Vancouver Whitecaps ready for challenges of another pandemic season

·5 min read

VANCOUVER — Heading into a new season, Vancouver Whitecaps coach Marc Dos Santos is frustrated.

Just days before the Whitecaps are set to kick off their Major League Soccer campaign, he has yet to hold a training session with his full squad.

National duty, visa issues and quarantine have kept several players from joining training camp at the club's temporary home in Sandy, Utah.

“My frustration is not having everyone here, together, working together. That’s frustrating as a coach," Dos Santos said. "But it’s things we have to deal with."

Every player who's been in training is ready to compete, he said, and there's a sense of excitement and anticipation about who's yet to come.

"When you have so many guys that are not in, it also gives you a picture and an idea of how much our team can improve in the process of getting everybody at speed and everybody ready to play," the coach said.

A choppy pre-season is just the latest hurdle Dos Santos and his group have to overcome.

Last year, the Whitecaps weathered a string of injured goalkeepers, repeated COVID-19 interruptions, and a border closure that forced the team to relocate to Portland, Ore. The campaign ended with a 9-14-0 record and the 'Caps three points shy of a playoff spot.

It's a result the club can build on, said midfielder Russell Teibert.

"This season will present challenges but I think we’ve been through so much as a team from last year up until now that we’re able to take any challenge and turn any obstacle into an experience and a good experience," he said.

The Whitecaps don't know how long they'll be stationed in Utah, or whether there will be fans in the stands when they finally return to B.C. Place. It's another odd season, but the team is still eager to get back on the field and play, said Maxime Crepeau.

“The locker room is craving for it, I’m craving for it, individuals are craving for it. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we live on, it’s the game day, it’s the adrenalin, it’s beating the opponent," said the goalkeeper who played just four games last season before suffering a fractured thumb.

Despite the season-ending injury, Crepeau stayed with the team when they moved to Portland.

The team has grown close and the personal foundation they've built will help their play on the field this season, Crepeau said.

“I’m really confident," he said. "There’s an atmosphere on the field with the guys it’s going to be tough to beat us this year and we want to be in the face of the opponent. That’s what we want. We bring it up every single day.”

The core will be bolstered by off-season acquisitions like striker Deiber Caicedo, midfielder Caio Alexandre and right-back Bruno Gaspar.

Caicedo, a 21-year-old Colombian, has already started for find rhythm with his teammates, particularly fellow forwards Lucas Cavallini and Cristian Dajome.

"Right away we adapted with each other and we gelled," Cavallini said of the trio. "(Caicedo and Dajome are) two talented players, two fast, quick players that we need and that’s going to help this team a lot."

Cavallini comes into his second MLS season in fine form. The 28-year-old Toronto native contributed three goals as Canada crushed the Cayman Islands 11-0 in World Cup qualifying action last month, and had two in Vancouver's 3-2 pre-season win over the Chicago Fire last week.

The burly striker — known as "El Tanque" — took some time to find his scoring touch last season but finished the year with six goals in 18 appearances.

Cavallini said he's changed his game coming into this season, looking to get more involved in the play and be on the ball more.

"That’s the maturity I have nowadays," he said. "Hopefully we can benefit from that."

Cavallini will be an important piece Sunday when the 'Caps open their season against the Portland Timbers.

Portland finished the 2020 regular season third in the West with an 11-6-6 record and already have already played a pair of Champions League games this year.

The 'Caps know they're in for stiff competition to start 2021, but the squad is ready, Cavallini said.

"The team is fit, the team is ready, the team is hungry," he said. "We’ve just got to put everything on the pitch on Sunday. Obviously Portland is always a tough team, always good players but I feel that this year we can beat them."


WHITECAPS AT A GLANCE

LAST SEASON: Vancouver (9-14-0) finished three points outside of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. It was the third year in a row that the club has missed the post-season.

TEMPORARY DIGS: Sandy, Utah, home of Real Salt Lake.

MOVED ON: The Whitecaps have parted ways with forward Fredy Montero, midfielder David Milinkovic, and goalkeepers Evan Bush and Bryan Meredith. Defender Jasser Khmiri and midfielder Simon Colyn are out on loan.

NEW ADDITIONS: Forwards Deiber Caicedo and David Egbo, midfielder Caio Alexandre, defenders Javian Brown and Bruno Gaspar, and goalkeeper Evan Newton have joined Vancouver this year.

PLAYOFF PRESSURE: The 'Caps have not made the post-season under Marc Dos Santos, who's heading into the third and final year of his contract. Bucking the trend is a must for the coach this season.

SIDELINED: Vancouver's back end will be thin to start the campaign. Defenders Ali Adnan (visa), Gaspar (quarantine) and Erik Gody and Derek Cornelius (both injured) will all miss Sunday's game. Midfielders Leonard Owusu (injured) and Alexandre, and forward Egbo (quarantine) are also unavailable.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Gaspar, an Angolan international, is on loan from Sporting CP in Portugal. Brazilian Alexandre is billed as a creative box-to-box midfielder. Goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau returns from a fractured thumb that kept him sidelined for all but four games last season.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2021.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press