VANCOUVER, BC – It’s almost that time.
On Monday morning, Vancouver Whitecaps FC players will officially report to the National Soccer Development Centre for the start of their 2019 preseason training camp.
After Monday’s media and medical day, the ‘Caps will train for the first time on Tuesday and remain in Vancouver until departing for Hawaii on January 31, where they will compete in the second annual Pacific Rim Cup. The ‘Caps will then return to Vancouver for a week of training before heading to Los Angeles for their final preparations ahead of the March 2 MLS season opener vs. Minnesota.
There’s plenty of intrigue surrounding the club this preseason, perhaps more than ever, with a new head coach at the helm and many questions surrounding the roster.
With that in mind, here are five storylines I’ll be keeping a close eye on.
MDS TAKES CHARGE
New Whitecaps FC head coach Marc Dos Santos has a very clear idea of how he wants his team to play, and the behaviours that need to be instilled into the players to do so.
And that starts from day one.
“The most important thing in preseason is to start establishing the foundations you’re going to have in the season when it comes to belief, mentality, and habits,” Dos Santos said. “That’s what we’re looking for in preseason. We’re not looking for fitness or just playing games. That comes by consequence of good work. The number one thing is establishing habits, making them aware of the model of play and what we want in the club, and establishing standards and a base.”
In the past, the Canadian-born, Portugal-bred coach has spoken about the importance of ensuring that every aspect of a team’s preparation revolves around its model of play. I’m interested to see how that comes to fruition, in both training and matches, over the course of the preseason.
As he told The Athletic last month, Dos Santos doesn’t necessarily favour a straight up possession game or a counter-attacking style, but rather a combination of the two.
“I liked a lot the Napoli of last year—the moment they lose the ball, so aggressive in trying to recover it right away,” he said. “But I really like the verticality of Klopp [at Liverpool], because of the players he has, when they win the ball how they go 100 miles per hour towards the opponent’s goal.”
Certainly, the style of play will evolve over time, but we’re about to get a first glimpse of what Dos Santos has in store.
It’s no secret that Vancouver’s roster is in the process of undergoing a major overhaul.
So far, the ‘Caps have added five players since Dos Santos took the job in November: goalkeepers Max Crépeau and Zac MacMath, centre back Derek Cornelius, left back/winger Victor “PC” Giro, and midfielder Andy Rose.
And there are certainly more to come.
Not only will I be interested to see which of the new additions make an early impression, I’ll be interested to see who joins them. Dos Santos said on Friday that additional player signings are expected “very soon,” so we can safely assume there will be further roster movement throughout the preseason – as is so often the case.
This will be the first preseason in years the ‘Caps will have a true battle for the starting goalkeeper position, as Crépeau and MacMath look to secure the number one spot.
MacMath, 27, is the more experienced of the two ‘keepers, having already played more than 150 matches with MLS sides Philadelphia Union and most recently Colorado Rapids. Whereas Crépeau, 24, is an up-and-comer who is coming off a lights-out campaign in the USL, where he set a new single-season record with 15 clean sheets in 31 appearances.
Will a clear number one emerge over the next few months? Either way, the ‘Caps are hoping that some healthy competition will only bring the best out of both of them.
BACK FOR MORE
While there have many departures, it’s also important to remember that the ‘Caps have some important pieces returning to the fold in 2019.
Yordy Reyna, for example, racked up 11 assists last season, which was tied with Alphonso Davies for the team-lead. He also had six goals and created 15 “big chances” for his teammates, according to Opta, which was tied with the likes of Carlos Vela, Sebastian Giovinco, and Federico Higuain and just two back of league-leaders Miguel Almiron, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Darwin Quintero.
Not bad company.
Other returning players who will be looking to step up in 2019 include central midfielders Felipe and Russell Teibert, who both enjoyed successful stretches at different points last season, and defenders Doneil Henry, Brett Levis, and Jake Nerwinski, who by the end of 2018 formed three-quarters of Vancouver’s starting back line. Henry and Levis are both 25 years old, and Nerwinski is 24, which is a perfect time for a player to come into their own.
If you include Simon Colyn, who made a bright albeit brief MLS debut in last year’s season finale, there will be three new Whitecaps FC Academy products looking to impress Dos Santos this preseason – the others being Canadian youth internationals Michael Baldisimo and Theo Bair.
Hard-nosed midfielder David Norman Jr., who has returned from a productive loan spell with Scottish Championship side Queen of the South, will be looking to do the same.
On a related note, Whitecaps FC announced on Friday that Canadian Soccer Hall of Famer Nick Dasovic has been appointed head coach of the club’s new U-23 development team. Dasovic will be tasked with helping to push these very players into the first-team, and he’s ready for the challenge.
“There’s a lot of good talent,” Dasovic said of the young Canadians within the ‘Caps system. “Talent is going to get you in that door, it’s what you do when you get inside – the work rate, the ethic. Every day, you have to bring it. That’s what you want to instill in these young players.”