Final Sprint: Vancouver Whitecaps making moves, training hard as they wrap up ‘demanding’ preseason

The Vancouver Whitecaps officially wrap up preseason this week, as they get set to take on Sporting Kansas City on Saturday. They haven’t finished things off quietly, however, with plenty of movement happening on and off the pitch this week. Here is the latest roundup of news around the team, before things get underway, for real, this weekend. 

It’s the “back to school” week for Major League Soccer’s 26 franchises. 

While there is no such designation, at least from an official standpoint, it certainly feels that way, with all sorts of movement going on these past few weeks, as teams make their final sprint before things get underway for real this weekend. 

In Vancouver, there’s been no exception, as the Whitecaps have been furious at work this week, putting the finishing touches on their preseason work. While they’re far from done working, with the project being a constantly fluid and changing concept, with the games now getting underway from real, any changes from this point on will have a lot more pressure attached to them. 

But that’s why preseason has been so important, as it’s given the club a good base to build off of, hopefully allowing them to get off to a good start. Most of the pieces are in place, with only visa problems denying the arrival of those last few players, which once sorted out, should provide the squad with yet another boost. 

With the games getting underway for real this weekend, they’ll have to work without those players, but with a good chunk of the squad well-rehearsed and prepared, there’s the potential for a good performance this Saturday at BC Place. 

Here are the last bits and bobs from around the team heading into that first kick, as the ‘Caps complete their furious push towards the starting line, with the team looking to get off on the front foot this MLS season.

Fit and ready to run

In 2019, it often seemed that some Whitecaps players burnt out at various points throughout the season, with fitness (or lack thereof) looking to be a key issue for the squad. 

While that was related to a myriad of factors, with some players arriving late to preseason, or fresh off having played 6 months straight, but overall, it made it hard for Marc Dos Santos to play the style of football that he would have liked to. 

This year, that’s already changed, as he’s had the chance to throw his squad to the Wolves this preseason, with the players emerging from the 6 weeks a lot fitter, sharper and prepared to endure the grind of an MLS season. 

Instead of being set up to survive 90 minutes of play, they can now thrive over that same period of play, which should allow them to play the aggressor more often in games this season. 

“This is probably the toughest preseason I’ve had yet, in my professional career, (it’s been) very demanding,” right back Jake Nerwinski said this week. “You had to come in really fit, to get more fit during preseason, and the way we want to play, we need to be able to last for 90 minutes, 90+ minutes. So it’s been a higher energy, higher competitiveness, which is really good for the team.”

With the ‘Caps looking to be defensively relentless over the course of 90 minutes, pushing teams right off of the pitch, that work was going to have to start long before the season began, which is why this preseason was so different compared to past editions. 

There’s a reason that Sporting Director Axel Schuster recently said he wants opposing teams to go: ‘(expletive), not those crazy Canadians again,’ when they play the Whitecaps, and that’s because they’re aiming to be defensively relentless, swarm in numbers, while also being balanced in their approach to avoid getting caught out. 

That’s meant raising fitness levels, working on patterns and getting the team all on the same page, so when it comes to game time, Schuster’s thoughts can turn to reality. 

“It’s hard to make predictions off of a preseason, but internally, it’s been fantastic,” the well-travelled Tosaint Ricketts said Tuesday. “The group has connected on a different level, guys are fighting for each other, working for each other, we’re on the same page in terms of identity, and there’s been some extreme growth in our play, and in the culture around the club, so it’s been positive.”

So far, it’s paid dividends for Vancouver, as they rounded off the preseason with a pair of solid victories, putting their record to 3W-2L-1D in the 6 exhibition matches they faced off in. More impressive than the results, however, was the progress they made tactically, as they started to very much look the part of an MLS team as the days progressed, with their fitness levels a big contributing factor to their overall play. 

There’s a reason that the ‘Caps were able to win those last 2 games via second-half offensive splurges, as they downed New England via a 68th minute Lucas Cavallini winner, before leaving it even later in the next one, with Fredy Montero becoming the hero with his 90th-minute effort against Minnesota.

Vancouver wants to start off games with intensity, so that when it comes to those moments later in the game, when their opponents are on their last legs, they can still find that extra wind, as they did in those two preseason victories.

“Yeah, I think that’s why we had such a difficult preseason, so demanding on the legs, because we want to be able to do this game in and game out. And I think, we have a young team, I think that’s definitely going to help us with doing that over a long span,” Nerwinski said. 

He later added: “We had a really good preseason this year, and we showed that we can be a very exciting team when we step on the pitch, I think the energy level right now is a lot higher than it was last preseason, going into the first game, so a lot of the guys are very excited to get going.”

Jake Nerwinski stretches out to save a ball in preseason (Keveren Guillou)

Leonard Owusu arrives, Ranko Veselinovic hopefully not far behind

For all the buzz around what the existing group has so far done, it’s all come without 2 of their biggest offseason acquisitions, as Ghanian midfielder Leonard Owusu and Serbian centre back Ranko Veselinovic have been unable to train all preseason, with visa issues delaying their arrival. 

Owusu arrived this week, much to the relief of the team, but they still await Veselinovic, who’s still awaiting the final pieces of paperwork in Serbia. 

“Yeah, we are waiting for the last approval, so I cannot push that, so I can only wait, but we are very hopeful that it will happen next week,” Schuster said of his situation.

As for Owusu’s case, Schuster was happy to breathe a deep sigh of relief with his arrival this week, with the midfielder finally coming to Vancouver 5 weeks after his original signature. 

After Schuster had done the brunt of the legwork in terms of scouting and negotiating the terms of the deal in person (because as noted by Dan Riccio and JJ Adams on ‘Fine Lines’ this week, the scouting department is still being put together), he joked that people were starting to think that he signed a ghost, so he was just happy to see Owusu don a ‘Caps training kit and get to work.

“Some of the guys were already starting to ask me if he was a real person, or if he was a ghost, because I was the only one who saw him in person in December,” Schuster said with a laugh. “It’s good to have him here, even at the moment as he arrived in the locker room, and everybody said welcome to him, and that he feels warm immediately, and that everybody did it in right way to charm him so he can be integrated soon, and quick.” 

“So yeah, now we can start, we were waiting for him for a long time, and as I already said, we have some more wood for the fire, so he was not able to play any of the games, but it’s always good to have some more wood for the fire.” 

On Owusu’s end, he shared a similar sentiment, as he was happy to get back to his natural element, which is on a football pitch. 

He had been training on his own in Israel, maintaining both his fitness and ball skills by working with a personal trainer, but he’s happy to get back to working in a team environment, especially after spending over a month away from one. 

“I’m very excited, very excited to join the team,” Owusu said this week. “After all of the things that I’ve heard, the little things about the team, it’s very good for me, so I think it’s a step ahead for me in my football career, so I’m very excited to meet them.”

He added: “I was training. I had a personal trainer, so I was training with him, so it was keeping me fit.”

Now, it’ll be a question of playing catchup for the Ghanian midfielder, because even if he’s got good physical fitness, he still needs to get back up to match speed, while also getting used to the Dos Santos way of playing football. 

That means a busy couple of weeks of training are ahead for him, starting this week, hopefully setting him up to start featuring somewhere around weeks 2 to 4 of MLS action. He’s already been ruled out of this weekend against Kansas, but based on how things go, he could be ready as early as week two’s clash against Los Angeles, which as of now, he thinks is a realistic timeline to set.

“I’m going to (see) that with the fitness coach,” Owusu said. “Now he’s going to see me, because it’s like a month that I’ve not played a match, so with the fitness coach and everything, I think I’ll be a week or two.”

So to be safe, expect him by New York City in week 4, at the very latest, and if he comes in any earlier than that, the better. 

But when he comes in, what to expect from him? We profiled him in-depth after his arrival, yet one thing we noticed in our scouting is that he is quite versatile, with some Ghanian football experts saying that he can play as a #6, #8 and #10. 

This week, Owusu put some of that chatter to rest, as the man they call “Jingles” confirmed his best attributes are found at the #6, with Schuster echoing that statement.

“My style of play, I like to win the ball and then give it out, like a number #6, yeah. That’s what I like to do, and then to distribute the ball, with long passes, and also penetrative passes,” Owusu said.

Schuster added: “There are two things I want to point out, the first thing is his intensity in his game. It was crazy in that game. He played against Beitar Jerusalem, a better team, and it looked like he was everywhere on the pitch, in the 1 on 1s, in the defensive 1 on 1s, he was very responsible in his game, saved his teammates a lot of times.”

“The second one is that in his former career he was a #10, so he moved from #10 to #8 to #6, so he also has the thinking of an offensive player, so he knows (how) to build up the game, he has a good technique.”

An international spot comes in, paving the way for Janio Bikel (with more to come?)

For all the fanfare surrounding Owusu and Veslinoivc, the ‘Caps aren’t quite yet done wheeling and dealing yet, either, with the team still trying to round off their roster ahead of the start of the campaign. 

After acquiring an extra international roster spot last week, even despite already having an extra one at their disposition, a move was expected from the team this week, with rumours strongly indicating the arrival of a new South Korean, midfielder/winger Lee Dong Gyeong. 

With the ‘Caps pretty much looking set everywhere except on the wing, in the midfield and at full back, this rumoured move ticks 2 of those boxes, and it seems only a matter of time before he doubles the South Korean contingent in the Vancouver locker room. 

And considering Dos Santos’s and Schuster’s comments earlier this week, his arrival seemed imminent.

“I hope that we have in the very near future, some good news for you, and for the international spot,” Dos Santos said this week.

Schuster added: “I don’t like to speak about smoke and fire until it is signed, because you never know what happens, but yeah, let us see and wait, and in a few more days, maybe we can say more, but right now we are not able to say something.”

But considering that the ‘Caps already had an international spot open, it seemed that another surprise move could be on the horizon, and they delivered on that idea Friday, bringing in Portuguese/Guinea-Bissau midfielder/right back Janio Bikel from CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria. 

The 24-year-old comes to Vancouver in good form, with his play at Sofia impressing many onlookers of the Bulgarian league, and most importantly for Vancouver, like Dong Gyeong, he can play 2 of those 3 positions of need, which only reinforces their squad ahead of the new season. 

“Janio provides a lot of options for us as he is comfortable in possession, a good dribbler, and is always defensively aware,” Schuster said in a club statement. “He can play centrally in the midfield and recently he has played right back. It is also important to note he is only 24 and has already played 140 professional games.”

We’ll dive more into what he can bring next week, so stay tuned for that, but for now, the big questions will be about where and when can he play. 

For the where, with the ‘Caps currently playing a 2-man pivot in the midfield, his likelier option currently seems to be out at right back, but from his stats and descriptions of his play, a midfield trio of him, Hwang In Beom and Leonard Owusu does have some spice in it. 

As for the when, luckily for the club, due to his European passport (and if any are wondering why this hasn’t happened for Veselinovic, Serbia are not in the European Union yet) Bikel will already in Vancouver this weekend, which likely means that he starts training with the team next week.

Along with what appears to be the impending arrival of Dong Gyeong, on top of the incoming Veselniovic and recently arrived Owusu, it should give the ‘Caps 4 solid players to add to their squad, only improving their depth ahead of the regular season. 

Considering that they want to compete both in MLS and in the Voyageurs Cup, it’s the exact kind of depth that they’ll need, especially if some of these incoming players can play up to the level that seems possible for them to reach.

Tosaint Ricketts returns for more

Ricketts and his teammates celebrate a late Fredy Montero winner against Minnesota (Keveren Guillou)

Speaking of that depth, another big piece of it, forward Tosaint Ricketts, was locked up to a new deal this week, as the team extended his contract another season, signing him to a deal that will keep the veteran Canadian in Vancouver until 2021. 

On a team with an average age of around 24 years of age, the 32-year-old striker has brought a good touch of leadership to the ‘Caps, with his positive mentality and work ethic spoke of highly by those around the club. 

“I’m very happy,” Dos Santos said when speaking of Ricketts extension. “When we look at a player, we evaluate the totality of what he brings to the team, locker room, leadership, commitment in training, and the way the league is set up, and how the roster, salary cap, he becomes a very valuable piece, so we like everything that he’s brought since he arrived here.”

“Being a team guy first, it’s a good example for everybody, so we’re happy for him.”

For Ricketts, it was a very welcome move, as it allows him some stability at an age where many players don’t necessarily get it, which after a whirlwind last couple of years, he’s happy to have. 

“It was a surprise, honestly,” Ricketts said this week. “I’ve just been working hard, on the field, off the field, trying to lead when I can, trying to just impact the environment in a positive way, to help the change, to be that catalyst for growth in this team, with the organization, and to be rewarded, it was a surprise, and I’m so happy.” 

Considering that he’s played for some pretty obscure European clubs, where getting paid on time was no guarantee for him and his teammates, he’s happy to have some security for himself and his family, allowing him to work a lot closer to his hometown of Edmonton than he ever has.

“Vancouver’s a place where I’ve always wanted to be, and it’s close to home, and I’m very happy,” Ricketts said. 

He added: “Of course, it’s something that I haven’t had the luxury of having in the past. I’ve ran into a few unfortunate situations with clubs me on time, and things a lot of people don’t know about, but for this organization to give me this stability, I’m so grateful, and it’s priceless for me at this moment.”

While the timing of the move was curious, it’s been a mostly welcome move, especially considering how young Vancouver’s team is. His teammates appreciate him, and even despite his advancing age, he remains one of the fittest ‘Caps, which for the style of play the are aiming to employ, is perfect to have on board. 

He might not be someone who will go the full 90 minutes in 27+ MLS games, but he can be effective off of the bench, something which he’s shown throughout his career. As we saw when he played a similar super-sub role in Toronto, he can make magic happen in short bursts, scoring many key goals on Toronto’s run to a 2017 MLS Cup triumph. 

After a solid audition to end last year, along with the work he’s done so far this preseason, the team thought it was a good time to reward him, which for Ricketts, is a faith he’s looking to repay over the course of the deal.

“It was an opportunity,” he said. “In soccer, sometimes your opportunity comes in different ways, mysterious ways, and I took it as another challenge, to come in, and I had 8 games to prove my value to the club, and show that I’m an asset going forward.”

Looking Forward

All in all, it’s been a busy week for the club, and it’s only going to ramp up, especially with the season kicking off. There are some names still to come in if the Dong Gyeong rumours are to mean anything, and names to go, with the team having a surplus of homegrowns currently signed to first-team deals. 

Along with the arrivals of Bikel and Veselinovic, it should make for an interesting next couple of days, no matter what happens on Saturday. 

But make no mistake, the focus is squarely on Sporting Kansas City. It’s a huge game, and it can help set the tone of how the season may shape up, which considering the slow start they had last year, is something they know can affect the campaign. 

With many pundits, fans and experts alike not quite bullish on this squad in preseason predictions, they have a chance to prove their doubters wrong, showcasing the value in some of the hard work put in so far. 

Which starting on Saturday, they’ll finally get to show off, as they look to fulfill the idea of being the ‘Canadians that no one wants to play against’. 

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Sporting Kansas City, February 29th, 2020, 19h30 PST (BC Place, Vancouver)

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