It was a tough ending, but at the same time, you can’t say that they didn’t learn anything from it.
While it’s been only 5 days since their elimination from MLS is Back at the hands of Sporting Kansas City, the Vancouver Whitecaps have surely had lots of time to ponder that match, and the others they played, as they find themselves in self-isolation after having returned home earlier this week.
With no clear plan for the future of MLS, all they can really do now is wait and see, as the league continues to negotiate a long-term return plan, one that can be executed both safely and effectively.
So in a situation like that, it’s a perfect time for the ‘Caps to look back, and reflect on what they learned from their few weeks down in Orlando, in which they played 4 very different soccer games.
From their opening match collapse against the San Jose Earthquakes to their second game annihilation at the hands of the Seattle Sounders, before finishing off with a resilient 3rd game victory vs the Chicago Fire and 4th game penalty shootout loss to Sporting KC, the ‘Caps had a whirlwind of a Disney experience down in Florida.
Given how shorthanded they were for this tournament, as they picked up injuries the way that a typical Disney traveller tends to pick up Airmiles, it was far from a bad tournament, especially considering the circumstances.
While they would’ve loved to have run the table and dominated everyone, they did get some valuable minutes to youngsters, get a chance to learn about some of their new arrivals, and see more of the players that they’re already a lot more familiar with.
In this series, we’ll take a look at some of those standout players, and look at what this tournament taught us about them going forward, as they all look to push for minutes when the full squad is back and in training, whenever that may end up being.
Up first, is Leonard Owusu, the Ghanaian midfielder, who quickly emerged as a player of the tournament for the ‘Caps, as he was arguably one of their most consistent performers throughout the 4 games.
Owusu: Exactly as advertised
When Owusu arrived in Vancouver, we didn’t know much about the Ghanaian midfielder, aside from a few anecdotal scouting reports, some stats and limited video clips.
Using that information, we compiled an early report on Owusu, in which we noted that: “He mostly played as a #6, forcing him to play a lot deeper. (…) He can transition the ball forward in a hurry, but he can also move, which should make for a good match alongside the similarily profiled Hwang In Beom. If Vancouver can add a destroyer type #6 to complement them in a trio, allowing them to roam forward, this could prove to be a good signing.”
While Vancouver didn’t add that #6 right away as expected, instead waiting until the morning before opening day to bring in Janio Bikel, a #6/RB who was plying his trade at CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria, it was expected that when Owusu would play, it would be as a #8, alongside the aforementioned In Beom Hwang.
But then, due to paperwork issues, Bikel actually ended up making his debut around 80 minutes before Owusu did, as they both didn’t feature on the ‘Caps opening day clash with Sporting KC on February the 29th.
They both instead made their debuts a week later against the LA Galaxy, however, with Bikel getting a start at right back in place of an injured Jake Nerwinski, while Owusu made a 15-minute cameo off of the bench.
Unfortunately for them, their teammates and the rest of the league, that would be the last matchday that MLS would play for a while, as they had to postpone their season in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that had started to quickly wrap itself around the globe.
It was expected that whenever the league would return, however, that the ‘Caps would play a midfield trio of In Beom Hwang, Owusu and Bikel, giving them the punch in the middle of the park that they’d certainly been missing a year prior.
Fast forward until now, and that reality of an In Beom, Owusu and Bikel midfield has yet to materialize, mostly due to unfortunate circumstances. Due to an adductor injury that Bikel sustained mere days before the start of the MLS is Back tournament, he was ruled out of the whole competition, leaving him to watch from the sidelines.
While it appeared that ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos was going to play Bikel at right back down in Orlando, at least from what we saw in clips from training, it was hoped that Bikel could’ve stepped into the middle as a #6 at some point, freeing up Owusu to play as a box-to-box #8.
With Bikel gone, however, that meant Owusu had to play as a #6 for the whole tournament, a position in which he shined, but despite that, it did feel like a position in which he was slightly limited.
Not that Owusu was bad at the #6, far from it, but it just felt like playing that far back nullified his impact a bit, especially on the offensive end of things.
Much like we saw in our aforementioned scouting report, we noted that him playing so deep for Ashdod in Israel made him a prime candidate to play as an #8 for Vancouver, especially considering how good his offensive numbers were for Ashdod despite his positional limitations.
So if anything, we saw Owusu exactly as he was advertised, which was that he was a really good passing midfielder with good defensive acumen, making him a good fit alongside someone like In Beom in the midfield.
That’s where Bikel steps in, as his presence should both facilitate and complement that. When we scouted him, we noted that he entered an ‘absurd’ amount of defensive duels, and that he can transition the ball forward ‘in a hurry’, making him a perfect fit alongside Owusu and In Beom.
Given that the ‘Caps biggest struggle is a combination of their defensive pressure in the middle, along with their ability to transition the ball forward from midfield, it seems natural that bringing in Bikel, in turn freeing up Owusu, could be wise.
From what we’ve seen and heard, Owusu playing as a #8 could help the ‘Caps offensively, especially when someone like Lucas Cavallini returns, as the DP striker would certainly benefit from someone like Owusu providing him service up top.
The stats suggest that moving him forward could be wise:
And the stats certainly back up that idea.
While it’s hard to properly assess Owusu’s stats, as his numbers slightly dropped throughout the tournament, mostly due to a first-game hamstring injury that slightly hampered his effectiveness, they certainly do give you an idea of his strengths as a midfielder.
Take his stats after the first 3 games as an example. (We would want to use the stats of all 4 games, but considering that the ‘Caps had only 17 players on the bench, only made 1 sub, parked the bus and Owusu just burned out due to his injury/fatigue, that last SKC game probably isn’t the fairest reflection of his play. Yes, cherry-picking stats can always be delicate, but considering those factors, it seems fair in this case).
Despite playing as a #6, he averaged 0.16 Expected Goals (xG) and 0.17 Expected Assists (xA) per 96 minutes in 3 games, which that meant if you pro-rated his stats over 2200 minutes (around 26 games worth of play), he’d generate close to 3.6 xG and 3.8 xA.
That doesn’t seem much, but it’s important to note that those xG numbers would’ve placed him 3rd on the 2019 ‘Caps, while his xA numbers would’ve been the highest on the team.
To be fair, that also gives you an idea of how much the 2019 ‘Caps struggled to generate chances, but considering that Owusu put up those numbers as a #6 on a team that both leaked chances and struggled to generate them this tournament, all while carrying a minor injury for 2 of the games, it’s actually pretty impressive.
While it feels almost too easy to say: ‘Oh, because he did so well at generating chances as a #6, he can do the same as a #8’, there are a couple of other stats that support that idea.
Firstly, are his dribbling numbers, which were stupendous throughout the tournament. With 1.7 dribbles per game in the first 3 games, he blew away fellow midfielders In Beom and Teibert, who had 0.3 and 0 successful dribbles per game respectively.
Secondly, it’s his ability to turn his received passes into chances for the ‘Caps, as he had 0.09 Goals Addded/96 just off of receiving passes, which meant that him receiving the ball typically led to 0.09 Expected Goals for the ‘Caps each game.
Considering no one on the ‘Caps had over 0 in that category, as most of them actually had negative numbers, meaning that them receiving the ball often hampered the ‘Caps ability to create chances, and it gives you an idea of how well he transitioned the ball forward.
And while his key pass numbers don’t really reflect that, what it meant was that Owusu was often playing the killer ball before that final pass, which isn’t often reflected from a statistical standpoint.
Seeing how valuable him touching the ball proved to be towards the ‘Caps ability to generate chances, it shows you how crucial he was to the build-up play, supporting a move further up the pitch.
So when you put that whole picture together, here is his statistical profile from the first 3 games at MLS is Back, including his xG, xA, Key Pass, Shots, Dribbles, Tackles and Interception numbers.
For some context, they were put up against Mark Anthony Kaye’s 2019 numbers, as many consider him to be one of the best transitional #8’s in MLS, to see if Owusu could indeed make some noise in that sort of role.
His xG and xA numbers are really comparable, while his Key Pass and Shots numbers aren’t, which makes sense given the fact that Kaye plays higher up the pitch, giving him more chances to play that final ball or take that shot.
But when you see that dribbling number, you see where Owusu shines. Kaye is a really solid dribbler, so to see their numbers neck and neck is a positive sign, especially considering that Kaye was 9th among all MLS midfielders (minimum 10 games) in that category last year.
Defensively, Kaye is a fair bit ahead, giving you an idea of his two-way value for LAFC, but that’s no slight on Owusu, whose numbers are solid.
Either way, a move forward would seem to make sense for both the ‘Caps and Owusu, as the team could certainly use more of that offensive production going forward, taking some of the load off of In Beom as a #8.
While some of these numbers were collected in a small sample size, which can always be dangerous to do from a statistical standpoint, it just backs up a lot of the data from Owusu’s tenure in Israel, helping apply the idea that he could be a useful #8 for the ‘Caps going forward.
He can dribble forward, play a killer pass and hold his own defensively, which for a ‘Caps time that can lack for both offensive and defensive acumen in the middle, seems like a pretty darn good match, fit-wise.
But either way, we’ll have to wait a little bit before we can even see Owusu as a #8, as MLS ponders a decision for the rest of their 2020 season.
At this point, no one knows what to expect, so all we can do is wait, and hope that whatever decision is taken, it ends up working out.
It would be nice to have the ‘Caps play more games, but if that cannot be done safely, waiting may be the prudent option, giving everyone a chance to start fresh in 2021.
No matter what, though, when they do return, hopefully we get to see more of Owusu deployed further forward, especially considering he’s slated to be here for at least a couple more years.
From what we’ve seen, it can help the ‘Caps, they just need to give it a shot, and provide him with the right framework in which to produce, with Bikel likely playing a big role in helping make that happen.
Stay tuned for some of our other Whitecaps statistical snapshots from MLS is Back, which will be rolled out over the coming weeks, ahead of a potential return, if that does indeed end up happening.
By Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic
Editor-In-Chief [Between the Sticks]