How the playoff-bound Whitecaps turned their season around

Nov 19 2021, 7:21 pm

The Vancouver Whitecaps are back in the playoffs, with a date against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday afternoon.

Just getting to this point was a huge accomplishment for Vancouver, after everything they’ve been through.

The Whitecaps went on a remarkable 10W-2L-10D run down the stretch to earn their first MLS playoff berth since 2017. They made BC Place a fortress, rewarding their hometown fans for standing by them by posting a 7-1-1 record on their home turf.

“A big factor has been coming back to Vancouver and playing at BC Place,” Whitecaps midfielder Ryan Gauld explained to Daily Hive. “Just from speaking to the guys, how tough it was to move their lives to Salt Lake temporarily for a few months and never actually knowing when you’re coming back to Vancouver. It was really tough for everybody.”

Closed-door player meeting in July

Floundering at the bottom of the Western Conference for much of the first half of the season, a crucial closed-door player meeting in July was the starting point for their resurgence.

Vancouver was still based in Utah without a timeline for a return to BC Place. Everyone had an opportunity to share their piece and say what they wanted, without any judgement.

“In the beginning of the season we struggled a bit in the locker room,” Jake Nerwinski said. “We had a good talk with just the players and after that talk we turned it around. It was a matter of everybody getting what they feel, think, out in the open and we got closer because of that.

“Coming together as a team really helped us make the playoffs. I think from there we really took off.”

Of all the teams Gauld has played in his career, how close is this Whitecaps team?

“I’d say it’s the closest,” Gauld admitted. “Everyone is willing to fight for each other. Everyone gets on with everyone which is very rare in a football changing room. It’s been really enjoyable.”

New players 

The additions of Gauld, Brian White, and Florian Jungwirth made a massive impact on and off the pitch.

Gauld instantly established himself as Vancouver’s best offensive player, and the Scottish midfielder finished the season with four goals and six assists in 18 matches. He’s a finalist for the 2021 MLS Newcomer of the Year award. 

The chemistry between Gauld in midfield and White at forward elevated the Caps offence. After joining Vancouver in June, White finished the season as the Whitecaps’ leading goalscorer with 12 goals. 

“We’ve come in and just helped along in the process,” Gauld said. “We’re just another three bodies that are here to help the goals of the club. You can’t really put your finger on what we’ve brought, it’s hard for me to say.

“The three of us have settled in really well, we’re really enjoying our time here. What I’ve seen of the group, everyone is really accepting of everyone that comes in. Being made to feel at home really helps.”

New coach, new strategy

As acting head coach, Vanni Sartini immediately brought a tremendously positive outlook to the Whitecaps. He has shown that every single player on his roster has a shot a playing. 

The 45-year-old has an unwavering confidence in his team and that is reflected in how the team played after the coaching change. 

“You can see that he brings this infectious energy every single day to the facility, and it rubs off on the guys,” Nerwinski said. “I think he’s made everybody feel important, like they have a chance at playing, starting, and getting in the game. I think that’s why our training has been so intense. Everyone truly believes they have a shot at playing and helping this team.”

But Sartini brought more than a new energy to the group. Vancouver’s new coach made a significant tactical change that had a major impact on the Whitecaps formation and defensive structure.

“When he came in we switched to a back three,” Nerwinski explained. “That was something we didn’t do all season. He thought we had the team for it and he wanted to see if it would work, and from the beginning it was proven that it did.”

The Whitecaps used a rotation of Nerwinski, Jungwirth, Erik Godoy, and Ranko Veselinovic as three main central defenders. That allowed Vancouver to have more attacking options on the flanks with Javain Brown, Bruno Gaspar, Russell Teibert, and Cristian Gutierrez.

Vancouver was able to counter-attack the opposition with numbers and support offensive players like Gauld, White, Cristian Dajome, and Deiber Caicedo.

Defensively, it takes a lot of  trust, communication, discipline to play in a back three — it doesn’t work without everyone on the pitch buying in. Wingers have to come back and strengthen the defence to make sure the opposition doesn’t over take the three defenders.

By making the playoffs, this is already a successful season for the Whitecaps, but they have an opportunity to do something special. They’ve been one of the best teams in MLS since July, and could be a force to be reckoned with.

Harjeet JohalHarjeet Johal

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