Javain Brown – Player Report

Javain Brown is a 22-year-old right-back currently playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS. Brown has burst onto the scene in MLS, establishing himself as one of the league’s best defensive fullbacks and showing a few flashes of offensive potential. Brown was widely expected to be loaned out this season but within a few weeks, he had displaced MLS veteran Jake Nerwinski and former Sporting CP and Fiorentina full-back Bruno Gaspar.

Brown played youth football for Kingston College in Jamaica before joining Jamaican National Premier League side Harbour View. In 2019 Brown chose to attend the University of South Florida. He played the 2019 NCAA season for the USF Bulls and also played for the Treasure Coast Tritons in the PDL (a developmental summer league mostly contested by University players during their offseason). For much of his career, Brown played as a centre-back. But he was converted into a fullback in University for committing the unforgivable centre-back sin (being under six feet tall). The Covid-19 pandemic canceled the entire 2020 NCAA season and Brown didn’t play a competitive game of football for over a year. He was selected by the Whitecaps 23rd overall in the 2021 MLS Super Draft and played 25 games for them this season. 

Despite not quite being six feet tall, Brown has a strong physical profile. He has good recovery speed which is important for his aggressive style of defending. He has a great leap which makes him a threat from attacking set-pieces and helps him to defend against aerial attacks. He’s strong enough to not get outmuscled by most wingers. Brown is in the 88th percentile amongst MLS fullbacks for Aerials won which underscores his ability to get off the ground and hold off opponents. True, his win rate on those aerials is only 52% but I think that’s more to do with his willingness to contest every ball that gets anywhere near him than it is to a lack of physical strength. 

Brown’s physical traits combined with a strong sense of defensive timing and positioning have allowed Brown to build a game based around proactive and aggressive defending. Brown frequently steps forward to try and make a tackle or interception and he usually succeeds.  You would expect a young player making the jump from the college game to MLS to occasionally get burned trying to overextend themselves. But despite Brown’s take-charge attitude to defending, he hasn’t been caught out all that often. 

In the example below we can see Brown pressing high up the field against Portland’s Van Rankin, the opposing right-back (Brown was sometimes deployed on the left due to injuries, and head Coach Vanni Sartini’s fondness for having his wing-backs switch sides mid-game).

Brown uses the time that it takes for the ball to travel from the centre back to Van Rankin to step forward and put Van Rankin under pressure. It’s an aggressive move that takes him higher up the field than almost every other Vancouver player. But it pays off as Van Rankin is forced to turn and play the ball back where it came from. 

Brown’s ability to do this is helped by the switch to a 3-4-1-2 under Vanni Sartini. The increased cover from the three centre-backs means that Brown is not as exposed if this kind of play goes wrong. But the thing that makes Brown exciting is that it doesn’t go wrong very often. 

You can see Brown’s proficiency when looking at his stats. Any defensive action that can be counted, Brown has a lot of. He’s in the 99th percentile for tackles won, the 86th for interceptions, the 87th for pressures, and the 78th for blocks.

As you can see from the visual above, there is only one defensive stat that doesn’t love Brown and that’s the number of times dribbled past. If one only looks at the stats this can paint a picture of a defender whose aggression sometimes gets him in trouble. But I think that picture is slightly misleading. There have been many times this season where Brown has been dribbled past only for him to turn around, catch up to the player that got by him, and win back possession. As I mentioned earlier, Brown has tremendous recovery speed. You can see an example of this below from a game between Uruguay and Jamaica at the 2019 Pan American games.

In the image above, an Uruguayan centre back has just played a long ball. An unfortunate bounce off a teammate has taken the ball past Brown to a Uruguayan player in space. This is a dangerous situation for Jamaica. But Brown is able to recover and win the ball back.

This is not to say that Brown is never exposed defensively. But when he is it is more due to uncharacteristic errors than it is to specific repeatedly exploited weaknesses. By far the biggest weakness of Brown’s game is that, when he makes one mistake in a game, another usually follows. Brown is a player who operates a lot on momentum. Most of the time he comes out strong and is totally unplayable. But if he makes a couple of mistakes early then things tend to spiral out of control. 

For a prime example, let us look at a Voyageur’s Cup (Canadian domestic) game between the Vancouver Whitecaps and Pacific F.C. To put this game into context for a non-North-American, this is very much a David vs Goliath matchup-It’s a game the Whitecaps should win comfortably. But on this occasion Pacific emerged with a 4-3 victory. Brown in particular struggled. In the example below, Pacific’s Manny Aparicio has dribbled past Patrick Metcalfe but, in doing so, has taken a heavy touch. This situation should be right in Brown’s wheelhouse. It requires him to step forward and make a defensive play to neutralize the threat. When he is having a good day he makes this play successfully several times a game. 

But in this instance he seems to get caught in two minds-unsure if he should boot the ball into row Z or play a pass. The result is a lame touch that bounces off Aparicio, ricochets around the penalty area for a bit, and eventually ends up in the Vancouver goal.

This type of mistake is not typical of Brown’s game, his incredible defensive numbers are a testament to that, but now and then he has a game where he just can’t seem to do anything right. 

Overall Brown has solid technical skills. His first touch is good as evidenced by his low number of miscontrols per 90 minutes (0.69). He does not carry the ball often but when he does he looks confident with the ball at his feet. He also has good balance and looks comfortable making quick changes in direction. Brown does not attempt all that many dribbles but his success rate is 80%. His pivot strength and direction-changing prowess is a big part of this. 

The lack of progression through ball carrying is partly a tactical thing. Under Vanni Sartini the role of the wing backs is mostly to provide width and be an outlet. If you dig into FBref’s match logs you can see Brown’s dribbles and progressive carries become less frequent after Vancouver’s midseason change of manager. But, even when accounting for this, Brown just wasn’t a very frequent dribbler in his first pro season. He usually preferred to progress the ball through passing rather than run with the ball himself. 

Brown has demonstrated some good playmaking skills with the Whitecaps but so far he hasn’t been able to apply them consistently enough. There have been a few inch-perfect crosses that have resulted in goals (like the fabulous assist shown below). 

But there have also been plenty of crosses that were nowhere near their target. This is underscored by the fact that Brown only averages 0.07 xA per 90 minutes. This is about half what the top MLS attacking fullbacks generate. So, although he has been able to produce some big moments, Brown hasn’t quite distinguished himself as a consistent attacking force. If he is to improve his attacking play there are a few things that stand out. Firstly, his crossing has to become a lot more consistent. As I mentioned previously, Brown has hit a lot of crosses that won’t go anywhere near his highlights. If we look at data from we can see that Brown has a cross success rate of 16%. The MLS average is around 25%. Cross selection is also a bit of an issue. A lot of Brown’s crosses are from very wide areas of the pitch. A number of studies have shown that these are the least effective type of crosses, mostly because they are the hardest to pull off. Brown would be more effective if he would cross from areas that are closer to the penalty area (as he does in the example below).

Brown’s passing ability is a bit of a mixed bag. He is above average in passes into the final 3rd and progressive passes so he does move things forward. But his completion rate is not that great. This is partly because he is taking risks trying to progress the ball but, even so, if you’re looking for a fullback who is good at retaining the ball Brown probably isn’t your guy. 

At the start of the 2021 season, Brown mostly played as a right-back in a 4-3-3. After a change in manager and a switch to a 3-4-1-2 Brown has played as a wingback. This suits his aggressive style of defending because on the occasions when he does get into trouble there is more cover for him. As I discussed earlier, he doesn’t provide a lot of gut-busting end-to-end runs or as much consistent offensive contribution as you might hope for from a wing-back. But he does a good job of stretching the opposition defence with his positioning and providing an outlet out wide. In the example below the Sporting Kansas City Defence has been sucked into the middle of the pitch. But Brown is well positioned to receive a ball in space because he has maintained his wide position. 

Brown’s positional discipline pays off and he is able to put in a cross that leads to a goal. Though this particular play paid off, I think Brown would be more dangerous from these positions if he were to try and drive inside more often before crossing. He is already doing a pretty good job of receiving the ball in these areas but he could do more with it. 

Future Projections 

The main thing standing in Brown’s way right now is his consistency. If he can eliminate his occasional terrible game, be a more consistent offensive threat, and take a little better care of the ball- then a future in a top 5 league is not out of the question. He’s 22 so there is still some room for him to grow but he’s not a total youngster either. As it stands the big five leagues would probably be too big of a step. But for teams in leagues 6-15 he might be an interesting proposition. The only thing worth noting for teams in those leagues is that his middling offensive output might not make him the best signing for a team that dominates their league and spends most of every game attacking. 

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