Head High: Vancouver Whitecaps staying focused despite transfer window, preseason and international break concerns

As the Vancouver Whitecaps near the end of the first week of their 2021 training camp, spirits have been high in their squad so far, as they relish the chance to be together once again. In this, we look at what head coach Marc Dos Santos had to say about that first week of camp, as he chats about being happy with what’s happening on the field, while still remaining very active off of it. 

Despite a few bumps in the road, things are mostly off to a good start. 

Nearing the end of their first week of 2021 training camp, the Vancouver Whitecaps were in good spirits after training Thursday, as they wrapped up what they described as a good week of hard work. 

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes at the ‘Caps right now, as they furiously look to finalize their roster ahead of the season, all while managing the current pain of visa trouble and the impending doom of an international break, but on the field, things appear rosy at the moment. 

According to head coach Marc Dos Santos, if the Whitecaps had to hit the field tomorrow, they’d be more than ready to do so, which is a far cry from his first two seasons in charge, where the team was usually looking to fill spots with any warm body available at the club at this stage of preseason.

A good offseason can help a team take a big step forward, but a good preseason can actually help you deliver on that promise, so while the ‘Caps last-minute dealings to upgrade some areas of their roster are a concern, with a strong group filled with returnees, they have to be happy with where things stand at the moment. 

Things are going to ramp up now, as they’ll have to find a way to take their preparation to the next level without any exhibition games (more on that in a second), which won’t be easy, but to be fair to them, it’s the sort of challenge they’ve become all too used to as a Canadian team in MLS these past 12 months, so this is nothing new to them. 

All they’ve been able to do has been to keep their chins up and try to push forward, so no sense in them stopping now, hence the optimism they’ve maintained so far at camp, despite a few hurdles. 

Wheeling and dealing: 

But while Dos Santos has been pleased with what his group has shown him so far this week at training camp, that doesn’t mean that he is satisfied with the current state of the roster. 

Despite last playing a game 4 months ago, they’ve yet to address a few important needs in their squad, with the main one being a hole at the #10 position. 

It’s something that Dos Santos noted on Thursday, as he hinted that he and his staff are actively looking to change that. 

“What stands out still is some of the needs that we have,” Dos Santos said of his team’s current state. “Certain positions that we need to upgrade and become better in, and we’re working on that, that’s not going to change, as long as we bring in the right pieces to complement the needs that we have.”

But that doesn’t mean they’ve been completely idle in the transfer market, either. They’ve officially made 4 player-related transactions, bringing in winger Deiber Caicedo as a ‘Young Money’ DP, veteran goalkeeper Evan Newton as depth, before rounding off their transactions by signing their pair of 2021 Super Draft picks, striker David Egbo and right back Javain Brown. 

You add it to the countless rumours that they’ve had come out, like the ones they had to #10’s such as Benfica’s Chiquinho, Porto’s Otavio and an unnamed #10 at a smaller league in South America, as well as links to Sporting CP right back Bruno Gaspar that seem close to getting over the line (you can read more on that here), and there appears to be some smoke on the transfer front.

Without much fire coming out of their hunt for a  #10, it’s hard to feed or fan the flames, so there’s not much to speak about there, but at least that impending signing of Gaspar, which Dos Santos has appeared to hint at as nearing completion soon, you hope that it opens the floodgates in the transfer department. 

If Dos Santos is saying he needs new players, you just know that Axel Schuster, Nikos Overheul and the rest of the team in the recruitment department are trying their hardest to close down deals, of which we’ll hopefully start to hear more of in the coming days and weeks. 

Until that happens, however, we’ll be left to grasp at straws, which this deep into this offseason, feels like a redundant exercise. 

So in a sense, it’s always nice to hear about the players that are actually in the fold at the moment, who we can tend to forget when so much focus is on who isn’t yet on the team. 

According to Dos Santos, he feels like the group that he has is engaged, in good spirits and ready to take a step forward this year, continuing to grow the culture they felt they started to create in 2020. 

“But one of the things that is clear,” Dos Santos said of training camp. “It’s understanding what we want from the exercises, from how we want to play, from how we want to step (forward) our way of playing now and bring it to another level and bring us more success, it’s very clear for everybody.”

“The thing I would tell you is this: we feel that there’s this culture that’s been installed now, and that’s normal when we have a big group of players coming back from one year to the other.”

Preseason confusion: 

And although the ‘Caps will rave about their start to training camp, there are many teams out there who will be doing the same thing. 

It’s the ‘first day of school’ paradox – things always seem great when coming back after a long break, until the first week of hard work hits. 

That’ll start to settle in soon for the ‘Caps, who will have to find a way to ramp up their preseason effort with, well, no preseason. 

You heard that correctly. 

Barring any unforeseen changes to their schedule, the ‘Caps will have to content themselves with intrasquad matches as their lone form of preparation for the start of the MLS season, which is less than ideal. 

On top of the fact that Dos Santos has no idea what sort of schedule his team will have to deal with to start the year, and adding the fact that the team will be based in Salt Lake for the start of the year, and it won’t be easy for him to start preparing for this unique season. 

“Of course, I’m telling you this very openly,” Dos Santos said. “We are sitting here, and I don’t know we’re gonna play the first game, I have no idea. So I’m not hiding anything from you guys right now.”

That doesn’t mean that this lack of preseason was due to poor planning, however. 

The ‘Caps had plans to play both Toronto and Montreal, who were set to come out to Vancouver, but a coaching change in Montreal and the impending Voyageurs Cup final for Toronto quickly made that impossible once the start of the MLS season was delayed to mid-April.

“The first teams that we reached out to were Montreal and Toronto,” Dos Santos shared. “There was a very big possibility and things were being worked out for Montreal and Toronto to come to Vancouver for preseason, but that was before the league got pushed back.”

“With the change in Montreal in the coaching staff, and with Toronto needing to play this (Voyageurs Cup) game for Champions League, they had to cancel coming here, and then we were leftover with trying to reach out to CPL teams.”

And while the hunt to play CPL teams was certainly a smart one from Dos Santos, they quickly became a pipe dream, as they don’t start training until later this month, making games until April impossible. 

With the ‘Caps likely Salt Lake bound by then, it makes that impossible, and plus, as mentioned later by Dos Santos, health protocol was already going to make it a potentially dicey affair. 

“One of the problems is the CPL teams only start training in mid-March, if they (even) start in mid-March,” Dos Santos continued. “So they’re going to need a period to prepare themselves to start playing. That’s the first challenge, then we might leave in the beginning of April (to Salt Lake).”

“The other challenge is that they’d need to be in the same rhythm of testing that we are. Like if today we wanted to play the beer league team, the guys from the pub, they would still need to be in our kind of a bubble and have the same rhythm of testing, so it’s to do with protocols and everything that makes it difficult.”

That doesn’t mean that preseason games are completely out of the window, though. If the ‘Caps do travel to Salt Lake in April, they will happen to be sharing facilities with an MLS team likely looking to play preseason games, so they might be in luck there. 

If not, there are a few MLS teams within a decent vicinity of Utah, so there’d be no shortage of potential suitors for games if things work out there. 

But potential games aside, if anyone is surprised at these developments at this stage, they haven’t been following Vancouver very closely lately. 

Chalk up this haphazard preseason as yet another reality of being a Canadian team in this pandemic-era MLS for the ‘Caps, a reality that they’ll just have to keep on dealing with if they want to compete this year. 

Oh Canada? 

For all the talk of preseason, however, there is one big element that we’ve missed: the talk of that impending international break disaster for the ‘Caps that we hinted at earlier. 

Yes, there are even more headaches looming on the roster front for Dos Santos to deal with, but at least, in this case, they’re ones he’s content with having. 

With the upcoming CONCACAF U23 Men’s Olympic qualifiers set to begin in Mexico in just under 2 weeks, of which the rosters for will be out early next week, as well as World Cup qualifiers later this month, the ‘Caps will likely see a good chunk of players leave for a few weeks of preseason in mid-to-late March and early-April. 

They should be back in time for the start of the season, which is good news for the ‘Caps, but it’ll rob them of valuable preparation time, which Dos Santos probably wishes that they could et back. 

But as he said on Thursday, the last thing he wants to do is rob his players of a chance to represent their country. As he’s mentioned in the past, having a lot of internationals is always a good problem to have, so it’s something that he and his staff will have to stomach and move forward from. 

“We had very good conversations with Mauro Biello and John Herdman,” Dos Santos said. “I think the communication between our club and them is very good. And we will release as many players as we can to help both the Olympic team, and the first team of Canada.”

It’s worth noting that at least for the Olympic-hopefuls, he has no obligation of releasing players for that tournament, a right that some other MLS teams have exercised, but for him, he has no reason to. 

In the case of the teams that are having those conversations of keeping Olympic-hopefuls at home, they either have CONCACAF Champions League to deal with early in April (Portland, Atlanta) or have Voyageurs Cup later in March (Toronto), making it harder for them to justify releasing players for international games held at the same time. 

But while that philosophy may negatively impact the ‘Caps in the short term, you can’t help but be happy from a Canadian perspective, as the prospect of the likes of Michael Baldisimo, Theo Bair, Derek Cornelius and Thomas Hasal playing for Les Rouges at Olympic qualifiers later this month sounds pretty fun. 

In the mixer: 

-Wrapping up with some quick news, it was unsurprising and equally as unfortunate to see Fredy Montero sign with his old team, the Seattle Sounders, on Thursday. You would’ve hoped that he could’ve made it work in Vancouver, but the writing seemed to be on the wall for a while now, and Seattle was always going to be an obvious option for him. His marriage to the Dos Santos system was always a complicated one, but he still had skills that no one on this roster has, such as his one-timed finishes. From his first goal minutes into his debut in 2017 against New York in the Champions League, to his last one late in his last game in 2020 against the LA Galaxy, and the many goals he scored in between, he had a memorable stint in Vancouver. Here’s to hoping he continues to carve out a place down in Seattle, and avoids continuing his habit of scoring against his old teams (even though you just know he has a goal or two earmarked for when he plays Vancouver next year).

-In other news, it’s also good to hear that Ali Adnan is back in Vancouver and quarantining ahead of his return to training camp. While it was revealed that he was dealing with paperwork issues earlier this week, you did always wonder if that was a smokescreen for something else. Thankfully, with his return, that is not the case, and he can come and provide value for the ‘Caps once again in 2021. With the impending arrival of Gaspar at right back, the ‘Caps are giving him a strong running mate to work with at full back, so hopefully he can find a way to continue and make more magic this season. 

-It’s also good to hear that Deiber Caicedo is very close to coming to Canada, after having spent months dealing with paperwork after his move from Colombia. He seems very excited to join the ‘Caps, so it’ll be good to finally see him done the white and blue in the coming weeks.

-Late Thursday, Kristian Jack tweeted that he’d been told that the Voyageurs Cup final between Toronto FC and Forge finally had a date, which according to his sources would be on March 20th at BMO Field. It’s far from ideal for Forge, who hasn’t started training yet as a team, something Toronto has been doing for weeks now, but with Toronto hiring a new coach this offseason, Chris Armas, you do wonder how they’ll play against a Forge team that has a core of players and a head coach that have been together since 2019. TFC are the odds-on favourites for this one, no doubt, but don’t count out this Forge team in a one-off game, so it’ll be interesting to see how things go. 

-Lastly, it’ll be interesting to see how this potential news of there being a Canadian second division in 2022 goes. These rumours have been floating around for a while, but it does seem like there is some fire to this smoke, which would certainly shake up the Canadian Soccer landscape. Riffing off of the last point, if this league ends up happening, along with the impending startup of the BC League1, you do also hope that this means that a massive expansion of the Voyageurs Cup is in order for 2022. Along with League1Ontario, the PLSQ, the USL sides and the multitude of amateur and semi-professional teams across the country, an expansion to 32 or 64 teams, with qualifiers thrown in, could be really fun to see. Financial concerns may render that idea a pipe dream, but it certainly could be huge for the growth of the game in Canada. Just look at the impact of the U.S. Open Cup down south, as an example. 

Looking Forward: 

So all-in-all, it has been a busy week of training camp for Dos Santos and his crew, as they continue to ramp up preparations for the start of the season. 

It may be over 6 weeks away, but with the haphazard nature of this training camp, they’ll have to maximize every moment they have together, knowing that it may prove to be fleeting in the big picture. 

Until the big signings they’ve alluded to actually touch down in Vancouver, there’s a lot of work for the players who are in town to do, so it’s important that they don’t gloss over that, either.

From what we’ve seen, however, that hasn’t seemed to be an issue, but it’s imperative that they continue on that path going forward. 

Heading into a big 3rd year under Dos Santos, they’ve got a lot to prove on the field, so they’ll want to find a way to turn 2 years of frustration into a strong 2021 season, starting with their opening game on April 17th. 

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