VANCOUVER — Marc Dos Santos has been scouring the globe for talent and crafting a new style of play as he worked to rebuild the Vancouver Whitecaps this off-season.
Now, the new head coach’s work is going to be put to the test as the Major League Soccer season begins.
Dos Santos feels his squad is ready for its home opener against Minnesota United on Saturday.
"I really believe that everybody in the locker-room, despite us being almost a new team, has a huge belief that we can show up and win the game," Dos Santos said.
It’s been an off-season of upheaval for the ‘Caps, who finished last year with a 13-13-8 record and missed the playoffs.
Dos Santos was hired in early November and immediately went to work cleaning house.
The club parted ways with 20 players, including last year’s top three scorers — striker Kei Kamara, and midfielders Alphonso Davies and Cristian Techera — and captain Kendall Waston.
Fourteen new faces have filled their spots, including one who will be familiar to Whitecaps fans.
Striker Fredy Montero signed a two-year deal with the club earlier this month. He spent 2017 with the Whitecaps, appearing in 33 regular-season games and registering 13 goals and six assists.
Getting Montero back on the roster was a "no-brainer" for Dos Santos.
"In a so-young group, Fredy does bring a lot of leadership in a good way. He’s a positive guy, he’s a guy that can help the younger players," the coach said.
The 31-year-old Colombian spent the last 13 months with Sporting CP of the Portuguese league during a chaotic time for the organization.
Club president Bruno de Carvalho repeatedly raged against individual players on social media and a group of violent fans forced their way into the team’s training facility, attacking players and trashing a dressing room.
The experience was terrifying, Montero said.
"It was scary. It was probably the worst thing that has happened to me before in my life," he said, adding that he still takes positives from his time in Portugal.
"Whatever happened at Sporting, I think it was the experience of my life, of my career. It’s in the past now and I probably need to just leave it behind. I learned from that."
Montero said he was eager to come back to Vancouver and be part of the system Dos Santos is building.
"I see so much potential right now," he said. "We have a group of players that are hungry. First time coming into the league, they want to play, they want to start."
One young player who’ll be looking to establish a role on the team is South Korean Hwang In-beom. Vancouver signed the 22-year-old midfielder late last month.
Speaking through a translator this week, Hwang said he was nervous about moving across the world and joining a new team.
So far, adjusting to a new language and culture has been harder than training with a new club, he said.
"So I’m studying English harder than putting effort in soccer," he said.
Dos Santos leaned over and wagged a finger at him.
"No," he said with a smile.
The coach said he first learned about Hwang around the end of the MLS season, when he was leaving his assistant coach role with Los Angeles FC, but had yet to formally join the Whitecaps.
Dos Santos said he kept an eye on the midfielder and as soon as his deal with Vancouver was finalized, he started working to acquire him.
"Just because of the quality he has as a player, the technical ability, the decision making he has on the field fitting how I see the game being played," he said.
Only recently has the coach been able to watch his entire team come together. It wasn’t until last Friday that he had a training session with all of his players.
Missing attacking pieces was part of the reason the ‘Caps struggled offensively during a trio of recent pre-season games in California, Dos Santos said.
But he was quick to point out that while they scored just once, they conceded only two goals during the trip.
"We know what we have to do better in the last third also. But what we have to do is start creating chemistry between guys so we find the goals. And that’s going to take a little bit of time," Dos Santos said.
"We have to believe in the process of what we’re doing and that’s what we’re focused on."
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS AT A GLANCE
LAST SEASON: 13-13-8, missed playoffs
COACH: Marc Dos Santos (first season as a head coach)
KEY DEPARTURES: Striker Kei Kamara, midfielder Alphonso Davies, defender Kendall Waston
KEY NEWCOMERS: Striker Fredy Montero, midfielder Hwang In-beom
KEY RETURNEES: Forward Yordy Reyna, midfielder Russell Teibert, defender Jake Nerwinski
THE BURNING QUESTION: Can the overhauled squad find the chemistry it needs to produce offensively?