EDITORIAL – Last year was no cakewalk for anybody, by any means. Between pandemics and lockdowns and the MLS’ use of Points Per Game (PPG), it was a year which everyone is glad is over. Alas, the world is ever so slowly crawling back to some sort of normalcy, with no clearer indicator of that than another challenging year ahead for the 2021 Vancouver Whitecaps. Four home games within the span of 252 days, calling another country “home” for months, and sub-par cuisine from a Disney World resort is not ideal for a professional sports team. However it was the situation Vancouver had to face last year.
What are the Biggest Challenges Facing the 2021 Vancouver Whitecaps?
Fast forward to present day. Are things better than last November? Yes, absolutely. Are things better enough that the Whitecaps won’t have to at least start the year at several disadvantages already? Not quite. Vancouver has a number of hurdles to clear this year, and it pains me to say that living through this pandemic barely cracks this list.
Home Away From Home
“Down in Utah, the guys and I dig a city called Salt Lake. It’s got the grooviest kids, that’s why we never get tired of Salt Lake”.
No those aren’t the words of third year Whitecaps boss Marc Dos Santos, but rather Michael Love from the Beach Boys 1965 hit “Salt Lake City.” However, I am sure “the grooviest kids” is a reference to the young Whitecaps squad as it seems as though they will call Utah home to open up 2021.
Spending the better part of 2020 with Portland as their home base, it seemed inevitable that a similar situation would arise for this upcoming season. All signs point to Sandy, Utah as Rio Tinto, as well as former Utah Royals facility is ready and fit for an MLS team. In addition, the university and hotel that the Whitecaps called home in Portland is planning on opening up, striking a match to Vancouver’s exclusive use of those facilities.
The biggest downside in this is obviously not playing/living at home. Away from families for extended periods of time, without knowing when you will be able to return. It took a toll on the players last year, at the very least now they know what they are getting themselves into. So it will be a challenge, but unfortunately not a completely foreign situation.
Quiet Offseason for a Rebuilding Team
It’s no secret that Vancouver have been rebuilding for the past two years. And slowly, piece by piece, they are building a solid squad with depth, experience, and hunger. Year one under Marc Dos Santos was a nightmare, bottom of the conference. Year two was an improvement, missing out on the playoffs by three points, overcoming many challenges.
So about a month away from the start of Year three, Whitecaps fans are a little confused by a very tame offseason so far. Only one note worthy signing so far in Deiber Caicedo, a young winger from Colombia. David Egbo and Javain Brown were drafted and signed, which I guess are two additions. But nothing to shake a stick at yet.
It seems as though in the coming days, Bruno Gaspar could be joining the team on a one year loan from Sporting Lisbon for the right back. However given how it long it took to get the Caicedo deal over the line, “coming days” could be a bit of a stretch. While Visa’s and work permits are difficult to get quickly in this day and age, it still does seem Vancouver takes it’s time in these matters.
So all that’s left now is the big one. The one Vancouver has waited very patiently for. The infamous No. 10. First, there were strong links to Kaku from New York Red Bulls, then quickly after, Chiquinho from Benfica. Those died rumours died off quicker than they arrived. Otavio from Porto seemed like the one, with reports saying Vancouver put in a bid of around 2 million a year. Vancouver’s main competitors for the young Brazilian? AC Milan, Juventus and Leicester City. However he stayed put at Porto, and Vancouver was back to square one.
Starting the season in a different country, living out of a hotel, and then returning back to a province with the slowest vaccination rate in Canada isn’t too appealing for the caliber of players Vancouver is chasing after. And while it is encouraging to see them going up against European giants for these players, nothing has managed to stick.
News over the past day or two says that Freddy Montero could be on his way to Seattle, leaving Vancouver without a viable candidate on the roster for that role. Ryan Raposo seems to be the best fit, however the lack of designated player at CAM is starting to make some people sweat.
Marc Dos Santos’ three year plan
While the late season switch to PPG didn’t help Vancouver’s post-season chances, the team frankly didn’t deserve an outsider’s chance at the MLS Cup. The long offseason meant that Marc Dos Santos failed to make the playoffs in his first two seasons in charge.
A common theme that players are preaching this year is that playoffs are the minimum of what this team can do. Without a doubt the most optimistic players and media have been in a preseason under his reign. But there is no point in making the payoffs just for the sake of it. Even if last year, Vancouver snuck in, the Whitecaps picked up six of a possible 33 points against Western Conference playoff teams last year.
Despite all of this, Dos Santos is still happy with the steps the club has taken on and off the field, and says that now he has a core of players, while bringing in new ones that add to the team’s quality.
“Off the field, we have made changes that are top. And on the field, even with a young team, but I think that last year, in the middle of everything, we were very close to achieving our objective. Now we’re going into a third year where we have a core, a lot of returning players, a lot. And we’re adding new pieces that will bring us a plus. So I think that every year has been a step forward, and hopefully this year, even with challenges that we might face, will still be another step forward” – Marc Dos Santos
So while no one has come out and said it, it definitely seems as though Dos Santos is coaching for his job this year, and that it’s playoffs or bust for Vancouver. That pressure knowing that the seat is hot, may linger in the back of Dos Santos’ head.
Typically, the Whitecaps jet off to either California or Hawaii for their preseason training camp. For reasons that I’m starting to get sick of writing about, they obviously aren’t able to do so. Because who needs Hawaii when you have Vancouver in February, right guys? Instead of playing other MLS or USL competition, Vancouver will have to settle for three intra-squad games over the coming weeks.
A few days into training camp and it seems as though all of the players are happy to be back and eager to kick start this year. However not having any sort of legitimate semi-competitive games with another team for six weeks, in addition to an elongated offseason, is not a recipe for success early in the year. I might be proven wrong, however it doesn’t bode well for a team that typically starts off the year slowly.
Visa’s and quarantines
This sort of goes under the “home away from home” section, however I wanted to dive a little bit more into it by using an example. By early December, it seemed quite obvious that Vancouver were going to land Caicedo, with seemingly all details of the deal sorted quickly. It was not until January 26th that it was announced that the Colombian was officially a Whitecap.
It is now a week into March and Caicedo is still not with the team yet. The reason? Difficulties with Visas and work permits. Even when he arrives, he will have to undergo a mandatory two week quarantine before coming to training. Approximately four months will have gone by from making the original deal, to the time he is training with his new team. That is hoping that everything goes well and according to plan over the next few weeks.
To fans waiting on the #10 to arrive (and Bruno Gaspar as well I guess), whoever he may be, he will most likely not be here, fit and ready for Matchday One, wherever it may be. It is a tough pill to swallow that the missing puzzle piece is unknown and won’t join the team until much later than previously anticipated. Yet it is Vancouver’s reality.
Starting keeper Max Crepeau may have to spend some time away for the team in June as well, as him and his wife are expecting the birth of their first child. A handful of players may get called up for qualifiers and other Canadian national team competitions throughout the year, leaving the squad thin. There are several more factors that Marc Dos Santos will have to try juggle by the time this season is over, all of which could be detrimental to the team’s morale and success.
Regardless of what happens, and where it happens, Vancouver is in for another difficult grind in 2021.