called on too much during a game, but when they are, they must be alert and ready.
The Whitecaps have a sizeable contingent of goalkeepers, but it is also arguably an area where they struggled throughout the year. Only three teams let in more than the 57 goals the Whitecaps did: San Jose Earthquakes, D.C. United and Toronto FC.
But that does not tell the entire story. You can also argue the Whitecaps were unlucky as they let in 8.9 more goals than their expected goal against (xGA).
Let’s take a look at the goalkeepers currently with the squad and view likely scenarios for the offseason.
Current contract: $155K base until end of 2023; senior contract; club options for 2024 and 2025
Current contract: $84K base until end of 2022; supplemental (21-24 roster spot) contract; club option for 2023
Current contract: $105K base until end of 2022; senior contract; club option for 2023
Current contract: $65,000 base until end of 2022; supplemental (25-28 roster spot) contract; club options for 2023, 2024 and 2025
The only goalkeeper on the roster right now that is guaranteed for the next season is Hasal. He is also one of the most inexpensive starting keepers in the Western Conference; only FC Dallas’ Maarten Paes comes in cheaper with a $150K base salary.
This also means that, on average, teams in the West are paying just under $300K a year for their starting goalkeepers.
In the grand scheme of an entire roster, that’s not too much more to ask. However, Hasal is also a homegrown player and Canadian international, which is important when building a roster for the three Canadian MLS clubs.
What can be stated with reasonable certainty is that Newton’s option will not be picked up. He’s 34 years old, occupies a senior-level contract and has never even suited up for the Whitecaps. He’s gone.
The decision on Cropper is likely dependent on whether the Whitecaps look for a new starting goalkeeper or not. He’s on a supplemental contract and earns the league minimum for occupying the spot he occupies on the roster.
Cropper is also only 29 years old. He’s a reasoned voice and offers a veteran presence for a very young squad.
But do you exercise his option?
Let’s be honest and state that Hasal is not going anywhere. His contract and the options it carries are not something the Whitecaps would be willing to let go of. After his return from injury, he also seemed to settle into his role with more maturity, even grabbing a couple of clean sheets in the process.
However, he is currently not the calibre of goalkeeper that can win you games when you do not deserve them. And every so often, teams need to rely on their goalkeeper to come up big.
Yet, he can be a good deputy for a different starter. With Newton likely leaving, there’s a spot in the senior squad that can be filled.
This is a position the Whitecaps will be testing the waters on. It remains to see if there is anyone that is worth taking.
But goalkeepers cannot do it all themselves. They require a strong backline to stop the initial onslaught and to clear balls that have been saved.
The Whitecaps’ backline was fractured this year, partly due to coaching and partly due to injuries.
The early part of the season did not help. Health and safety protocols were rampant throughout the club. Érik Godoy and Florian Jungwirth had a battle with long-term injuries.
And everyone was waiting for the worst-kept secret of the Whitecaps, Andrés Cubas, to finally show up and help out from the midfield.
On top of that, Sartini was steadfast in his determination to make a back 3 work. But he did not have enough healthy natural centre-backs to enforce it. As well, there was not a natural wingback on the squad at all, and players were finding themselves put into positions they were not necessarily comfortable or proficient in playing out.
Current contract: $350K base until end of 2023; senior contract; club option for 2024
Current contract: $65,500 base until end of 2022; supplemental (29-30 roster spot) contract
Current contract: $127,050 base until end of 2022; senior contract; club option for 2023
Current contract: $550K base until end of 2022
Current contract: $405K base until end of 2023
Current contract: $84K base until end of 2022; senior contract; club options for 2023 and 2024
Current contract: $914K base until end of 2022; senior contract; club option for 2023
Current contract: $250K base until end of 2022; senior contract; club option for 2023
Current contract: Unknown base until end of 2022; senior contract; club options for 2023 and 2024
Current contract: $265K base until end of 2022; senior contract; club option for 2023
Current contract: $85,444 base until end of 2022; club option for 2023
The defensive squad for the Whitecaps needs some work, but the urge to throw away everything must be tempered. Some movement has happened here during the season, and I would argue they are better now than where they began.
Godoy is gone, and the $550K price tag he had will be swept off the salary cap for the next season. The word is that Jungwirth is heading towards retirement, which removes another $550K. That’s a huge chunk of change that can be redistributed elsewhere.
The Whitecaps also brought in Martins to play on the left and Gressel for the right.
And Cornelius’s loan to Panetolikos FC in the Greek Super League is done at the end of this year.
This is a lot to unpack.
First off, the Whitecaps need to do everything in their power to convince Cornelius that he has a home in Vancouver. He’s spent almost two years away from the club, has improved a lot and has gotten himself back into contention for the Canadian national team.
Bringing him back and exercising his option while also negotiating a longer-term deal should be high on the list of priorities for the club.
Right now, Blackmon and Veselinović are the only two natural centre-backs that get any consistent playing time. Nerwinski has filled in when they played a back 3, but it is not his position. Campagna is a centre-back as well, but he spent the season loaned to Whitecaps 2.
Adding Cornelius back to the mix brings real competition to the centre-backs. Ideally, a fourth option would be good as well, likely a younger player that can take some minutes in the Canadian Championship or in the early part of the league while the club is in the CONCACAF Champions League.
On the left, Martins has shown promise over the last couple of months of the regular season. The hope is that with a full pre-season, he would have this form from the beginning.
One question that seems to have been answered is that of Gutiérrez. The Canadian fullback looks to be on his way out. We could get into the rumours of why he was not playing, but at this point, it is no longer worth it. His option will not be exercised, the Whitecaps will need cover on the left.
On the right, Gressel has been a welcome addition. But in the recent change to the back 4, he has been playing in a more attacking position. So, he may not be a realistic option as a right-back.
What is left is Nerwinski and Brown. Both have their contracts up this year, but also have club options. Brown is the cheaper option by a significant margin, but Nerwinski is the player Sartini relied on through the stretch at the end of the season.
I like Nerwinski. When he’s allowed to stay in his lane, he can be effective. But Brown is outpaced him this season in tackles, pressures, blocks and interceptions. Is that because Nerwinski was forced into a centre-back role for most of the season? Maybe. But I do think the time to move on the American may be now.
Brown is younger, faster and cheaper. He has had his struggles as well this season, but that also came from trying to fit him into a wingback role he was not comfortable with.
And then there is Godinho. While he played few games than Brown, his defensive numbers are comparable over 90 minutes. He is also more versatile than Brown as he is capable on the wing as well as further back.
So, do you move Gressel back to defence to make way for a Nerwinski exit? I’m not so sure. If Nerwinski leaves, there is a hole to fill in the right-back position.
This may also not be a question we can effectively answer until we look at the midfield, the role Gressel plays and how that may affect other players, such as Cristian Dájome and Déiber Caicedo.
We will get into that further as well as I take a look at the midfield.
Current contract: ~$1.6M base until end of June 2026; senior (Designated Player) contract; club option to end of 2026
Current contract: $2.16M base until end of 2024; senior (Designated Player) contract
Current contract: $500K base until end of 2024; senior (U22 Initiative) contract
Current contract: $300K base until end of 2023; senior (U22 Initiative) contract
Current contract: $750K base until end of 2024; senior contract; club option for 2025
Current contract: $350K base until end of 2022; senior contract; club option for 2023
Current contract: Unkown base until end of 2024; senior contract; club option for 2025
Current contract: $400K base until end of 2023; senior contract
Current contract: $107,415 base until end of 2022; supplemental (21-24 roster spot) contract
Current contract: $100K base until end of 2022; supplemental (21-24 roster spot, Generation adidas) contract
Current contract: $100K base; supplemental (29-30 roster spot) contract
Current contract: $556K base until end of 2025; U22 Initiative contract
Current contract: $400K base until end of 2022; club option for 2023
I’m going to start with this: Teibert is not going anywhere. Get that thought out of your heads right now.
The captain has a contract that no other club in MLS would dare take, even just for one year. It also rules out a move right now to the CPL or USL.
Now, Schöpf is the guy that will likely have that role moving forward. He’s creative in the middle of the park but will sit higher than someone like Cubas. Ideally, the two of Schöpf and Cubas in the midfield will complement one another.
It also means Teibert will be a fixture next season, albeit in a somewhat limited capacity. He will not play as many matches, but he will not disappear completely.
Now, let’s look at the rest of the midfield as it is quite a long list. There is Bikel, Owusu, Baldisimo, Alexandre and Berhalter.
Let’s start with what I believe is the easy choice. Bikel is not coming back. His loan to Vicenza in the Italian second division ended in the middle of the season, and he rarely played for the Whitecaps in the second half.
Bikel saw his game time diminish under Sartini toward the end of last year, which is likely one of the reasons for the loan in the first place. I’m willing to bet not much has changed to convince the head coach to play him. Bikel’s $400K contract can be spent elsewhere.
Alexandre is a difficult one. His loan to Fortaleza EC in the Brazilian Série A is done at the end of 2022. He could return for the Whitecaps, fully healthy and match-fit heading into the preseason, something he did not get this year with his injuries.
But is that something the player wants? He’s enjoyed a good start to his time with Fortaleza. He may push for the loan to be lengthened. And if he does, it may give the Whitecaps room to manoeuvre without removing him entirely from their books. If he does come back to Vancouver, look for him to fight with Schöpf for the midfield role alongside Cubas.
Between Owusu, Baldisimo and Berhalter, I am of the mindset that one should go. Berhalter played well as cover in the defensive midfielder role. I also favour him over Baldisimo as the American does much better in tackles, interceptions and pressures, the ‘meat-and-potatoes’ of being a defensive midfielder.
The cost between the two is negligible. It may be worth signing both but sending Baldisimo on loan to get minutes. At the wages both would command, that makes sense.
For my money, Owusu should be let go. Unfortunately, his price tag just does not match his contributions. Take the three stats I just used to compare Berhalter and Baldisimo:
Owusu lags behind in all except interceptions. The only thing Owusu offers is decent passing. But even that is not great. Baldisimo and Berhalter both overtake Owusu when it comes to progressive passes, which is what you hope for from your midfield.
Add to that the larger price tag of $350K a year, and I argue it is time for him to play elsewhere.
For those in the attacking third of the pitch (the 3-line in the 4-2-3-1), Sartini seemed to find some consistency in the final stretch of the season with Gauld, Vite and Gressel.
Both Gauld and Vite are locked up, so there is no need to think about them. Gressel has proven himself since coming over during the summer transfer window. He has a steep price tag, but it comes with levels of quality that have not yet even been fully realized here.
That leaves Raposo, Caicedo and Dájome, and each of them had unique seasons. Raposo had his best season as a Whitecap. He still has room to grow and would be a good player to resign for depth.
Caicedo’s season-ending injury hurt the young player, but he was already back in light training towards the end of the season. Is contact still has a year left on it, and it makes sense for him to return.
By any standard, Dájome had a difficult year. But I’m not sure how much of that can be placed on him. For much of the season, he was asked to play a role that he was not suited for. He went from being an attacking threat in 2021 to being asked to play more defensive as a wingback.
If Dájome can fight with Gressel and Vite for one of the wider spots in the attacking third, I like that. He will add competition for those spots and collectively, everyone will be pushed to play for their opportunity. But he is also a player I could see being used as trade bait. He has two years left on his contract, which would make him somewhat valuable.
If the Whitecaps are looking at adding from within the league, Dájome is maybe what you tangle to garner interest.
Current contract: $1.2M until end of 2022; senior (Designated Player) contract; club option for 2023
Current contract: $84K until end of 2022; senior contract; club option for 2023
Current contract: $456K until end of 2025; senior contract; club option for 2026
Current contract: $84K; supplemental (29-30 roster spot) contract
Current contract: $66,724 until end of 2022; supplemental (31 roster spot); club options for 2023 and 2024
Ricketts has already accepted a new role in the Whitecaps’ front office. As much as I’d like to exercise that option on him, that’s no longer a possibility.
White is also signed for the long term. He has a poor season by his standards. Hopefully, he rebounds in 2023 and regains his form. He should be good for 10+ goals a season when healthy. I’d love to see him get back to that.
Cavallini is a more difficult question. He was the goalscoring leader for the Whitecaps this past season. That’s something you would expect from a DP that is also a striker. But nine league goals in over 1,500 minutes is not the greatest return for the money being spent.
Here is what I would do. I would not exercise the option on Cavallini, but I would try to resign him to a cheaper contract. Then, I would pay it down with targeted allocation money (TAM) to get it under the salary requirement so that it is no longer a DP contract.
That opens up a DP spot, but retains the services of the only Canadian international player at the club. Hopefully, it also lights a fire under Cavallini to push to a higher level.
That being said, this plan revolves around Cavallini accepting a wage that would allow the contract to be paid down enough. If he is unwilling to budge, then I would have to reluctantly let him go.
If he goes, signing a top-quality striker would then become a priority for the Whitecaps.
Habibullah spent the season on loan to CPL side, Pacific FC. Unfortunately, it was not that successful. In just under 520 minutes played, he had no goals or assists and just five shots.
There has been a lot of promising talk in regard to Habibullah over the past couple of years since he signed a homegrown contract. But the player must step up. He has at least a year left on his contract. Hopefully, this past season has humbled him somewhat to the point where to knows he must push himself.
Whether that push is with Whitecaps 2 or another loan remains to be seen.
Egbo had difficulty with his loan as well. He played with USL Championship club, Memphis 901 FC, but only managed under 300 minutes and a single goal to his name.
What this says is that the younger members of the striker squad are not ready.
What about Whitecaps 2?
But now you ask, isn’t there a development squad that has players as well? What about them?
And you’re right. There are some players worth a look at with Whitecaps 2. But that will be coming in part two.
Stay tuned next week.