Even with just two teams remaining in the MLS Cup playoffs, the Vancouver Whitecaps (or what was left of the team at least), were hard at work on Thursday morning at the National Development Centre. For head coach Marc Dos Santos, continuity has been a huge priority as the team begins to focus its energies on the 2020 season, and training during the playoff window has been part of that process.
After a tumultuous 2019 offseason that Dos Santos felt he had little control over, the Manager seems highly motivated to not let this offseason get away from the club. Even so, Dos Santos expressed his frustrations with the prolonged offseason that lies ahead. Thursday was the final training session the Whitecaps will hold in 2019, and for the skipper, two and a half months without his players will be far too long:
“If you look at the international level, there’s no pre-seasons of three months.” Dos Santos said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous, you know. It’s a challenge MLS needs to think about, to have a preseason of three months is incredible. It’s too much, and even us now, we’re finishing our last day today, and tomorrow is November 1st. From tomorrow to the preseason, it’s two months and a half. At the highest levels, a player, if he gets one month off, he’s very very lucky. Players that play Champions League and play for their national team normally get three to four weeks. We’re going to have two months and a half for our players. Players doing what, you know? Following a gym program? That’s not good. That’s not good for the sport in Canada and in the United States. And that’s why we’ve tried throughout these sessions to at least keep them playing, and being in a soccer environment as long as we could.”
As much as Dos Santos might bemoan the offseason period, one “easy” way to keep his squad sharp deeper into the fall would be to take part in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Dos Santos explained that he’s found it difficult to watch playoff matches with his club not taking part, and also offered his thoughts on how the Western and Eastern semifinals went down:
“I don’t watch these games (the MLS Cup Playoffs), I watch the highlights because it bothers me to watch the playoffs and not be a part of it....I wasn’t that surprised with the Atlanta result. Because Atlanta has shown throughout the season that it’s a very strong team, but they had moments playing at home in big games that they didn’t win those games. Toronto went to win at NYCFC, so that wasn’t as much of a surprise for me as LAFC, because LAFC was a monster playing at home. LAFC was a team that won the majority of their home games, and last year that lost against Real Salt Lake in the quarterfinals of the playoffs, and then they were one win away from a final in the US Open Cup, losing against Houston on penalty shots, so in my head, there was no chance that something like that was going to happen for a third time. For me, it was the biggest surprise.”
Dos Santos wasn’t the only member of the Whitecaps who was perhaps a bit surprised by the MLS Cup semifinal results. Fresh off having his team contract option picked up for the 2020 season, Jake Nerwinski was keen to offer up his thoughts on the matchup, and did so in a rather amusing fashion:
“If I was a betting man, I would lose all my money. There’s no way I’d bet those teams to make it to the finals, they went into the two hardest places to play as away teams, and they came out with wins. I think it’s cool for the league that it’s been those two teams three out of the last four years, But I think, I don’t really care, because I want them to tie, can they tie? And then no one wins - no one gets to lift the trophy? That’d be fine with me (haha). I think it’s gonna be tough for Toronto to go and do it again in another crazy atmosphere.”
Nerwinski, whose spirits were high on Thursday at training, has had a good last few weeks. Not only was his contractual status confirmed for next season on the pitch, but the New Jersey native also announced his engagement to his long time girlfriend (now-fiance), Allie, early in October.
For Nerwinski, the upcoming break provides the opportunity to take a trip. When asked about his vacation plans, Nerwinski explained “We’re going to Ireland for 12 days. My fiance and I are going on a little tour, her family is from there.”
But as much as Nerwinski’s been buoyed by some recent life changing events, the 25 year old remains highly motivated to improve on the past few seasons, both personally, and as part of the team.
Nerwinski broke down the way in which his team's defense managed to have a good and bad year all at the same time, and where he thinks the team needs to improve most in 2020.
As much as any player I’ve spoken with this season, Jake appears to have a very good grip on what his team's strengths and weaknesses are, and what help they might need to make a jump forward next season:
“I have some unfinished business here, you know, this year was tough, last year was tough, and I think we’re building in the right way. We’ve still got a few key pieces that we’re missing, and hopefully, you know, we get that figured out. We’ve got a good core group of guys, and the coaches want to win, and we want to win. So next year we’re gonna be fired up to go...I can get a few more goals I think next year. I want to be able to help out on the attack a little more than I did this year. I didn’t have any assists (this year), and I think I can do better than that.”
“I think as a whole. We need to be better defensively, because we gave up a bunch of goals. You know that’s not just on the back four, I think that’s on the team as a collective. I think we’re just missing a few pieces, you know, maybe it’s up top, maybe it’s another playmaker to go alongside Yordy and In Beom to complete the midfield, to really make us dangerous.”
“I think most of our defenders had a good year. Doneil, I thought was very solid for us. Erik’s a great player, and we know Ali has a skillset that’s unmatched by really any left back in the league. I think it’s just a collective thing, you know, I don’t think it’s individual breakdowns as much as the team as a whole, being able to stay focused for 90 plus minutes.”
“I think in some games we kind of trapped ourselves, just kind of hunkering down in defense in our 18, I think we got stuck defending in our final third for the majority of games for long periods of time. And that tires any team out really, if you’re chasing the ball the whole time, so I think we need to establish a better playing style where we keep the ball more, where we’re more calm on the ball and more aggressive going forward, because you can’t just have a team that just defends for maybe 60 minutes at some points, that’s hard to do. It’s hard to keep a team off the scoresheet if you’re doing that.”
It’s appropriate that Nerwinski spoke about the “few pieces” that the club is still missing, because that will certainly be the order of the day for the remainder of the offseason.
Perhaps the largest of these roles to be filled isn’t even an on-field position, but rather the role of Technical Director, which after being announced during the summer, has shown no tangible signs of progress to date (if we exclude the hiring of a consulting firm - and that’s a whole other story). While there have been rumors, and potential names and dates whispered along the way, nothing has actually come to fruition. And with roster deadlines as well as the MLS Draft upcoming in the month of November, if the club is going to make a big move in the front office, they better do it soon.
What do you think about Dos Santos’ comments regarding the length of the offseason? What did you think about Nerwinski’s evaluation of the team's stuggles in 2019? Will the club hire a Technical Director this month?
Let me know in the comments!