With the Vancouver Whitecaps kicking off their 2020 preseason this week, we report back from the first day of training, as Sporting Director, Axel Schuster, and head coach, Marc Dos Santos, shared some opening thoughts.
It was like the first day of school, as a bunch of faces new and old gathered at UBC on Monday.
You’d be excused for thinking that applied to the students of the University itself, but alas, it was not them, as they started their 2020 courses 2 weeks back. It was instead was the Vancouver Whitecaps, who’s preseason officially kicked off on Monday, kickstarting their 2020 schedule.
106 days after the final whistle blew on their 2019 season, finishing unceremoniously with a 1-0 loss to Real Salt Lake, they reassembled themselves in Vancouver this past week, getting ready to start off the new year with a bang. After a rough campaign, one that started out slow from preseason onwards through, the team is now looking forward to starting this one strong, avoiding some of the mistakes that plagued them last year.
A big one that’s been highlighted was the lack of a complete preseason. Despite going on trips to Hawaii and California, many of the big players didn’t come in until less than a week before first kick, which is hardly ideal for any team, especially not one who had recently bludgeoned their roster. With new coach Marc Dos Santos trying to implement his philosophies, and only a handful of returning players to establish continuity, it meant for a slow start, which Vancouver never really seemed to get unstuck from.
For Dos Santos, who has most of his 2020 squad at training camp this time, he’s already a big step ahead of where he was last year, and he’s hoping it can help them both at the beginning and the end of this season.
“What I’m excited is (that) if I compare with day 1 of preseason last year, it was very, very different,” Dos Santos said to reporters Monday. “Just because of the age, us not having players signed, we had a lot of our players arriving 5 days before our first game against Minnesota last year, so we’re not in the same spot.”
“It’s going to help us in the medium and long term, but I’m excited to see that they all arrived with a good base, nobody took the offseason in an unresponsible way, they all have a good base to get started.”
Despite having most of the squad signed, there are still a few pieces missing, especially in the midfield. Newly signed winger Cristian Dajome, and left back, Cristian Gutierrez, were also yet to join the team Monday, but they will be here shortly, leaving around 3 or 4 players that could be signed ahead of February 29th.
That meant that Vancouver had all but those 5 or 6 missing players to kick things off on Monday, which after last year’s disjointed preseason, is a huge step up for the club. You factor in the guys that are signed, but yet arrived, like Dajome and Gutierrez, and things look a lot better compared to 2019, where it felt like half the squad was yet to be signed by the start of training camp.
But with those 3 or 4 guys still yet to come in, there are some fresh faces yet to be met, especially in the midfield, especially after Vancouver’s struggles in that area of the pitch last year. A #6 and a #8 are expected to be signed, leaving room for 1 or 2 more players, likely to be depth in and around the lineup, which fits Sporting Director Axel Schuster’s plan to be completely ready by the first kick.
“We are missing a few players still signed, today, they are still coming,” Schuster said. “So even that, Khemiri couldn’t train today, Dajome is still not here, Gutierrez had 11 hour delay on his flight, was sitting 11 hours at the airport in Chile waiting, so not his fault at all, so this is already a first change to what we saw today, but I expect 3 to 4 more faces we will have at the home opener.”
He also teased the possibility of one of those 3-4 players coming in as soon as this week, before the team departs for San Diego on Friday.
“More or less the same, but more optimistic today, so yeah,” Schuster added when asked if he’d have a signing this week.” No promise, still no promise, because it depends on signatures from other sides, but yeah, I’m more optimistic today, I’m close to saying: ‘yeah, I can promise one more’, but maybe 1 percentage is missing to say ‘I promise’.”
After the disjointed start to the 2019 slate, things are already looking up this year. The core of the team should be in place by opening day, so they can avoid the scramble of having to pick up players in the spring and summer, as they did last year. It worked out to a certain extent in 2019, at least if you look at the arrivals of Ali Adnan and Tosaint Ricketts, but it’s always best to have the brunt of your roster by the start of the campaign, allowing you to build with them all year long.
And as promised by Dos Santos, that’s the plan for this team. They’ve so far, brought in Dajome and Gutierrez, along with new DP Lucas Cavallini, which means that for the most part, the core is set. They’re planning to bring the rest of the big pieces now, so that when it comes to the summer, they can look to complement, instead of trying to replace the foundation, as often was the case last season.
“The window of June, July, I’m not going to talk about it right now,” Dos Santos said. “We have people working on it, we have people in place that are looking at it, and know the targets we might be looking at. It’s not going to be many (in the summer), because the major moves are being done now. And I know, of course, of names that we’ve spent a lot of time looking at, and are going to be with us soon, so hopefully, you’ll get the announcements soon.”
Now, the big thing will be making sure that these big moves do get over the line. Often, things can reach the end of the race, just for things to stall right before completion. This hasn’t seemed to be much of a problem so far this offseason, but with the season now less than 6 weeks away, it’s hoped that there are no hitches as those final signings edge towards the line, especially as the preseason goes along.
Which for Dos Santos, he says that’s the big thing the club is working on right now. With good players, negotiations take time, so it’s only normal that things don’t come as fast as others might expect them to.
“No it’s good, it’s good. Guys, I’m really excited. I’m excited,” Dos Santos said. “It’s very good. Inside our reality, inside the rules of Salary Cap, and MLS, inside what happens, I’m excited with what we’re doing.”
“But it’s like that, when you want to sign bad players, it happens really fast. You call, they sign, there in, it’s over. Good players, it’s hard, the process. You get to the 99% in 2 days, and then it takes 2 months to get that extra percent. That 1%, the last one, is hard. But we’re going after good players, we’re trying to bring here good, young talents that have quality, that can grow, and that’s not easy to bring, so it takes a process, and I’m used to it, so it’s fine.”
Once the signings are complete, the onus will be on making sure this roster of players gel together. It’s a job that started this week on day 1, no doubt, but it will also be something that will be monitored all year long.
Too often last year, the team was disjointed on the pitch, especially in the final third. There were signs of obvious improvement, especially defensively, but there needs to be more in some tactical areas, mainly on the offensive end, along with pressing without the ball.
But as we recently explored, those struggles also came from the pain of a rough 2019 preseason, along with the Whitecaps not having all the players they wanted, forcing Dos Santos to adapt. They wanted to press, they wanted to control possession, however, they didn’t have the pieces to do so, hence the adapted style of play, which the Caps are looking to ditch this year.
Now, most of their pieces for are in, bar that all-important #6 and #8, which should mean an improved style of play. You factor in those two impending midfield additions, it should boost the performances of what is expected to be a resurgent Hwang In Beom, and things are looking up in Whitecaps land, as they look to build off of what they started in Year 1.
“I saw, during my research, a team that already made some progress last season,” Schuster said. “If you look at the last 5 games, that was already different to what we saw at the beginning, so today I saw a team that wants to show that was not everything they can do, what they did last season, so a team that really wants to correct the idea people have of that (2019) team, so very motivated to do it in a better way.”
“The good thing is it’s a new start, it’s 0 again, you can get off all of the bad things of last season, that is the reason why I said the good thing is that we can close that chapter, so we can start again.”
What’s clear after day 1 is that this is a new year, and that everyone is just excited to get things going. From Dos Santos to Schuster, and the players themselves, a common theme was looking forward through the windshield, instead of peeking at the rearview mirror, focusing on what’s ahead.
Year 1 was a trying season, but there’s nothing they can do about it now. Things didn’t go there way, results weren’t as hoped, some players struggled, yet at the same time, lessons were learned, some players emerged and there were some positive moments highlighted.
Dos Santos was always going to be part of a long term plan, so as long as the lessons from year 1 don’t repeat themselves, it can be looked back upon as a true transition year. If not, it may be the start of a downward spiral, but sometimes you do have to break things down to rebuild, so at least they have that going for them.
What is clear is now is that the Whitecaps, with a motivated coach at the helm, a restructured front office, and some new signings, are ready to take the next step. Whether or not they make that step this year is yet to be seen, but they’ve certainly set themselves up to trend towards that route, with these last additions possibly being the wave that can push them over the threshold they will need to breach in order to be a playoff team in 2020.
Either way, for Dos Santos, he likes the way things are heading, and he hopes that it’s just the start of what’s to come for this team.
“I arrived last year knowing where I was going to.” Dos Santos said with a laugh. “If I wanted the comfortable route, I would have stayed in LA, smoking cigars, sitting, there I was good, great club, comfortable. I came here knowing that 2019 would be tough, and rebuild, and uncomfortable, I knew that. So what we see is a huge growth in the club. And maybe you guys don’t see it now, but you’ll eventually see it. There’s things happening inside with Mark (Pannes, Whitecaps CEO), Axel (Schuster, Sporting Director), and all of these pieces are going to better the club.”
“And that’s my excitement, I see growth in the club, and today is only another sign of growth, preseason, having more pieces, the additions that are going to come, that’s only part of this growth, that’s the encouraging part. I would be very concerned if I was here talking to you in the same position as 2019, but I see growth in a lot of areas, and that’s what the exciting part is right now.”
Cover Photo graciously provided by Beau Chevalier & BG Media