The Vancouver Whitecaps kick off their ninth season in Major League Soccer this Saturday against Minnesota United, but when they step on to the pitch at BC Place, fans may think they are watching an expansion team.
It’s not difficult to understand why, considering a new coaching staff is implementing a new system for a club that cut ties with 20 different players since missing the playoffs in 2018.
New coach Marc Dos Santos has spent the last month working with a new squad, made up of players who have come to Vancouver from six different continents. Since Dos Santos took over the coaching reigns from Carl Robinson last November, the Whitecaps have brought in 14 new players, eight of whom have never played in MLS. Despite the large turnover, Dos Santos and his players are eager to get into game action.
“I feel we’re now at a stage that, even if there was a big rebuild, the guys are together and want to play MLS games,” Dos Santos said this week. “The energy is good and the commitment from everyone is great.”
Defender Jake Nerwinski added: “It’s been a lot of tough work, but it’s been good so far. The group of guys brought in are great and the chemistry is building.”
Entering his third year with Vancouver, Nerwinski, 24, is one of just three returning players who started more than 20 matches for Vancouver last season, the others being midfielders Yordy Reyna and Felipe. With so many new faces inside the locker room, the New Jersey native knows the battle for roster spots will be intense every week.
“No one has a spot set in stone, so I think that brings out the best in every player,” Nerwinski stated. “I love competition. I love fighting for a spot and fighting to play.”
Fans might view the Whitecaps pre-season as a disappointment. The club went 0-3-2 against clubs from MLS, Mexico and Japan and were out-scored 6-2. While he may have liked a few more wins in the matches played in Hawaii and southern California, Dos Santos feels strongly about the players he has brought in.
“I’m confident we have enough quality to play at a very good level,” said Dos Santos, a 41-year-old native of Montreal. “There might not be a lot of MLS experience, but there are players who can come out and perform.”
One player who is a proven performer, in MLS and on both sides of the Atlantic, is Freddy Montero. Having spent last season in Portugal, Montero returns to Vancouver after leading the club with 13 goals in 2017. This will be the sixth MLS campaign for the native of Colombia, but Montero knew things would not be the same when he returned to the Whitecaps.
“It’s a little different from the first time I came [to Vancouver],” admitted the 31-year-old striker. “However I see so much potential in a group of players that are hungry.
“You have to train the same way you play and we have been doing that. The mentality the coaches are trying to put in us is a winning mentality.”
If Vancouver wants to improve on a season in which it missed the playoffs with a 13-13-8 record, Montero will definitely have to be a driving force for the offence. However, he will not be able to do it alone.
The club will depend greatly on their two new Young Designated Player signings to also score goals. Uruguayan striker Joaquin Ardaiz, 20, spent the last two years playing in Italy and Belgium after helping his country to a fourth-place finish at the 2017 FIFA Under 20 World Cup. South Korean international Inbeom Hwang, 22, comes to MLS after turning heads the last few years as one of the top young offensive midfielders in Asia.
Dos Santos will start the season implementing a 4-3-3 system, with only one traditional defending midfielder in his squad. That role likely falls to Jon Erice, who will wear the captain’s armband on Saturday. The 32-year from Spain has played more than 300 professional matches in Europe over the last decade.
With Erice as the lone holding midfielder, Whitecaps fans can expect to see more midfielders and defenders join in the attack. Reyna, who led the club with 11 assists in 2018, would love to build on back-to-back six-goal seasons for Vancouver. The club is also hopeful new Brazilian-born additions in Lucas Venuto and Victor “PC” Giro can provide more attacking options.
Dos Santos is also mindful of the fact the club conceded the second-most goals in the Western Conference last season, a big reason why there has been a major overhaul both on the back line and in goal. Goalkeepers Maxime Crepeau and Zac MacMath will compete for a position that not only requires keeping the ball out of the net but also assisting defenders in quick transition up the field.
Nerwinski joins Canadians Doneil Henry and Brett Levis as the only returning defenders for the Whitecaps. Scott Sutter, 32, joins the club after playing the last two seasons for Orlando City FC, while Argentinian-born Erik Godoy and Ontario native Derek Cornelius can expect to play meaningful minutes as well.
“The coaches have a strict plan for us and know how they want us to play,” Nerwinski said. “It’s refreshing to see that as everyone knows what’s expected of them.”
“It’s a new brand of football and it’s going to be an exciting brand.”