Why Junior Hoilett's signing is another strong signal of intent from the Vancouver Whitecaps
The Vancouver Whitecaps continued a busy summer of movement this past week, as they signed veteran Canadian international Junior Hoilett on a short-term deal through the rest of the 2023 season.
Despite MLS’s secondary transfer window being closed, they were able to complete the deal by virtue of Hoilett being a free agent, giving them the ability to bring him in before the league’s roster freeze on Friday, September 15th.
As a result, Hoilett became the latest Canadian to join the Whitecaps, following in the footsteps of Sam Adekugbe and Richie Laryea, who joined the team ahead of the secondary transfer window in August.
And thanks to those arrivals, they’ve further bolstered an already strong Whitecaps lineup, one that has quietly become one of the best in MLS.
Already a strong team, one that was on the cusp of making the jump up to another level earlier in the year, they’ve now only gone out and shored some key areas of need, such as at full back and in their attack.
Because of that, it’s allowing ‘Caps fans to dream of what could be a very successful fall playoff push, if all goes right, as they look to build on an already memorable season, one that has already featured a Canadian Championship win, decent runs in the Concacaf Champions League and Leagues Cup, and a Cascadia Cup crown.
All that’s left is a good showing in the MLS Cup playoffs, and with a signing like Hoilett, it’s hoped that he can be another key part of that puzzle, as their race toward that really heats up here.
What will Hoilett bring to the table?
Yet, while Hoilett undoubtedly brings an impressive pedigree to Vancouver, having made over 160 English Premier League appearances to go along with 59 caps for Canada, there is one big concern as he arrives - his age.
He’s not old, per se, at 33 years of age, but he’s certainly not young, and is carrying over 550 games of professional experience on his legs, which have seen a lot of mileage over the last decade.
Despite that, however, he’s still shown that he can produce at the club level over the last few years in the Championship, where he’s most recently spent time with Reading.
There, he was able to play 62 times for the club across two seasons, racking up over 4,000 minutes as the club narrowly avoided relegation in 2021-2022, before then unfortunately making the drop in 2022-2023.
Despite playing on a relegation-starved outfit, however, Hoilett still put in some good performances across both seasons, nabbing three goals and two assists in more of an attacking role in 21-22, before still putting in some good shifts in a new role as a wing-back last season.
Speaking of that, however, that then leads to an important pair of questions that the Whitecaps will now look to answer - what role suits Hoilett more at the moment, and where should Vancouver deploy him?
No doubt, his versatility will allow him to be an asset off the bench - Whitecaps head coach, Vanni Sartini, does value that quality in players, and will be pleased to be able to play Hoilett as a second striker, #10, winger and wing back, depending on the game.
Based on the numbers, however, it looks like Hoilett’s best role is either as an attacking wing back or a defensive attacker, although there is a chance he still has some juice to squeeze offensively up front.
Using last year’s numbers only, he profiles quite well in the chance generation and ball retention categories when compared to other Championship wing backs and full backs, sitting in the top 30% of most attacking and passing stats, just lacking a bit in the defensive categories. Then, when compared to Championship wingers, it’s the polar opposite, as he’s quite high in the defensive categories, but low in the attacking numbers.
To be fair, that can also be easily explained - given that he spent the majority of the season as a wing back, where he played more offensively, he was always going to attack more than the typical wing back/full back, and was going to have more opportunities to defend than the typical winger.
Just some added analytic inside on Junior Hoilett. Excellent attacking FB/WB depth, has been effective defensively as a W/F. Both are qualities #VWFC coach Vanni Sartini values. pic.twitter.com/RQPBRmBlDT— J.J. Adams (@TheRealJJAdams) September 13, 2023
Because of that, the intriguing exercise is to see how he fared in 2021-2022, where he played more as a wide attacker. There, he compared quite decently to other Championship wingers, slotting in the 74th percentile in Expected Assists (xA), 68th percentile in shot-creating actions, 71st percentile in progressive carries (dribbles) and in the top 40% of all defensive categories.
Given that he was on a team that narrowly avoided relegation, that’s no small feat, showing his ability to generate chances while also providing defensive value on the wing.
Of course, that leads to the last question - can he replicate those sorts of performances given that he’s now in his mid-30s? But that also leads nicely to the biggest reason why this makes sense for Vancouver.
Joining a team already quite set in the attack, with Brian White, Ryan Gauld, Pedro Vite, Ali Ahmed and more already ahead in the pecking order, Hoilett will come to be a super sub for Vancouver.
A role he’s done well in for the CanMNT, it’ll allow Hoilett to provide value on both sides of the ball off the bench without having the pressure of needing to be a talisman for this Vancouver team, which will give him the opportunity to prove that he still has value at his age.
On a short-term deal through the rest of the year, it’s very much a ‘prove-it’ contract for Hoilett, and a worthwhile gamble for Vancouver, who can either extend him or cut ties based on how they feel at the end of his stint.
All while gaining an extra attacking option for their playoff push, as well as some valuable experience and leadership, it’s a no-brainer move for Vancouver, one that they’ll be quite pleased that they were able to put together.
Is Vancouver becoming a destination of choice for Canadians?
Yet, while Hoilett’s an important acquisition on the pitch for Vancouver, it’s also worth noting the value he’ll bring off it, even if he doesn’t stick around long-term.
Along with Laryea and Adekugbe, it’s allowed the Whitecaps to show that they’re serious about bringing in top talent, as each brings a strong wealth of experience for both club and country.
Plus, as Canadians who all featured in the 2022 World Cup for Canada, it also fits in with the club’s ethos, allowing them to get closer to being the “Athletic Bilbao of Canada” that they’ve long stated they want to be.
And, they may very well have just established themselves as the destination for Canadian talent to want to head to in MLS.
It may be a bold statement to proclaim based on three signings, especially given that the Whitecaps haven’t always been successful in their ability to attract top Canadian talent, but the pendulum is shifting.
Just look at the last few years. There, Montréal and Toronto have dominated the Whitecaps in terms of the Canadians that have seen the field, with CFMTL boasting the likes of Alistair Johnston, Ismaël Koné, Samuel Piette, Kamal Miller, Joel Waterman and more, while TFC has seen the likes of Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Laryea and more go through their ranks.
As for the Whitecaps, however, other than topsy-turvy stints for Maxime Crépeau, Derek Cornelius and Lucas Cavallini, who all ended up exiting the club in unceremonious fashion, they haven’t been able to replicate that sort of Canadian flavour at their club.
Now, however, that they were able to bring in three Canadians like Laryea, Adekugbe and Hoilett shows that things were shifting, as those are three Canadian internationals who were playing in Europe and are key parts of the CanMNT.
By comparison, a lot of Montréal’s and TFC’s Canadians have either come as homegrown signings or trades within MLS, which while still impressive and important, doesn’t require the level of convincing that one might have to do with bringing in the likes of Adekugbe, Hoilett and Laryea.
Especially given that Hoilett and Laryea chose to sign for Vancouver over options such as their hometown TFC further adds to that notion, showing the work that the Whitecaps have done to build up their credence as a top destination for Canadian talent.
Their recent success is having an effect, and now players are buying in, such as the key Canadian internationals that they were able to bring in this summer, showing how things are changing over on the West Coast.
What does this mean for their playoff hopes?
Of course, however, there is one important final thing that this Whitecaps team must now do for things to really shift - find success in MLS.
Even if they have been a key winner in the transfer market this summer, all of that will mean nothing unless they make some proper noise in this fall’s MLS Cup playoffs.
The good news? They’ve got a great chance to do that now.
As of writing, they currently sit in sixth place in MLS’s Western Conference, but hold games in hand on everyone ahead of them, which could allow them to climb to second if they win them.
Because of that, if they finish the season strongly and secure a top-four spot at minimum, that could put them in a good position to make a run in the playoffs, especially given that a top-four spot could give them more of a chance to play games at home, where they’ve been quite dominant over the last few years (whereas on the road… they’ve been far less than stellar).
Therefore, it’s not unrealistic to suggest that the Whitecaps could go on a run to the final four in the MLS playoffs if all goes right, as they’ve certainly got the team to do so.
They’ve got an MVP candidate in Ryan Gauld, a striker in the top 10 in goals in Brian White, one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS in Andrés Cubas, and have now shored up some key areas of need with their Canadian signings.
Now, they’ve just got to put it all together on the field, allowing them to build on this busy summer of moves.
Either way, one thing is for sure - everything is coming up quite nicely for Vancouver right now, and now it’s up to them to cap it off with a memorable end to the season, putting their past playoff failures and disappointments behind them with a deep run.
If they can do that, this summer will be looked back upon as one where everything changed for Vancouver, both on and off the field, as reflected in these moves.