Farewell Bola: Whitecaps’ midfield left looking decidedly thin as square peg Bolaños returns to Costa Rican roots

Farewell Bola: Whitecaps’ midfield left looking decidedly thin as square peg Bolaños returns to Costa Rican roots

Earlier this week, Christian Bolaños officially became an ex-Whitecap. After two seasons in Vancouver, the Costa Rican midfielder is headed back to his homeland to
sign with Deportivo Saprissa. It’s his third time returning to the club where he started his career.

Bolaños’ departure hardly comes as a surprise, after the ‘Caps declined his contract option at the end of 2017. He was on the list of players Carl Robinson claimed to still be negotiating with (even this week the Whitecaps were supposedly still at the nebulous “in talks” stage), but it always seemed unlikely he would be back.

According to his post on Twitter, he made the decision “thinking of his family’s future and his professional goals”.

The most obvious professional goal is playing in the World Cup this summer—at 33, this will almost certainly be his last World Cup, and he talked to AFTN several times last year about how much playing in Russia meant to him.

The Costa Rican league wraps up by the end of May at the latest, and for a player who has struggled with injuries over the last year, that month off to prepare for the World Cup must be appealing. As MLS is largely choosing to ignore the World Cup this year, he would have been expected to play right up until leaving for Costa Rica’s World Cup training camp. Instead, he will now be in a country where the national team takes priority.

The reduced travel will also be welcome, seeing as the Whitecaps will travel the most distance of any MLS team by a significant margin in 2018 (51,178 miles / 82,363 km).

Ironically, Bolaños may actually struggle to get as much playing time as he would have in Vancouver, as Saprissa have been stockpiling attacking players for the new season (unlike the ‘Caps and their defensive midfielder monopoly).

Despite being one of the biggest talents in Vancouver’s squad, this departure seems to have barely ruffled any feathers among Whitecaps fans, overshadowed by the more public exits of fan favourites Jordan Harvey and David Ousted. That partly comes down to the limited playing time Bolaños had this season, making only 21 regular season appearances, for five assists and no goals. His 2017 stats compare unfavourably to his five goals and eight assists in his first season.

Bolaños’ drop in productivity was largely down to his struggles with fitness, but he has also often felt like a bit of a square peg in the ‘Caps’ distinctly round team.

Bolaños was a classic Robinson signing from the 2015-2016 era. He’s a technically gifted attacking player who likes the ball at his feet, is deadly from set pieces, and hails from Latin America; a signing in the mould of Cristian Techera and Nicolás Mezquida, and even Pedro Morales, but with a wealth of more experience at the top level of the game.

Like those three, tracking back has never been his forte, nor does he have the speed to play on the wings in a counter-attacking team. He was a luxury player the possession shy Whitecaps could ill afford to have out on the pitch when they were needing to put in a hard shift.

While Techera has carved himself out a spot on the wing thanks to his speed and willingness to run at defenders, Bolaños spent most of 2017 being shuffled around the field. He played on both the right and left wings (often both wings in one match), and spent some time in the number 10 role in the first half of the season when Yordy Reyna was still injured. His versatility was an asset given all the midfield turmoil last season, but it often felt like Robinson had no idea how to use him effectively.

In the interests of full disclosure I should admit that Bolaños was one of my favourite players for the Whitecaps, mainly because I remember watching him break into the Saprissa team back in the early 2000s when I lived in Costa Rica. In particular, I remember thinking he was useless the first couple of times he played, and never would have imagined he would go on to have such a stellar career (which just goes to show that youth players need to be given decent chances to develop and gain experience at the senior level – looking at you most MLS teams, including the Whitecaps).

I was thrilled when Bolaños signed for the Whitecaps and I’ll be sad to see him go. But having followed much of his career, he is at his best in a possession-oriented, attack-minded team, where he is given a free creative role and allowed time on the ball. As nobody could accuse the Whitecaps of being either possession-oriented or attack-minded, this is probably the best move for all parties.

This exit does, however, raise some serious questions about the state of the Whitecaps midfield. There are now three wingers left in the squad: Techera, Brek Shea, and Alphonso Davies. There’s also the option of playing Reyna in a wide position, but that just leaves central midfield looking threadbare. Even if the Whitecaps switch to a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation, where the width is mostly provided by wingbacks, there’s still a hole behind the striker(s).

While the ‘Caps continue to stockpile defensive midfielders, the latest signing coming in the form of Mexican Efraín Juárez, and have actually signed a couple of strikers who fit their style of play, everything in between needs some serious work. If an agreement can’t be reached with Nosa Igiebor (which to all intents and purposes looks to be dead in the water), that leaves Tony Tchani as the closest thing in the squad to a box-to-box midfielder.

As the biggest issue last season was the transition from defence to attack, hopefully there is some midfield recruitment on the horizon. Otherwise, the Whitecaps may regret letting one of their few genuinely creative players leave.

Authored by: Gareth Wolff

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