Yes, it came one day after they had lost 4-3 to Canadian Premier League side Pacific FC in the Canadian Championship’s preliminary round, a group coached by former MLS defender Pa-Modou Kah. But they’re also eight games unbeaten in league play heading into a Week 22 matchup against Real Salt Lake on Sunday (10 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) at BC Place.
Yet as Whitecaps FC sporting director and CEO Axel Schuster sees it, this recent stretch is misleading. They’ve taken five draws and three wins, all following an eight-game winless run from mid-May through early July. And they’re 10th in the Western Conference playoff race, three points adrift of their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearance since 2017.
Summed together, Schuster was left feeling like “this project needs another push, that this project needs some new life.” And as these things go, Dos Santos was dismissed.
“The results maybe at some point even have been a little bit fake for us and we were passing on a few fundamentals you have to do in the game,” Schuster said. “And I think yesterday it was the last drop that came to add to the conviction that this is necessary. To bring up one stat, Pacific FC had yesterday eight shots on target, [which] is the highest number this team had in the entire 2021 season.
“It's something we see in a lot of games for us and we have some of those games we have survived because of an amazing job our goalkeepers have done and some of those games we have survived because our last defense line has defended with a lot of passion and willpower and effort. But this is not continuing all the time, you cannot rely on that.”
One match Schuster pointed to was their 2-1 win over LAFC before the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target, which marked their BC Place return and first game before home supporters in 539 days. They rallied and netted an 89th-minute game-winner through Ryan Gauld, their new Designated Player and much-coveted No. 10, but were outshout 24-10 and relied on a Team of the Week presented by Audi performance from goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau.
The recent pattern, from Schuster’s point of view, has been deceptive.
“In reality we had a great experience, a great Saturday last week and with a great result,” Schuster said. “But I'm convinced if we played that game 10 times, we lose it eight times. It's also maybe a little bit of a fake impression that we're on a good way. Although result-wise we are on a good way, I also don't want to wait until the results have copied what we see on the pitch or saw on the pitch in several games.”
With Dos Santos out the door, Vancouver's director of methodology Vanni Sartini will serve as acting head coach. Assistant coach Ricardo Clark and goalkeeper coach Youssef Dahha will also remain with the first-team staff.
And how quickly might Vancouver look to fill their vacancy? Patience is the operative word, per Schuster, as they leave behind the Dos Santos era, which included a 22W-37L-18D record across two-plus seasons.
“We never want to hire the first one, we want to hire the right one,” Schuster said. “I think we said that as we were looking for a No. 10. I think Ryan Gauld also yesterday proved that we signed the right one, so it is the same as the coaching decision. You can way fast hire somebody, but it is hard to correct the mistake if you hire the wrong one. So it has to be the right one.
“We are not feeling rushed because with Vanni, Ricardo and Youssef we have a group here that knows the club, that knows the league, that knows what's necessary to do. We will see when the right candidate is ready, but I also don't say that if we find the right one next week that we would not hire him because it would be too fast. So it's open.”
Whatever comes next, Vancouver are maintaining high expectations from their 2021 campaign. Eight of their last 14 games are at BC place, a welcome reprieve after COVID-19 travel restrictions left them setting up a home away from home at RSL’s Rio Tinto Stadium, only to recently return to Canada.
And when looking at their roster, Schuster sees plenty of pieces that can spark success – ”we have now the skill level, we have the quality to create chances and to score goals.” Gauld and No. 9 Lucas Cavallini are their two DPs, and wingers Deiber Caicedo and Cristian Dajome can prove electric at times. The season-ending injury to U22 Initiative midfielder Caio Alexandre is a tough blow, while their defense is in the league’s bottom third (30 goals allowed).
Now, Schuster hopes this “wake-up call” can get everything aligned.
“We want to be in the playoffs after the last game here at home against Seattle and I think that we maybe need that push,” Schuster said. “I'm convinced that we need that push and that also some of our guys need a little bit of a kick to get rolling in the last games now with a lot of home games to get there.”