For the Vancouver Whitecaps, the 2020 MLS Season has been a long time coming, and if we’re being honest, it’s something that the owners, front office and coaching staff had their sights set on well before the 2019 season had ended.
So now it’s finally here, the first week of training camp is in the books, and the regular season will be on us before we know it - technically it starts next month, with the Whitecaps first home game on February 29th.
The burning question that remains is: Are the Whitecaps going to be significantly better than they were last season? The Whitecaps finished dead last in the Western Conference last year, with just 34 points in 34 games, and were only saved from finishing last overall in the league by expansion side FC Cincinnati.
In short, the answer is likely “Yes”. The Whitecaps are an improved organization, especially considering where they were this time last year.
Significantly, the front office side of the club feels much different: Axel Schuster and Mark Pannes represent the soccer and business sides of the club’s operations in a very open way, and if there are questions to be asked, we know where to direct those questions (for the first time in a long time).
On the soccer side of things, Marc Dos Santos won’t have to deal with the same carousel of players which he did at the beginning of last year, and with an improved front office, he’ll likely be able to focus more of his energies on coaching his squad, and less on impromptu scouting trips in South America. That seems like a good thing, not only for Dos Santos’ health, but also for the success of his team on the field.
On Thursday at training, Dos Santos commented on the improved level of competition at this year’s training camp, and why he’s more confident already heading into this season: “I feel that there’s so much competition...there’s a lot of competition at different positions, and when we make a couple more announcements, you guys are going to say “Where are all of these guys going to play?” and that’s a good problem to have, because last year sometimes it happened that we were looking at the bench and going “Who’s going to come in?” We want to have a lot of guys that are solutions, guys competing for positions, and I think that’s what we are going to have in San Diego.”
While in San Diego, the Whitecaps will be playing in three closed-door friendlies: against Columbus Crew (Jan 28th), FC Dallas (Feb 1st) & LA Galaxy (Feb 4th). This will be followed by another stint of training back in Vancouver, and then another three-game pre-season set in Portland from Feb 16th to the 22nd.
As indicated by Dos Santos, the roster heading into this season certainly feels more solidly constructed than it did in 2019, and MDS should also have a much better understanding of his returning players, and how to get the best out of them this year.
Yet that being said, in a lot of ways, the roster still feels paper-thin. Lucas Cavallini has a chance to be a bona-fide star in MLS if everything goes right, and that’s exciting. But there’s still a tall mountain to climb for Vancouver just to reach the playoff places, and one can’t help but wonder how Cavallini is going to react when the midfield can’t put a ball at his feet.
I remember how optimistic I felt about the likes of Lass Bangoura and Lucas Venuto at the beginning of last season, and how resumes which looked great on paper didn’t necessarily translate to MLS successes - both those players undoubtedly had the potential, but the fit just never quite seemed right.
Perhaps this year, with the improved front office structure, the Whitecaps will hit on all of their off-season signings. I’m not saying that’s what I expect, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.
The problem is, it still feels like the Whitecaps are relying on this happening for their success this year. Vancouver still has an open midfield spot in their starting lineup, and that’s if we assume Owusu is a weekly starter, which seems like a big ask for a young and largely unproven commodity.
When I distill things down, the start of the 2020 season leaves me feeling conflicted. Individually, almost every offseason addition the Whitecaps have made feels positive, and I’m particularly encouraged by the addition of Mark Pannes as CEO, and by the selection of Ryan Raposo in the SuperDraft (who looked terrific in his first week of training).
Yet despite these additions, I’m not sure if it will add up to a significant improvement on the field, at least not yet. To be a top team, you need a critical mass of players you feel confident in, and it doesn't seem as though the Whitecaps are even close to that plateau right now, at least from where I’m standing, and this becomes even more complicated when you consider the potential departure of In-Beom Hwang and/or Ali Adnan during the summer transfer window.
But if we ignore all the logic and intricate details of roster construction for a moment, something important stands out. The feeling around the organization, at all levels, is simply different this year. At long last, the Whitecaps seem to be beginning to understand the monumental challenge that lies ahead of them if they truly want to reach their goals, and while that doesn’t guarantee success, it’s the right place to start.