Cascadia to the Coast: Plenty of storylines to monitor heading into 2nd week of Whitecaps camp

As the Vancouver Whitecaps continue their 2020 preseason, which officially kicked off earlier this week, we look at some storylines to watch for this camp, as they get set to play 6 games over the next month or so. 

With a new year, comes new storylines, new faces and new expectations.

Earlier this week, the Vancouver Whitecaps 2020 training camp got underway at UBC, as head coach Marc Dos Santos started to put players through their paces in preparation of a new season. After a long offseason, one that officially totalled over 100 days, spirits were high at the National Soccer Development Centre Monday, where the team is training before departing to San Diego at the end of this week. 

It promises to be an intriguing preseason slate for Vancouver, who are going to play 6 matches leading up into the start of the campaign, which kicks off with a home date against Sporting Kansas City on February 29th. With several key transfers coming in these past few weeks, along with a promising set of trialists and some returning players, this promises to be a competitive couple of weeks, with spots on the roster and in the starting 11 not yet set in stone. 

After last year’s preseason, where they headed to the 1st leg of their camp in Hawaii with over a dozen academy kids, this year’s team is only 3 or so signings away from completion, a far cry from where they were at approximately 365 days ago. With most of their roster in place, it’s allowed them to bring in triallists and youth players into this camp out of curiosity, not by necessity, which should mean that the quality of football is in these upcoming 6 games is sure to be a lot closer to MLS standard, at least compared to what we saw in January and February of 2019.

It’s meant for a camp not short on storylines, from how the team will line up, to who to watch, and everything in between. Where will Fredy Montero play? What is Lucas Cavallini bringing to the team? Can the team create enough? Will the triallists make a difference?

Heading to San Diego, and later in Portland, those are some of the questions that the team will set out to answer, as they look to start the 2020 season strong.

Trial before you buy

Yordy Reyna takes on triallist Cole Dasilva in a 1v1 drill on Monday (Beau Chevalier/BG Media)

When the Whitecaps training camp roster was released earlier this week, there were some names here on trial that immediately grabbed your attention.

The Whitecaps lone MLS Golden Boot winner, Camilo, was once a triallist, but aside from him, no other trialist has really stood out in the White and Blue, so to see all of those names was certainly surprising, to say the least. Usually, most of the guys expected to be difference-makers are locked up before camp even starts, leaving the tryout invitees to fill out the roster and fight for a development squad spot, so to see 4 decent players on trial this year is something that definitely came out of the blue.

This year’s list of 4 consists of 24-year-old Aboubacar Sissoko, currently of Halifax Wanderers, 25-year-old Amer Didic, most recently of FC Edmonton, the 20-year-old Cole Dasilva, currently of Brentford FC, and 26-year-old Rodrigo Da Costa, currently of the Tusla Roughnecks. They are all at different stages of their development, but all bring different attributes to the table, which is why it wouldn’t be surprising to see a couple of them nab a contract by the end of camp.

Marc Dos Santos is familiar with most of these players, having had the chance to scout and coach some of them over the years. With Vancouver looking to round out the rest of their roster, inviting them in gives them a free chance to see what they could bring to the table before coming to a possible decision, so when presented with the opportunity, he went: ‘why not?’.

“I know the guys coming in on trial pretty well, I know what everyone can give,” Dos Santos said Monday. “When we had the chance to bring them on trial, we evaluated the roster spots we have, the supplemental roster spots we have, and all of them did something special where they (last) were.”

It’s clear to see what they targeted with these 4 players, as well, given that they all fit specific needs on this squad. Didic is a hulking yet surprisingly mobile centre back that can play with his feet, Dasilva is an attacking full back who can play on both sides of the pitch, Sissoko is a technically sound but relentless #6, while Da Costa is a creative #8/10 that can both score and set up teammates. 

With Vancouver being set in attack, but less than assured of depth at the back and through the midfield, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some of these guys brought in on a permanent basis, which is something that Dos Santos confirmed his staff would consider as we get closer to the start of the season. 

“Amer Didic had a year last year where he was called to the National Team, and he had a pretty good year for himself in the CPL,” Dos Santos said. “Abou (Sissoko) was a player that was named the best player in the University level in Canada, Rodrigo (Da Costa) was the best 11 in one of the best 11s in the USL, very important in his side, and Cole was an opportunity to have him on trial, coming from a great development system, he won the Youth Champions League with Chelsea playing.” 

“So all of them, we felt that they had qualities maybe to bring something to the team, and they have a real opportunity, we don’t have all the spots, maybe only 1 spot for 4, maybe 2 spots for 4, maybe the 4 could sign, we’re looking at it, and we’ll make the right decision at the end.”

Among the 4, Sissoko and Didic are the 2 that stand out right away, at least in terms of familiarity. Sissoko has been a standout over the last couple of years with the UdeM Carabins, even winning the 2019 USports player of the year trophy this past year, while Didic goes back many years with Dos Santos, as they both came up through the Sporting Kansas City for a couple of seasons. 

With Didic’s recently putting together a couple of strong performances for Canada’s Men’s National Team, making him stand out as one of the brightest lights from the ‘Camp Poutine’ earlier this month, he seems the likeliest to sign. Vancouver only has 3 centre backs currently in the fold, and the quality appears to be there on Didic’s end, so as long as he keeps working as he has this past year with Edmonton and Canada, you’d figure that he’s a prime candidate to join the squad. 

“I know him very well,” Dos Santos said. “I’ve worked with him at Swope Park (Kansas City USL affiliate), it’s a player that I know exactly what he gives you. It’s interesting right now with the situation of centreback, and waiting for Erik, to have a look at him (Didic), it’s very simple. I know the character and personality he has, I know his qualities. Now, how does that fit with what we want to do here? We’ll see, he has an opportunity, he has to show every day.”

As for the rest, it’s yet unclear what the future holds for them. Sissoko seems a likely option, as the Caps could easily loan him out for a year to his current side, Halifax, which he ironically has yet to play for due to him only signing there in November. Elsewhere, Dasilva’s age and versatility make him a good backup full back option, but with Academy graduate Georges Mukumbilwa also at right back, that’ll depend on how much cover Dos Santos really wants at the position. 

Da Costa is the real wildcard here, as his 9 goal and 13 assist season on an average Tulsa catches the eyes, even despite his age. Having gone to university a little later, it meant that last year was actually his rookie season, and given that he lost his love for the game until only a couple of years ago, he could prove to be a late bloomer. Depending on how he fares at camp, and the spaces available, he looks to be the true boom or bust player of the group. 

All-in-all, it’s a strong group of trialists for Vancouver. Even if they only sign 1 or 2, these are players that can certainly improve the overall quality of the camp, which doesn’t hurt anyone. With most of the squad already in, as well, it allows these players to actually fight for places, which should make the preseason games quite fun to keep a close eye on. 

Finding Fredy?

Moving up the pitch towards the striker position, things are certainly far from boring for the Whitecaps, who still have several questions yet to be answered at the #9. New DP, Lucas Cavallini, who Vancouver splashed out a reported $6 million for, is the clear cut starter, but after that, things are less clear. 

With longtime MLS veteran, Fredy Montero, still on the books at a good salary, along with the versatile Tosaint Ricketts also in the fold, Vancouver has no shortage of #9 options. Ricketts is less of a worry, as he’s shown to be a quality supersub, and his speed allows him to play all over the frontline, but Montero has proven to be a lot more enigmatic. 

It’s no secret that the Colombian’s best position is as a shadow striker, but he can also play up top no problem, while he’s also shown to be decent out on the wing and as a pure #10. With Cavallini expected to get the brunt of the minutes, however, and given the fact that the Whitecaps look likelies to play with a 4-3-3, at least given the current composition of the squad, it leaves the burning question: Where to play Fredy?

For many, that lack of clear option has lead to speculation that Montero could be traded, but as of right now, that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. When asked on the matter, Dos Santos was blunt in his assessment, saying that hearing all of the talk surrounding Montero was quite surprising to him.

“I don’t know who you read, or who you speak with, honestly,” Dos Santos said. “It’s phenomenal for you guys to tell me (it’s a surprise) that Fredy’s here. Fredy’s got a 2-year contract, he’s our player. So where he slots, he slots, working every day, competing every day with the other guys.”

“Maybe in moments when we’re in the 4-2-3-1, when that happens, him being an option, him competing against Cava. I don’t know where it came from that there was even a chance of not being here.”

There is an interesting nugget at the end there, however, as Dos Santos teased a possible 4-2-3-1, which certainly would favour Montero a bit more than a pure 4-3-3, at least if Cavallini is starting. If Vancouver can put Montero underneath Cavallini, with wingers to play off of him, it could prove to be a possible offensive solution, at least against certain opponents. 

In a way, Montero is rather emblematic of the 2019 Whitecaps season, which proved to be a very up-and-down campaign for the club. Brought back amid much fanfare, he struggled at the beginning of the season, as he came to Vancouver fresh off a tough ankle injury, and had already played half a season in Portugal, which clearly affected him. 

As the season went on, he found form, especially in a substitute role, scoring back-to-back 90th minute goals in September, so there does appear to be some gas left in the tank. With Vancouver’s struggles to provide adequate service for their forwards, it appeared that he could possibly turn the corner this year, especially with the Whitecaps attempting to rectify deficiencies in that department. 

With Montero, the big question is about his price and buy-in, because while he would be excellent to have as a backup/squad rotation piece, paying $700 000 for a backup striker in a Salary Cap league is always going to be tough. Montero does seem committed to helping the team however he can, which does ease the process, but if having him around hampers their ability to make moves, you’d have to think a trade or buyout may prove to be beneficial. 

But if they can keep him around, there could be some magic to bottle up there. Having Montero could give them the chance to go with Cavallini and Montero up front together in certain matches, while also allow them to keep their forward group strong when they rotate, which is a luxury not all teams have. 

So look for it to come down to questions off the field, such as price and Salary Cap, instead of on-the-field, where a fit still does appear to be there. If both sides can find a way to make this work, this could prove to be a move with rewards that have yet to have been yielded, as long as they both find a way to harvest the juices that are there to be potentially squeezed out.

Cavallini ready to drive the defenders ‘loco’

Cavallini on the day he was introduced to the Whitecaps faithful (Keveren Guillou)

Speaking of Vancouver’s newest #9, he’s made quite the impression on his teammates thus far, and looks to be a key piece up front for the side. 

When signed, a certain misinterpretation of his play was that due to his hulking size, that all he would do is run into the box and bang in goals. It’s a notion we quickly dismissed when we scouted Cavallini ahead of the move, and it’s something that Cavallini himself made sure to underline at his introduction, saying that some of his best work comes when he doesn’t have the ball at his feet. 

“Yeah, I don’t like to refer to myself as a postman,” Cavallini said with a smile back in December. “I like to work off of the ball, I like to drive the defenders crazy, I won’t stop 90 minutes.”

For a Whitecaps side looking to press from the front, forcing defenders to feel uncomfortable whenever they sit on the ball, Cavallini will be a key lynchpin in orchestrating the Whitecaps defensive structure, starting from the work he does at the front. He has the work-rate, he loves to get stuck in, and he doesn’t like his opponents to feel comfortable, making his a thorn in the side kind of player to play against from an opposing perspective. 

Someone who is familiar with that is the long-tenured Whitecaps midfielder, Russell Teibert, who grew up playing with Cavallini. Having spent over 16 years, at youth, national and now club levels, Teibert immediately highlighted the defensive presence that the man they call ‘El Tanque’ brings to the field, saying that he’s already brought it to the first week of camp. 

“I mean you guys see his physical stature, he’s a machine, he’s so strong,” Teibert explained. “But I think the biggest thing, besides the goalscoring, as we all know, is the presence that he has when we’re defending. I’ve never seen a striker that likes to slide tackle centre backs and defenders as much as he does, he’s such a workforce, and it’s great to have a guy like that.”

Yet at the same time, despite all of the positive work he brings off the ball, Cavallini will be relied upon to score. When a side splashes a club-record fee in order to acquire your services, that is a natural expectation, and it’s one he has said he’s ready to live up to. 

On a team that struggled to generate offence last year, Cavallini’s going to carry a brunt of the expectations, with many expecting upwards of 15 tallies in his debut MLS season. With service being an issue last year, it’s unsure if things are yet set up for him to do that, but with his work off the ball, look for his presence to help his team improve both in the goalscoring and chance creation departments. 

As highlighted by Dos Santos on Monday, he helps his teammates feel comfortable, and he should improve the performances of those around him, which should, in turn, improve the offence. So even if he doesn’t score 20, if he finds a way to elevate the level of play of forwards Yordy Reyna, Cristian Dajome, Hwang In Beom, Theo Bair, Fredy Montero and Ryan Raposo, then this signing will have paid off in the way the Caps’ expected.

“He has the profile that I believe a number 9 should have, in what modern soccer is today,” Dos Santos said Monday. “He’s very aggressive without the ball, his work rate is great, he’s a strong player, he tries to hold the ball, (but) he could still grow in that area, he’s very hungry in front of goal, he helps the team on both sides of the ball.”

“So it’s a player that I’ve wanted here for a while, we started long ago, and it was a long (process), and I thought we’d never get him, but the club made the effort, everybody worked hard to get him here, and he wanted to be here. Right now, I don’t think we should put the weight on him to score 20, 15 or whatever goals, I want him to help the team become better, everyone around him is going to be better.”

Multiplying the bodies in the middle

Another big way to help the various Whitecaps forwards score will be upgrading the midfield, which many have called for since the beginning of last year. The forwards are much-improved from last year, no doubt, but if they can’t get service, what good will it have been spending all of that money on them?

So even though the likes of Cavallini, Dajome and Reyna have shown to be able to make things happen out of nothing, starving them of the ball does no one any favours, as it was shown with Montero last year. 

Enter Leonard Owusu, Hwang In Beom, and a new #6, reported to be Argentine Santiago Caseres of Villarreal in Spain. 

Owusu, who the Caps signed earlier this week, was an interesting midfield addition by Schuster and Dos Santos. He appears to be the first true Schuster signing, with the German-born Technical Director raving about his attributes after the move, which upon further inspection, are part of what appears to be a potential-filled toolbox. 

“With (him) being a number 10 and a leader in Africa, (he) lead his team to success, with scoring goals, and assisting,” Schuster said of Owusu Tuesday. “ But in the next level of the next league, in the Israeli league, he was a #6, and to show up as a very aggressive leader of the team, and you will see clips soon about the way he played in Israel, and you will see him here, that there is a combination that you do not have that often.”

“Of course (now) he is here, he knows that, he wants to develop himself, he wants to improve, he is still a little bit raw, and there’s a lot of space to grow, but it’s a very good thing to have him here, because he combines things in the midfield that not often players have.”

So while the initial reviews on the 22-year-old Ghanian are mixed, he does look to be an interesting midfield pickup. As we saw earlier this week, when we took a deeper look at him after his move was officially announced, he’s a versatile player, one that excels at pushing the ball forward, which is exactly what Vancouver needs. 

With his versatile skillset, his ability to play multiple positions, and his success at passing the ball forward accurately and often, if he plays up to his potential, this could be a strong midfield upgrade for Vancouver. 

Now, with Osuwu on board, the last main piece to grab for the midfield is the #6. Sissoko could be a possible depth piece at the position, but besides that, no new faces have been brought in that could fill the hole that the Caps have there, unless Owusu dropping back and bringing in another #8 is the backup solution.

But soon after the Owusu signing, a new possible candidate for the position emerged, as GlassCity on twitter suggested that Vancouver was looking at Santiago Caseres, a name that people around the club seem to be familiar with. 

And if true, what a signing this could end up being for Vancouver, especially if they can make it happen without having a DP spot open. His profile certainly has DP written all over it, as Caseres is a 22-year-old Argentine playing in Spain’s top flight, for a pretty big club in Villareal, after moving over from Argentina in 2018, so any sort of TAM deal would be a win for the Whitecaps.

He quickly became a fixture in Villareal’s midfield in 2019, playing over 30 games across La Liga, Europa League and Copa Del Rey, establishing himself as a quality player. While his side didn’t do as well as they hoped in the league, finishing 14th, they made the quarter-finals of Europa League, and were primed for a step up this season. 

So far, they’ve done just that, currently sitting 8th in La Liga, but it’s been without the help of Caceres, who’s yet to feature in a game this season. After becoming a regular in his first year, he’s been unable to find any traction in his sophomore season, which is why a Whitecaps move could make sense.

If Vancouver is indeed able to get this deal over the line, be it through a loan or an outright purchase, it would show, much like the Ali Adnan transfer from last summer, that they’re keeping an eye out for bargains in top European Leagues. While there is a lot to be asked here, as it is certainly curious that Caceres has completely fallen off Villareal’s radar, but as the Adnan situation showed us, that can sometimes just be the harsh reality of the European game. 

A peek at his stats suggests that a fit could indeed be possible in Vancouver, as well. In 2018-2019, he had a pass percentage of 86% on an average of 46 passes a game, with 78% of those passes going forward. Along with his solid 6.4 progressive passes per game, and 5.8 passes to the final third, he does fit the criteria required of a modern #6, which is why a union with the Whitecaps could work.

At the same time, he does have an appetite for defending, averaging nearly 4 interceptions a game, along with 1 tackle, while also getting stuck into 7.6 duels a game, winning around 55% of them. For Vancouver, who’s looking for someone who can break up opposing attacks, while also jumpstarting moves of their own, Caceres ticks off a lot of those boxes that they’re looking for.

While it’s yet to be seen if the current pieces in place (Hwang, Russell Teibert, Andy Rose and Owusu) and the ones yet to be confirmed (Caceres, Sissoko) will be enough to push the Caps over the line offensively, but there is certainly a lot of potential there. It’s hoped there could be some more polish amongst those names, but at the same time, with a lack of cap space, that was always going to be hard to find.

But if they can extract some of the potential there, turning some of these raw prospects into finished products, it could also push them to improve significantly this season. 

Looking Forward

There’s a lot of uncertainty heading into this camp, as there is every year, but after last season’s camp, things are already looking better. With a lot more returning players, stability should prove to be a factor, and with a fuller roster, there should be no shortage of competition for places in the squad.

It’s no guarantee that everything turns out, as ghosts of preseasons past can tell you, but after a turbulent 2019 season, this camp so far looks to be breath of fresh air. If they can get those final signings soon enough, giving Dos Santos 2+ weeks to work with his final squad, you’d already expect that to translate into more wins than they had in 2019, at least if last seasons slow start was to teach us anything. 

Now it’s time to keep a close eye on the preseason, as things continue to progress. The team is heading to San Diego later this week, where they’ll train and play 3 games, before heading to Portland later in February. After a busy few weeks of signings and announcements, on the pitch action is finally starting to get underway, which after a long offseason, is a welcome sight.

Will they use the offseason to springboard themselves back up the MLS standings? We don’t know yet, but at least this ‘New Wave’ has got this preseason looking a lot more hopeful than it was just 1 year prior. 

Cover Photo: Beau Chevalier/BG Media

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