March Madness: Marc Dos Santos, Vancouver Whitecaps, bracing for March ‘struggle’ as absences start to pile up

The Vancouver Whitecaps may be barely 2 weeks into their training camp, but things are about to get real interesting for this team, as a hectic next month awaits them. In this, we look at how they’re feeling ahead of that rough patch, as they’re keeping optimistic despite the looming rough patch.

Slowly but steadily, it’s starting to feel more and more real with each passing day.

As the clock slowly ticks towards the start of the MLS season on April 16th, important milestones on that journey are passing buy each and every day, slowly paving the way for the start of the league’s 26th campaign. 

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, their week-and-a-half journey has been an adventurous one so far, as they’ve dealt with plenty of headache off of the pitch, contrasted by some solid effort on it, overall making it a successful start to preseason. 

But with just over 40 days until the ‘Caps 11th MLS season starts, things are about to get even more interesting for this club. With a couple of key international tournaments and matches looming, the ‘Caps are going to lose several key players for a good chunk of the preseason, robbing them of valuable preparation time. 

Coupled with the visa issues and quarantine rules that have seen the ‘Caps start camp without all of their new signings and draft picks, as well as 2020 team MVP Ali Adnan, and it’s been far from a dream start for this Vancouver team. 

On the other hand, they’ve taken their hand and done well with it, showing the development of a team culture over this past year, something head coach Marc Dos Santos was already happy with last week. 

So when speaking on Wednesday, where he commented on a few big pieces of ‘Caps news, including a new signing, the release of their schedule for the first two weeks of the season and the first wave of international call-ups, he was optimistic despite the challenge that lays ahead for his team over the next few weeks.

Nearing the end of the second week of camp, this is where the fun begins, but having faced a similar gauntlet last year, he’s ready to take it all on the chin and see what 2021 brings. 

MLS Schedule Drops: 

Starting with the first bit of news, it was finally officially revealed that the ‘Caps would start the season in Sandy, Utah on Wednesday, spoiling one of the worst-kept secrets in the league considering that both Dos Santos and Sporting Director Axel Schuster had publicly spoken on that news several times before. 

That bit of news was dropped at the same time as the release of the schedule for all 27 MLS team’s home openers, as MLS likes to tease those before releasing the full slate of games a few weeks later. 

For Vancouver, that gave them a sneak-peek into the first two games of their season, setting the table for the beginning of their 2021 season. They found out that they’ll start the season at ‘home’ in Salt Lake versus their rivals (and 2020 hosts) the Portland Timbers, before travelling to Orlando to take on one of their Canadian rivals, Toronto FC, at their home-away-from-home in Florida. 

It’s a tough start for Vancouver, who will get to start the year with two really stiff tests against two teams that finished 2nd (Toronto FC) and tied for 6th (Portland) in last year’s Supporters Shield race for best team in MLS.

The ‘Caps certainly helped both of them in that quest, as well, losing both games that they played against the Timbers by a pair of identical 1-0 scorelines, while finishing with a record of 1 win and 2 losses against TFC, with both losses being by a combined score of 4-0, before the ‘Caps won 3-2 in their last meeting of the year. 

Plus, they have the advantage of getting to play competitive games before the ‘Caps do, giving them more time to kick off the rust ahead of the season.

The Timbers will kickstart their year with a two-legged Round of 16 CONCACAF Champions League tie against Honduras’s Marathon on April 6th and 13th, giving them two big games against stiff opposition before their clash with the ‘Caps on April 18th. 

As for TFC, they will start with the one-game Voyageurs Cup final at the end of March or the beginning of April, in which a win would give them a pair of Champions League games against Mexico’s Club Leon on April 7th and 14th. They’ll then take on the CF Montreal on April 17th to open their season, before taking on the ‘Caps a week later. 

But while those two games will be tough for the Whitecaps to deal with off of the bat, they’re just excited to know when and with who they’ll be playing their first competitive games again. 

So while the games will be two hard ones against stiff rivals, the ‘Caps will just focus on taking them one game at a time, allowing them to prepare accordingly. 

“Yeah, it is (tough), but we’re used to it,” Dos Santos told reporters on Wednesday. “Right now, nothing’s supposed to be easy, and at the same time it’s exciting because there’s a date for our first game. It’s exciting that we’re playing a rival like Portland, the sad part of it is that this is a game that deserves fans and deserves a great environment, and unfortunately we’re not gonna have that.”

“Then we’re flying to Orlando to play Toronto, another rival in the country, and a very difficult trip, but right now I’ll be very honest with you, I’m very excited that games have dates and we know where we start, but I have other things to be concerned with and work on before thinking about those games.”

An exhibition schedule update: 

Normally, Portland and Toronto’s condensed schedule to start the season could be seen as an advantage for the Whitecaps, but as we saw last week, a big concern for the ‘Caps is that they might lack any sort of game preparation, period, putting them behind the 8-ball to start the season. 

They originally had eyes on playing a handful of them in Canada, but Dos Santos said last week that he no longer expected his team to play any friendlies before their opening match, as plans to play Toronto, Montreal and some CPL teams all fell through. 

But as we quickly speculated, with the ‘Caps heading to Utah in early-April, there was always the possibility that they’d find a few teams to play exhibition games with while down there, given the number of MLS and USL teams around that area. 

And as Dos Santos told media on Wednesday, the club is now in talks to have 2 or 3 exhibition games with some of those MLS and USL teams, giving the ‘Caps some desperately-needed preseason matches. 

“The positive thing is that I feel in the time we’re gonna get to the United States, and until our first game, we’re trying to schedule at least two to three exhibition games,” Dos Santos said. “We’re working with clubs right now, both from MLS and USL, looking at all the details of protocols and how it would work. But we think we’re going to be able to get between two and three exhibition games before our first game.”

With a big chunk of returning players currently in the squad, any chance of getting these players together on the field in preparatory games would be huge, as there is less of an onus this year on just getting enough guys into the fold to even field a team, as was the case the last two preseasons. 

While there are still some important signings that are yet to be integrated into the squad, a process that may take a while due to the myriad of visa issues and quarantines that new arrivals to Vancouver are facing, getting these core of players minutes has to be a priority ahead of first kick. 

The Whitecaps had plans to play TFC in Vancouver before some logistical issues made it impossible (Keveren Guillou)

Gaspar in: 

And speaking of new Whitecaps signings, Vancouver officially dotted the line on another important one on Tuesday, as they brought in 27-year-old Angolan international right back Bruno Gaspar on loan from Sporting CP in the Portuguese Primeira Liga. 

We’ve already done a deep dive into what Gaspar could bring to the ‘Caps, so if you want to know more about him, you should check out that article, but as Dos Santos said on Wednesday, this is an important signing for the ‘Caps. 

While the team didn’t necessarily need a starting right back in the wake of Jake Nerwinski’s play last year, as the 2017 Super Draft pick took a big step forward for the ‘Caps last year, when Gaspar became available, they knew that they had to pounce to bring in the talented right back. 

Along with their mercurial left back, Ali Adnan, it now gives the ‘Caps some pretty impressive attacking firepower at both full back positions, as they’ve bucked MLS trends by investing heavily in their outside defenders. 

There is a concern that having that much offensive juice in defensive positions could leave Vancouver exposed on the counter-attack at certain moments, but there are tactical tweaks that can be done to avoid that, as 86Forever’s Samuel Rowan did a good job of outlining in a piece this week.  

And what is also more important to Dos Santos is the competition that this move brings to a key position in this team. They’ve made it an emphasis to try and be 2 or 3 deep at every position, if possible, either through Academy youngsters, or signings like this. 

That increases competition across the roster, pushing everyone to be at a higher level on the pitch, as they’ll know that any slip-up in the effort department will see them fall behind in the pecking order. 

So while Gaspar’s signing is mostly about upgrading the team, it’ll also be about keeping Nerwinski engaged, knowing that both players will be offered a chance to win that starting right back spot, one where there were few other natural options after Nerwinski last year. 

“Yeah, so we always felt that we needed to grow the competition in some places in the roster,” Dos Santos said of Gaspar’s signing. “And last year when we had moments where we had to play another ride back other than Jake (Nerwinski), we played Janio there, we played Erik Godoy there and we felt we were taking guys a little bit out of position, even if we know that both Erik and Janio in there they could fill in a gap there, but we felt we needed another player there.”

“And then if we’re going to bring another player, (we had) to make sure that we bring another player that brings a plus, and the moment for Bruno (Gaspar) is right for us.”

But assuming that Gaspar begins the season in the starting 11, this signing is going to be huge to even out the ‘Caps attacking strategy. No matter how good Ali Adnan is at attacking, putting nearly 50% of their attacks down his side is always going to be a bad strategy, considering that it allows teams to game plan for that. 

With Gaspar on the right side, however, the ‘Caps will be able to offer a similar threat on that side now, as well, given his attacking pedigree. 

Plus, with good back ups at both positions in Cristian Gutierrez and Nerwinski, Dos Santos will be able to A) keep Adnan and Gaspar engaged, and B) have two different types of players to consider as alternatives in certain games. 

“Look at the numbers on both sides. We also struggle to defend on the left side, a lot of times,” Dos Santos noted when asked about the balance Gaspar could bring to his team’s attack. “So we’re trying to find the right balance here. We’re happy that we’re gonna have a lot of different options in the wide areas, and I know a lot of times we speak a lot about Ali (Adnan) being an attacking player as a left back, but there’s another kid coming behind him and pushing for that position that is (Cristian) Guti(errez).”

“And we wanted the same happening on the right side. So Jake (Nerwinski) played the majority of time there, and Jake is a professional, he understands that right now, he’s gonna have competition there. And I think that’s great for the roster.”

And no matter what happens, the goal has to be at increasing the amount of time that the ‘Caps spend with the ball, which should subsequently limit the amount of time they spend defending. 

With the league’s 5th-worst Expected Goals (xG) per game in 2020 (1.11), and the league’s worst xG against per game (1.76), it feels like any strides made that improve the former should help lower the latter. 

Given that they had an average of under 45% of possession, and spent the second-fewest percent of their possession in the final third, it feels safe to say that any improvements that see them spend more time with the ball further up the pitch, the less they’ll have to defend. 

That’s why players like Gaspar will be so important, as his ability to progress to ball forward is a big plus, and has been a trait that a lot of the players that the ‘Caps have either signed (Deiber Caicedo) or been linked to (Caio Alexandre, Otavio, Chiquinho) this offseason have all been good at doing. 

A tough month ahead: 

But while one can start to feel optimistic about how this ‘Caps team is starting to come together (barring their lack of #10 signing, of course), especially if this Caio Alexandre signing goes through, the going is about to get real tough for Vancouver. 

The expected international purge started this week, as it was announced that Derek Cornelius, Theo Bair, Michael Baldisimo, Patrick Metcalfe and Ryan Raposo would be heading down to Mexico to join Canada’s U23 Olympic qualifying team ahead of that tournament (you can read more about those games here), removing a handful of key players from Dos Santos for a few weeks. 

Expected soon to join them on the absentees chart are fellow Canadians Lucas Cavallini and Maxime Crepeau, who are locks to get called down to Florida for Canada’s Senior Team’s games later this month, as a pair of crucial World Cup qualifying games await them there. Along with the likes of Cristian Gutierrez and Thomas Hasal, who could be on the cusp of that squad for those games, that could be a further two names added to that list. 

And that’s just the Canadians. Ranko Veselinovic (Serbia), Jasser Khmiri (Tunisia) and Ali Adnan (Iraq) are all candidates to earn international call-ups this month, with Adnan very likely to earn a nod, while Veselinovic and Khmiri could earn calls based on the fact that they’ve both seen National Team action in the past year. 

Along with the handful of ‘Caps players yet to arrive in Vancouver for training camp due to visa issues, which are Javain Brown, David Egbo, Deiber Caicedo and Bruno Gaspar as of writing, and that list of players missing over the next few weeks could balloon to as high as 17. 

For Dos Santos, it’s something that he’s been prepared for, but boy does it seem staggering when he actually spelled out the number of absences he expects to see over that time. 

“We’re gonna struggle in the month of March,” Dos Santos said. “It’s just the reality for us. There’s going to be a period in the month of March, where we’re going to be without 15 players for (either) visa issues, visa timing, quarantine, re-adaptation, Olympic team or National team.”

The good news is that once that period is dealt with, the next international break won’t be until June, and by then a lot of the visa issues should be sorted out, giving ‘Caps more depth to handle those potential absences. 

But for now, they’ll just have to dig deep and make the most of the next few weeks, in which they’ll have to find ways to keep training active and engaging despite all the missing faces. 

And hey, that could turn out to be a good thing in the long run, as well. Some younger players are going to get a prime chance to audition for minutes in front of Dos Santos, so it’s always possible that we see some youngsters use this as a springboard for pro contracts and pro minutes at some point in this season, at the very least.

MDS might write a book?

So while these last 13 months have been an absolute rollercoaster ride for the ‘Caps, they’ll hope to one daybe able to look back on them fondly, knowing that they got thrown into the grinder and came out of it intact. 

And that’s something that Dos Santos noted on Wednesday, as he revealed that he’d been writing detailed recounts of what his team had dealt with over the past year, something that he might be open to one day putting together in a book and publishing. 

Just based on the tidbits of information we’ve gotten from Dos Santos in interviews over this past year, that could prove to be a very entertaining read, so hopefully he continues to keep his pen busy when he has free moments down in Utah over the next few months. 

“I write a lot about it, because I think one day, people would love to read about it,” Dos Santos said. “(They) would love to read about things that we go through that are not related to soccer, but are so important, (such as) the logistics.”

Looking back on what they’ve gone through, some of their stories could surely be the stuff of club lore, so it’d be excellent if Dos Santos finds a way to put all of them together in a book, giving some insight into what they’ve gone through. 

Looking Forward:

Until Dos Santos even considers putting that together, however, there is still a lot to be written, and that begins with the start of the season in just over a month’s time. 

A windy road there awaits them, but they’ll just have to drive right into it and see where it brings them, starting this week. 

They’ve been through this before, so they’ll know what to face, giving them the experience to grind through this patch with a good attitude in order to find some success. 

If they want to make some noise on the pitch this season, which is a goal of theirs, this is an important time to dig deep, as navigating through this rough patch will set them on the right foot to start off of the season. 

It won’t be easy, but it rarely has been in recent years, so they’ll look to fight through all of that and give Dos Santos plenty to write about for when he sits down and puts together the rough draft of his manuscript.

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