With game 34 of 34 on the MLS calendar looming, the Vancouver Whitecaps look to give back to the fans on Sunday before diving into a critical and lengthy offseason.
The Vancouver Whitecaps won’t be receiving party invitations anytime soon. After struggling for a big part of this 2019 MLS season, they have found a bit of a groove as of late, putting together a nice spell of results. While it’s been a case of ‘too little, too late’, with their playoff aspirations long behind them, they have found a nice rhythm heading into the end of the campaign.
Playing against teams still fighting tooth and nail for their playoff lives, most people wouldn’t have batted an eye if the Caps struggled for results in these last few games, fading into the MLS 2019 sunset much like they started it, as they went winless through their first 6 games of the campaign. They have instead kept their heads up, however, becoming an MLS party-crasher as of late. First, it was knocking the Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew from playoff contention at BC Place, dashing their hopes with some late goals, before they took the show on the road to California this past weekend, where they put a dent in the LA Galaxy’s chances to host a home playoff date later this month with another late goal.
“The last few games we came in with a mentality to try and spoil parties and just see how well we can finish off,” centre back Doneil Henry said this week. “And it’s a testament to the boys, we’ve continued to push our levels, and we’re still working.”
Next up on the list? Real Salt Lake, another team in the midst of a postseason push, as they come to BC Place with a chance to secure a home playoff date with a victory and some help from other results around the league. While the Whitecaps can’t stop RSL from making the playoffs, with their berth already locked up, they’ll want to do everything in their power to make life tough for the Utah-based side heading into the end of the year.
With the Whitecaps playing host to their final home game of the season, they know a good way to start a party in this league is by ruining those of their rivals, as they look to send off their faithful with a “fan appreciation day” to remember.
“It’s a game that we want to give for the fans,” head coach Marc Dos Santos said. “It’s our final (home game), it’s a game that means a lot to us, and it’s going to be important getting out of that game on a very positive note.”
There were a lot of positives to derive from that latest performance in LA. Debutant Jhesser Khemiri showed well at centre back with 19 (yes, 19!) clearances, Hwang In Beom looked lively with 2 primary assists, and Michaell Chirinos opened his account in a Vancouver shirt, as the team looked more than capable of hanging with a strong Galaxy side.
It has made a new experience for Dos Santos a positive one, as he is not used to finding himself in this playoff-less situation this early on. A winner at all levels he coached at, it’s been a while since he found himself on the outside looking in for these kind of games, but he credits his players for not mailing things in late in this season.
“I think that the environment right now is very positive,” Dos Santos said. “But it’s credited a lot to the mentality of the players, because a lot of teams give up in moments like that, and that was never us, we kept working hard, staying with the right mentality, and I think that shows great signs for next season.”
It gives Vancouver a good idea of who to keep and who to get rid of next year, as this late-season surge has reflected well on this team’s leadership group. Team MVP and star goalkeeper Max Crepeau, a consistent bright spot all season long for this team, credits that to keeping their heads up and avoiding falling into the swamp of negativity.
“It brings a positive mood,” Crepeau said of winning. “I think it’s a positive mood because we’re not hiding (that) we had a difficult year, with this result I think it’s bringing a more positive mentality overall going through that last week of training before the last game.”
Heading into this offseason, it has opened up a clear picture for the Whitecaps, who desperately need to have a resurgent campaign in 2020. While the vibes around the team are positive, season ticket renewals have declined, attendance is dropping and fans have been overall very displeased with the lack of big-money purchases for this squad over the years.
With the previous head coach, Carl Robinson, being fired towards the end of last year, many were willing to give Dos Santos a longer leash this season as he tried to reestablish the identity of this club. After years of implementing a deep-bunkering and hit and hope style of play, it was hoped that Dos Santos could have livened up this team, pushing them forward into a modern era of the sport with a high-pressing, free-flowing brand of football.
It has yet to come to fruition, however, testing an already frustrating fanbase. They have shown glimpses of positive play this year, but consistency has been a big issue for this squad. With the lowest payroll in MLS, it was hoped that some big-money improvements could have been brought in to aid them in areas of the field they struggle with, such as transitioning the ball forward to attack and chance creation, but those have yet to be fully remedied.
With the Caps now promising risk-free season ticket renewals for next year, offering fans a chance to get a full refund by the end of January if they’re not satisfied with the signings the team make during this next window, it now means that they head into a crucial crossroads in their time in MLS.
While a lot still has to be sorted out off of the field, with their self-announced ‘global search’ for a much needed Sporting Director still underway, there is going to be a lot of work that will need to be done in between now and that renewal date to avoid losing a good chunk of their core support.
“Yeah 100%, I think it’s very clear in our heads what we need to do in the offseason,” Dos Santos said. “And right now 80% of our job is working outside the field for what’s going to happen next, and we’re very committed to that.”
Before they embark on that path towards the roster reconstruction for 2020, they will first want to make sure that they bring their best for Salt Lake. While it would be nice if they could bring in the midfielders and attackers they need to boost their offence in time for Sunday, that won’t happen, so the team will just have to find some magic within and grind out one last positive 90 minutes of play. With the last 3 results boosting the mood of everyone around the team, the Caps just want to end on a positive note, and heading into this long offseason, that’s not the worst approach in the world to have.
“We spoke here about fan appreciation, the last game at home,” Dos Santos said. “We think about them (the fans) a lot, so we’re not thinking when we rebuild this team and moving forward just thinking about us, the staff and the club, we (also) think about how much the fans have supported this team, are passionate about this team and what we have to do, so of course having a series of results this going towards (the end), it’s a good, positive way to end the season and to leave something good before we prepare the next offseason.”
Added Henry: “It’s been a really tough season for our fans. The players feel it, we go into training every day and it’s tough to self motivate and to come in with the right mentality, so when we go out there and play against Salt Lake, we’ll want to leave it all out there, so they feel something to take inside themselves into next season.”
“I know it’s been tough, and I just ask that they continue to support us.” Henry finished honestly.
It’s been a rollercoaster season for the Caps, and with the end now in sight, the squad will just want to give Vancouver fans one last positive moment to hang onto ahead of next year. With roster uncertainty in the air, change is on the horizon, but until then, there will be time for one last party in 2019. For Crepeau, the best way to deliver that? A victory. After that, que sera, sera.
“I’ve said it before, it’s important to finish the last 2 (games) on a positive way,” Crepeau said. “And now it’s Salt Lake at home, I think that winning the game at home would just be a positive way to end up and to put to the fans ‘we’re finishing the season on a good note’, and saying thank you to them, and I think the 3 points would the perfect solution”
Vancouver Whitecaps vs Real Salt Lake, Sunday, October 6th, 2019, 13:00 PST (BC Place, Vancouver)