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The Vancouver Whitecaps are back talking with darkness, their old friend, and worries over hearing the sounds of silence at BC Place are creeping in.
The mood is as gloomy as the basement they’re sitting in: last overall in MLS after a historically bad 1-6-1 start to the season. The goodwill and vibes that came with their remarkable playoff run last season have dissipated. The mistakes have been many, the results few.
Eleven years into their MLS era, there has been one Canadian Championship trophy, and three Cascadia Cups. There are prizes in their trophy cabinet — the crystal gewgaws earned by qualifying for the league’s Presidents Club season-ticket sales threshold are proudly on display — but of the real stuff, there is none.
Head coach Vanni Sartini has been shaking things up in training this week, even practicing with (gasp!) a four-man back line, saying it would be “insanity” to do the same things over-and-over and expect different results.
That’s one of the reasons their dwindling ticket base, which was top five as recently as 2016, has slumped to 16th in MLS this year2,000 less than the last pre-COVID-19 season.
Sunday, May 8
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Toronto F.C.
1 pm, BC Place. TV: TSN1. Radio: AM730
Season-after-season, the team has fallen short of expectations. What was once anger over missed results has turned to apathy.
In their 11 seasons in MLS their average finish is 6.7th in the Western Conference, better only than the infamous Chivas USA squads, San Jose (7.6) and Houston (9.4). But the Earthquakes and the Dynamo both can boast two MLS titles each since 2000, with San Jose also winning the Supporters Shield in 2005 and 2012.
“We want to be a team that wins something within a foreseeable time frame; in the near future. I would say within this and the next two seasons, we would like to have silverware in our hands,” said president and CEO Axel Schuster.
Can it be done? Sure. It depends on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.
The same can be said of the team’s results this season. There have been injuries to key players, red cards, an unfavorable schedule against some of the league’s elite teams and some just plain ol’ bad luck. There has also been shockingly bad defending, unimaginative possession, an offensive output that is more suggestion than execution and a formation that some players have suddenly become allergic to.
Max Crepeau’s recusal from the club has had a bigger impact than expected between the sticks. The defensive bite that came with Janio Bikel — who was fourth overall in fouls in 2021 but had just four yellow cards — was lost in his loan to Vicenza. The man who replaced him last season, Leo Owusu, another ball-winning and ball-moving midfielder, has played just 158 minutes this season because of injury.
And, said Sartini, while the media talks about Ryan Gauld, Crepeau and the rest, we don’t talk about Bruno (Gaspar). The wingback did not have his purchase option picked up last year and is back with Vitória Guimarães, one of his former clubs of him, in Portugal’s top division.
The Whitecaps have a little time, but not much, to make the tweaks they need to be competitive in MLS. Toronto FC comes to visit on May 8 before Valor FC make the trek to BC Place from Winnipeg for their Canadian Championship showdown three days later.
“We’re switching out the formation, but also switching out switching off the attitude,” said Sartini. “The main thing is that this over-aggressive approach that was very winning last year is not working this year, for a bunch of reasons. We’re not pressing very well up top, our wing backs are not performing in the way that we expect them to perform and that leaves us gaps in the field that are easy to exploit.
“So we need to take a different approach. The different approach it means to be more clinical and more strategic in the pressure instead of more relentless, and in case the pressure is not working, we have more men behind (the ball) than up.
“We’re not to make a revolution, because we don’t have time for a revolution. We have 10 days for the next game. But to make some adjustments that make us always feel secure, and maybe again in the future to become again the relentless, aggressive team that we were before.”
There were no big-name additions made to the club in the off-season, though newcomer Tristan Blackmon has been their best defender, and it’s hard to argue against the value-for-money acquisition of Seb Berhalter. But the open Designated Player spot wasn’t filled in the off-season, and neither was any striker depth brought in.
The deal for No. 6 Andrés Cubas is expected to be announced in the next few days, the first of three moves the Whitecaps look to make before the May 4 transfer window closes. The Caps’ needs are as obvious as the mountain of general allocation money they have to spend, and teams around the league have inflated their prices correspondingly.
Schuster has said there won’t be any knee-jerk, reactionary signings that, while they might help in the short-term, don’t fit in with the team’s philosophy of only signing players who fit in the team’s spirit and cohesion, and aim of trophies.
The date with Value is the next, best step in that aim. The Whitecaps have bombed out two straight years against Canadian Premier League teams, and cost Marc Dos Santos his job last year. Sartini — dead-serious, although smiling when he said it — said Schuster could show him the door if they lost to a CPL team again.
“Now it’s the moment where we have to bounce back,” he said of the next four games, all coming at BC Place.
“Last year we bounced back also because of the help of the fans and we’ll need the help of the fans, especially in the first two games — the clash against Toronto and in the Canadian Cup. Because if we’re going to ignite a new wave of results, we need the help of the fans for sure.”
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