On the Front Foot: It’s not perfect yet, but Whitecaps are pressing in ‘right direction’ after San Diego trip

The Vancouver Whitecaps wrapped up the first portion of their preseason this week, finishing their San Diego trip with a record of 1W-1L-1D, using the trip to improve on tactical ideologies and their team bonding. Here is what the team had to say on all of that after 10 days down in Sunny California. 

On the field, it wasn’t quite perfect, not matching the sandy beaches and blue waters that the Californian coast has to offer.

Off of it, the Vancouver Whitecaps trip to San Diego was everything head coach Marc Dos Santos imagined and more, as he and his side took advantage of a favourable setup down in California, which was a far cry from the chaotic Hawaii environment he bemoaned back in 2019.

“I think it was very positive coming here (to San Diego),” Dos Santos said this week. “Everything, the setup, the university, the hotel, the distances between everything was perfect, exactly what we wanted, so it’s a good start.”

After a 10 day period where the Whitecaps held training sessions under a berating southern Californian sun, with 3 closed-door friendlies thrown in for good measure, it’s raised the teams’ morale massively as they head back north to Vancouver. With this portion of preseason now behind them, they’ll stay at home for the next 10 days, before embarking on the journey down to Portland to play in the ‘Rose City Invitational’, or as it’s more simply known as: “The Portland tournament”.

With all of Vancouver’s new signings integrated into the side, bar Ghanian midfielder Leonard Owusu, who is still sorting out the required documentation to come, it’s given the Caps an opportunity to work on some important philosophies ahead of first kick. They got a chance to test out some of their theories, new and old, in the 3 closed-door matches they played over the last week, against the Columbus Crew, FC Dallas and the LA Galaxy, respectively, drawing 1, winning 1 and losing the other, in that order. 

Ahead of the Portland matches, which will be played out at what is hoped to be close to MLS pace, it’s given the ‘Caps time to work on crucial tactical framework and ideology so that when it comes time to kick off at Providence Park, they look every bit the part of an MLS side. With those games being streamed online, unlike the recent trio of matches, how they fare in those may be enough to sway those on the fence about this team either way ahead of the season opener.

But before looking ahead too far, here is a look back at how San Diego treated Vancouver, as the team used their trip to the sunny Californian city to their advantage.

San Diego meets the grade:

For Marc Dos Santos, the camp was nearly perfect, results aside, especially compared to what his team went through last year. 

He and his team specifically singled out San Diego as a potential location back in the summer, and they appeared to have chosen well, with all of the facilities being up to standard for the Canadian coach. 

“It’s been exactly what we expect a training camp should be about,” Dos Santos said. “The set-up is great, the field was very good, they did a great job to keep it at this level for two games we played on it, training, fantastic pitch, hotel was great, the food was great, the distance between the hotel and the university, great, the quality of the opponents, very good, so this is what you expect in a high-level preseason.”

With a near-complete squad in his midst, it’s given him time to work on some important tactical ideologies and frameworks, as he continues to shape how he wants this team to play. Last year, it felt like he and his staff were always playing catch up in that regard, which led to a discombobulated start, one they never fully recovered from. 

This time around, Dos Santos has been able to fully don his teaching hat, spending his sessions educating his pupils on how he wants this team to play, knowing full well most of them will be around this season. Instead of having a dozen academy kids shoved into the squad to complete numbers by necessity, every player this year, from a couple of triallists, to some academy graduates and all of the other first-team members, everyone who came in was brought in to compete, leading to some higher-quality sessions this time around.

Training on the pitch at the University of California San Diego, it’s fitting that the Whitecaps were able to assimilate high amounts of information over the course of their stay, with this first phase of camp certainly meeting expectations on the Dos Santos report card.

“I’ve seen growth every day,” Dos Santos said. “You arrive in day 1 of preseason, and the fitness levels of the players are normally in a good base to start, but then when you try to translate that to match fitness, to match rhythm, you’re not there on day 1.”

“And then, with the accumulation of days, of games, of principles and the acquisition of principles that we want, you see growth in the players, not only on the physical side, but also on the tactical side, and that’s what we’ve seen. I think the progress from day 1 until now is very positive.”

Press, press and press again:

One area the Whitecaps have wisely invested their time in so far has been in their defensive game, working more specifically on their pressing game, as they look to defend more from the front foot this season.

Last year, despite speaking of a press not too dissimilar to the one employed by the likes of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea, the only pressing we saw in preseason was that of red numbers on the back of hoop jerseys, as the Whitecaps prepared the many jerseys required for their numerous late arrivals.

And this emphasis on the press is already starting to pay dividends, helping them create several chances in all 3 games, including 2 that were converted into goals in a 4-1 victory over Dallas. With new attackers Lucas Cavallini, Cristian Dajome, Ryan Raposo and David Milinkovic all having excellent work rates off of the ball, it’s allowed the Whitecaps to impose themselves more defensively so far, as they continue to shift towards a more front-to-back approach this season.

“Well, we’ve seen that the group itself was tuned in right away, in terms of applying what the coaching staff wants, offensively and defensively,” goalkeeper Max Crepeau said of the press. “We’ve seen it in terms of results, as well, because we won the ball higher up the park, and it gave us more chances to have possession in their half, so that was good.”

“And all the mentalities of the guys are good, as well, everyone is on the same page, there’s a great mood around the team, as well, and I think people that have come from outside can see it, so it’s been so far so good, yeah.” 

Part of what makes pressing so nuanced is how easy a poorly-executed one can be sliced through by a couple of quick passes. If you commit too many players forward, or overflood an area with bodies when you had no business winning the ball there, opposing defences can play through you like a hot knife through butter. 

But so far, with the Whitecaps having a good mix of athletic defenders, midfielders and forwards, it’s allowed them to be aggressive with their press, which we can only expect more of going forward. Their fitness levels are improving, they have the pieces to do it, so why not continue, as they look to leave their cautious 2019 defensive approach behind them.

“There’s a build-up, and the high press we’ve worked on,” Crepeau said. “Because with the new rule of receiving the ball inside the 18 (yard box), that’s in a team’s advantage to play out of the back. For us, last year we were more a medium and low block, but this year it’s more about a high/medium block, so that’s going to be good for us, we focus on what’s in front of us, and not what’s behind us.” 

What Crepeau underlines there is very key, as well. Last season, the Whitecaps defended deep, mostly out of necessity, as they didn’t have the pieces to be more aggressive without the ball. 

But with regular starters centre back Doneil Henry and central midfielder Jon Erice both being shipped out this offseason, along with the arrivals of Dajome, Milinkovic, Cavallini and Raposo, the ‘Caps have set themselves up to press more this season. By adding some more juice up front, while also dropping some players, who despite their other positive skills, weren’t quite suited for the high-pressure game Dos Santos aims to play, Vancouver is ready to throw themselves at teams looking to build up from the back.

And with all of the work they’ve done so far, only expect them to get better at it, too, as the Whitecaps continue to improve their fitness levels with each session, allowing them to peak ahead of the home opener.

“I think against Columbus, there were parts of the game that were positive, others that we didn’t like and we addressed it,” Dos Santos said. “We addressed it in training, we continued growing, and then against Dallas you saw much more of what we want to be about, much more in the tactical phases, but also you felt physically that we’re a team that’s growing in that aspect too. So, again, that’s what you want from preseason.” 

So this year, expect Vancouver to be more of a schoolyard bully, bringing the game to teams instead of vice versa. It’s no secret that pressing helps teams score more goals, as winning the ball higher up the pitch increases the chance of a goal massively, especially compared to regaining possession deep in their half, hence the push for the change from Dos Santos and Sporting Director, Axel Schuster. 

After preaching it last year, it’s good to finally see them put it into practice, as the team continues to build a “lean, mean, pressing machine”. 

“No, not this season, since day 1 that is something that I want this club to be about,” Dos Santos said of the press. “But slowly, with pieces that we’re bringing are slowly allowing us more and more to go to that direction. Then, as a coach, you have to adapt and adjust with what you have.”

“And I think that we’re slowly getting into a place where it allows us to be about what we want as a club, and also what we want as a coaching staff, players are answering very well to it, that’s important for you to have success in something in a group, you need also the openness of the player, the mental disposition to do it, and that’s what their doing, players are committed to what we’re doing, players are participating a lot, and that allows growth.” 

The Whitecaps are aiming to do more of what Ali Adnan is doing here: press. (Keveren Guillou)

Super Draft yields a possible gem:

So far in San Diego, some players have stood out, but arguably none more than rookie Ryan Raposo, Vancouver’s first pick in this January’s MLS Super Draft. The 20-year-old Canadian out of Syracuse hasn’t been out of his depth so far, looking if anything far from it, even earning the trust of Dos Santos to try him out as the #10 in his teams new 4-2-3-1 alignment.

From an overall standpoint, even without setting foot in an MLS game, it appears that the Whitecaps have picked up a gem, with the winger/midfielder filling a lot of the boxes their team needed. He can press, he can defend, he can attack, and he’s versatile, giving Dos Santos a very malleable player to work with going forward. 

You throw in the fact that he’s Canadian, and on a Generation Addidas contract, meaning that he costs the team nothing on the salary cap, without even mentioning his ripe age of 20, and the pick seems to look better by the day. Raposo’s selection is a far cry from some of the 23 and 24 year-olds that we have seen get drafted in the past, as the ‘Caps seem to have grabbed a free homegrown piece via an acquisition avenue that can be pretty hit or miss, as the team itself knows very well from over the years. 

“Look, he’s 20 years old,” Dos Santos said. “He comes from a development that is still green, I would call it. He showed good things, technically he’s a good player on the ball, but sometimes his decision making he wants to do things a little bit too fast, when he could take an extra touch, to allow us to come out of pressure.”

“But his commitment also defensively, his commitment to press the opponent is fantastic, it’s good, but we have to relax, it’s a kid that just arrived, he’s going to have his ups and downs in his development as a player, but it’s positive how he got started with us.” 

So even if Raposo doesn’t pick up a start right away, he’s at the very least played his way into contention, which has been a positive development for Dos Santos and his staff. It’s one of the perks of having a competitive camp, with players having to fight for minutes, and it’s given the ‘Caps several intriguing decisions to make in the coming weeks. 

Which for Raposo, he’ll just hope to keep making it hard for them to push him out, as he fights for a spot in the opening day MLS squad. 

“I think it’s been very good,” Raposo said. “All of the guys are tuned in, we’ve seen that from the very first session, it was very high quality from the first day I got there. Since then, everyone’s kind of building towards the same goal, and that’s to be a successful team and to win matches, ultimately.”

He added when asked about his short-term expectations: “More so for the team I would say just polish off the details in this last month, I feel like, again from the first day we got here until now, it’s been a great increase in the quality, and the goals that we’re trying to reach, in front of myself personally it’s just to keep my head down, keep training hard, and hopefully I’ll be in that 18.”

Be it as a #10, as he played against Dallas, or on the wing, Raposo is ready to bring the buzz, which for the Whitecaps, has been very positive to see.

“Yeah, it helps, it helps a lot,” Raposo said of the minutes he earned in San Diego. “Especially now getting a bit more minutes in that starting role. I know it’s just preseason, but it shows the coaches confidence in myself to even get me minutes, so I’m happy, and I’m going with that.”

“Yeah, I mean growing up I played as a #10, and then in college, I moved out to the wing, so really I’m really comfortable on either side,” he added.

Now, he just wants to keep on pushing, as he relishes the opportunity of his first MLS camp, one he so far hasn’t looked too out of place in.

“Just keep doing what I’m doing, keep the energy high, since I play up the field, set the tone. Obviously they’re really stressing the press, so just trying to do my part.” he finished.

Looking Forward

With the San Diego portion of the camp now officially wrapped up, the focus now shifts back home, as the Whitecaps continue to work on the details they have so far stressed, such as the press. Once Owusu arrives, they’ll have just about what will be their full slate of players to start the season, bar the 2 or 3 new players that Dos Santos suggested may come soon enough when he spoke on a radio hit last week. 

But with many of the key players already in the mix, along with the return of several key 2019 faces, things are looking up in Whitecaps-land. This team is already miles ahead of where it was last year in terms of their preparations, and that’s without mentioning any of their new arrivals, who should also help them push to another level. 

So if they can just lock down those last few signings, while continuing to hammer away at fine-tuning those little details in their game, it should be a good opening day match on February 29th. Against a strong Sporting KC side, who went out and splashed an 8 figure fee on star Mexican striker Alan Pulido, it will be a game not at all short on entertainment, with both teams looking to recover from disappointing 2019 seasons. 

After nearly 4 months away from the action, the bigger games are almost upon us, starting with the Portland tournament clashes, continuing into the start of the 2020 MLS season.

“I can’t wait, that’s what we play for,” Crepeau finished. “The season opens, we’ll be at home against KC, that will be great, honestly it’s been a great three weeks together as of now, if I’m not mistaken.”

“And now it’ll be another month to build and to take care of the details that we still have to improve, obviously it’s not perfect yet, but we’re in the right direction so far.”

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