VANCOUVER — Axel Schuster's first season as sporting director of the Vancouver Whitecaps was anything but boring.
Despite navigating a series of unprecedented challenges, he believes the club finished last year with a solid foundation they can build on as training camp opens this week.
"We spoke about it. We still think we did some sustainable, good steps," Schuster said. "Obviously we didn’t really meet our expectations at the very end, but it was close and now we have a new bar and we want to jump over this.”
Last year, Schuster navigated the club through a season full of stops and starts as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the Major League Soccer schedule and forced all three Canadian clubs to relocate south of the border. The Whitecaps lived at a hotel in downtown Portland for more than two months and played at Providence Park, home of the rival Portland Timbers.
The 'Caps ended the unusual campaign outside of the playoffs for the third year in a row with a 9-14-0 record.
All of the upheaval took its toll on the group, Schuster said.
“It took us too long to come back into shape and into structure, to be that team that we wanted to be at the beginning of the season, that we had been in the first two games," he said.
“I will stress and challenge my team and my coaches to say ‘We want to be a big step better than last year.’”
There'll be more hurdles this season, however.
The team is holding its training camp in Vancouver but plans are in the works to relocate to Salt Lake City due to border restrictions. There's hope the team can return to Vancouver before the end of the season if conditions improve.
COVID-19 has also made it difficult to organize pre-season games, Schuster said. The club isn't planning on playing any exhibition matches until they arrive in Utah ahead of the season kick off on April 17.
One positive note heading into 2021 is the team's relatively low turnover. Two dozen players from last year's roster are back, including last year's leading goal scorer Lucas Cavallini.
The team will also get back goaltenders Maxime Crepeau and Thomas Hasal, who both suffered season ending injuries in 2020. Crepeau went down with a fractured thumb in July and Hasal followed in September with a concussion and stress fracture in his left tibia.
Having so many returning players means the club can skip the rebuilding process this pre-season, said coach Marc Dos Santos.
It's a very different starting point from what the 'Caps have seen in the past two years, where the club attempted to integrate a number of new players before the season began.
"It gives you a better chance to succeed," Dos Santos said Monday after the team's first voluntary group training session.
"At the end of the day, when I look at the teams that succeed in MLS, they're groups that have been together for a good amount of time. They're groups that there's a chemistry between guys, there's a core that's important that comes back year after year. And that's where we have to get as a club."
A few new faces will filter into the training facility in the coming weeks.
Colombian striker Deiber Caicedo has yet to join the group after signing a three-year deal in January. Draft picks Javian Brown, a Jamaican right back, and David Egbo, a Nigerian forward, are still finishing up immigration paperwork. And goalkeeper Evan Newton is in Vancouver, finishing his quarantine and is expected to begin training soon.
Adding to the team this off-season was tougher, Schuster said, not only because of the pandemic, but because he and Dos Santos are confident in the squad's existing core.
"That makes it more complicated to add more quality because you only want to add more quality, you want to add better players," he explained. "So obviously the recruitment process is also more complicated because you have to go to another shelf in the store, in the market to find the right players."
Still, there are likely more pieces to come. There's talk that the Whitecaps are looking to sign Bruno Gaspar, a 27-year-old right back with Portuguese side Sporting CP.
Schuster declined to comment on any pending deals, but said he is still working hard on bolstering the team.
"We feel even better knowing that there are more to come," he said. "We are hopeful that we get them."
No matter who's on the roster this year, the club's objective will be clear, Schuster said — play hard and make it into the post-season.
"The goal is to go straight to the playoffs and be a playoff team," he said. "We want to be a team that competes to win every single game."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press