The Vancouver Whitecaps kicked off their 2021 offseason on a high note on Tuesday, signing interim head coach Vanni Sartini on a permanent basis. In this, we look at that announcement, as well as what that means for the ‘Caps, who are just getting started in terms of what awaits them this offseason.
It took a few weeks, but it was finally made official on Tuesday: Vanni Sartini is now the newest Vancouver Whitecaps head coach.
As anticipated, the ‘Caps are making the decision to bring back Sartini, who has been with the club since 2019, making the 45-year-old Italian the clubs 5th head coach in their MLS history, as they look to ride the momentum of a big end to the 2021 season from them.
And playing a big part in that was Sartini, who was hired in late August as interim head coach, replacing the outgoing Marc Dos Santos, who Sartini used to be an assistant for back in 2019 and most of 2020, before moving to a new role as the club’s Director of Methodology at the end of 2020.
But then, called upon to replace Dos Santos, Sartini not only helped steady the ‘Caps, but pushed them in a whole new direction, too, leading a surprise push to the playoffs. With a record of 7W-2L-5D (26 points) in 14 games in charge, tied for the 2nd-best record in MLS over that time, that allowed the ‘Caps to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, rescuing what at times looked like a lost season.
So although their playoff journey was much shorter than they would’ve hoped, as they bowed out to Sporting Kansas City in the first round by the score of 3-1, this late run has increased optimism in the club, many of whom believe can make a good run in 2022 now.
And central to those efforts will be Sartini, who now, as of Tuesday, is now officially the guy to helm the ship, and will look to prove that his team’s late run this season was no fluke.
There is a lot of work to do before then, as the club has just under 2 months to reshape the team ahead of next season, but with their first order of business out of the way, which was to hire a head coach, the fun can begin now.
Having stumbled along the last few years, it feels like the ‘Caps finally have most of their ducks in order now, and will look to translate that into a big 2022 season, one that they can hope makes the 2021 campaign feel like a distant memory in comparison.
Sartini’s signing was just the latest example of that, and now, they’ll hope that can set the tone for what should be a big few months ahead for the club.
The worst kept secret in Vancouver:
But before any of that happens, though, securing Sartini’s signing was the main order of business for the ‘Caps to first sort out, without a doubt.
Heading into the offseason, after the run that he had, it just felt inevitable that the Italian-born coach would become the club’s next boss on a permanent basis, making it only a matter of time until an announcement like this was made.
Despite receiving over 100 applications for the head coaching role, including 1 from an unnamed head coach that had won 2 championships in 2 other leagues, the ‘Caps main option this offseason was always going to be Sartini. That much was clear.
It wasn’t always the plan when he started out as an interim head coach, but with the results being as they were, and the ‘Caps late run, it just became too hard not to do with each passing game, and now, it’s finally happened.
So although the ‘Caps did still do their due diligence in terms of trying to hire a head coach, creating a shortlist of options just in case, Sartini’s name was always at the front of that list, as he just ticked all the boxes that the team was looking for in its bench boss.
“He is not only getting the job because he was here, and everyone was excited about this season,” Whitecaps, CEO, Axel Schuster, said on Tuesday. “No, he is getting the job because we had a strong process that compared him to a lot of other candidates, we had some strong criteria.”
“One was to develop young players, we want to continue that, (one was) a coach that can have a positive impact on a team, and is able to implement a structure, (one was) a coach that made individuals better over time, and (one was) a coach that has experience in MLS or a comparable league.” “At the end of this whole process, he was also the strongest candidate (in all of those areas).”
And that wasn’t just felt by the higher-ups, but also down on the pitch, as well.
The bonus part of an interim stint is that it gives a chance for the players to see how they’d respond to a new manager, and in the case of Sartini, it seemed to be a perfect match.
From the star players, to the role players, it seemed that everyone who got to play under Sartini had positive things to say about working with him these past few months.
And that’s key. The one thing about hiring a head coach is that you have no idea about how they might mesh with a group, no matter how many boxes that they tick on paper.
So not only did Sartini tick all of the boxes, but he demonstrated that he was the right guy for the job in his short time in action, and that was key for the ‘Caps as they looked for reasons to hire him.
The players looked excited to play for him, and that showed on the field, something they’ll look to now replicate in 2022.
“The club made a decision to re-energize and to refresh, and that’s just what Vanni does,” Whitecaps captain, Russell Teibert, said of Sartini on Tuesday. “He brings a ton of energy, and enthusiasm and charisma, and he’s somebody that’s a real leader, and that you want to do what he says, and he makes you love the game by how much he loves it.”
And from Sartini’s perspective, that feeling is mutual.
“When we agreed for me to continue to be the head coach, it’s all that I asked,” Sartini said. “And I know that removing the label of interim just means that I have more responsibility, but I would say a welcome responsibility, again, I’m truly honoured that the club chose me, and I will give 1000%, they put this trust in me to bring success for the city and the club.”
What’s next for Sartini, Schuster?
But now that things are official in terms of the head coach hiring, the next step looms for Sartini and Schuster, and that’s preparing for the 2022 season.
And with the start of preseason already less than 2 months away here, with this signing now sorted, the work towards preparing for that begins today.
So seeing that, one question has to be asked – what will the offseason look like for the pair of them?
Having gotten a chance to work with the roster for a few months, surely Sartini might have some requests that he’d want to give to Schuster in terms of player acquisition, right?
And surprisingly, while the two said that they remain in constant contact over the roster, it sounds like Sartini’s role will be mostly axed towards just training the first team, instead of shaping it.
Obviously, his input is valuable, as the team isn’t going to buy him player A when there’s more of a need for player B, but as for helping decide who player A or B is, Sartini isn’t really going to be doing much in that regard.
With a strong scouting staff, led by director of Recruitment, Nikos Overheul, and all overseen by Schuster, they’ll be the ones to do most of the work there, and then, Sartini will take what they give him and try and mould it best to his vision.
It isn’t something that we’re all used to seeing in Vancouver, as the last 2 coaches had to do a lot of work recruiting, but a lot of that was also due to the fact that the ‘Caps didn’t have the structure that they have now to make that happen, so this is a sign of how far they’ve come in terms of setting up a coherent organizational structure.
“Of course, we talk every day, and are in strict cooperation, in the end, we are working to try and improve the roster,” Sartini explained. “But what I want to say is I like to think one of the reasons why I’ve been chosen is because I’m a coach, I’m fairly good at coaching the team, I’m very good, I know it sounds cocky, but I’m good at my job on the field, leading the team, and trying to improve the team that I have.”
“I think that the club has a very strong structure now, with Axel (Schuster) as Sporting Director, we have a very good scouting team, and I think my job is to give an opinion, but I don’t think I should be involved too much in the look for another player or in the dealings, because my job is to coach this team.”
And that’s going to be an interesting partnership to monitor.
Considering how most of the club’s signings that they’ve made since Schuster was hired in November of 2019 have been hits, you can’t help but give him the benefit of the doubt here, especially seeing how quickly Sartini was able to mould this team into his own image in just a few months.
Clearly, there’s a lot of synergy between the two there, and they’ll look to keep that up heading into the new season.
“In Germany, we have two words, we call a coach sometimes a manager, or we call him a football teacher,” Schuster added. “And we were looking for a football teacher, and for that reason, Vanni was the ideal profile”
Elsewhere, though, seeing that Sartini is going to be more focused on his role as a coach, where does that leave his old job, Director of Methodology, a role he held with more of an eye on the academy?
And surprisingly, it sounds like that he’ll actually be keeping that job title, which was not what many were expecting him to do.
Obviously, he won’t be on the ground every day with the academy kids as he was before, and will have to relinquish his title as head coach of the U23 team, but it sounds like he’ll still be involved in the academy as he was before, just doing so in more of a global role now.
One reason why he was hired in that role was to offer a bit more connection between the first team and the academy, so while he’s now a little closer to the first team than the academy, there’s no reason why he can’t keep working on that connection, hence why he’s staying in the role.
It sounds like the ‘Caps will probably have to hire someone to help at least partly fill the things that he can no longer do in the role, but otherwise, the academy remains a big part of what Sartini will work on, as the ‘Caps continue their quest to get more of those graduates into their first team.
The priority is the first team, of course, but there’s no secret that the ‘Caps want to get more out of their academy, and the fact that Sartini is remaining in this role is a prime example of that.
“The head of Methodology role will not be replaced by a new Director of Methodology, because he will also remain responsible for that role,” Schuster said of Sartini. “Of course, he will be limited by his time, 24 hours a day is all he has, so we will discuss in the next weeks what is the right set up, and how we can support him to execute this role, and how we can all have the best set up to coach our coaches, and continue to build the academy, as well.
“What I stepped down from was the fact being every day at training with the academy, and every day being on hand with all of the players with the academy,” Sartini further explained. “So for the methodology, parts will be focused on picture stuff, and as Axel said, the club will be organized in a way that the message can trickle down.”
Changes imminent on the roster?
So with the coaching situation now sorted, as hinted earlier, that does mean that the ‘Caps can now turn their focus to the most exciting part of the offseason – and that’s player transactions.
After some big turnover the last few years, though, it sounds like the ‘Caps won’t do much this year, and rightfully so given how they finished the season, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any fireworks, either.
There will definitely be some players heading out, be it via the expiry of their contract, a declined option, a trade, a transfer or a loan. That’s a given, especially in a league like MLS, where turnover is just a way of life due to all of the player acquisition methods that exist.
For example, it’s important to remember that with the entry of Charlotte FC into the league next year, that means that they must hold an expansion draft, where they’ll get to pick 5 players from other teams to add to their roster.
And having avoided getting any players poached last year when Austin FC entered the league, that means that the ‘Caps aren’t exempt from that process this year, which means that they could stand to lose a player there.
The chances are slim, as Charlotte will have to pick 5 players (maximum of 1 from a team), from a list of over 20 teams, but given how hot the ‘Caps finished the season, there will certainly be a few players available that could grab their attention.
And that’s just the start of what can happen. For example, there’s also then the re-entry drafts, as well as Free Agency, which could be another way that the ‘Caps might lose some bodies, provided that they don’t negotiate any new contracts with their players ahead of then.
So seeing that, there’s no doubt that some players will be on the way out, in some way or another. Plus, seeing that Axel Schuster said on Tuesday that ‘every player has their price’, there’s also the possibility that someone just offers too much money for a player for the ‘Caps to refuse, so it feels like a given that some will depart the club in some way or another.
And if some leave, that means that some will have to come in, so there is also the potential for a few key moves in terms of acquisitions, as well.
It probably won’t be anything big, as unless the ‘Caps sell one of their 2 DPs or 3 Young Money players (which is very unlikely), all they can really do in terms of a big splash is bring in a Young DP (under 23), which will feel like nothing after some of the big moves they made the last few years.
But that’s okay. The ‘Caps have spent a lot of work building this roster, so unless they find the perfect player, there’s no reason to add players just for the sake of adding, and they’re aware of that.
“We don’t expect such a big turnover again (this offseason),” Schuster explained. “As I said before, we have a very successful group for a lot of reasons, because we have a lot of very talented and skilled players, we have a good mix of older and younger players, and we had an incredible atmosphere in the group, the group was the driver, we have a group that corrects a lot of things internally.”
“So again, I can only repeat it, but it’s dangerous to touch too much, we are now in a position where we can also make things worse, so for that reason, we will think very carefully about what we do, be really careful in our recruitment process, and the bar is high for everyone who wants to join our organization.”
At the same time, because there won’t be big turnover doesn’t mean that there won’t be moves made, and the ‘Caps aren’t shy in admitting that, either.
What all of this means is that they’re not just signing guys to fill roster spots, as they might have had to do in the past few seasons, but instead with a plan in mind.
Anyone who they sign will be signed with a purpose, be it to increase the overall quality of the roster, or to increase competition at a spot, or to shore up an area of need.
And the good news is that with their scouting staff all in place, they’ve probably already locked down their targets to help them do all of that already, instead of scrambling to do so as they might have done in the past, which is key.
So while this offseason might not be exciting in terms of volume, it’ll certainly be exciting in terms of quality, and based on where this ‘Caps team is right now, that’s crucial.
Just take last year’s midseason transfers for striker, Brian White, and centre back, Florian Jungwirth, as an example of that.
Seen as strange moves, both trades ended up working wonders for the ‘Caps push towards the playoffs, as White ended up leading the team in goals with 12, while Jungwirth helped stabilize a sometimes shaky backline.
Because of that, even if every move doesn’t rock Vancouver or MLS on the ‘shock’ level such as a Ryan Gauld or a Lucas Cavallini might, they still could be impactful, as the ‘Caps are looking to make the most of each and every transaction that they make.
“We don’t want to maybe fill a need that we have, we want to get it done right,” Schuster said. “I think last season proves that the right direction can maybe take time. Obviously, it was not an ideal scenario to wait so long for Ryan Gauld, for example, but in the end, it paid off, and we will continue that.”
Early goals for 2022:
And now, speaking of 2022, it’s going to be intriguing to see how the ‘Caps follow up this impressive 2021 season now here.
Having made the playoffs, the question is always going to be to see how they follow up on that, as the last thing that they’ll want to do next year is take a step back after such a big push.
Playoffs are the goal again, no doubt, but seeing that they were able to achieve that just with a late push, surely the goal is larger over a full season?
And the answer is simple – of course.
“I think the expectation needs to be the playoffs, and a home playoff game,” Caps defender, Jake Nerwinski, said. “The way that we ended the season, we showed to not only ourselves, not only to our fans, but to the entire MLS that we’re a team that is feared, now we’re a team that you don’t think that you’re just going to come in here and get 3 points. And even on the road we’re tough to play, so that all just needs to kind of come together again for an entire season, and if it does, there’s no doubt that we’ll get a home playoff game.”
And that belief is shared in the ‘Caps organization.
“I have full confidence in this group,” Teibert said. “And full confidence (not just) in his coaching staff, but full confidence in this organization, we want to make this fanbase proud of this team, we want to make Vancouver proud of the Whitecaps, and I think the expectation is to make the playoffs next year, to get to the second round, and to potentially host a home playoff game, and that’s definitely on the horizon for us.”
But seeing that, is it realistic to expect the ‘Caps to make it back to the playoffs next year?
And the answer should be yes. Even though the Western Conference is going to be an absolute bloodbath next year, especially with the addition of Nashville SC from the Eastern Conference, the ‘Caps still have enough talent to fight for a top 7 place at minimum, if not a home playoff game.
With a more normal schedule, one that won’t be as compressed as it was this year, they’ll have more than enough depth to handle the rigours of the regular season, too.
So if anything, the expectation should not only be to make the playoffs and host a playoff game, but also use that depth to finally make a good run in the Canadian Championship, especially after a few consecutive disappointments in that competition.
There’s no reason why the ‘Caps can’t do that, especially as things stand, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare in their quest to achieve those goals next year.
An important update:
Otherwise, lastly, it’s important to note that the ‘Caps also issued a comment on the ongoing MLS investigation into the club after allegations against their former women’s team coach, Herbert Busby Jr.
There’s no update to provide there yet, other than the fact that the executives currently suspended while this process continues all remain suspended, but the ‘Caps did also add that they’ve remained cooperative with investigators, providing all the necessary paperwork and answers that they’ve asked to give to them so far.
So now, with it being a third-party investigation, they’re looking to wait and see what ends up happening, which hopefully leads to some long-overdue action on the matter, especially given the fact that this isn’t the first time that something like this has happened in the organization.
It’s been far too long, but it finally feels like some change is on the horizon, and hopefully that can lead to some much-needed cleaning in the ‘Caps front office to ensure that this sort of matter never happens again.