Second ‘Caps Thoughts: Vancouver Whitecaps show fight, resilience despite tough PK loss to SKC

In this edition of ‘Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our day-after column about the Vancouver Whitecaps, we take a look back at their heartbreaking loss to Sporting Kansas City via penalty kicks on Sunday. It wasn’t the way the ‘Caps would’ve liked to go out, but they learned several valuable lessons this tournament, showing some good growth over the 4 games that they played down in Orlando. 

Without a doubt, it was not an easy pill to stomach. 

After slashing and clawing their way back into the mix at MLS is Back, the Vancouver Whitecaps suffered a tough gut punch on Sunday night, as they fell to Sporting Kansas City via the dreaded penalty shootout, eliminating them from contention down in Orlando. 

While it was a massive achievement just to take Sporting KC that far, especially considering their reputation as early tournament favourites, it was tough to be eliminated via spot-kicks, especially after putting in an impeccable defensive shift throughout 90 minutes of play. 

Unfortunately, fatigue, which was mostly brought on by a severe lack of depth, just seemed to tank the ‘Caps in the shootout, as their efforts were both too slow and too telegraphed to really trouble Tim Melia in the SKC goal, as they only breached the American’s goal once on 4 the shots they took during the shootout. 

But at the same time, there’s nothing for the ‘Caps to be ashamed about in how they lost, especially after seeing the path that they’ve taken to get this far. 

Despite having an absences list that just seemed to grow by the day, ballooning from 5 ahead of the tournament to 11 by the time that they kicked off vs SKC, and seeming down and out after losing their first 2 games of the group stage by a combined score of 7-3, the ‘Caps showed resilience at key moments in order to rescue their tournament. 

First, it was the last game of the group stage, an all-important clash with the Chicago Fire, which gave Vancouver a much-needed lifeline. A 2 goal victory was the only way they could progress as one of the 4 best 3rd place teams at MLS is Back, and somehow, against the odds, they did just that, winning 2-0 thanks to second-half goals from Yordy Reyna and Cristian Dajome, sending the team to the Round of 16 despite their shorthanded squad. 

And then from there, up came the SKC clash, which certainly felt like a case of David vs Goliath. SKC had been rolling, reaching the knockout stages with 2 wins in their last 2 games, as they overcame an early scare against Minnesota in the first game to comfortably win their group. 

Even though taking on SKC was seen as a tall task, the ‘Caps bent, but did not break, however, as they held strong throughout the 90 minutes. Despite having only 17 players in their matchday squad, and no backup goalkeeper, they fought to the bitter end, with their fatigue proving to be the only thing that could stop them from pulling off the unlikely and moving on. 

While this tournament didn’t end on the sweet note the ‘Caps would’ve hoped to have it end on, they can certainly be proud of themselves, especially in the way that they’ve fought off early adversity, which easily could’ve tanked their Orlando experience.

It wasn’t an easy way to go out, but at least they can do so with their heads held high, hopefully giving them the momentum to push forward when the league does return, whenever that may end up being. 

You can’t fault the effort levels:

After looking disjointed and disinterested during the first 2 games, all anyone wanted to see was for the Whitecaps to at least look the part of an inspired team in their last match against Chicago, win or lose, as they faced a likely elimination. 

But then, with their backs against the wall, they stepped up. After bleeding 7 goals through their first game and a half of action, they started to find some defensive resilience in the last 40 minutes of play against the Seattle Sounders in that group stage second game. 

By keeping their net empty for those 40 minutes, in which they did a good job to avoid conceding any more goals once down 3-0, they then carried that momentum over to their clash with the Fire. 

While those 3 goals looked to be costly, especially in the context of goal difference, somehow the ‘Caps were still alive heading into that match against Chicago, only needing a 2 goal victory to qualify to the knockout stages. 

Given their defensive struggles through the first 2 matches, however, that seemed a tall task, one that seemed too big for their backline and goalkeeper to handle, especially considering the fact that they lost star goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau to a hand injury in that Sounders clash. 

For whatever reason, though, that didn’t faze them, as they stepped up their defensive game massively in that Fire match, keeping a clean sheet, before doing the same against SKC, meaning that they now leave the MLS is Back tournament having not conceded a goal in more than 220 minutes. 

A big reason for that? Improved efforts levels. Be it the prospect of elimination, or a desire to want to protect young goalkeeper Thomas Hasal in goal with Crepeau gone, the ‘Caps ramped up their defensive effort in the last 2 games, as they did a great job of sticking together at the back in both games. 

It’s something that head coach Marc Dos Santos is proud of, as he made sure to tip his hat to his young charges after the match against SKC, with their effort levels being the last thing anyone could criticize in a loss like that. 

“I thought tactically our approach, we covered the ground how we wanted to go about the game, and the effort of everyone was fantastic,” Dos Santos said. “We tried to put ourselves in a position that in the second half, we could have finished our opportunities. There’s two really close ones. I think a shot that got deflected from Theo that was so close, then a very good free-kick from Ali that was close.”

“Look, my guys are fantastic. The foundations of this group and the foundations of what we could be about is great and I am very excited to see how this group is going to look like when we are going to be able to work with consistency with everyone. Very young team today, incredible professionalism and effort. 

So after an effort like that, was it tough to lose on penalty kicks? 

“We did everything we could and then penalty shots, its 50/50. I’ve seen Maradona miss, I saw Platini miss, I saw Ronaldinho miss,” Dos Santos continued. “You know, it happens. I am very proud of the group. I am very proud of our guys. I am very proud of the staff, not only the technical staff, the medical staff, everybody that came here with the right attitude and every time there’s a setback or a problem, the attitude of the staff, of everyone in the club, of the players was incredible. So we are leaving this tournament stronger that’s for sure.”

And that last point is what’s important to take away from this tournament, even though the ‘Caps didn’t get the success that they hoped for, or the bounces they wanted. 

At least they went down swinging, right to the very end, even without several key players, and that’s all you can ask for sometimes. 

Tournament soccer can be very volatile, especially in these one-game knockout situations, so at least Dos Santos can be proud of how his team defended in such a big game, as that sort of thing translates over into future matches. 

“I spoke to the staff and to the players letting everybody know that I am proud of everyone,” Dos Santos said. “I am proud of how after we conceded seven goals in two games, how we were able without really training to readjust things and not concede a goal in the last 180 or more minutes. Being a team that was very organized and knowing what we wanted to do in the last two games, it was clear and our guys are coming out of this stronger and better.”

“Our group is fantastic, our players that worked so much on the field are a great group of guys and that’s why they were able to push and do well. We got knocked out against a very good Sporting Kansas City team where we played equal and where our guys have to be proud of themselves.”

But while a lot will be made on how much the players grew throughout this tournament, it’s also important to note that these games also helped Dos Santos grow as a coach as well, by his own admission. 

It can feel easy to grow as a coach when you win, but sometimes facing adversity is the best way to find out who you really are as a head coach, so considering what the ‘Caps have faced these past few weeks, no doubt that Dos Santos has had a lot of soul-searching to learn from. 

“Yeah, I’ll tell you this, I really believe that my job is to find solutions, not to find excuses,” Dos Santos said honestly on Sunday. “My job is not to cry, and please, if I start finding excuses, you guys could point at me and say: ‘Marc, make sure you don’t start with excuses’, because it’s not what I’m about. My job is to make sure that I maximize the players that I have and I give everything I can to them. And that’s what I want to do, I get exhausted after games because I want to be with them, I want to almost run with them, I feel for them with everything they give.”

“And it’s a group that I love and it’s a group that I want to get better with. So my job is not to cry about who’s not here, everybody knows what’s going on with us. My job is with who’s here, how do we find solutions to succeed, how do I invest my time as a coach to build players and to make them better and to make them believe, but today guys it’s not about me or the work, it’s about credit to the mentality of the group that doesn’t give up, fought and that I’m very proud of.”

Learning moments useful for the restart?

Leonard Owusu reacts after the ‘Caps fell to SKC via spot-kicks (Jared Martinez and Devin L’Amoureux/MLS)

But while these lessons learned will surely prove to be valuable for the ‘Caps in the long run, especially in the event that the MLS regular season is able to restart when this tournament is over, there are certainly questions to be answered of that potential restart. 

Can MLS teams safely travel between markets despite the COVID-19 surges many cities continue to face? Is travel between Canada and the US going to be an issue? How can a schedule work if teams have to quarantine heading into certain counties?

There are lots of moving parts surrounding a potential restart, making that idea a difficult one, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there. 

For the ‘Caps, who seemed to be picking up steam with their performances, they’ll want to get back to play as soon as possible, especially once some of their injured players rejoin their ranks. 

After seeing the pandemic wipe up the momentum they seemed to have after a huge March 7th victory over the LA Galaxy, the last game they would play until early July, they’ll want to avoid a similar break again now, especially as they try to build on what they started these past 2 games down in Orlando. 

Seeing what they can do with a shorthanded roster, you just want to see the ‘Caps do it now with everyone back, as it’s tantalizing to see what this team could now do with its full complement of players. 

“You know, we just think about the full puzzle,” Dos Santos said when asked about the future of this team. “Guys, Bikel, Maxime Crepeau, Bryan Meredith, Erik Godoy, Andy Rose, David Milinkovic, Tos Ricketts, Fredy Montero, Lucas Cavallini, all guys that are out at this moment. So when we look at the full picture, we have to be confident that we are going to make this team grow. Everybody is working hard for that.”

“We lost tonight in penalty shots, we are sad, we are disappointed because we felt that we were close but then you have to put that aside. Look at the big picture, look at what we could look like and keep working. We are in the right direction as a club or culture that is being created by everyone is the right one and we will be a strong club. I am very confident about that.”

In the big moments, they showed that they can fight, even when missing some key players, so logic suggests that when everyone is back, Dos Santos has an interesting project on his hands. 

As players start to return heading into a potential restart, things will only get better from here, especially if the ‘Caps are able to continue and build towards a potential framework of how they want to play when everyone is in the fold, built off of the effort that they showed in these matches. 

With the youthful nature of their team, growth is huge, so they’re hoping to capitalize on that and use that to their advantage, as they push towards a potential restart. 

“I don’t like the word ‘depleted’ or the phrase ‘depleted squad’ because we didn’t look like a depleted squad tonight and I think everybody can attest to that,” veteran midfielder Russell Teibert said after the game. “The squad that you saw tonight was a team, a full team, a team that played with full heart and a team that stepped up when everybody was needed. ‘Depleted squad’ for me is misused. Obviously we know there are guys that weren’t here but this is a tournament that we can grow from as a young team. This is only going to make us better and I want to reiterate that we’re proud of everyone who came down here.”

Young Canadians grasp the spotlight:

But for all of the talk about who’s not there, it’s important to highlight the play of some players that were there, especially that of some Canadians who really stood out throughout this tournament.

Considering that the average age of this ‘Caps roster at this tournament was just a hair over 23-years-old, you expected some youngsters to get minutes, but you certainly didn’t expect this many of them to stand out, especially in such big games. 

From Thomas Hasal’s heroics in goal, to Derek Cornelius’s defensive masterclasses in front of him, along with Cristian Gutierrez’s cameos at left back, rounded off by strong offensive performances from Theo Bair and Ryan Raposo thrown in up top, some of the young Canadian ‘Caps made an especially big difference with their extra minutes. 

In a tournament like this, that’s exactly the sort of thing that you’d want to see from your youngsters, especially when you have so many regulars out. With the chance to shine, they did not shy away from the spotlight, showing the world that there are some young Canadians worth watching on this ‘Caps team. 

If this team wants to grow together as a young group, having these sorts of efforts, in high-pressure games to boot, will be huge for them to push forward, even when everyone is back. 

Now that Dos Santos knows that these kids can play, he’ll be more comfortable when given the opportunity to put them in, full roster or not. That will help improve their training, as veteran players will know that their spots aren’t as sure as they think they are, while the kids will feel like they’re close to breaking through, increasing competition across the roster. 

And if the ‘Caps make it to a big playoff game, they’ll know that their roster can handle the pressures of these sorts of games now, having seen some of them do it first hand. 

“Yeah, it’s a great question, because it gives you a sense, of course without the crowd (it’s different), but it gives you a sense of what a playoff game could look like,” Dos Santos said on the importance of his youngsters gaining this sort of experience. “And we could learn or take this game the next time and learn from it next time we’re in a playoff situation, what can we learn from this game, how can we grow from this game, but this is the type of games that are young players grow from it and become better and understand the pressure better.”

“Of course, things change when they’re 60,000, 30,000, 40,000 in the stands, then it’s another type of management, but this is a great step for their career and for them to move forward, for sure.”

While that idea seems far away, making the playoffs (on top of having that many fans in a stadium, as well), it’s good to know that these kids may bend but they won’t break in those scenarios, which will be huge as this team looks to expand its trophy case in coming years. 

Goalkeeper battle just got interesting:

Lastly, it’s important to highlight how good the play of Thomas Hasal has been during these past 2 and a half games, as he’s quickly worked his way into ‘Caps folklore with his performances in goal for Vancouver. 

While as Dos Santos said, it’s important not to hype him up too much as he continues to grow, at the same time, he does deserve massive plaudits, especially for how calm and composed he looked in big moments down in Orlando

For any youngster, that would be huge, but for a young homegrown Academy goalkeeper, that’s massive, as it potentially paves the way for another feel-good academy-to-pro story for the ‘Caps, who have seemed to produce more and more of them in recent years. 

While they’re far from the levels of homegrown production that teams like FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls have hit, if they can consistently get youth players from the academy into the first team and have them shine in their minutes, that can be the start of something. 

In goal, that whole finding minutes part is tough, especially when the ‘Caps have a star goalkeeper like Crepeau, but if Hasal can continue to ride the wave while Crepeau is out, before becoming a #2 when he’s back, this could be good for all parties. 

Crepeau can continue to push Hasal, as he has done in training this past year, but Hasal can start to push Crepeau more now, with Crepeau having seen what Hasal can do in MLS play, knowing that if he falters, the 21-year-old won’t be scared to take his place.

As Dos Santos made sure to stress after the game, it’s important that Hasal stays grounded, but his play this tournament has certainly pushed his career forward in a way many people didn’t expect to happen heading into it, and he acknowledged as much on Sunday. 

“I spoke a lot in the last few days about Thomas and Thomas knows how much I appreciate him and what I think about him,” Dos Santos said. “But Thomas needs to stay in the process you know. It’s games like that, that are going to make him grow and become better and remember he is Canadian and he was brought up in our academy, so everybody in our academy, the staff, Raegyn, our technical director, Greg, everybody has to be proud of the work they have done to bring the kid to us. And Youssef continued the job that was done before. Thomas needs to stay focused.”

“Thomas needs to stay away from the blah blah blah of social media and guys that get too excited fast and too low fast. Thomas needs to stay in his bubble and focus, keep working and it is the only way he is going to become better and better, but he showed great signs in the last 180 minutes but I said it yesterday I think, when you look at Thomas, what he showed in pre-season and how he listens and how he works with Bryan and how he works with Max, it is important for his growth. He needs to stay in planet earth and not allow media or people to bring him to planet mars. He needs to stay in planet earth.”

Looking Forward:

So while the future is uncertain for these ‘Caps now, especially as it pertains to a potential MLS restart in Canada, this will be a good time for the team to return home and regroup, before starting training again ahead of that potential return. 

There’s no doubt that this tournament did teach this team some valuable lessons, both good and bad, so hopefully they can take those teaching moments, and use them to continue to build off of the growth they showed down in Orlando. 

It’s a tough way to go out, no doubt, but at least they went out swinging, which after their first 2 games, is good to see, as they bounced back from a tough start. 

Now, with the future being a big question mark, it’ll be good for them just to keep working, and be ready for when duty calls once again, when MLS announces it’s complete return-to-play plan sometime during these next few weeks. 

Cover Photo via: Jared Martinez and Devin L’Amoureux/MLS

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