The new year begins with many a blown resolution by Vancouver Whitecaps fans.
They go into 2019 suffering hand-wringing angst, bouts of stress eating and trepidation-triggered tipple, no doubt blowing their newly-started keto and kumquat diets apart in the same spectacular manner their MLS team’s roster was.
Not only was the demolition of the team’s player pool complete and unprecedented — the 18 players the team parted with was the most in MLS this year and most in team history — but included their top three scorers. In fact, just four of the 13 players who scored a goal last year remain: Yordy Reyna (six goals, fourth on WFC), Russell Teibert (1), Felipe (1) and Anthony Blondell (1).
Kei Kamara, who produced the second-most single-season goals in team history (14), wasn’t offered a new contract and is now partnering with Chilean international Diego Rubio in Colorado. The gregarious striker and fan favourite was surprised his second-highest single-season total wasn’t enough to earn a spot going forward.
“All the energy I spent playing, trying to help the team grow, help the younger players around me, I felt good that I was going to stay in Vancouver for a little longer,” Kamara told MLSsoccer.com. “Even after the head coach was let go, even though he was the head coach that brought me there. Maybe I was reading the energy wrong. When I got the news that they weren’t interested in keeping me and I was being traded, I was shocked.”
The Caps have 12 players returning, and six new faces. Before last year’s home opener, the team set the high-water mark for turnover with saw 11 new signings and 15 players departing.
Four of the five centrebacks from last year’s team, including team captain Kendall Waston, are gone. The two longest-tenured players on the team — forwards Erik Hurtado and Nico Mezquida — were traded away.
And it’s not just the roiling anxiety over who’s gone; it’s the gaping holes they’ve left which haven’t been filled. The Caps have only signed four new players, two goalkeepers (Zac MacMath and Maxime Crepeau) and two depth players in D/M Victor “PC” Giro and M Andy Rose, with all but Rose during the mid-December half-day trade window. The seeming lack of player acquisition is in stark contrast to the amount of activity going on across MLS, with even the much-maligned Brek Shea finding a home with defending champion Atlanta United.
First, the MLS transfer window doesn’t open until Feb. 7. And even then, there might not be any big-name signings. Dos Santos said he’d happily hold off from signing a 6/10 player if it meant he could get a 9/10 player, and one who’d stay with the club for three years, in the June transfer window.
For comparison, in 2014, Carl Robinson’s first year in charge, he signed 12 new players after Jan. 1 and before the close of the first transfer window — including three DP’s in Pedro Morales, Matias Laba and Waston. So it’s not like the team is in uncharted waters.
“It is almost like (we’re an expansion team). It wasn’t the plan, it’s just the direction the club was going. It’s going to be a new era,” said head coach Marc Dos Santos, who admitted he thought there were going to be a few more holdovers from last season.
“First we have to do what I would call the ugly work, the work that seems uncomfortable … the ‘suffering’ part of the work, but always with a vision of what you want to be as a club.
“The important thing is for us to stay calm and to bring in the right guys, and not be ‘Oh, we need to fill up the roster’ and then make a bunch of mistakes.”
The coaching staff and scouts have been busy traversing the globe, and this week are in Orlando for the 2019 combine and ensuing MLS SuperDraft, though quality players are hard to unearth there — doubly so for Vancouver this year, as the team only has the 35th and 83rd picks, having previously traded away their first- and third-round spots.
The Caps have drafted 55 players in their history, and just one remains with the team — fullback Jake Nerwinski, taken seventh overall in 2017. Vancouver did draft players like Tim Parker, Darren Mattocks and Spencer Richey, but most follow the path of Justin Fiddes, Lucas Stauffer, Cory Brown — the three players selected last year, none of whom are with the organization anymore.
The team Dos Santos wants to build isn’t based on any particular system or formation, but, rather, behaviours. He aspires to build a club that is technically skilled, comfortable with or without the ball, aggressive in defensive recoveries and has a high level of energy, citing Jurgen Klopp’s current Liverpool squad as a model.
The aforementioned demolition of the team also means it has a great deal of flexibility with cap space and international roster spots, and with Alphonso Davies’ transfer to Bayern Munich now complete, they have around $15 million burning a hole in their pockets.
But don’t expect any impulse buys from Dos Santos. While he said he does have some targets he’s been watching for a long time, the next step is getting to know them personally to see if they’d fit in his plan for the club’s long-term identity.
“We have the ambition of making our recruitment process the best in North America. We want to do that. It’s our dream,” said Dos Santos, who wouldn’t commit to maxing out the team’s allotment of three DPs, but vowed to bring in difference-making players.
“If you’re a club that’s not, for now, going to spend what Atlanta spends, at least have a recruitment process where you bring in players that could make a difference and be special.”
— With files from Patrick Johnston
Important dates for the Whitecaps
Jan. 11: MLS SuperDraft (Chicago, Ill.)
Feb. 7: MLS Transfer window opens
Jan. 21: Whitecaps take player medicals
Jan 31-Feb. 10: Training camp/Pacific Rim Cup (Hawaii)
Feb 16: Pre-season game vs. L.A. Galaxy
March 2: Whitecaps home opener vs. Minnesota United FC
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