As the MLS Cup Playoffs are happening, the Vancouver Whitecaps won’t partake for the third consecutive season. Year two of Marc Dos Santos’ three-year plan sees the club improve from last place in the Western Conference to ninth. Vancouver was dealt a difficult hand, there’s no beating around the bush here.
Despite every other team battling through the same pandemic, only Toronto FC and Montreal Impact can relate to the Whitecaps’ struggle. Mind you, Toronto and Montreal both made the playoffs, but let’s not get into that.
Another year of rebuilding and things certainly look brighter this winter compared to a year ago for the club. CEO Axel Schuster has been with the club for a full season now and seems to be a good fit for the role.
There was that debacle with Mark Pannes back in June, but we can sweep that under the rug. It looks as though off the pitch, the club is slowly making strides.
But what about on the pitch? Below is a position by position breakdown of the Whitecaps in 2020 and how it may look next year.
Battling their way through four goalies this year, Vancouver’s “keeper carousel” started off when Max Crepeau suffered an injury to his left hand during MLS is Back. With Bryan Meredith missing the tournament due to the passing of his mother, young Canadian goalkeeper Thomas Hasal stepped into a Cascade clash against the Seattle Sounders. An impressive showing at the tournament landed Hasal the starting job for the Canadian series, quickly becoming a fan favorite. After suffering an injury himself, the club looked to Meredith to step up. After a short stint, Vancouver looked around for another option, bringing in veteran Evan Bush to close out the year.
Regardless of who gets the starting job in 2021, it seems Evan Bush will be the back up option. Schuster admitted that everyone was impressed by Hasal and that he deserves playing minutes.
“If Hasal isn’t our No. 1 next year, then he will go somewhere else. He has shown his talents and deserves to play.” — Axel Schuster, Whitecaps CEO
So either Crepeau or Hasal will be the main man for Vancouver next year, two very solid options that Whitecaps fans should be happy with.
.@MaxCrepeau on the craziness of this year's goalkeeping rotation 🧤 and where his head's at going into next season 🗓️
— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) November 19, 2020
Ali Adnan, Best Player.
That was the saying come down the stretch of the season for the Whitecaps faithful. However, it wasn’t always that way. Having a sluggish first half of the year, Vancouver saw a more hesitant, sloppy Adnan than they’re used to. During the home stretch of the Canadian series, Adnan was benched and replaced by Christian Gutierrez.
Here’s why that’s a big deal. Ever since joining the team as a Designated Player last year, Adnan has had no competition for the left back job, meaning regardless of how he plays, he won’t be replaced. So Gutierrez stepped up and he shined in his time as a starter.
Lighting a fire under Ali Adnan, he worked hard and fought to win back the starting job. He kept that form for the rest of the year and landed himself the team’s MVP plus a Goal of the Year nomination. Not much will likely change in 2021, keeping Adnan ahead of Gutierrez for next year.
What a ride it was watching this battle unfold. Starting off with Jasser Khmiri and Derek Cornelius on opening day, it seemed to be a long season for the Whitecaps. Passing on Khmiri, Andy Rose and the newly acquired Ranko Veselinovic found themselves in a three-way battle for the two spots. Despite impressing at MLS is Back, Veselinovic regressed throughout the year, and the return of Eric Godoy didn’t help his cause. Godoy slotted in as one of the starters, with Rose, Veselinovic and Cornelius cycling through with no permanent decision made.
Veselinovic, who activated his 12 game purchase option, will be joining the team next year. Most likely the only one who won’t be returning is Khmiri, who’s on an option this year but likely won’t be picked up. My pick would be Godoy and Cornelius to start opening day next year, but Dos Santos does commonly fancy Rose.
Jake Nerwinski picked up the Jock MacDonald Unsung Hero award for the Whitecaps this year. One of the more consistent players on the roster, Nerwinski was able to control the right side without much competition this year. One or two games of Godoy and Janio Bikel, but all of BC Place knew his spot was safe. With the introduction of the three “Young DP spots,” a smart idea would be to find someone who can serve as backup to Nerwinski. A great teacher and one of the more tenured players with the club, his knowledge can help shape his future replacement.
— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) November 16, 2020
Russell Teibert’s time as a starter seems to really be closing in on him. He’s a club legend, no doubt. But his time seems to be near an end. Spending time at left midfield after David Milinkovic’s injury, that spot was Teibert’s only way into the starting line up it seemed. He managed to hold his own, but not much more than that. He was a good temporary fix to get the team to the offseason, never a long term solution.
With Milinkovic looking for other options away from Vancouver, and Teibert being more out of place than a fish in the desert, Vancouver needs help out wide. Ryan Raposo is still a year or two away before he is fully developed and can take that role, and the Adnan experiment was never the long term plan. Another Young DP here with a few more years experience than Raposo could serve Vancouver nicely. Schsuter did admit that a left footed winger was on his wishlist for Santa this year.
The introduction of Leonard Owusu and Janio Bikel seemed like that would easily solve the riddle of Vancouver’s middle of the park. However between inconsistency problems, injuries, suspensions, and the emergence of Michael Baldisimo, it suddenly wasn’t so easy. It never quite worked for Vancouver — and by “it,” I mean anything. Selling Inbeom Hwang to Rubin Kazan in Russia made life a little easier, but no one expected the breakout that Baldisimo had.
An obvious lack of a No. 10 was the team’s scapegoat to poor midfield play, which is fair to say (and is also on Schuster’s Christmas list). However it seems like the pairing of Bikel/Owusu won’t be the long term solution, as Schuster said they are looking in the market of a No. 8 type player. Plop in the No. 8 and No. 10, then either Bikel/Owusu, with Baldi coming off the bench. Whitecaps fans were a lot happier with that arrangement than what they saw in 2020.
Christian Dajome got off to a tough start in Vancouver. His family was back in Columba, and on three separate occasions a charter plane was told to turn around entering Columbian air space before picking them up and bringing them to British Columbia. Part way through the season, they finally made it and the Dajome family was reunited. Anyone with eyes could tell that impacted Dajome’s performance for the better.
Receiving a lot of criticism early on, Dajome soon shut up his critics and was arguably the most improved player on Vancouver this year. Finishing with three goals and three assists, Dajome never really lost his spot at right mid. A couple times Theo Bair tried it out, but Dajome far and away owned that position. I doubt there will be much difference in 2021.
Bringing in Lucas Cavallini, Vancouver wanted to send a message that they were ready to compete this year. That message might be a but premature, and will possibly come true next year. Another player with a slow start, it took months for him to score more goals than missed two penalties. He picked up steam at the end of the year, winning the team’s golden boot with six total strikes. 2020 also saw youngster Theo Bair develop his game, notching ahead of Tossaint Ricketts for the first to come off the bench.
However there is no way to write a summary of the season and not mention “Avioncito”, Freddy Montero. Having no real impact on the squad until the second half of the year (that phrase is becoming a common trend in this article), Montero stepped up and announced his presence within the squad with five goals and five assists. The way he complimented Cavallini brought out the best in both players, and made a real interesting case heading into the offseason.
This was the last year Montero was under contract, and with a new #10 on his way, Montero might not find his way onto the team sheet as often as he might like. He is as Seattle legend, owns a coffee shop there, and his very nice Tesla is still registered with Washington plates. Montero wants to play, and it seems as though Vancouver are reaching out and want him to stick around. Between an emerging Theo Bair, family ties in Seattle and his age, there is no guarantee Avioncito will be back.
— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) November 20, 2020
Despite it being three straight years of playoff-less soccer in Vancouver, year two of the Marc Dos Santos project seems to be coming along. There is no doubt he is on thin ice, and no playoffs in 2021 could easily mean the door for Dos Santos. Schuster addressed the topic of the team’s development and what this year proved:
“If you play in this league, you want to make the playoffs. Of course, it is a negative and disappointing to miss it by three points. There are reasons we didn’t make it, but there is no excuse. I didn’t expect magic straight away, things will develop step by step”
At the start of this season, I wrote that a successful season for the Whitecaps would purely be determined by whether or not they found an identity for themselves this year. Whether thats a style of play, or a connection with a frustrated fan base. While they didn’t achieve that, the club sure seems closer to figuring it out this year compared to last November. While it wasn’t a successful season for the Whitecaps, it wasn’t a failed one either.
The team improved, the front office was shaken up, fans (briefly) had hope. 2020 was a step in the right direction for Vancouver, even though it didn’t always feel like it. The 2021 season has already started for the Whitecaps, staring down a crucial offseason for the club.