Fresh Start: Whitecaps might not be painting a ‘Starry Night’, but 4 cornerstones have been a good guide

As the Vancouver Whitecaps get their San Diego portion of their training camp underway this week, we look at the parting words of Marc Dos Santos, along with a look at how the Whitecaps are aiming to push the presence of their ‘4 cornerstones’ through the start of preseason.

Mentality. Team Spirit. Work Ethic. Discipline. 

4 defining characteristics. On their own, they all embody different attributes, together, they help paint a picture. 

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, they have become a refrain constantly repeated by those surrounding the team heading into the 2nd week of preseason action, which has already gotten underway down in sunny San Diego. 

These aren’t brand new terms, as Sporting Director Axel Schuster has been pushing them since his hiring in November, but we’re finally starting to see the players who are supposed to represent those 4 terms, or as Schuster calls them: ‘The 4 cornerstones’. 

A quick definition check suggests that a cornerstone is ‘an important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based’, which considering that Vancouver is putting together a full squad, isn’t the worst concept to build around. You also consider that most buildings are held up by 4 sided bases, and the whole ‘4 cornerstones’ build does make a lot of sense. 

After 2019, where an emphasis was put on a mix of talented youngsters and experienced veterans, there wasn’t as much of a clear identity of how everyone would all mesh together, as besides certain qualitative quantities such as someone’s right foot, past stats and on the-pitch-profile, they could have been a dozen of warm bodies as far as mentalities went. 

That’s not to say there were any bad apples on last year’s Whitecaps, far from that, but a lack of clear direction did seem to hurt them at times, which is something they set out with the implementation of the 4 pillars of squad building. 

Which according to head coach Marc Dos Santos, has already pushed his camp up a level, at least compared to where it was one year prior. 

“Very good,” Dos Santos said to describe his impressions after one week of action. “And then having better players elevates the other guys, great intensity, great mentality in hard conditions. You know on turf, that is very fast, rain that comes sideways, underneath and over, and the mindset has been great, the guys know what we want to be about.”

When asked if anyone had impressed in particular, he preferred to stay mum, however:

“Yes, there’s been pleasant surprises, yes”

In a sense, that seems to embody the principles set out by the cornerstones. There are plenty of intriguing individual situations to monitor, no doubt, but the first week has been all about ‘we’, looking forward through the ‘windshield’, and all pushing ‘together’.

That doesn’t mean talk has completely been devoid of individuals, however, far from it actually. Concerning the performances of those at camp, yes, but when it came to off-the-field chatter, Dos Santos was more than happy to divulge, with the Whitecaps continue to pull strings in the complicated world we know as the transfer market. 

Last week, the Whitecaps made a flurry of moves in that department, making more additions in order to reinforce their 4 cornerstones, while making some signings that seemed to nearly touch all 4 corners of the globe. 

First, it was a Ghanian midfielder playing in Israel, Leonard Owusu, who you can learn more about here, before 2019 centre back pillar and unsung hero, Erik Godoy, was officially brought in from Colon in Argentina later in the week. Along with a pair of local signings, centre back Gianfranco Facchinieri and midfielder Patrick Metcalfe, who joined the team as their 20th and 21st MLS homegrown signings (read about the signings of Facchinieri and Metcalfe courtesy of AFTN), the bodies continued to flood into Vancouver. 

The signing of Godoy was a particularly hot topic in the week, as the Whitecaps finally came to a permanent solution with the Argentine, after reports of his return surfaced nearly a month prior. 

As we explored back when the rumours started to come up, Godoy represents a good investment, as he will help the team on the pitch with his defensive influence, but also off of it, as his loan was the start of a shift towards the Whitecaps exploring less valued markets. It’s something they’ve carried into this offseason, with DP striker Lucas Cavallini, left back Cristian Gutierrez, winger Cristian Dajome and Owusu all coming from different leagues than what we’ve come to expect from Vancouver, something that Godoy’s transfer certainly has played a role in.

More than anything, Godoy himself is also a big proponent of the 4 cornerstone theory, at least in terms of his play rather than vocally. He’s disciplined (28 starts at centre back, 6 yellow cards but no red cards nor suspensions), a hard worker who loves to work on his skills at training, has a calming mentality and also someone with plenty of team spirit, as seen by his dedication to Vancouver. 

It’s all part of a package that Dos Santos has been enamoured by since last year, which is why he was happy to finally get the deal over the line.

“I spoke so much about Erik, I feel like I was very clear that I wanted him back, and he wanted to be back, so what can I say more about Erik,” Dos Santos joked. “Erik is very steady, great in the locker room, great in training, always wants to go out, could play in a back 3 on the right side, could play as one of the centre backs on the right or left, could play right back. We’re sure that in an emergency he could (also) play left back, he’s just a reliable team player, and he was clear, I met with him in Buenos Aires in November and I had a coffee with him and he said ‘just make sure it happens, make sure I’m going there’.”

“So long ago, we’ve known that the intentions of us and him (Erik) is to be together.”

But as can often be the case in football, the marriage had some work to do, as Vancouver and Colon had to find level ground on a possible agreement. With over a month of work in the back pocket, that’s now sorted, and Dos Santos is just happy he and his team were able to push things over the line. 

“But if you guys only knew how some clubs in some markets are challenging in different ways, and it’s far from being 1+1 equals 2,” Dos Santos said. “There’s a lot of process, a lot of things that need to happen, but the timing was great, and he’s going to join us in San Diego, Cristian Dajome is also going to join us in San Diego, so slowly we’re getting all of the team together in a much better timing, much better pace than last season, we can’t even compare.”

He later added: “I don’t want to speak about the details, but I’ll tell you this: I coached in Brazil 3 years, and I was in South America, involved in soccer, and it’s just different (down there). It’s different, the quality is phenomenal, but it’s a process to deal with situations.”

Erik Godoy on the ball against Colorado in June (Keveren Guillou)

With Godoy and the other arrivals now making their way to camp, it gives Dos Santos one less thing to worry about. At this stage last year, there felt like there was still at least a half-dozen signings still left, so to see Vancouver only 2 signings away from their final roster with 4-5 weeks left is huge. 

While the overall quality of this squad is still a blank canvas with several questions in how to best paint it, the metaphorical paint, the players, seems to have been brought together around a more driven purpose, which in theory should improve the results. Dos Santos has a lot more time to plan his painting, at least given the improved state of his preseason squad, which along with the arrival and return of players fitting the cornerstones, leaves Dos Santos with a lot of ways to figure out how to lay out his Van Gogh. 

It might not have the stars necessary for a ‘Starry Night’, but there is the potential for ‘Almond Blossoms’, and at the minimum, they’ll avoid being caught in a ‘Still Life’. 

“They’re going to take the step up,” Dos Santos said of his players. “I feel that there’s so much competition, the only place where it’s not steady 100% yet, (at least) not to the standard I want, is in the centre back position, I feel there we could still step it up, and it’s important that we see a step up also from the individuals, but also from the guys that have a chance, like (Amer) Didic, that’s on trial, he’s going to play in some exhibition games.”

“I feel like there’s a lot of competition in different positions, and when we’re going to make another few announcements, you guys are going to say: ‘how are these guys going to play?’, and it’s a good problem to have, because last year sometimes it happened that we were on the bench and it was ‘okay, now who’s going to come in’, and now we want to have a lot of solutions, guys competing for positions.”

“And I think that’s going to make everything step up in San Diego, and playing games, playing against Colombus, Dallas, LA Galaxy, it’s going to start having our guys in the MLS mindset,” he finished.

Preseason gets underway this Tuesday against Colombus Crew. 

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