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When things aren’t going well, you have to go back to the basics. So, says Vancouver Whitecaps coach Vanni Sartini — it’s about the ABCs.
In his system, ball movement follows a series of logical progressions. If Option A isn’t there, it’s Option B, then C and so on. When the Whitecaps have played well (in spurts) this season, it’s because they’ve followed the ABCs. When they haven’t, it’s because players have drifted from the ABCs to some divergent string of letters so obscure that Elon Musk would use it as a baby name.
“We need to be honest. The only way to be positive and optimistic is to be honest, and to recognize that we are in not a good situation. When you’re not in a good situation, you need to go to the basics,” he said. “And the basics are doing what the team needs you to do, without interpretation.
“The main thing that we need to be better is to stick to the plan. I think that we had too much trials of interpretation from too many players during this run, and the time when we actually stick to the plan and stick to our principle and played the way that we’re supposed to… the games were actually really good .
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Austin F.C.
5:30 pm, Q2 Stadium. TV: TSN. Radio: AM730
“So we need to be very humble. And if I have to do A, B and C, I have to do A, B and C before I can try to do D and E that are going to be maybe magic things.”
He probably wishes he had a magic wand that he could wave and obliterate the team’s 1-5-1 start to the year, officially the worst first seven games of a season in Caps’ history. The same goes for casting a healing spell on midfielder Ryan Gauld, whose head bounced off the Stade Saputo turf like a medicine ball last week, leaving their prized playmaker with his second concussion of the season, one that will keep him from traveling with the team to Austin, Tex., on Saturday.
But alas, the closest they have to Harry Potter magic is the traveling show that kept them out of BC Place last year.
The Caps will have to rely on their boots and brains to pull themselves out of this one. The game against Austin FC (4-1-2) is, surprisingly, a daunting one. The team that finished second last in the Western Conference and scored a league-low 35 goals is now second in the conference and already has nearly half (17) of its goal total since the season before.
Los Verde’s possession statistics remain nearly the same — they were second overall to Atlanta with 54 last season, and are second to ATL with 56 this year — but have translated that in to actionable ball movement this year. They were second-last overall in goal-creating actions in 2021 (1.56 per 90), to this year, leading MLS at 3.43 GCA/90.
In both games against Austin last season, both at BC Place and Q2 Stadium in Texas, Los Verdes took first-half leads before ultimately falling by 2-1 score lines. The second meeting, in Vancouver, was Sartini’s second in charge, where he switched from a 4-3-2-1 formation to his patented three at the back, adjusting to what Austin was doing.
“Here in BC Place the first half they destroyed us,” he said. They create a lot of numbers close to the ball in order to play. And if you’re not able to be very organized in the press, they’re going to beat you.”
The Caps haven’t reverted back to a four-man back line since that game, a big part of the team’s storied second-half run to the playoffs last year. Sartini has no plans to abandon his favored formation, but he does concede he needs to put his players in better positions to be successful. There will be no wholesale “revolution” but he will tweak his game plan to suit his personnel from him, much like he did when Lucas Cavallini was the sole striker in Brian White’s absence earlier this year.
Pedro Vite, who looks to stand in for Gauld, doesn’t have the same ball-winning capabilities nor does he cover the field like the Scotsman. Cristian Dájome has been adequate in his conversion to wingback, but has just two goals from open play since his switch away from being a second forward or classic winger.
“We need to adapt in a way that we’re gonna put Pedro in a situation when he can be the best version of himself. We cannot ask him to do the same thing as Ryan, and so that’s the reason why we’re thinking of … not changing but adapting at little,” said Sartini.
Currently, Vancouver (1-5-1) has four points through seven games. Only San Jose, which has been watched in a coaching cataclysm and just fired Matías Almeyda, has fewer league play. Saturday’s game, for what seems like the umpteenth time this season, is a must-win game for the Whitecaps.
“Of course it is,” Sartini said. “We are not doing well. We are behind in the standings. We have seven points behind a playoff (spot). And any game, especially after two losses in a row, is a must-win game. (But) since it’s an away game, it’s a must-not-lose game.”
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