Eighteen months ago, a scenario in which BC Place would be home to over 25,000 fans for a Vancouver Whitecaps FC match was borderline unfathomable. Heck, even four months ago when the Whitecaps were still playing “home” games in Utah, it seemed a dream off in the distance. A cruel mirage in a pandemic-fueled hellscape.
That distant hope arrived eventually and circumstances merged beautifully on Decision Day. After returning to BC Place at the end of the summer, the Whitecaps' home form aided a run up the table. They hosted the high-flying Seattle Sounders in their final game, knowing a point would be enough to secure an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs place – the improbable destination of their improbable journey. The supporters showed up for the occasion, as did the players. They did just enough to earn a playoff berth with a 1-1 draw.
It was time to celebrate. As the club enjoyed the achievement that night, sporting director Axel Schuster addressed the room. He asked if anybody didn’t believe what the team showed down the final stretch was the start of a sustainable foundation and push for 2022.
They all believed.
“I would like to have a season that we only notice we’re in the playoffs and not celebrate it. But we’re doing things here step by step,” Schuster told MLSsoccer.com before their Western Conference Round One game Saturday vs. Sporting Kansas City (5 pm ET | UniMás, MLSsoccer.com & App, TUDN). “We know where we’re coming from, and how challenging the last 18 months have been for the Canadian teams, I think it was a very good moment to celebrate.”
That belief was evident in the summer, even as the Whitecaps were eliminated from the Canadian Championship against CPL club Pacific FC, even when they had three wins in their first 18 MLS games this season. Under the guidance of interim head coach Vanni Sartini, Vancouver lost just twice in 14 games. Every result was absolutely necessary, finishing just a point ahead of the eighth-placed LA Galaxy.
“Well, the first day my goal was not to screw up,” Sartini quipped about taking over in late August.
At the risk of oversimplifying a 34-game season – and not to mention all of the foundational work that came prior to opening day – the Whitecaps’ resurgence in 2021 was fueled by three key dates.
The Whitecaps knew they'd be without club-record signing Lucas Cavallini for weeks at a time, as the forward would be with Canada's national team, so they were in the market for another forward. They landed on Brian White, who fell out of favor with the New York Red Bulls under a new head coach (Gerhard Struber) after being named the club's offensive MVP in 2020. He was acquired for $400,000 GAM (with a further $100k GAM in incentives).
“I have to give credit to the scouting/recruitment department,” Schuster said. “The moment we said we needed another striker, they came back with a few options. White was one of them. The Eastern Conference for us the last two years has been like another country. It’s not like we know a lot about every single player in the other conference. He was a player brought up by them, who said he’d be the perfect fit.”
White has been a revelation, with 12 goals and five assists in 27 matches for the Whitecaps. With Sartini largely sticking with a one-striker formation (or at least playing with a more dynamic option like Cristian Dajome or Deiber Caicedo next to a traditional forward like White or Cavallini), White has retained his starting spot ahead of Cavallini.
“Brian’s goal-scoring record with the Red Bulls was really good in this league. That was an attractive proposition,” director of recruitment Nikos Overheul said. “And we talk about finding guys with high character. Brian, by all accounts, was one of those players. You can see that on the pitch. That was another thing we really liked. He could also link-up play and is an elite defensive forward. We knew exactly what we were going to get, so we’re very happy about that.”
White brought a solid sample size in MLS, scoring 15 goals in 2,628 minutes with the Red Bulls. His 12 goals for Vancouver have come in 1,928 minutes, a similar rate. His skill set fits perfectly with attackers Ryan Gauld, Dajome and Caicedo.
“Brian is having the best stretch of his career, but he’s not doing anything he wasn’t already doing at the Red Bulls,” Overheul said. “The things he was good at with the Red Bulls, he’s good at here. Just more so, basically."
Sartini echoed the team-first approach White brings.
“Brian White is the example that if you’re selfless for the team – he’s one of the most selfless and team-oriented strikers I’ve ever seen in my life – the good is going to get back to you,” Sartini added. “You’re in the right position, the ball will come back to you.”
After an electric season in the Portuguese top-flight despite playing for an overmatched Farense side that got relegated this spring, the Whitecaps beat out several European clubs to sign Scottish midfielder Ryan Gauld. It capped a long and winding path to replace In-Beom Hwang after his transfer to Russian Premier League side Rubin Kazan.
It's very easy to see Gauld's technical qualities. Like any other hugely talented No. 10 in MLS, it jumps off the screen. His smoothness, ability to impact the game, find pockets of space and see passes that few others see (or try, at least) don’t take a top-level scout to deduce.
Since his debut (August 8), Gauld is fifth in MLS in chances created, eighth in assists and eighth in expected assists. In the 16 games Gauld has played at least 45 minutes, the Whitecaps are 9W-3L-4T (1.93 PPG – over a full season, that would have been first in the West or second in the East). But his overall development into a complete player is what led him to success in Portugal, and now Vancouver.
“Ryan is a DP, but he works like a guy in his first season out of college,” Sartini said. “It’s an example for everyone. He’s a high-quality player, the highest-paid player on the team, but he does everything asked of him.”
Gauld is 17th in MLS in distance covered per 90 minutes (minimum 1,000 minutes). That's the 96th percentile for all players that qualify. Like with White, work-rate and ground-covering were qualities the recruitment department focused on in that long search for a DP No. 10.
“It was really important for us not just tactically in our team, but an example to the younger guys,” Overheul said. “Ryan knows more than anyone else in the team what it means if you don’t do the work. He’s tremendously talented, but that alone will not get you anywhere. We’re a team that wants to develop young players, that’s a hugely important message.”
When the Whitecaps parted ways with Marc Dos Santos and named Sartini head coach, they were far adrift of the playoff line. Results started turning their way just before Dos Santos was let go, something Schuster acknowledged when addressing media to explain the decision. He called it a "fake impression."
Particularly with Gauld and White added to the mix, Vancouver were capable of much more, both measured by results and performance. Sartini took over in part because Schuster deemed it important someone from within the organization stepped in as head coach, someone who knew all of the difficulties of the last year.
“To be honest, when they gave me the job, I thought it’d last for a few weeks and then they’d give it to someone else,” Sartini said. “My objective was to win so that if in the end, we didn’t make the playoffs by one or two points, it wouldn’t be my fault.”
Sartini had some thoughts on how to tweak things. He wanted to shift to a three-at-the-back system for defensive solidity and the ability to be more aggressive against the ball. The system change would also allow the club to play without true wingers, as Sartini believed Vancouver were too easy to play through, particularly in transition.
“I was sure we had the right team, we had all of the tools,” Schuster said. “Maybe we just needed to shake everyone and say ‘guys, we’re not giving up on anything here.'”
All of this has produced at least one more game: Vancouver's playoff test on November 20 at Sporting KC's Children Mercy Park.
It’s the first time the Whitecaps have made the playoffs since 2017. And perhaps for the first time in much longer than that, the team feels like they have a recipe for sustainable success.
“When we beat San Jose at home 3-0 and we played fantastic, I really believed we could make it,” Sartini admitted. “I tried not to show the players, because at that moment I was a little scared. At the beginning, it was so far away. Now it was real and we didn’t want to miss it.”
Sartini will remain interim head coach through the playoff run, then he and the front office will discuss his future. He joked he hopes he’s interim coach through December 11, the date of MLS Cup.
“Maybe we are out against Kansas City and we say good job Kansas City. But we’re here, we don’t feel satisfied,” Sartini said. “This was the appetizer, now for the pasta.”