How Vancouver turned their season around and made the MLS Playoffs

Vancouver Whitecaps FC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau saves a shot on goal at PayPal Park
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ANALYSIS – In a season like no other for the Vancouver Whitecaps, the team has found themselves on a plane to Kansas City in late November for an MLS Playoffs fixture. If the journey to this point wasn’t as complicated and unique, I wouldn’t be writing this article.

I would relate to the consistency, the masterful tactician pulling the strings, the home crowd swooning over their majestic play. None of that is how the Vancouver Whitecaps got to the MLS Playoffs. Instead, a mixture of strangely timed front office decisions, off-field scandals, calling a different country “home”, a Ben E. King hit song and a blue jean Italian is how this team secured its fate.

Vancouver MLS Playoffs road

Last place and domestic embarrassment in August

As late in the season as early August, Vancouver found themselves sitting at the bottom of the western conference. Playoffs seemed impossible, and another year of the Vancouver rebuild under Marc Dos Santos was destined for failure. Their time on the road inevitably was coming to a close, after calling Sandy Utah home for the better part of five months due to the pandemic.

The last of the three Canadian teams to return home, things slowly seemed to be turning around for Vancouver. Stringing together seven consecutive games unbeaten, finally getting their DP signing over the line and welcoming Ryan Gauld. Emotional return home to BC Place with a last-minute winner by Gauld over LAFC and the birth of a new fan favourite tradition, singing “Stand By Me” after a home win with the players.

Next up was Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League in the Voyageurs Cup. A short ferry ride to Vancouver Island for the first-ever “Ferryside Derby”. Having placed an emphasis on cup success, it was a shock to see the Whitecaps fall 4-3 to Pacific and be played off of the field. CEO Axel Schuster was the last to leave Starlight Stadium, pondering the next move for his club. In the meantime, they announced Vanni Sartini to take charge of the first team, for the time being, elevating the Italian and former assistant coach from his role of Director of Methodology.

Stand By Vanni

It started with a statement 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake who also were playing their first match under interim head coach Pablo Mastroeni. Continued success down in Austin with a 2-1 come from behind victory. With the mood and morale boosted around the club and the city as a whole, a 1-0 loss to Cascadian rival Portland dampened the mood and was a reality check as a 10 game unbeaten streak screeched to a halt. In the beginning, Sartini marched out with a 3-4-1-2 that had Vancouver fans flashing back to a horrible three at the back experiment last season.

However the emergence of rookie Javain Brown, Bruno Gaspar and Christian Gutierrez returning from injury, transitioning Jake Nerwinski to a centre back and the acquisition of Florian Jungwirth from San Jose, all was part of the culture change under Vanni. Conceding just four goals in his first seven games, Vancouver had newfound stability and consistency at the back, but keeping them out is only half of the job.

Whitecaps success down the stretch

It was a move that caught everyone by surprise. As Vancouver eagerly awaited their attacking midfielder, it was an under-the-radar acquisition of Brian White that changed Vancouver’s fate. With Lucas Cavallini, Tosaint Ricketts and Theo Bair (who was later loaned out to HamKam in the Norwegian 2nd division and won promotion) already on the roster, it was an interesting move to bring in another striker and not someone who could move the ball up the field. Having started just 13 games in a season and a half, White’s five goals over that span wasn’t enough for the Red Bulls to keep him around.

Flash forward to November, leading the Whitecaps with 12 goals in a career-high 23 starts, you could say it was the best piece of business the Whitecaps have made in their MLS tenure. Three game winners and a hat-trick against San Jose, plus many other timely goals down the stretch helped the Whitecaps pick up points in difficult and important matches.

Max Crepeau, the Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s best player

While that title doesn’t have the same ring to it that Ali Adnan had last year, Vancouver simply would not be in the playoffs if it wasn’t for the Canadian international. Battling Milan Borjan for the starting Canada job, Crepeau had no competition as time after time he bailed out his team all season long. Leading the league in Post-Shot Expected Goals saved, third out of playoff teams in saves made and seventh in the league in save percentage. Averaging four saves a game in the Santini era, including a 10 save performance in a crucial Tuesday night game against LAFC, all but securing Vancouver a playoff spot.

However none were more important, stand out or conversation-worthy than September 25th’s penalty save against FC Dallas. In a match where the hosts Vancouver had been relatively outplayed over 90 minutes, the Whitecaps were nursing a 1-0 lead thanks to Brian White heading into the late stages of the game. A stoppage-time penalty decision awarded Dallas a 96-minute spot-kick. A blown chance for a massive three points in the midst of Vancouver’s playoff push seemed inevitable. Up stepped Franco Jara, who had his penalty save and rebound effort denied by Crepeau as the referee blew for full time.

Marc Dos Santos once said, “Over the course of a season, a long season, everything balances itself out, all the little bumps.”. Dropping two points in the second game of the season to Toronto thanks to an unfortunate own goal by Michael Baldisimo’s face had just been balanced out by the brilliance of Crepeau.

The resurgence of Russell Teibert and Leonard Owusu

When the second most expensive signing in club history, Caio Alexandre, was ruled out for the season in August, a hole was left in the midfield. With captain Russell Teibert lucky to see the field every now and again at left-back, and Marc Dos Santos seemingly forgetting about Owusu in his last few months with the club, questions would be asked to Sartini about who would fill in as the two lone midfielders in his new system. It would be Teibert and Owusu to step up to the plate. Or at least that’s what it said on their jerseys.

It was a Teibert that the Vancouver fans had never seen before, with progressive passes into the final third, defensive-minded and willing to shoot from outside the box. It caught everyone in the building off guard when he fired home a 25-yard belter to secure the three points against Saturday’s opponent Sporting Kansas City. Perfectly paired with Owusu, whose confidence on the ball yet the physical and defensive approach to the game complemented the surging full backs going forward to support the front three.

Vancouver MLS Playoffs run – Winning the big games

A 4-1 win against an RSL side that would finish directly below Vancouver. draws against the top two teams in the West, Seattle and Colorado. Beating Portland in a come from behind thriller. Beating playoff opponents Kansas City at home. Holding off Minnesota United at home. For a team to crack the playoffs is one thing, but to beat teams directly involved in the playoffs and prove your worth to the postseason is another. Time and time again Vancouver picked up points against tough competition, facing just two defeats in their final 22 matches.

BC Place, Vancouver’s new old fortress

539 days. That’s how long it had been since the Whitecaps played at home in front of their own fans. 539 days of empty stadiums, always being the “away” side, hotel rooms and zoom call. Sure they played three home games in September 2020 but in front of no fans nonetheless. So on August 21st, when new DP Ryan Gauld rose up and headed home a match-winner in the 89-minute against LAFC, you can believe that it was well-received by BC Place.

However, it would be an old Ben E. King song that would take all the headlines the next day. It was veteran striker Tossaint Ricketts who decided to play the song after the game with the players singing in front of the Vancouver Southsiders, the main supporters’ group. Instantly a fan favourite, the tradition stuck and was played following all positive home results for Vancouver.

Bringing in over 25,000 for their decision day clash with Seattle, none other than Ryan Gauld once again headed home a goal to tie the game and secure Vancouver a point and a spot in the postseason. The lights of BC Place dimmed after full time, cell phone flashlights lit up the stadium, and with full voice, the entire stadium broke out in “Stand By Me”. The club even used it as their playoff slogan. A meaningful connection for the fans and the players after spending so much time apart. All Ricketts and the team asked of the fans while they were away in Orlando, Portland and then Utah was to stand by them. Even when the going got tough.

On to Kansas

With the team touching down in Kansas on Thursday, the final stages of preparation are in place for the team’s first post-season appearance since 2017. While Children’s Mercy Park historically has been quite harsh to Vancouver, this is no ordinary Vancouver Whitecaps side. While drenched in champagne and claiming he will “get so drunk tonight, I will be ordering pizza at 2 am” Vanni Sartini corrected the Whitecaps communications officer on the post-match zoom call. When it was announced that Vancouver would be playing Kansas City, Sartini was quick to step in and say “No, we WILL BEAT Kansas City”.

Bold words from the Italian, but Vanni Sartini is nothing but a bold man.

All will be revealed Saturday afternoon in a win-or-go-home affair. Each team has won their home version of this fixture this season, with Kansas playing Vancouver off the park in a 3-0 win back in May. A 2-1 home win was some revenge for Vancouver in October, however, both sides have the playoff clash circled on their calendars. A season unlike any other for Vancouver, re-igniting a connection with the fans, establishing a try home-field advantage, a number of impactful signings, and a blue jean wearing Italian dubbed the king of Commercial Drive.

Last Word – Vancouver MLS Playoffs

Having spent a lot of time around this team for the past two seasons, this accomplishment means everything to them. It was playoffs or bust at the start of the year, and they got there in the end. They didn’t make it easy for themselves, but they got the job done. Despite everything off the field, playing in another country for half of the season, a decade-old sexual assault case plaguing the front office, a head coaching change, domestic cup embarrassment, the list goes on and on for this club in 2021.

Managing to accomplish something that hasn’t been done since 2017, given all their struggles and hurdles faced, is remarkable. Some raised an eyebrow when a team was having full champagne showers after a 1-1 draw to finish 6th and scrape into the playoffs. To be fair, I’m not sure a team has ever done that before. But to back the Whitecaps in this case, there has never been a season like this before either.

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