Despite concerns, in less than 2 weeks, the Whitecaps will likely take the field down in Orlando. Here is how the boss is feeling ahead of that date, which is coming up pretty quickly now.
In just under 2 weeks’ time, the Vancouver Whitecaps look to begin their Disney dream.
While, much like a typical rollercoaster, there are risks that could put it off, as of now, there is no indication that the MLS ‘Return to Play’ tournament is going to be postponed or moved, so the ‘Caps are heading into the competition at full steam, ready to bring home some silverware.
Step-by-step, the pieces are coming together so that all 26 MLS teams can assemble in Orlando and start playing games on July 8th, when the tournament officially kicks off. Teams have already started travelling, a schedule is out, now it’s just a matter of time until things get underway for real.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean things are perfect. Florida continues to put up record daily COVID-19 numbers, as a result of their states reopening plan, making many doubt the idea to bring this MLS bubble to Orlando.
As we saw a few weeks ago, there are already logistical concerns, mostly due to a lack of clear protocol and procedure regarding possible COVID-19 cases, which considering Florida’s continual upward spike, is certainly a concern for teams travelling down there.
Especially for a team such as the Whitecaps, who live in a province, British Columbia, where cases have remained relatively low and steady for the past month and a half. To give up that sort of environment in exchange for a red-hot Florida hotspot isn’t too appealing, but alas, such is the reality of this tournament, which the ‘Caps are ready to embrace.
“Look what you’re stating are facts,” ‘Caps head coach, Marc Dos Santos, said when asked about the Florida spike. “The numbers out there are real, you’re not lying, it’s not a rumour, it’s out there, and it’s real. So right now, it looks like everything is going forward, and we’re working to go there next Wednesday to play our first game on the 9th.”
But despite that positive mentality that he stressed, does he feel some concerns?
“The pandemic is real, and you touched on it in points,” he said. “I would be lying to you if we don’t talk about it between staff, and if we don’t talk about it between players. And some players have also shown concerns on the rise of the virus (in the US), but right now, as everyone is explaining to us, and Dr. (Jim) Bovard was also here explaining to the team and players, we feel that the setup that is going to be in Orlando and in Disney allows us to go there feeling safe.”
So, with that in mind, expected a motivated Whitecaps side down in Orlando. In light of a rough couple of weeks for the club, who have appeared to lose the support of many fans with their decision to part ways with CEO Mark Pannes last week, which got the hashtag #SellTheCaps trending on social media, this is going to be a good chance for the club to show the fruits of the work that they’ve done in order to put together this squad.
And with a tough but balanced group in front of them, comprised of rivals FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders, they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them. With 9 crucial regular-season points on the line in these 3 games, along with the potential for a prize pot and Champions League spot as tournament champions, there is still a fair bit at stake for the club and its players.
With the schedule now out, giving the team an idea of the road that’s awaiting them down in Orlando, things are quickly ramping up, which should make for a busy last couple weeks of preparation.
In terms of the schedule itself, the ‘Caps kick things off with Dallas on the 9th of July, before taking on the Earthquakes on the 15th, and then finishing things off against Seattle on the 20th, with all games taking place at 22:30 EST/19:30 PST.
Considering how balanced the group is, this order doesn’t really change much, but for Dos Santos, he does think that the way it’s set up does bring some intrigue.
“When it comes to the schedule, I’ve said it before, but I think it’s a very balanced group, where anybody, any of the 4 teams can qualify, and finish in the top 2 spots,” Dos Santos said Wednesday. “But between playing Seattle first, or Dallas, San Jose, I don’t think it makes a big difference. In my approach, I wanted to have Seattle first, more for a fan engagement thing, but we’re getting Dallas first, and we’re excited about it.”
“Having Seattle as the third game, maybe could have a lot of meaning for the group, but we have to go one game at a time. Once you’re in a group stage like that, you can’t think too much about the 2nd and the 3rd game, you have to think first about Dallas, trying to get the best result possible there, and then moving forward with the 2nd game.”
To do that, however, he’s going to need a full assembly of players at his disposal, as depth is going to prove to be key during a tournament of this nature. With the increase of substitutes from 3 to 5 in each game, having a full allotment of players will be key to managing the sprint that lies ahead.
Luckily for the ‘Caps, that shouldn’t be a problem, as Dos Santos shared on Wednesday. Thanks to the elongated break provided by the pandemic, defender Erik Godoy is the only player still struggling for fitness, making him a doubt for the tournament.
Considering the early struggles of fitness and injuries that the team was starting to face back in March, they know that they’re in a good place now fitness-wise, which has led to what Dos Santos described as ‘great’ training sessions.
“When it comes to training, the intensity is high, the workload is high, the mentality of the guys has been fantastic since the first day in San Diego (preseason), the mentality has been great during the COVID pause and return to training, and the only players still that is a doubt to play in Orlando is Erik Godoy.”
So now, besides the obvious work that is going to continue to be put in on the footballing side of things, the lone things to worry about will be away from the field in Orlando. It sounds like the ‘Caps are ready to take the grass, they just will need to sort out some logistical things off the field, such as figuring out the optimal way to keep players entertained and engaged despite restrictions.
Without a doubt, it will be tough for many, who will be away from families and their home for a month and a half, but such is the reality of such a complex return plan, which was always going to have to be the case of any return to sport in North America.
But it’s a reality Dos Santos acknowledges, and it’s one that he’s embracing learning about, as he and his staff continue to prepare every detail, on and off the pitch, in order to push towards success in Florida.
So when asked about how he and his team are going to stay focused despite everything that’s going on, he says that it won’t be easy, as this is all new to everyone, but they’re going to do their best in order to be prepared.
“I can’t answer this question looking like an expert, and if you have coaches that do that, good for them, but that I know, none of us coaches have gone through an experience like this, so it’s going to be a new experience for everyone,” Dos Santos said. “So I know that I’m going to learn a lot by being there, and I’m going to adapt a lot by being there. What we’re doing now is educating our players in what they have to do on the health side, how careful they have to be.”
“And we’re also talking with the performance team, and everyone involved in the club, (about) what sort of activities can we do outside of soccer to keep the guys in a clean mindset, also in that freedom of life. What it cannot look like is that they’re only going from a room to a field, to a room, to a field and that’s their life for 5 weeks. It can’t look like that.”
As a result, balance is going to be key, both on and off the pitch, to keep everyone on the same page, with a lot at stake from a pure-footballing perspective.
“So we have to be smart in how we manage the different activities. We educate them on a lot of things, on what they can do, because it takes one of them being irresponsible to put the team in a bad spot, so we do a lot of work there,” he finished.
Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs FC Dallas, Thursday July 9th, 19h30 PST (Disney wide world of sports, Florida) (TV:TSN)