The Kids are Alright: Vancouver Whitecaps continued youth movement helping Marc Dos Santos, coaching staff stomach key training camp absences

The Vancouver Whitecaps 2021 preseason has continued to roll on this week, even despite some key absences. In this, we hear from ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos, who shared his thoughts on how things have progressed with his group so far, as his team continues to grind through a tough second half of March.

They may be short a few familiar faces, but the show continues to go on.

Even though the Vancouver Whitecaps are short nearly a dozen players from their squad, they’ve continued to battle their way through their 2021 training camp, which is now nearing the end of its third week, showing how fast time has seemed to travel as of late. 

And with that list of absences set to grow this coming week, as the upcoming international break will see a few more players join the swath of names already missing either through National Team duty or paperwork issues, this is just the start of the storm of them, so they’re going to have to keep a positive mindset over the next couple of weeks. 

Once they get through that, however, blue skies seem to be waiting for them, no matter how far away they may seem at the moment. Having made some solid signings over the past week, further bolstering their roster ahead of the start of the 2021 season, they’ll be excited to see the pieces of the puzzle start to come together on the pitch as early as possible. 

But until we see the ‘Caps full squad out on the pitch actually training together ahead of their MLS season opener on April 18th, head coach Marc Dos Santos and his staff will have to get creative in training, as they’ll have to keep everyone working hard no matter how small their squad may currently be. 

Plus, as rough as this patch is, there are some positives to be derived from it. They have and will still be able to work with a good chunk of core pieces, and more importantly, they’ve had the chance to see some promising U19 and U23 youngsters compete alongside those older players, giving Dos Santos a better look at some kids who may be ready for the primetime this season. 

Adding to that, there’s also still the possibility that the ‘Caps still make some more moves on the transfer market, so it’s not like this is the final iteration of this team that we’ll see ahead of the regular season, either. 

Who knows if one of those transfers will be the famed DP #10, of which this ‘Caps team desperately needs in order to carry their chance-creation load, but even if that player doesn’t come right away, with recruiting director Nikos Overheul now at the wheel, there’d be plenty to be excited about, regardless. 

Either way, with the ‘Caps making big strides to address their team’s transitional woes this offseason, there is a path towards progress that is starting to be laid down, with the #10 seeming more and more like that final piece to complete the whole puzzle. 

Until that player comes, however, it’s always good to take the time to focus on what’s going on with the team, with the days before they return to the field in a competitive setting continuing to dwindle at a rapid pace. 

Dos Santos gave a training camp update Wednesday, taking the time to chat about what he’d seen from his charges at the moment, so here’s some of what’s standing out from the ‘Caps camp as we near the end of week 3 of preseason. 

Youth movement roars on: 

And a big reason why Dos Santos has been pleased with the ‘Caps camp, even despite missing a swath of key players, is because it’s allowed him to get a closer look at some promising U19 and U23 youth players, giving him a better idea of who might be ready for first-team minutes this season. 

With more than half of his training camp roster filled with those youngsters from both the ‘Caps U23 and U19 teams, he and his staff have been able to work with these younger players closely over these past few weeks, which is always good for coaches to be able to do. 

So even though the absences are certainly causing his staff headaches in terms of their preparation for the start of the season, they’ve been able to gain some valuable intel over the past few weeks, which certainly should have some long-term benefit to the ‘Caps. 

It also makes it harder for him to comment on where he thinks this team is at right now, but he’s otherwise liking what he’s seen so far from his charges, allowing him to stay positive as they navigate this rough patch that they knew was coming for a few weeks now. 

“The guys that are available are looking sharper and sharper,” Dos Santos said on Wednesday. “But for us to have a full view of what it looks like is very unrealistic. Right now, we’re training with 30%, 35% of our roster, the other 65% are all U23 and U19 players. So for me to give you an assessment of where I think the roster is, it’s still far away, Based on our reality, we knew the month of March would be like that, and it’s just a reality for us right now.”

And while it’s been great to see these kids get a chance to impress Dos Santos, this is nothing new for his training camps, as this has quickly become a regular occurrence these past few years for the ‘Caps when under his tutelage. 

Ever since he was hired, he’s made it a tradition to audition academy players in preseason, giving him an early sneak-peek at who he should keep a closer eye on during the year. It’s allowed him to see how certain players react in a tougher environment, while also showing him who’s ready to sign a pro contract. 

All part of his mandate to play more youngsters from out of the academy, it’s allowed him to integrate more academy graduates than ever before, as the ‘Caps managed to get 5 U23 homegrowns onto the pitch at some point in 2020. 

Along with the chance that he’s given to young Canadians, with 8 U23 Canadians also seeing the pitch in 2020 (5 of them being those aforementioned homegrowns), and you can really start to see the impact that Dos Santos has had in that area. 

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it’s been a good start, especially considering the struggles that the ‘Caps have historically had in that area, with Russell Teibert and Alphonso Davies the only two homegrowns that have really made any sort of long-term impact for Vancouver. 

It’s still early to say what this current crop of homegrowns will eventually become, but what’s clear is that no matter what, Dos Santos and his staff are trying to formulate a plan to get the most out of them. 

“I think the club is in a totally different space after three years, in a lot of parts,” Dos Santos said. “And one of the things that I was asked again, as part of my mandate, and what I was asked as a coach is to help the development of our academy guys and young Canadian players in the roster, to see how they grow in the team.”

“And I think I’ve been very committed to that as a coach, also incorporating the foreigners, (but also) giving a chance to the young Canadian players, and I think that’s been a consistent and it’s going to continue to grow.”

Ricardo Clark’s hiring provides a big boost to the young players: 

But while talking about wanting to keep on improving their youth development system is one thing, actually taking concrete actions towards doing that is another, and it’s not always something teams actually end up doing.  

To give credit to the ‘Caps, however, they took an important step in that area last week, as they brought in longtime MLS veteran, Ricardo Clark, to be an assistant coach. 

You may wonder: what does bringing in a new assistant coach have to do with the development of young players? And upon first glance, it’s a completely reasonable question, one that is certainly fair to ask. 

When you dive in a bit deeper, however, it’s a no-brainer for Vancouver, as Clark was brought into the coaching staff with the goal to help develop younger players looking to break into the first team, assisting them with the transition to the MLS-level. 

With a wealth of MLS experience, as well as some international experience with the US National Team, his voice should be a valuable one to have in the ears of youngsters, giving them someone to guide them through the realities that MLS sometimes tends to throw at them. 

Considering that the ‘Caps were the youngest team in MLS last year, and are likely to compete for that title again this year, it’s important that they continue to offer support to their younger players, no matter if they’re from Canada or elsewhere in the world. 

For Dos Santos, it made Clark’s hiring a no-brainer, and it seems to be paying off already, as Clark’s hunger and enthusiasm for the role has allowed him to hit the ground running for the ‘Caps. 

“As soon as it opened that spot, we evaluated what we were lacking in the technical staff in the last two years,” Dos Santos said of the process to hire Clark. “One of the things we identified is that we have a lot of transition from players moving from the academy to the first team, and then we wanted to follow the growth of the young player in a more individual way, (have) more focus on the individual, looking at what are the needs of these players to play at the next level.”

“And we wanted to have somebody in our profile that had experience playing in the league, had international experience, like Ricardo playing in a World Cup with the United States, a Gold Cup, a lot of MLS games, he knows the environment very well, but (he’s) also someone who has a lot of passion for coaching.”

Dos Santos added: “And we got good feedback, not only from Gregg Berhalter, good feedback from Bob Bradley, and we started developing talks myself with Ricardo we started talking, and I felt that his passion towards the role, passion towards the individual, as soon as we started talking, he started sending me reports on individual reports on (Cristian) Guti(errez) on (Michael) Baldi(simo), on Derek (Cornelius), so there’s a passion from him regarding the role. And we said that’s exactly what we need in our staff. It was an opportunity for him an opportunity for us, it filled our need, and we’re very happy to have him in our staff.”

So here’s to hoping that this is the start of a successful long-term relationship between Clark and the ‘Caps, one that allows them to maximize the potential of their youngsters, helping make them the selling team they’ve always hoped to be on the global market. 

With Vancouver always wanting to be a team that prioritizes giving chances to young players, it’s been nice to finally see them take the steps necessary to live up to that, with Clark’s hiring the latest step in that process. 

Theo Bair is a young player who’d be expected to benefit from the hiring of Ricardo Clark as an assistant coach on the Vancouver Whitecaps (Keveren Guillou)

Looking at the current state of the roster: 

But while Dos Santos was more than happy to talk about the strong play that he’d seen from the youngsters, as well as what Clark is expected to bring to his staff, he also took the time to talk about the current state of the team after their latest signings, giving us a better idea of what he expects from this team heading into 2021. 

Heading into his third season in charge of the Whitecaps, it’s hoped that this is the year that this team can finally make a big step forward, allowing them to compete for a playoff spot in a competitive Western Conference landscape. 

They did almost come surprisingly close last year, but with the playoff field being expanded due to COVID, and the weird nature of the schedule, it felt like they were a bit further off than their league position indicated. That was backed up by the advanced analytics, which saw them at or near the bottom of the league in terms of Expected Goals (xG) for and against, showing that their success as a whole was more part of a mirage than anything. 

But that’s not to say they didn’t take a step forward last year. Once they figured out their best lineup and preferred formation, they finished the year strongly, allowing them to end the season on a high note, scoring goals and playing decently fun soccer along the way. 

So with these new signings in the fold, as well as the expected growth from some of their players that they brought in last year, Dos Santos feels that should allow his team to make even further progress in 2021. 

“Well, based on what we did in the last 12 games of the season, you have to expect something around that,” Dos Santos said of his team’s hope to continue their progress this year. “But then I think we’re better at some positions, we brought competition to some positions. And don’t forget about guys that were signed last year, but they’re gonna be in their second year, so they’re adapted now to the culture, they’re adapted to our way of playing, they’re gonna be better next season. I’m not even talking about the new guys I’m talking about Erik Godoy is almost a new signing based on last year, (Cristian) Guti(errez), Ranko (Veselinovic), (Janio) Bikel, Leo (Owusu), (those are) all guys that are in the second year, (Lucas) Cava(llini) is in his second year adapted here.”

“And then we added pieces that are players that can play an important role. Bruno (Gaspar)’s gonna push that position, you have Caio (Alexandre), you have Deiber (Caicedo), and we’re still looking for another offensive piece. So where do I see us? Guys, I don’t know why I can tell you how it’s gonna look on the field, but do I see a progression from last year? Yeah, of course, I do. But again, you know, everything in soccer happens in the 90 minutes, but again, I feel that we’re growing towards the culture, the environment, the identity that I want us to have. And I’m excited about that.”

Despite that optimism, however, the ‘Caps still have some concerns to keep an eye on. 

Although they were getting results in those last 12 games that they spoke of, they were still often sitting deep behind the ball and bunkering, before bursting forward on the counter-attack. 

For a team that wants to play free-flowing soccer in possession, before working as hard as possible to get the ball back when they lose it, it felt far from the sort of style of play Dos Santos has long said he wants to see out of this team when they’re playing at their best. 

To be fair, a lot of that was personnel-related, which made things harder on Dos Santos. They’ve fixed some of those woes this season, as the signings of Bruno Gaspar, Deiber Caicedo and Caio Alexandre should massively help the ‘Caps ability to retain the ball and move it forward, while also allowing them to defend less. 

Along with the addition of the #10, which is hoped to come sooner rather than later, that should give the ‘Caps ability to play the sort of soccer that Dos Santos craves, allowing them to be a team that dictates games, instead of being forced to adapt to what their opponents throw at them. 

And although Dos Santos is mostly avoiding talking about his roster until he sees everyone on the pitch together, he believes that there is a framework for them to grow from, allowing Vancouver to become the sort of team many have waited so long for them to take that step forward towards being these past few years. 

That’ll mean plenty of possession, plenty of pressing and a lot of aggressiveness, making them one of the tougher teams to play against in MLS, which is something CEO and Sporting Director Axel Schuster recently said he wants to see this team start to become.  

“It depends on what aggressiveness you’re talking about. If you’re talking about without the ball, again, the last 10 games of last year, we had a significant jump in our pressure, in defending higher on the field,” Dos Santos said of that process. “How you grow with ball possession, it’s also with the quality of the players, the better the quality of the players, the better it raises the quality of the (other) players, the easier it gets for your team to be more on the ball.”

“And I think all these thoughts put together are going to bring an increase in all those numbers, so I expect us to grow in all those numbers in our ability to defend higher, in our ability to press better, in our ability when we win the ball to keep it better, I see a growth in all of that.”

But even though Dos Santos sees plenty to be optimistic about the state of his roster at the moment, he is also open to give more of a complete evaluation of where he thinks things are at in a month from now, when he’ll have had a chance to work with his full group of players. 

“The reason why I’m a little bit reserved talking to you is that I have to answer questions that are in the future, while today I’m working in a very different type of context,” he admitted. “I’d love for you to ask me the same question in one month, where there’s a big chance we’re working with everybody at the same time. Right now, there’s a limitation until we get everybody together. And if you go and count the guys that are not with us right now, it makes it a little bit tougher to give you a full evaluation of everything.”

Seeing his comments on this matter, it’ll be very interesting to see where he thinks things stand closer to the start of the season, so it’ll definitely be something worth following up on ahead of the start of this MLS campaign.

Looking Forward: 

For now, however, the focus will continue to be on the here and now, as has been the case so far this preseason. This won’t be an easy few weeks for Dos Santos and his staff to manage, but if they find a way to make it out to the other side, good things await them. 

The key is just to make it there with a good attitude, something which hasn’t yet been a problem, at least when speaking to Dos Santos. 

So while things aren’t maybe where they’d hope to be right now, both on and off of the field, things are looking up as a whole, which is good to see heading into the start of the year. 

It’ll be interesting to see how long that feeling lasts, but if they can indeed build off of a strong end to the 2020 season, you have to imagine that better days are not too far around the corner for this team. 

Seeing how rough things have been at times through the first two years of the Dos Santos era, those good times almost feels overdue, so now it’s just to see if they can finally become a reality, instead of just a myth spoken of in hushed tones. 

Based on comments from those around the team, it seems like they’re taking the right strides forward towards doing that, so logically the next step is to turn that talk into action where it counts most – on the field. 

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