A bit of good, a bit of bad: MLS is back, but headaches loom for Vancouver Whitecaps to start the 2021 season

It’s official: MLS will be back in 2021! In this, we look at the news that MLS will be back this year, as they avoided a labour dispute, before diving into how the start of 2021 promises to provide plenty of headache for the Whitecaps and fellow Canadian teams. 

It’s been a busy week for MLS fans. 

After narrowly avoiding a lockout, thanks to an eleventh-hour deal between MLS and its player’s association, the MLSPA, MLS soccer will be back and gracing stadiums around North America in 2021 (unless you’re Canadian, that is). 

While it always felt like an eventuality that we’d see any sort of labour strife avoided, it was touch and go for a while there, so thankfully, the players were able to get what they wanted, despite the owners and the league forcing them into this uneviable position. Even though they signed a new CBA until 2027, that battle is not over, however, as the league can impose a Force Majeure clause later this year, so hopefully they avoid that. 

But aside from all the chatter about labour, it’s good to see official confirmation that MLS will indeed be back in 2021, with teams now getting set to hit the field on April 17th, 2 weeks later than their originally planned April 3rd start. 

With preseason likely to start in early March now, instead of late February, this now gives teams a clear path towards the start of the season, allowing them to bring in their final signings ahead of the start of the campaign. 

There is still a lot to be figured out, especially in terms of figuring out a schedule, but aside from that, plans are in place for there to be a smooth start to the MLS season on April 17th. 

Oh (no) Canada:

Well, that’s unless you’re one of the 3 Canadian teams, who sit in limbo less than 2 months ahead of the projected start of the MLS season. 

Due to the strict restrictions on border travel that will probably remain in place for the considerable future, it is very unlikely that we see American teams travel north anytime soon. As we’ve seen in the sporting world, that’s either meant that Canadian teams in American leagues have had to relocate down south, or content themselves with a stream of games between the Canadian teams. 

While leagues such as the NHL, MLB and NBA have done one or the other, MLS did do a bit of both last year, so it’s very possible that they impose a similar solution again in 2021. 

With reports coming out of Salt Lake suggesting that the ‘Caps have made plans to start 2021 in Salt Lake, however, it does seem that Canadian teams are at least planning for the possibility of having to relocate to the US, at least to start the year. 

It’s possible that we do see a Canadian series to start the season, buying the league a month to 2 months of time for the Canadian teams to remain at home before coming to a solution, but it’s still unclear what their end goal is. 

Improving COVID-19 and vaccination rates in the US could see some sort of border easing for sports teams in the next few months, but with so much uncertainty out there concerning new variants causing a rapid spread of the virus, it seems unlikely to imagine the border rules loosening up anytime soon. 

With Vancouver and Montreal both revealing that their training camps will be entirely held in Canada (opening up the likelihood of a few exhibition matches between the two teams), as well as Toronto’s need to play Forge FC in the Voyageurs Cup final ahead of April 6th, the Canadian teams will all remain in Canada for now, so a return of the Canadian series could be the best solution for now. 

As was the case last year, MLS is likely just trying to buy time, but if not, we may have to get used to the Salt Lake ‘Caps for a few months in 2021. 

The good news is that we’ll likely see some sort of return to normal in 2022, but for now, the Canadian MLS limbo game remains very much in place. 

International headaches:

But no matter where the ‘Caps play, be it in Vancouver, Salt Lake or even in Greenland (imagine that!), they do face a big preseason roster headache already, adding to their problems. 

To be fair, this current 2-week delay to start the MLS season actually does help them out a lot, but that doesn’t mean that their problem will go away completely. 

And for those unfamiliar with the problem, it has to do with FIFA’s March International window, which will be in late March, in which several confederations will be playing important World Cup qualifiers. Compounding that? CONCACAF’s U23 Olympic qualifiers start in mid-March, as well, adding to the ‘Caps international headache. 

But while those two things won’t be much of a problem for some teams, for the ‘Caps, it should see them lose a ton of players right in the middle of their preseason, as depending on who gets called up, they could see nearly a dozen players leave them for up to a month to represent their countries. 

At the very least, they will for sure lose Lucas Cavallini, Theo Bair, Maxime Crepeau, Michael Baldisimo, Derek Cornelius and Ali Adnan. Those players will definitely be called up to either Canada’s first team for World Cup qualifiers, or Canada’s U23 team for Olympic qualifiers (with Adnan joining Iraq for their World Cup qualifiers). 

On top of that, Cristian Gutierrez (U23), Russell Teibert (First Team), Thomas Hasal (U23) and Tosaint Ricketts (First Team) are all in contention to join their fellow Canadians on international duty, while Ranko Veselinovic (Serbia) and Jasser Khmiri (Tunisia) remain as outside call-up possibilities, having been called up by their respective National Teams at least once in the last year. 

To put it mildly: it’s not ideal. 

For once, the Whitecaps actually have most of their roster in place ahead of preseason, which compared to the past few years, where they’ve started camp with barely enough players to field a starting 11, is a big step forward, one that should theoretically see them get off to a better start. 

While their roster is far from being complete (a #10, anyone?), they’ve finally got a core in place, and it was hoped that they could use this time for those players to continue to build on the growth they showed at times last year. 

But with this shift that sees training camp moved back nearly 2 months compared to when it usually starts, it happens to coincide with some important international dates, and unfortunately for Vancouver, they happen to have a decent chunk of full-fledged and aspiring internationals in their ranks. 

On the bright side, this may affect a good chunk of MLS teams, including both other Canadian teams, which is good for the ‘Caps, but at the same time, there is unlikely to be another team who could lose double-digit players for at least 2 weeks (likely to be 3-4 because of quarantines) at such a key time.

Alas, if you’ve followed the ‘Caps since the start of 2020, this is nothing new, but it appears to be another blow that an already beaten down Marc Dos Santos and his staff will have to adapt and deal with. 

In the Mixer: 

  • In other news, (unofficial) BTSVancity 2020 MVP Jake Nerwinski inked a new deal with the ‘Caps on Tuesday, keeping the right back in Vancouver for at least 2 more seasons. It’s much deserved for the 2017 Super Draft Pick, who took some big steps forward last year. While the ‘Caps could use some depth at the position (something that 2021 Draft Pick, Javain Brown might provide), Nerwinski quelled a lot of the doubters that had started to build up in recent years, so it’s nice to see him rewarded with a new deal. Along with the re-signing of Andy Rose in recent weeks, it’s good to see the team retain two important leadership pillars in a young locker room. 
  • And in sadder news, it’s very unfortunate to see that TSN 1040’s 20-year run in Vancouver radio came to an end the way that it did on Tuesday. They deserved a lot better than that, and hopefully a lot of the employees there find a way back on their feet in the coming weeks. 
  • That TSN 1040 news also does affect the ‘Caps, as they were the team’s radio sponsor (and pretty much the sole provider of any sorts of ‘Caps radio content), robbing the ‘Caps of a pivotal content source at a pretty important time. Seeing the teams need to continue and get content out there, it’ll be interesting to see if they find another way to get games out on the radio in 2021. 
  • Lastly, you do wonder what the ‘Caps will do/say concerning their partnership with Bell, who was in charge of the brutal carnage that has been seen at TSN in recent weeks. Seeing the hypocrisy surrounding Bell’s handling of their mass firings, especially in light of their ‘Bell Let’s Talk Day’ that happened less than 2 weeks ago, people are understandably angry at the telecom company, which happens to be the main sponsor of the ‘Caps. It’s hard to see them parting with the network right away, as many fans have suggested (even threatening boycotts of all levels of either the club’s merchandise or even the team itself), considering that these sort of agreements have pretty ironclad contracts in place. It’s not ideal for the ‘Caps, who probably have a pretty lucrative sponsorship deal in place, as they did not see this coming, and will probably have to stomach the hate that will (understandably and expectedly) come their way, due to the aforementioned nature of these sorts of contracts. What one does have to wonder, however, is how this will shape the future of this deal, which considering Bell has been on the front of ‘Caps jerseys for 10 years, surely has to be coming to an end soon. Will this impact future negotiations? You do wonder. 

Looking Forward:

So it’s safe to say, it’s been an interesting week in both MLS and Whitecaps land, and based on what we’ve seen, there are a few wild weeks that lie ahead, as the ‘Caps have some roster headaches to deal with, among other problems. 

With plenty of players still to sign, they could make the looming international fixture headache more favourable for them, but either way, they’ll probably be at a disadvantage there. 

On top of the headaches that will be brought their way via the Bell fiasco, this won’t be an easy few weeks for them. 

But with the start of the season finally on the horizon, it’ll be good to see the Whitecaps return to the field, putting the memories of an up and down offseason behind them, allowing them to focus on making big steps forward in 2021. 

Bonus: 

In happier news, if you’ve made it this far in the article, we just want to say a big thank you! Last week, on February 5th, BTSVancity turned 2 years old, and we wanted to thank those who made it possible: you!

Without you, we wouldn’t have ever been able to embark on this journey to provide content to soccer fans both in Vancouver and across Canada, so for that, we tip our caps to you. 2020 wasn’t the ideal year for many, ourselves included, but we’re looking to bring forward lots of content in 2021, so we hope you stay around for that, as there are some big things coming for both us and the teams/leagues that we cover! 

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