“We have to focus on ourselves”: Vancouver Whitecaps interim head coach Vanni Sartini looking for internal growth ahead of unique all-interim battle vs RSL

The Vancouver Whitecaps take on Real Salt Lake at BC Place on Sunday. Here’s how the Whitecaps are feeling ahead of this one, as they look to put a busy few days behind them ahead of a massive game for their playoff aspirations. 

After such a tough last 2 days, it’s going to be a tough turnaround. 

For a Vancouver Whitecaps team that has gone through so much these last few days, they’ll be in tough on Sunday when they take on Real Salt Lake on Sunday in a massive MLS game riddled with all sorts of Western Conference playoff implications. 

After having been eliminated from the Canadian Championship at the hands of Canadian Premier League side Pacific FC on Thursday, they then parted ways with head coach Marc Dos Santos and assistant Phil Dos Santos on Friday, naming ‘Caps Director of Methodology and U23 head coach, Vanni Sartini, as interim head coach for the time being. 

Because of that, it was a sombre training session on Saturday for the ‘Caps, who trained fully for the first time since the move, and for the only time ahead of their game on Sunday. 

Many of the players trained hard, and had pretty good sessions, but you could tell that the move was still hanging over the training centre at UBC like a cloud, especially considering that all but 2 of the players on this ‘Caps roster have only known life under Dos Santos while in Vancouver. 

One of those players? Goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who has actually known the Dos Santos brothers for over a decade now, having come up through what was then known as the Montreal Impact’s academy system while they were working in the academy and later with their first team, meaning that they and Crepeau go way back. 

Talking to him on Saturday, one could see that the news that Dos Santos would no longer be around was just sinking in for him, and from what he says, he’s not alone, as the players feel that they in a way are responsible for what happened. 

“I’ve known them since I was 13, 14, and we’ve been growing older together,” Crepeau explained. “We (worked) together in the youth stages, and then parted ways, and then got reunited here in Vancouver.”

“So obviously (with the firing), it’s a tough thing for the players, because the loss was on us, not on them, that loss was on the players and they (the coaches) got the axe (for it), so that’s the reality of the business, there are just some games you can’t lose, the group is well aware, so now it’s up to us to show up tomorrow against Salt Lake, and turn the page.”

So although as Crepeau made sure to mention, this sort of move can be part of the business, it’ll still be something for the players to get over if they’re going to be able to surmount a playoff push in the 2nd half of this season. 

Even though Dos Santos might’ve not always made the right decisions on the pitch, as his team often played a lot too loose for the style the club wanted to play, he made inconsistent adjustments in-game, and alienated several key players over his tenure at the club, there was no doubt of the man’s popularity in the dressing room, and that’ll be hard to get over. 

That’s something that Dos Santos’s short-term replacement, Sartini, made sure to talk about Saturday, and although the team might be able to take that togetherness that they built with Dos Santos and use it to fuel a playoff push, they still have to get over the disappointment of the news first. 

“The team was pretty shaken, as was everyone in the organization, with the news,” Sartini said Friday. “They had a strong bond with the coaching staff, but at the same time, I think with this team, the word that comes to my mind every time is togetherness. There’s this togetherness that they have, and they’re really on a mission one to get to the objective (making the playoffs), and they’ve responded immediately.”

But make no mistake, if they do find a way to buy into what Sartini is doing, the ‘Caps are in a pretty good position now, all things considered. 

Undefeated in 10 of their last 11 games in MLS play, including their last 8, they head into this RSL game rolling, especially as they get set to play 8 of their last 14 games at BC Place after not having played there for much of the last 1.5 years. 

Just 3 points off of a playoff spot, with a game in hand on the 7th-placed San Jose Earthquakes, they’ve got every chance of being able to make the playoffs, especially considering that they’ll be playing a lot of the same teams they’re competing against for a playoff spot, making for a lot of 6-point games. 

With an interim head coach in place, it puts the team in a bit of an awkward situation, no doubt, but the one bonus with that is that the focus then immediately becomes on the week-to-week, which for a club just needing to take care of the game in front of them right now, isn’t the worst approach in the world to have right now. 

Seeing that Sartini’s future likely remains in what has appeared to be his true passion, youth development (although he’d make a strong first-team coach), he’s just happy to have this opportunity to help the club through this crisis, giving them a bit of stability at a time of need. 

“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” Sartini admitted. “I told yesterday to the cub that I’m actually honoured that the club in this difficult situation put faith in me and trust in me to do a job, so what I’m doing here, It’s not really a long-term vision.”

“Tomorrow, we’ve got Salt Lake, and if I’m the head coach next week, it’s going to be Austin, and that’s how I’m approaching this job, week-by-week, and that’s what I want to do as long as I stay, to help the team reach the playoffs, as that’s my only horizon at the moment.”

And speaking of RSL, what can the Whitecaps realistically expect from their opponents, who currently sit 6h-placed in the Western Conference, holding one of those coveted playoff spots right now?

The answer is, no idea, actually, as despite their league position, they’ve too just lost their head coach, Freddy Juarez, who left the club to go be an assistant coach with the conference-leading Seattle Sounders. 

It’s a very strange move, but it gives an idea of how turbulent things are at Salt Lake despite the success, which will make it hard for interim head coach, Pablo Mastroeni, who has some big shoes to fill considering that Juarez is regarded to have done a pretty good job with what he had in Salt Lake. 

So heading into this game on Sunday, it’ll be a rare game of interim head coach versus interim head coach, meaning that it’ll be hard to really know what to expect from either team, since neither coach has gotten a chance to show what they can do with their team. 

We may know that Salt Lake will be missing star Damir Kreilach through a suspension, while the ‘Caps will be missing Cristian Gutierrez, Caio Alexandre and Jake Nerwinski with injuries, but other than that, there is a lot of unknown, as both coaches will look to focus on themselves instead of what the other will be up to. 

“It’s true, the thing is that we have to focus on ourselves,” Sartini said. “So it’s about how we need to play in a certain way, we need to be very compact defensively, we need to be able to find the space and stretch the team when we have the ball, because we don’t know what (RSL) with a new coach maybe they’ll come with a back 5, maybe they come pressing in another way.”

“I know Pablo, but like with me, I’m not expecting Pablo’s team tomorrow, it’s going to still be Freddy’s team with some minor tweaks.”

BTSVancity Player to Watch: Cristian Dajome

So with that in mind, individual players will be able to exert a lot of influence on this game, as tactically there might be a bit of confusion as teams transition from what their old coach had, to what the interim coach is currently cooking up. 

For the ‘Caps, one of those individuals will be Dajome, who’s been arguably their MVP this season, scoring 8 goals and adding 3 assists in MLS play. 

A lot of focus will be on new DP #10, Ryan Gauld, who already has 3 goals, 1 assist and a penalty won in 5 games with Vancouver, and is coming off of picking up a brace and winning a penalty despite the loss to Pacific, but it’s worth noting that Dajome also had a goal and an assist in that game, showing what he can do. 

His team is going to need him to come up big in this game again, as he’s one of this team’s leaders, and he’ll look to show that in light of everything that has happened these past few days. 

Projected XIs: 

Vancouver Whitecaps:

Record: 5W-7L-8D (23 PTS)

Head Coach: Vanni Sartini

Real Salt Lake:

Record: 7W-7L-6D (27 PTS)

Head Coach: Pablo Mastroeni

2021 Matchups:

Vancouver Whitecaps 1-3 Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake 4-0 Vancouver Whitecaps

Looking Forward:

So with that in mind, expect a good game at BC Place on Sunday. 

It’ll certainly be a strange one, and it might become emotional for some, but make no mistake, this is a massive game for both sides, and they’re fully aware of that. 

And for the ‘Caps, this is a chance to build some positive momentum around the team again, something they’d appeared to have been doing before the latest move. 

Seeing how fired up they got the crowd in their home opener last week, where they marked a special comeback with the singing of ‘Stand by Me’ post-game, they’ll look to elicit a similar reaction on Sunday, instead of staying in the dark cloud that seemed to hit them after the loss to Pacific. 

With a swath of home games ahead, they’ll want to keep the good times rolling when they’re in Vancouver, and that’ll look to continue on Sunday. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Real Salt Lake, Sunday, August 29th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (BC Place, Vancouver)

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