Vanni Sartini and his Vancouver Whitecaps coaching staff wanted to give their players a little time off as they prepared for the Major League Soccer season in Palm Springs, Cali., in recent weeks.
The athletes, though, were hungry for more.
Instead of taking time to relax in the sun, players consistently asked for more homework away from the field, wanting to prepare their minds for the coming campaign, Sartini said.
“Everyone feels this could be the year that we achieve something. So we’re pushing, pushing, pushing for that,” the head coach explained.
The confidence comes after Vancouver took 39 points from 26 games to close out last season.
The team ultimately missed the playoffs, finishing ninth in the Western Conference with a 12-15-7 record, but many returning players believe the ‘Caps have an opportunity to pick up where they left off when they kick off the 2023 campaign at home against Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
Getting off to a solid start this year will be “huge,” said defender Tristan Blackmon.
“We were a really good team in the second half (last year), especially at home,” he said. “We showed the character we have. And if we did that a little bit earlier, I think we would have put ourselves in a better position.”
Six weeks of training camp — spread across Vancouver, Marbella, Spain and Palm Springs — and eight pre-season games against high-level competition should help, said striker Brian White.
“We didn’t start off well at all last year and that ultimately could have been kind of the demise of us making the playoffs,” he said. “We know it’s important to have a good start. It’s on our minds because we have to come out strong, especially at home.”
A healthy White should help, too.
The 27-year-old American forward struggled with injuries last year and played a significant portion of the season with broken ribs.
“It was a difficult year for me personally. I had a couple of injuries and COVID,” said White, who registered four goals and an assist in 26 MLS appearances.
Creating offence proved to be problematic for the ‘Caps as a whole — Vancouver had the fewest goals for (40) in the Western Conference last year.
The club has made some tactical tweaks and added players in order to up the number of scoring chances it creates each game, Sartini said.
“To win games we need to score goals,” the coach said.
“Everything starts from the defending organization and everything starts with being compact and being, I would say, really hard to break from the other team. But then you need the quality, you need the unit, the structure, and you need the numbers up top in order to create chances to score.”
Vancouver’s latest roster addition is known for scoring.
Striker Sergio Cordova, who signed a three-year designated player deal with the club on Monday, led Real Salt Lake with 11 goals across 34 appearances last year. The 25-year-old Venezuelan previously played for FC Augsburg of the German Bundesliga.
The Whitecaps also added goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka, and centre backs Mathias Laborda and Karifa Yao to the roster in recent months.
The club further bolstered its ranks midway through last season, acquiring German defender Julian Gressel from D.C. United and bringing in Argentine midfielder Andres Cubas on a designated player contract.
Some of the midseason additions weren’t at their full quality when they joined the ‘Caps, said sporting director Axel Schuster, but the entire group is now ready to compete.
“We have been on a very good run at the end of (last) season when we have all the players together and ready that we have signed last year,” he said. “So we want to continue at that point, we want to continue with that performance and we want to be even better with the new signings.”
With new players in place, some revamped tactics and an extended pre-season under their belts, the bar is high for the Whitecaps heading into this year — and it should be, said Ryan Gauld.
“When you look at the squad that we’ve got, the additions that we made, the way we ended last season, we’ve got to be positive going into the season,” said the Scottish attacking midfielder, who put up eight goals and nine assists in 28 MLS games last year.
“We’re aiming to push as high as we can and we’re going to push each other every week. We’ll be going into the majority of games expecting from ourselves that we’re capable of winning.”
KICKOFF: Vancouver will start the season against Real Salt Lake at B.C. Place on Saturday.
LOOKING BACK: Last season, the ‘Caps finished ninth in the Western Conference with a 12-15-7 record and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
THE INS: The Whitecaps have added a number of players over the off-season, including striker Sergio Cordova, goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka, and centre backs Mathias Laborda and Karifa Yao.
THE OUTS: Vancouver opted against picking up the options on a number of players after last year, including Canadian striker Lucas Cavallini and veteran defender Jake Nerwinski. Goalkeeper Cody Cropper, midfielder Leonard Owusu, forward Tosaint Ricketts and defenders Marcus Godinho and Florian Jungwirth also saw their contracts come to an end.
CALENDAR CRUNCH: The Whitecaps are set for a busy 2023 campaign, with three tournaments as well as MLS games. The club will begin its CONCACAF Champions League journey in Vancouver against Honduran side Real Espana on March 3. In mid-May, the ‘Caps will start their Canadian Championship title defence as the tournament’s second round starts. They’ll also take part in the revamped Leagues Cup between MLS and Liga MX sides from July 21 through Aug. 19.
—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press