In a must-win match at BC Place, the Vancouver Whitecaps were unable to get past a strong New York City side, spelling the end of their 2019 aspirations.
The Vancouver Whitecaps, for the last time this campaign, entered the field with aspirations of making the 2019 MLS playoffs. With one of the leagues best sides awaiting them in a well-rested New York City FC, it was never going to be easy, but with the faint memories of home victories over other good sides like LAFC, Portland Timbers, DC United and FC Dallas, it was hoped that the magic of some of those previous victories would be conjured up.
Lined up in a 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” formation once again, the Caps started the game out evenly, as both teams would try to slowly feel each other out. After using a 4-1-4-1 against Montreal a few days prior, a game that ended with a Whitecaps loss despite a strong performance from the blue and white, the decision to go back to the 4-3-2-1 seemed a bit curious, but it was all by design.
“NYCFC plays a lot through the middle,” Manager Marc Dos Santos said when speaking post-match of the decision. “They have a lot of players in the middle, that’s why we wanted to play with 3 midfielders and 2 number 10s.”
“Even if we want to build this team in the future more similar to what we did in Montreal (4-1-4-1), once you have fatigued players that can’t start two games in a row, you deal with personnel, and to have the personnel and maximize who we have, that’s why we took that decision.”
Despite the planning, it would all be for naught, as the Caps would find themselves down 2-0 less than 25 minutes in. Vancouver, lined up in the Christmas tree, had left some enticing presents underneath their tree, and New York was more than happy to play the role of happy kid and open them.
Adding salt to the wound was that New York’s three main actors for their goals, forward Alexandru Mitrita, forward Heber and midfielder Maxi Moralez, were brought in to join City for a combined 17.5 million dollars. For a Vancouver team who’s entire squad cost less than half of that figure, it was another scenario of rich vs poor, and in this story, the big-money fellows showed why New York decided to invest hefty fees to bring them to the Big Apple.
After the early storm, Vancouver would put together a resilient performance, fighting through everything New York threw at them. They would be rewarded for keeping their chins up throughout the next 45 minutes, as they would find the opportunity to lay a cheeky counterpunch in the 64th minute, and boy did it ever land, as Yordy Reyna hit a half-volley into the far corner, bringing fans to their feet with a strike that defied superlatives.
But they still found themselves behind in the metaphorical boxing ring, and while the Reyna strike gave them new life on the hunt for 3 points, the Caps knees were close to buckling, as New York stood strong after the hit. And 8 minutes later, in the 71st minute, that fatal punch would be landed. Mitrita, an 8 figure investment brought to New York from the mysterious Romanian League, stood up to take a deep free-kick and delivered the final blow, his ball curling in ever so slowly past the stretched out hands of Max Crepeau, flicking the lights out on 2019, sending the Whitecaps to the floor with a thud.
20 minutes later, when Marcos DeOliveira put the whistle up and blew three times while pointing to the centre circle, it officially signalled the end of Vancouver’s campaign. While it was very much on life support since July, they had managed to hang on, but now, with 4 games left, they will be left to play out the last couple of fixtures, attempting to find positives in what are now meaningless games.
An ode to 2019
Vancouver making the playoffs was always a long shot, as the offseason upheaval was always going to make things difficult, but even the most negative of souls surely wouldn’t have expected this team to be out of contention the day before the calendar flicked over to September. So how did it get to this point?
Preseason started slowly, as players continued to arrive from the 4 corners of the earth. Because of that, the Caps found their first victory in the 12th match that Marc Dos Santos was in charge of, an impressive victory over league-leaders LAFC in the 7th game of the MLS season. After a winless preseason and first 6 games, it seemed to be a turning point for the Caps. With new left-back Ali Adnan in town, Hwang In Beom looking like a wise head well beyond his 22 years, the defence looking like a well-oiled machine thanks to strong performances from Erik Godoy, Doneil Henry, Max Crepeau and Jake Nerwinski, things were starting to look up.
But things would eventually hit the fan. While the offence struggled all campaign, as injuries, form and creation meant that no one other than Yordy Reyna and later Theo Bair would be able to find any sparks up front, things fell off collectively around June, as the now-infamous Gold Cup break came up. While the fall was gradual, things started to compound as the summer started to swelter, as the injuries and international absences would start to pile up. A snap of the fingers and all of a sudden the Caps were in mid-July, winless since May, and everyone was struggling, with all phases of the pitch looking barren, as the Caps were unable to both score and defend.
So when the Cavalry upset happened, it seemed to be the final notch to send this soup to boil over the pot, making a big mess on the stove. Unable to keep up with a team that didn’t exist 8 months earlier, playing in a brand new league, it was on that day that it seemed inevitable the obituary for 2019 would have to be prepared for a date in the near future. Some positive performances after that result inspired hope, but it was inevitable that the season would come to a tough end, and Mitrita’s free-kick seemed a fitting way to put the end date besides the “Vancouver Whitecaps 2019 season” sign.
Now that it’s all over, the inevitable question looms: Where to go from here? Thanks to MLS’s loose interpretation of the traditions of the world’s game, relegation is not a possibility, so these next 4 games have no bearing on anything. Winning them all would be nice, but at the very least it will be a chance to catch up the shortcomings of 2019 preseason past, as Dos Santos has 360 minutes and added time to evaluate his 20+ charges. With 3 of those games at home, it will also be a chance to give back to fans, who will want to at least see positive improvements ahead of 2020.
“Me, I want to play the 4 games to win them,” an honest Dos Santos said after Saturday. “I want to play the 4 games to win, we have 3 of the 4 at home, we have to give back to the people that are going to come to the stadium, so if they (the players) follow what is in my heart, they’re going to go all the way, be competitive, giving their best every game.”
Dos Santos will dread these 4 matches, as it is completely unfamiliar territory for him. After winning championships and making deep runs in his last 4 seasons as both a head coach and an assistant in the USL, NASL and MLS, he will be left to play out the string for the first time in a while.
“It’s new for me,” Dos Santos said. “I don’t know, I’ll think about it in the next 3-4 days, I don’t know, it’s new for me, it’s a situation that’s new, not to be in the playoffs, not to be fighting for something in September”
While Dos Santos will (very unfairly) get a good chunk of the criticism for this campaign, he still has a chance to help turn things around. It’s no secret, the Caps were not set up to aid a new manager, and they realized that, embarking on a worldwide quest to find a technical director to help Dos Santos and the rest of the soccer operations department in the future. By doing that, they’ll set themselves up better to plan, develop and invest, giving Vancouver a clear direction for the next couple of years of this franchise.
The Whitecaps have hit on a couple of names so far, with Hwang In Beom looking like a key cog in spurts, Ali Adnan looking dangerous before fatigue hit in, while Erik Godoy, Doneil Henry and Max Crepeau forming a strong centre back and goalkeeping nucleus, not to mention strong performances up front from Yordy Reyna and Theo Bair, but they now need to surround these guys with more. A couple of names seem likely to go, freeing up varying amounts of international roster and DP spots to go along with some MLS money in the form of TAM and GAM, which should give Dos Santos and the TD something to work with. With a new MLS CBA also on the horizon, more avenues could also open up via that as well.
We will break down this campaign and look forward more as we get towards the offseason, so this is just the beginning of that whole process. The Caps are yet to find where they need to be, and it has meant a lot of pain this season, but as they continue to put the pieces together both on and off the field, it may prove to be fruitful in the future. With Dos Santos, a winner at all other stops, at the helm, it would be hard to bet against him, but he knows it won’t be easy. But the fire remains in him, so for now, bring it all on.
“Nobody is here is “stupid” to believe that we continue like this in 2020.” Dos Santos said candidly to finish Saturday.
“I believe a lot in the base of the team, but I also believe that we need to assess and to dedicate ourselves a lot to recruiting in the next 2 months.”