Last Taste of Home: Caicedo’s hot arrival, academy kids continue to impress, and other Vancouver Whitecaps training notes ahead of Utah departure

The Vancouver Whitecaps began their last week of training in Vancouver on Monday, as they get set to head down to Utah on Friday. In a surprise twist, they also were able to get clearance for the media to attend those last sessions, as well, so here’s some of what stood out from a viewing of Wednesday’s session, in particular. 

It’s the last bit of normalcy before everything gets turned upside down. 

As the Vancouver Whitecaps get set to travel down to Utah to begin their 2021 American adventure this Friday, April 2nd, they’ve continued to train at UBC this week, allowing them to get a few final sessions out of their home practice facility before relocating for what’s expected to be at least a few months down in the US.

With just under 3 weeks until the start of the 2021 season, a sprint towards April 18th begins now, as the ‘Caps will look to get their campaign off to a strong start with a big game versus their rivals, the Portland Timbers. 

The road up to this point has been far from easy, as the ‘Caps have been missing a good chunk of their roster these past few weeks, with the combination of visa issues and international absences wreaking havoc on head coach Marc Dos Santos’s roster. 

After a long few weeks with a depleted roster, however, that’ll change next week, as he’ll get a chunk of his team back together in Utah, allowing them to prepare as a big group together during this final sprint to the start of the MLS season. 

But while Dos Santos will lament not being able to work with some of his top players these past few weeks, that doesn’t mean training camp has been useless so far. He’s gotten a chance to audition some academy players, some of which who will travel down to Utah with the team, while also working with some first-team players that lacked a proper preseason in 2020, such as Erik Godoy, who was injured, or Leonard Owusu and Janio Bikel, who were late arrivals. 

So he’ll look to extract those sorts of positives now, as he’ll embark on a tough journey, one that his team does have some experience of dealing with, having faced a similar situation down last year in Portland. They have made a few changes this time, making Utah more of a ‘home-away-from-home’ than Portland was, but at the same time, this won’t be easy for everyone to battle through. 

Despite all that, the ‘Caps will feel positive that they can have a solid start of the season while on the road, paving the way for a fun summer return to Canada, health protocols permitting. 

Before we dive into all of that too deep here, though, let’s look at some of what has stood out in Whitecaps land during the past few weeks, as things remained relatively quiet during a hectic international break. 

‘Caps for Canada:

And speaking of international duty, there were a few Whitecaps players who got stuck in for Canada these past 2 weeks, putting up good performances for the Maple Leaf. 

With 5 ‘Caps players down in Mexico with Canada’s U23 team at Olympic qualifiers, and another 3 up in Florida with Canada’s senior team, Dos Santos certainly had to keep his eyes busy in order to keep up with the play of his players who were away. 

Overall, it proved to be a solid camp for all 8 players as well, at least for different reasons, as all but 1 of them played minutes, and even the lone who didn’t, left back Cristian Gutierrez, got to relish being called up to his senior team for the first time at a competitive level. 

As for the others, however, they all got stuck in for Canada, playing a combined 22 games across these past 2 weeks. The U23s didn’t have the Olympic qualifying tournament they would have dreamed of beforehand, losing in their “win and you’re in” semi-final versus Mexico, but the senior team did well, winning a pair of first-round World Cup qualifiers by a combined score of 16-1.

For Dos Santos, it gives plenty for him to ponder ahead of the start of the season, as his players certainly put in shifts for his country. 

But while most ‘Caps will be mostly content with their play for Canada, there were two players that really improved their stock while away internationally – midfielders Michael Baldisimo and Patrick Metcalfe, who played a big role for Canada’s U23s down in Mexico. 

There were other several standout performances, such as Derek Cornelius’s herculean effort at the heart of Canada’s defence at U23 qualifiers, or Lucas Cavallini’s 16-minute hat trick off of the bench for the senior team against the Cayman Islands, among others, but in contrast to the breakout performances of Baldisimo and Metcalfe, those were expected performances from two Canadian regulars. 

Obviously, Baldisimo’s strong play was less surprising, as he’d already broken out last year for the Whitecaps, but Metcalfe’s performances were a welcome sight for ‘Caps fans, as he looked like a whole different player to the timid one that only saw the field a handful of times last year. 

“When it comes to the performance of (Michael) Baldisimo and Pat(rick Metcalfe), I think that they were, and this is my opinion, they were two of the most consistent players throughout the tournament for Canada,” Dos Santos told reporters on Wednesday. “Two players that were reliable, that played in every game, and I’m sure (Canada U23 Head Coach) Mauro (Biello) enjoyed having them. And I liked how consistent they were with their game and how they went about things.”

Now, all 8 players will try to bring that valuable game experience they got to a squad that is yet to play its first official preseason game, giving them a slight edge in the sharpness department over their teammates. 

They’ve already made the trip to Utah, where the team will meet them later this week, as the quarantine rules rendered a trip to Canada nearly useless for them, so they’ll be excited to rejoin their teammates in training early next week. 

Recovery will be a bit of a worry for a few of the players, no doubt, but on the other hand, they’ll be excited that they got the chance to get a few minutes under their belts, doing so while also representing their country. 

“There’s a recovery part for some of the players, all different cases,” Dos Santos explained. “You have (Cristian) Guti(errez) that was there but didn’t participate in any games, and then you have Pat(rick Metcalfe) and (Michael) Baldi(simo) that accumulated a lot of minutes. So, there’s a plan that is player by player, but they’re all going to be in Salt Lake already.”

“They’re all gonna train in one group, until they’re able to join the team, so again there’s a COVID protocol for them to train in groups before they train with the team. I think that everyone’s going to be able to be together as of Monday, I think training on Monday we’ll have everybody from the roster together, but before that, no, it’s still groups.”

Caicedo leaves an early impression: 

But over in Vancouver, the team continues to train before heading down to Utah, and this week proved to be a special one, as the club was finally able to open up training to the media for their last sessions before departing. 

While there was the obvious benefit of seeing where the team was at in terms of fitness and the tactics they were working on, the timing ended up being pretty good in another way, as new signing Deiber Caicedo finally made his full team training debut on Wednesday. 

And what a debut it was from the winger. Obviously, it’s just training, and you don’t want to read too much into that, but he quickly stood out among his peers as a player to keep an eye on. 

The physical tools stand out right away, as he’s both quick and powerful for a smaller player, but his technique and IQ also were immediately noticeable, helping him do some damage in some team drills. 

He’s left-footed, and he wasn’t shy in trying to use that foot whenever possible, but he had a few instances where he cut onto his right foot to make plays, keeping defenders honest. There was one little dink to fellow Colombian Cristian Dajome at the back post for a headed goal, as well as a play where he cut in to score a goal that sailed in after grazing the area where the upright meets the crossbar at the near post, showing off his diverse skill set as a winger. 

There’s a lot of work to be done tactically, as Dos Santos and his brother (and assistant) Phil spent plenty of time giving Caicedo those instructions in Spanish, but from an individual standpoint, there was a lot to be happy about there. 

You don’t want to read too much into training, but it was encouraging to see that from a player who hadn’t played much over the past few months as he dealt with administrative issues, showing glimpses of why the ‘Caps spent upwards of $2 million on the 21-year-old. 

Dos Santos was quick to pump the brakes on hyping up Caicedo too much after the session, but as he even admitted, those flashes were quite positive to see right off of the hop. 

“What I saw from so many hours of scouting and recruiting with the staff, (Caicedo’s) an explosive player, very fast attacking the space, very aggressive in 1v1 situations, trying to pass by the fullback, but a very good technical ability to combine, a good mindset, a good energy,” Dos Santos said on Wednesday. “That’s what we felt when we spent so many hours with everybody looking at him, studying him, looking at his numbers.”

“So he kind of confirmed in the first training what he’s about. But again, it’s a young player that’s going to need time to develop, but of course, the first flashes that he showed in training were exciting, for sure.”

Deiber Caicedo doing what he does best – take on defenders 1v1. Here he is up against Jake Nerwinski (Keveren Guillou)

Youth movement continues to progress: 

Elsewhere at training, the big storyline remained on the continued integration of youngsters, as there continues to be a heavy academy presence on the pitch during sessions. 

And while a few players still looked quite raw, several looked like they belonged, putting up good shifts in drills and scrimmages against the first team players. The first team players didn’t play them easy, either, so it was good to see that several of these youngsters were up to task against them. 

A few names that stood out from Wednesday’s session were wingers Keishean Francois and Kamron Habibullah, forward Alan Camacho and defender Matteo Campagna, but even if you look down the list of academy players who trained, there wasn’t a single one who seemed all that out of place. 

It does help that Dos Santos is already typically not shy to integrating young players into his session normally, so this isn’t anything new, but it was certainly unique to see him coach a group that was nearly 50-50 in terms of academy players to first-team ones. 

Obviously, that’s due to all of the absences, but at the same time, it sounds like a few are impressing the coaches enough to see them get kept around to audition longer than this Vancouver stint, so clearly Dos Santos likes what he’s seeing, as well. 

As was confirmed by the Whitecaps on Wednesday, it sounds like some of the academy players will travel to Salt Lake with the team, allowing them to continue their fight to try and earn a pro contract.

Asked if they were close to signing any players to a first-team deal, Dos Santos elected to remain quiet, however, but he did confirm that he had an interest in a few of them. 

“Yeah, there’s players on track to eventually in the right moment get an MLS contract,” he said. “I believe that.”

But with Sporting Director Axel Schuster suggesting back in November of last year that the club was keeping 2 roster spots open for 2 academy players to sign first-team deals ahead of the start of this season, could that ‘right moment’ be within the next 3 weeks for Dos Santos?

According to him, he’s not under any pressure to do so, making him noncommittal on the matter, but it seems like it’s only a matter of time until there’s some movement on that front. 

“I don’t know if it’s a need now to register or to sign players before the start of the season, we don’t want to do it too fast, there’s still the possibility of loans, there’s still the possibility of moves,” Dos Santos said. “So, to tell you that one of the Academy kids is going to sign an MLS contract now before the season, no, I don’t know why there’s so much rush to that.”

“But there are guys that are on track, and we’re following and talking about them as future players for this club.”

The loan part is interesting to note, as the ‘Caps got the ball moving on that front last week, loaning out Jasser Khmiri to San Antonio in the USL, freeing up both a roster slot and an international spot, and it sounds like there’s more to come on that avenue. 

It’s anyone’s guess as to who the next name to be sent out on loan might be, as Khimiri was a loan favourite due to his roster status and spot in the roster, but it sounds like he won’t be the only one finding temporary digs to start this new season. 

Seeing Dos Santos also mentioned that the ‘Caps aren’t done making moves, both in terms of signing homegrown players and bringing in new transfers, it just makes the loan conversation one that will certainly heat up in the next week or so. 

Academy product Keishean Francois warms up with an academy teammate at training Wednesday (Keveren Guillou)

Schedule drops: 

To round off Whitecaps news from the past few weeks, it’s also worth noting that MLS released its full schedule during the international break, giving each team an idea of what their 34-game 2021 slate might look like. 

For the ‘Caps, there’s plenty of interesting nuggets in there, especially in terms of how their home schedule is structured, as they’ll play 7 of their first 11 games on the road, before finishing with 13 home games in their last 23 games. 

That’s because they want to keep the door open to play games in Vancouver starting in the summer, where they’ll hope that vaccination rates on both sides of the border will allow for them to return home. Obviously, the hope is for them to have fans, but at the very least, this rise in immunizations could at least allow for intra-border travel for sports teams at the beginning of the process, before opening up games to fans down the road. 

Plus, they’ve made sure that those rush of home games comes not long after a month-long break at the end of May and beginning of June due to an international window, with the plan being that they’ll stay in Salt Lake until the end of June before returning to Vancouver in July. 

The timeline remains very fluid, so that’s far from set in stone, but that’s the plan they have in place, so now it’ll all be about seeing how feasible that ends up being down the road. 

Otherwise, there are a few interesting hitches in the schedule, as the ‘Caps will play all 12 other Western Conference 2 to 3 times for a total of 32 matches, with their only 2 games against non-conference rivals coming against their Eastern Canadian rivals, Toronto FC and CF Montreal. It’s an improvement on last year’s regional-based schedule, as COVID forced teams to play teams around them 5 to 6 times in some cases, but it’s not yet as balanced as you’d hope it one day is again. 

Finally, there’s also the hitch that the Gold Cup will provide, as the ‘Caps will play 5 games during the Gold Cup, meaning that they could be without a few of their Canadian regulars for some key games in the summer, testing their depth. 

Luckily for them, however, that’s the only international headache that they’ll have to deal with, as they don’t play through any other scheduled international windows, which isn’t a luxury that all MLS teams are able to have, as some have chosen to play through those breaks, anyways. 

So all-in-all, it’s a pretty solid schedule for the ‘Caps, one they’ll be pretty happy with as a whole. 

Finally some exhibition games: 

Lastly, there was the news that the Whitecaps had finally come up with an exhibition game schedule, as they’ll play USL’s Real Monarchs on April 6th in Utah, before travelling to Chicago to take on the Chicago Fire and USL’s Indy Eleven in a doubleheader on April 10th. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how the ‘Caps manage that double-header on April 10th, in particular, but aside from that, there’s plenty to be happy with in terms of the fact that they’ll be able to play any sort of preseason games before the start of the year. 

With most other teams situated in Florida, California or Arizona for training camp, including their hosts, Real Salt Lake, it wasn’t going to be easy to find many games close by to where the Whitecaps were situated in Utah, so they did pretty well for themselves here. 

Now, the other big question will be to see how full-strength this team ends up being in all 3 of these games, as they continue to work on getting some new signings into the team’s camp ahead of then due to visa issues. 

They’ll have a good chunk of their returning players back in time for all 3 games, but you do wonder if some of their new signings will be able to make it in time to show Dos Santos and the fans what they’re capable of. 

Looking Forward: 

Ultimately, it proved to be an interesting last few weeks in Whitecaps land, even though it was mostly overshadowed by a busy international window, both from a global and ‘Caps perspective. 

Now that we’re back into the swing of things, however, it promises to be a busy next few weeks, as the team gets set to start off the season on the front foot. 

It won’t be easy, but things are looking up again, and after a few tough weeks, that’s all they can ask for. 

After a long wait, they’ve finally got their first transfer of this offseason onto the pitch in Caicedo, so they’ll be hoping that’s just the start of the wave of arrivals that allows them to complete their squad ahead of April 18th. 

Until then, however, they’ll continue to work hard, preparing them to start as well as possible – with or without their new arrivals. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Real Monarchs, 12:00 PDT, 15:00 EDT (Zions Bank Training Center, Herriman)

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