Although the playoff ship sailed a long time ago, the Vancouver Whitecaps seem to be finding their form just as the season is coming to a close. On Sunday, the home side will have the opportunity to go out on their best stretch of games all year, and take 10 of 12 available points in their last four matches. While the decree “too little, too late” may be a popular one amongst the Vancouver fan base, for a team that has been focused on 2020 since the middle of the summer, the signs are encouraging.
One of those encouraging signs, and something that many Whitecaps fans had been waiting on for a long time, was the debut of Tunisian centre-back Jasser Khmiri.
I confess that I’ll miss the constant queries on twitter about Jasser’s status, and the persistent optimism from the club that he was about “two weeks away” for what felt like half the season. There were points where it felt like we were never going to see Khimiri take part in a full training session, or do anything other than run some laps around the training field or ride the bike in the gym, but thankfully, the day finally came, and it couldn’t have happened on a much bigger stage in MLS.
Khmiri was hardly perfect on Saturday, but he showed raw ability, as well as underrated awareness and intelligence (i.e. the offside trap) that should keep supporters salivating about the prospect of a full season from the towering centre half next year. While Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos may have been impressed by the Tunisian’s debut on Saturday, he rebuffed the idea that he might have been surprised.
“Guys, look, we watch players,” Dos Santos explained. “It would unprofessional on my part to watch a player and then bring him here, and say ‘Oh, I’m surprised that he’s good’. It would be very unprofessional. We watched him, we watched games. We sent a staff member to Tunisia. We knew that there was a lot of interest from French clubs, and Belgium clubs. He had a problem in his knee, when we brought him here. We took that risk, other clubs didn’t want to take that risk. Our performance group did a fantastic job with him. We know his qualities, the qualities of Jasser, he has very good height. He’s very good in the air, both attacking and defending. He’s comfortable on the ball. He’s a fast player for his position. He’s very aggressive, so positionally he could still grow. He’s an aggressive player, he’s young, and it’s his first game with the club.”
Serving as his centre-back partner in California on the weekend, Doneil Henry also chipped in with his thoughts on Khmiri’s perfomance, and given Doneil’s persistent interest in mentoring his young defensive compatriots with the national team, there’s no reason to think the Canadian won’t offer the same leadership qualities to his club teammates:
“I know when a player has been out for that long, he’s hungry. I was kind of nervous going into the game. When you’ve been out that long and you haven’t played in any warm-up games, and you go against a front-line like the one we played against, it’s not easy.
I just wanted to coach him throughout the game, and make sure he wasn’t overly excited to go into tackles. You can get burnt or do something wrong. Jasser was excellent for the game, I’m happy. I read that he had nineteen clearances, that’s amazing. It’s a good start for Jasser and there’s a lot to continue to do, and I just want to help him.”
Not to be overshadowed by an impressive debut, the Whitecaps’ Canadian contingent showed out on Saturday afternoon, and set an MLS record in the process. Marc Dos Santos fielded 6 Canadian starters, and was rewarded for his faith with three Canadian goal scorers, the first time ever that this had happened in an MLS match. Even though the Canadians were impressive, Dos Santos remained adamant in the importance of fielding the best lineup available, regardless of nationality:
“I play players who are the best options right now to help us win, regardless of the flag. It happens that the flag is a lot Canadian right now. That could change...I want to be fair. If a Canadian player deserves to be here and deserves to play, then he’s going to be here and he’ll play. At the end of the day, we’re trying to put players on the field who will allow us to win. It’s not about being Canadian, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish — it’s about who can help win. What I don’t want to be, because it’s dangerous for me as a coach, I’m born in Canada, I could have the reputation that I just want to play Canadians, but it’s not true.”
Turning the focus to the last match of the year, a home tilt with Real Salt Lake on “Super Sunday” afternoon, both the players and coach pointed to the role of spoilers as added motivation to close out the year on a positive note.
“The last three teams we played, it’s all teams that were fighting for something.” Dos Santos said “Columbus was alive, Houston was alive, Galaxy wanted to finish as high as they can in the standings, and yet we didn’t look like a team that gives up.”
Team MVP Max Crepeau also spoke to the role of playing spoiler, as well as the importance of making some positive memories to carry into next season.
“I think it [the win over LA] brings a positive mood, definitely. Because we’re not hiding you know, we had a difficult year. But with these results, I think it’s bringing more of a positive mentality to the team overall.”
“When you get out of the season, you think about the last few games. And when you start the preseason, you come out with the mentality of the last few games you played with the team. So I think yes, you can carry that into next year.”
“It’s important for them [the other teams], as you just mentioned, we’ve been in the spoilers role a little bit, and I think that we need to do the same thing [against Salt Lake]. Because if we screw with other teams we will do it, 100%.”
For Salt Lake, anything short of three points on the weekend erases their hopes of a home playoff match, and even if they’re able to secure the three points on Sunday, they’ll need some help to give Nick Rimando one last home farwell in the playoffs at Rio Tinto.
Finally, the match on Sunday at BC Place has been dubbed “Fan Appreciation Day” by the club, and even though Tossaint Ricketts has only been with the club for a short time, the Canadian veteran explained quite poignantly what the day is all about, and what it means for him and the team to take the field one last time at BC Place in 2019.
“We’re not only doing it for us, we’re doing it for the fans that have supported us all season. We’re doing it for everyone, the staff, everyone that’s put their work in all year and helped us out you know. We want go go out there and not only put on a performance for ourselves as a group, but also for the fans and for everyone in Vancouver that supports us.”