Showtime: Vancouver Whitecaps aiming to ‘set the tone’ in stern first test against Sporting Kansas City (Preview #1)

After a long offseason, the MLS regular season is finally upon us. Here is what the Vancouver Whitecaps had to say this week, along with a look at both sides, in our first match preview of 2020. 

The dress rehearsals are completed, now the big show gets underway this weekend. 

After months of preparation, the MLS regular season has finally arrived, with the league’s 25th season set to kick off this weekend. 

For teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps, who were both deprived of 2019 playoff action and the 2020 CONCACAF Champions League, the wait has felt excruciating, with their last competitive match coming all the way back in early October. 

147 days on from their last official kick of the ball, they once again get to don the Whitecaps strip and go do battle in front of their fans, as they return to BC Place for the first time since they played Real Salt Lake in October of last year. 

For head coach Marc Dos Santos, the wait has felt like an eternity, but it’s one that’s given he and his team lots of time for self-reflection and change. After a campaign that didn’t quite go to plan, they took the time to reshape things, both on and off of the field, and are now hoping that the work they did helps change the course of this franchise. 

“The jump from last year to this year is very big,” Dos Santos said this week. “Now, how much of that is going to reflect on the standings, on the wins, losses, I don’t know, because other teams are getting very good, also I just think the league is improving a lot, but we did our part.”

“I can’t be here talking about who Miami is signing, or who LAFC is signing, it’s a huge waste of time.(What) I have to talk about, we as a club, is did we improve? And the jump from the end of last year this year is huge, so yes we improved as a team.”

Heading into the first week of the regular season, it’s hard to compare exactly how much better they are year-over-year, but from what we’ve seen so far, they have shown signs of improvement. Incoming arrivals such as Cristian Dajome, David Milinkovic and Leonard Owusu might not be miles ahead of the players they replaced from the 2019 team, but they seem to fit the MDS system a lot better, which is hoped then improves the play of the team. 

You then throw a Lucas Cavallini into the mix, with the Canadian International gifting them with a goalscoring talent not often seen in a Whitecaps strip during their first decade in MLS, and there seems to be a decent pot of something brewing. Along with their other Designated Players, the rejuvenated Hwang In Beom and Ali Adnan, and the return of other key pieces such as 2019 team MVP, Max Crepeau, and unsung hero, Erik Godoy, and there’s been a nice spine for this team to build around. 

And build they have done. With 6 weeks of preseason to work with, they dove right into things from day 1, allowing them to work with a big chunk of their squad from the early days onwards. It’s been a big change from 2019, where preseason was about getting players fit and acquainted with each other, making for a discombobulated start.

So far in 2020, it’s been about assimilating philosophies of play, ramping up the intensity with each session, and it’s paid off already, with the ‘Caps finishing preseason with 3 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses. It might not be a sparkling record, but after getting shutout in the win column during last year’s exhibition slate, it shows that growth has been made, which in turn should help the team avoid anything similar to the 7-game winless drought they faced to start last year. 

“No, we set that as an objective.” Dos Santos said of his team’s improved play. “When we were preparing for preseason, after the season we had last year, we said for our fans, to assure that we’re growing as a team, the process is right, what we want to do is right, it would be important to have a solid preseason, also.”

“Even if at the end of all these games we have zero points, zero goals scored, zero against, right. But the important (thing) is that we set the tone for what we want to be about. Not only in how we recruited, not only on the profiles, but also in making sure that people see that we want to grow and take games seriously.”

And it’s been that on-the-field growth which has proved to be the main talking point so far this camp. They might have won games, yes, but when you see them take on a team like Minnesota United, who was undefeated in preseason, and then have Vancouver walk them off of the park for the last 80 minutes, it’s a stark contrast to the sit back and hope approach that we often saw last year. 

With all of the new faces that were bought in, it’s not only made for a more aesthetic style of play, but a more cohesive one, as well, as each player seems bought into the MDS way of doing things. The team may have flaws, but they look to overcome them by playing together, which in a salary-capped league like MLS, is sometimes the way to find success. 

Just take someone like Fredy Montero, as an example. The reliable MLS goalscoring veteran has found himself in a brand-new role this year, with the arrival of Cavallini spelling the likely end of his days as an everyday starter up top on this team. 

But instead of pouting, he’s kept his head down, making a difference when he can off of the bench, while still keeping a good mindset, of which he shared with JJ Adams of The Province earlier this week. 

“I go game-by-game, week-by-week. Right now, he’s in a certain level of fitness, that maybe we don’t see him right now being a starter, but he has a role with the team when he has to be in,” Dos Santos said of Montero this week. “And if he’s in 90 minutes, 60, 15, 5, 10, he has to be there for the team, and he’s been there for the team, and when we call him, and we needed him in a certain moment of the game, he’s helped, and that’s what a team has to be about, everybody has to be ready.”

On a team that looks to play intense, in-your-face football from minute 1 to 90, game 1 to 34, they’ll need all hands on deck, so it’s been good to see that buy-in. After a disjointed 2019 season, where Dos Santos had to do more surviving than thriving, the ducks are mostly in a row heading into first kick this year, which has boosted the mood in the squad. 

Not all is rosy, however, with the absence of three big pieces still clouding the team with the game rapidly approaching. Erik Godoy remains out injured, while marquee signings Leonard Owusu and Ranko Veselinovic were struck by paperwork issues, with the former only arriving in Vancouver this week, while the latter has yet to completely sort out his situation. 

But given that the ‘Caps have worked hard through 5 weeks, achieving all of their early success’s without them, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem for now. When the trio is ready to slot in, they will, which for a team already clicking, can only help them grow to start the year. 

“No chance.” Dos Santos said of the new guys slotting in right away. “Guys, imagine if with the guys working they are, and Owusu arrives and he goes straight into the 18, I’m telling all of the guys that did 5 weeks fighting here that Owusu is the guy. No chance. Even against the Galaxy, it should be very tough to see him.”

He later added on the status of Godoy: “That one is a tricky one, because he kind of could come to the field now, but we really have to make sure that the calf is reinforced in the right way, so he could do the full season with us and not have a setback, so we’re being really cautious and careful that all of the work with Erik is done in the right way so that when he comes back, he stays on the field.”

Now, the focus turns to Sporting Kansas City, who similarily to the Whitecaps, come to BC Place ready to put the stink of a rough 2019 behind them. Typically one of the more well-run sides in MLS, despite not having a reputation of splashing the cash, they went out and got some big pieces this offseason, spurred by the prospect of enduring another season like the last one. 

And by splashing out a club-record transfer fee on Mexican marksman Alan Pulido, along with some high-profile loan deals for the Israeli Premier League midfielder Gadi Kinda and English Premier League defender Winston Reid, they’ve set themselves up to avoid some of those same pains. Considering that Pulido’s fee cost them more than every player they’d ever paid for, combined, they won’t settle for average, starting with Saturday. 

With the sour taste of finishing off preseason by losing 3 of their last 4 games, they’ll come North with vengeance in their mind, which for the ‘Caps, they say: ‘bring it on’. 

“As each day goes by, I keep thinking of stepping on the pitch at BC Place, and just expecting the fans to be there, cheering us on,” Cavallini said last week.

BTSVancity Player to watch: Yordy Reyna

Yordy Reyna in action vs Minnesota last week (Keveren Guillou)

While Cavallini will draw the attention of most eyeballs, with there being 6 million reasons to keep an eye on his start to the season, there may be no ‘Caps player no important to the attack then Reyna, who will be pulling the strings as a #10. When he’s on, he can be a top player in this league, but as we’ve seen in the past, that consistency is his biggest challenge. 

So far, he’s risen to the occasion, looking very much like a different player. With Cavallini requiring service, if Reyna can keep playing at the level that he has, his teammates will benefit, which is why the Peruvian will have to be key in order for the ‘Caps to have success this weekend.

“If you look at our last game, against Minnesota, Yordy had a very good game,” Dos Santos said this week.

Storylines

The Marksmen from Mexico? A team that underperformed offensively in 2019, decides to splash the cash and spend a record-breaking figure on a striker, bringing him to MLS from Mexico in his prime. Sound familiar?

After facing similarily disappointing results in 2019, both SKC and Vancouver went out and wasted no time in sending a message, bringing in a calibre of player rarely seen at either club. In an MLS landscape where teams are judged on the play of their best players, the eyes will be on the pair of Liga MX standouts, Cavallini and Pulido, starting with this one. 

Have the Village walls been reinforced enough? Once upon a time, BC Place used to be one of fear for opponents, with teams losing a lot more often than they would win in Vancouver. While the ‘Caps didn’t have a home-field advantage akin to teams such as 2015 LA Galaxy, or 2016 SKC, they had something, and it made for some fun nights in Vancouver. 

Over the past two years, that has changed, turning Vancouver into a day to look forward to on the calendar. 

But now, with the ‘Caps changing their style of play, that is expected to change. They want to press, they want to be in your face, and they want to bring BC Place back to the place it used to be, if not better. 

Defence a question mark? After last year, it’ s been ironic to see, but so far this preseason, the defence has been the bigger worry than the offence. With a crop of centre backs that can give any MLS team a run for their money, along with arguably the best attacking full back in MLS with Ali Adnan, Vancouver has a solid backline, but for whatever reason, they’re still getting used to playing together. 

As we saw last year, they can defend, now, they’ll just have to do it consistently, giving their forwards enough of a chance to find goals. The frontmen have the ability to do that, as evidenced by their late winners against both New England and Minnesota this preseason, but if the defenders could avoid conceding that early goal, it would go a long way towards achieving success. 

Stat Splurge

SKC is banking on Pulido and a new defensive core to carry them, as evidenced by last year. They might have scored a respectable 46 goals, but despite that, they did lack a true frontman, they underperformed their xG of 49 goals, with only 3 of their players scoring more than 3 goals, led by the 12 scored by Felipe Gutierrez (5 penalties).

Along with their xA of 48 goals against, they also need an improvement from their backline, which is why the signing of Winston Reid is so big. Considering that their offence and defence essentially fell off a cliff in the summer, they’ll want a good start, returning to the famed ‘Vermes ball’ that won them a championship in 2013. 

Overall, this preseason, things have got better on a whole, but they don’t come into this one in good form. Despite scoring 10 goals and only conceding 6 in 6 games, in their last 4 matches, they scored 2 and gave up 6, losing 3 and drawing 1. 

Compared to Vancouver, who scored 11 and conceded 9, rounding off preseason by scoring 4 goals and only conceding 1 in their last two games, it’s the case of two teams coming in opposite form. 

In MLS, that doesn’t often matter, but based on how things stand, with the ‘Caps being at home, they seem to head into this one as an early favourite. 

Projected Lineups

Head coach: Marc Dos Santos

Record: 0W-0L-0D

Head coach: Peter Vermes

Record: 0W-0L-0D

2019 Matches: 

Sporting Kansas City 2-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Vancouver Whitecaps 0-3 Sporting Kansas City

Looking Forward

The match gets underway on Saturday at 19h30, as the ‘Caps get hit with the late slate on a busy day of MLS action. While it’s unsure how the match will eventually shape up, it’ll be a good chance for the team to get off on the front foot, avoiding the slow start that plagued them last year. 

And against a strong Sporting Kansas City side, one that will be out to avenge their poor end to preseason, they’ll have to fight for every inch of turf on Saturday. 

Back in front of the BC Place faithful, it’ll be a good chance for them to jump back into the swing of things, as they get set to embark on the grind of a 34 game slate. 

So look for the curtain to rise on Saturday, with a new team coming out from behind it, as they aim to distinguish themselves from teams of the recent Whitecaps past. 

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Sporting Kansas City, February 29th, 2020, 19h30 PST (BC Place, Vancouver)

Cover photo: Bryan Woodward

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