Vancouver Whitecaps training camp: Initial overview

Vancouver Whitecaps FC midfielder Janio Bikel dribbles the ball
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It’s that time of year again as the Whitecaps training camp has started. It’s raining in Vancouver. Still cold, don’t be fooled by that, however, no snow is on the ground at the National Soccer Development Center. The first week of training camp is upon us, in an offseason that has flown by. The Vancouver Whitecaps are back training for the first time in 58 days and their 3-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City is in the rearview mirror. They are a squad that didn’t see many turnovers in the offseason and is gaining valuable pieces back from long-term injury. A new head coach, however, his cries of “Andiamo” are hardly new to the Whitecaps faithful.

The days of significant rebuilding are seemingly behind them, following the club’s first playoff birth since 2017. Just a few more pieces of the puzzle need to fall in place for Vancouver. And where does that start? Training camp. New arrivals, draft picks, loanees, trialists and more all flocked to the club’s training facility this week for the opening week of training camp. With a San Diego pre-season tour on the horizon, the club wants to be fully prepared for all situations down south.

In this piece, all aspects of the roster will be looked at and analyzed to break down exactly what’s going on in the opening few days of camp.

Strong start at home with “stable” squad

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That was seemingly Vanni Sartini’s mentality about this offseason, with minimal signings being made outside of the draft. Tristan Blackmon was the only major addition, adding some much-needed depth at the back. Yet the side that had the second strongest second half of the season is hoping to ride that momentum into 2022. As noted by Jake Nerwinski, the second most experienced Whitecap on the roster.

“I’ve seen a lot of turn over in my five years here, it’s great that not that many guys have left and that a lot of the guys are staying while we’ve added a few good pieces. I think that’s really important to what we’re building here.” – Jake Nerwinski

This will also be the first time that a lot of players on this roster will play a full season in the city of Vancouver, have been bouncing between Orlando, Portland and Sandy, Utah for the last two years. Only nine players on the 2022 training camp roster were on the team’s roster in 2019, the last full season played in Vancouver. Even out of those nine, Simon Coyle and Derek Cornelius are out on loan currently, so a mere seven players will be familiar to a full-length season at BC Place. Going 7-1-1 in their only nine games played at BC Place in 2021, Vanni Sartini’s fortress in the Pacific North West will be a huge factor this time around.

Speaking of Sartini, this was his first offseason and is now currently his first training camp as head coach. He eagerly announced that his wife was excited for him to get out of the house and “stop looking like a crazy person using the tactics board” all break long. Will all that time and preparation pay off and have his team showing a different front? He believes that being able to have a training camp in Vancouver will be a large help to start off his master plan.

“Even for the preseason, I think that with all of these covid disruptions, the choice that we made to stay the first couple of weeks here at home will give us a better possibility to lay the foundation and start the season as best as we can.” – Vanni Sartini

 

New old faces

The transfer of Pedro Vite was one that caught a number of people off guard in August of 2021. Using the same U-22 initiative that was used to bring Deiber Caicedo to the club, Vite joining the club from Independiente del Valle in Ecuador was an exciting move. That would be the only activity that the public saw from this transfer. Behind the scenes, months of back and forth over work permits, visas and international papers slowed down Vite’s arrival, taking a lot of sting out of the initial punch. It wouldn’t be until October 9th that the club announced that everything had cleared and that he was in Vancouver. Despite not making an appearance in 2021, Vite (who cost the club a reported $2.5 million according to Transfermarkt) could have an exciting role to play coming off the bench this season.

Thanks in part to a busy striker room in 2021, fan favourite Theo Bair and 2021 first-round draft pick David Egbo were both sent out on loan. For Bair, a season-long trip to Norwegian second division side Hamarkameratene (HamKam) where the young Canadian’s 17 appearances and four goals helped HamKam win the league and earn promotion to Eliteserien. It was supposed to be a breakout season for Bair, after impressing in the Canada U23 tournament pushing for a spot in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. However, former Whitecaps boss Marc Dos Santos leaned on a one-striker formation, with DP Lucas Cavallini collecting all of the minutes.

Also returning from loan was David Egbo, who spent most of 2021 with Phoenix Rising FC of the USL Championship. Having gone straight from Utah (Vancouver’s home base for the first half of last season) to Phoenix, this training camp is the first real look at Vancouver’s ninth overall pick from last year’s draft. Putting up five goals and one assist alongside former Whitecaps striker Darren Mattocks, Egbo got his feet wet and his appetite for top-level playing experience grew. Confident on the ball, quick feet and a willingness to shoot from range, Egbo will be in close competition for a spot with a busy striker room.

“Competition is good for everyone, it brings out the best in everyone. It’s exciting for the team. This is a very good group of forwards, a good team overall. So watching these boys work hard is going to motivate me and that will hopefully motivate them as well.” – Theo Bair on competition amongst strikers during training camp

Class of ’22

Adding to the list of strikers vying for spots on the first team is the 2022 first-round draft pick, Simon Becher, out of Saint Louis University. Becher finished tied the NCAA golden boot with 14 goals and 10 assists, helping lead his team to the Atlantic 10 title. Being named the conference’s top offensive player, first-team all-American and being named to multiple US national youth team camps, Becher’s resume is boasting with quality. His ability to be in the right place at the right time and finish any half-chance within 12 yards reminds fans a lot of Brian White. How that ability will transform over to the MLS (or MLS Next if that is his destiny), is a different story.

Rounding out the 2022 MLS Superdraft class for Vancouver include Clemson’s Luis Felipe Fernandez-Salvador, the box-to-box midfielder who won the 2021 national championship with Clemson and was selected in the second round. Also selected were California State University Northridge’s Giovanni Aguilar, Theo Collomb out of University of North Carolina Greensboro, and Marshall University striker Vitor Dias. All draft picks from 2022 were in attendance for the opening day of training camp on Monday.

Final training camp additions and subtractions

Of course, the point of training camp is to take a look at some fringe players and determine who will and will not make the final roster. With MLS Next on the horizon as well, there will be plenty of chances for all to gain minutes and experience at the appropriate level. So with that, the latest set of roster moves complete the training camp roster and gives fans their first look at the team this year.

Kwame Awuah – Trialist

Fresh off of an incredible season with Forge FC in the CPL, Awuah was one of a few trialists to earn a spot on the Whitecaps training camp roster. The Canadian left-back was originally drafted by New York City FC in the first round of the 2017 super draft,  before spending three seasons with Forge. With Christian Gutierrez and Marcus Godinho already on the roster for left-back roles, Awuah has his work cut out for himself to earn a spot. His speed and body positioning was on full display however in their drills.

Janio Bikel – Transferring Out

With a change in head coach, players may not always fit in with the new regime. Such was the case for Janio Bikel after Sartini took charge in August. A quality player whose minutes were limited, Bikel’s plans of using Vancouver as a stepping stone to Europe may be finally coming true. After reports came out last week about an offer from a European club for Bikel, club Sporting Director Axel Schuster soon confirmed these reports saying that the deal should be going through any day now.

Andy Rose – Retired

A rock at the back, who showed his veteran presence by his leadership and coaching abilities. Andy Rose is a character that will be missed around the Whitecaps training facility. It was however the right time for him to hang up the boots and focus on his coaching career. With his replacement Tristan Blackmon signed and ready to hit the field, there was simply no reason for Rose to keep going. Having spent some time in 2021 coaching the Whitecaps U-23 team, Rose has found himself a job on the coaching staff of the Seattle Sounders.

Tosaint Ricketts – Trialist

Another veteran player whose biggest asset would have to be that he is a “locker room guy”, is good ol’ Tosaint Ricketts. Having been with the club for three seasons and notching just three goals in 38 appearances, Ricketts is now on trial with the club this training camp. After letting his contract run out after last year, the former Canadian international is now a free agent.

Last word

The general mood around the camp seems to be “pick up where we left off”, which is understandable given the fantastic run of form the club put together down the stretch in 2021. With limited action in the transfer market, players returning from injuries and loans, there are some high hopes in Vancouver this spring. In terms of an objective and a bar for the team to meet, Sartini said at the year-end press conference last season that the goal would be to improve on their first-round exit and reach the second round of the playoffs in 2022.

However, when he was asked the same question earlier this week, Sartini was a bit more hesitant. Claiming that improving week by week and consistently picking up points throughout the year will be the objective, and if they can hit that mark, he will be happy. Vancouver is 7-4-4 in all competitions under Sartini, and would definitely consider themselves in a position to meet their targets this go around.

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