Photo Credit: ProstAmerika.Com courtesy of Gerrit te Hennepe

*This was originally posted May 17, 2022*

The Vancouver Whitecaps had a good last week. In three games, they had a win and a draw in MLS and were able to advance to the next round of the Canadian Championship.

We’re now at the halfway point of the schedule-intensive month of May. The club will end their four-match homestand at BC Place this Wednesday against FC Dallas.

We’ll also take some time to look into a few select players and see what head coach Vanni Sartini had to say about them and whether he’s on point.

Looking to finish the home stand

But let’s start with the match against FC Dallas, a team that holds the second spot in the Western Conference.

Dallas is doing a lot of things right. They have an impressive defensive mentality, offering only a stingy 8 goals in 11 matches, the best in the league. It led them to a remarkable 6W-1L-4T in the first third of the season.

But it must be noted that only one of those wins was on the road, in their match last weekend against the LA Galaxy.

“We have a lot of respect for FC Dallas because they’re a really good team,” Sartini said. “But also with a lot of confidence over the last three games, we were really good at home. We’re in kind of a good role, I would say. And we want to keep this momentum going.”

FC Dallas is also an injured team right now. Starting goalkeeper Maarten Paes—alongside centre back José Martínez and winger Alan Velasco—are all on health and safety protocol. 

But they do possess the top goal scorer in MLS right now, Jesús Ferreira. The homegrown Designated Player has a chart-popping 9 goals in 11 matches.

Sartini said they will play the back 3 again for the Dallas match. That means Ranko Veselinovic must start in the middle of that back line. His stability and ability in clearances was missed in the weekend match against San Jose.

On either side of him, I’m willing to bet it will be a Jake Nerwinski and Florian Jungwirth duo. I know both players get stick from fans at times, but Nerwinski did well to run toe-to-toe with Cristian Espinoza of San Jose. Jungwirth may not possess the pace of other options, but his physical style can hinder an FC Dallas side that’s not had much luck on the road.

Back line tinkering

Speaking of the back line, Sartini said he has been happy with changes they made to increase its stability, starting with the match against Toronto FC.

It’s been a back 4/back 3-and-a-half. Essentially, the back 4 exists when in the defensive phase of the match. During transition and offensive play, the wingback (so far, it’s been along the right) pushes up high while the left back falls into line to make a back 3.

“I like the solidity defensively when we play back 4,” Sartini said. “We basically didn’t concede any goals. We played two games and a half with this back 3-and-a-half, and we didn’t concede a goal.”

The winger on the right cuts inside to allow for overlap with the wingback, offering a larger presence in the final third when attacking.

But this new tactical philosophy is not without its problems.

“The problem is that…I think the only guy that is able to play in that position, right wingback-becoming-a-no. 10, is Ryan Gauld,” said Sartini. “Without Ryan Gauld, we become not…creative and fluidly offensively.”

In the three matches under this system, five of the six halves have utilized it. The Whitecaps also have three clean sheets during that time as well.

Sartini said they are working to ensure the wingback comes back fast enough during the defensive phase so the back line is not caught out in transition.

In the San Jose match, two of the three goals came from being caught out in transition. 

“We need to be more balanced when we attack and not conceding fast transitions to the opposition,” the head coach said.

The formation has shown promise. Having two weeks without a match allowed the ‘Caps to work on it without interruption. But training while having matches every 3-4 days can be difficult.

Injury update

When Gauld doesn’t play, there a hole the size of Scotland in the middle of the park. Sartini has said repeatedly that the player is the best in the squad as he not only creates most of the chances, he also makes everyone around him better.

Both Gauld and Tosaint Ricketts are still in health and safety protocol. But Ricketts is expected to finish his time today.

“He’s going to be available for selection tomorrow even if he never trains with the team. Both of them will be ready to travel to Charlotte and do the trip away.”

Caio Alexandre is also training with the first team again. His fitness levels are ready, but he is still wearing a splint, which is keeping him out of the lineup. Thankfully, the box-to-box midfielder should be ready to go either for Sporting Kansas City on May 28 or Real Salt Lake on June 4.

Tristan Blackmon and Thomas Hasal remain the two long-term injuries in the squad. Both have several weeks before they are ready to return to training.

Cavallini’s best game in a ‘Caps shirt

It’s no secret Lucas Cavallini has struggled since joining the Whitecaps at the beginning of the 2020 MLS season.

Last year was plagued by injuries for the DP striker, which made a run of games difficult to hand him.

“He wanted to be on the field, he wanted to help, and he was training, but he wasn’t himself [last season],” Sartini said. “So, he was always behind everyone. That’s the reason why he was always on the bench. That’s the reason why he couldn’t exude that power, that fighting spirit, that quality he has in protecting the ball and being a dominant presence in the box.”

This year, Cavallini reported to preseason training as arguably one of the most fit-ready players on the squad and he has been ever-present in a Whitecaps shirt.

“It was the best performance that he did with a Whitecaps jersey,” the head coach said.

Sartini added that his hard work off the pitch is starting to pay off on the pitch.

“He’s working a lot for the team, I would say, also for himself. He has this bigger objective to go to the World Cup with the national team. So, he’s doing everything correctly. And again, when you help the team, the team helps you.”

The goal is to keep the striker healthy and to manage his time so he can be most effective. White has struggled to find his consistency so far this season, as he goes through his own injury issues. A healthy Cavallini can help take some of the pressure off players like White.

Vite is adapting

Pedro Vite is a player that has a lot of upside. He has an eye for the creative pass and is one of the most technical players in the squad.

However, Sartini had some words of wisdom to offer his attacking midfielder.

“He still doesn’t exude that level of intensity, that level of bite, both offensively and defensively, that makes him play without problems in MLS. So, until he does reach that level, he’s a 20-25 minute player. He’s a bench player who [can] come in for us.”

The head coach called on Vite to ramp up his game. But he also said he understood that the young midfielder is coming from a league in Ecuador that is not as physical and normally allows more space for movement than MLS.

“Here, the league is one of the most physical leagues in the world…and the spaces are very tight. And you need a period of adaptation, and he’s going through this period of adaptation.”

The squad is about to grow

The wait is almost over! Andres Cubas has received his visa and is now awaiting the return of his passport from the embassy before embarking on his Canada adventure with the Whitecaps.

“It can be something really fast,” Sartini said. “If he receives his passport from the embassy tomorrow, he can fly tomorrow here in Vancouver. So, the hope is that he can be here in the next few days.”

The addition of Cubas to the defensive midfield is sorely needed in Vancouver. Much has been written on Cubas’s ability to intercept, his speed in closing down opponents and his ability to force mistakes and win balls.

And that’s what he does; he wins balls before the back line has to worry about it. He’s a hunter that sits just ahead of the back line.

Sartini wasn’t one to contain his desire to add the player as soon as possible.

“As soon he will be here, since he was participating with his team [Nîmes Olympique in France] until a couple weeks ago, he’s ready to go. He doesn’t need any adaptation or fitness or whatever. So, whenever he can, he will be ready to help.”

It’s a safe bet that he’ll find time alongside Alexandre when he’s ready to go. Many in Whitecaps land have been clamouring for Russell Teibert to sit on the bench, and they may get their wish once these two players get to playing form.