Stejskal: How Marc Dos Santos plans to remake the Vancouver Whitecaps

Marc Dos Santos - Vancouver - locker room

Marc Dos Santos has an ambitious plan for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

This winter, the new ‘Caps head coach will have some room to bring it to life.

Dos Santos, who was named Vancouver manager last week, told on Wednesday that the Whitecaps are “in a good spot” with their salary budget heading into the offseason. Vancouver’s three highest-paid players in 2018 – Designated Player Brek Shea, striker Kei Kamara and midfielder Aly Ghazal – are either out of contract or on a club option for 2019. The ‘Caps will also receive their massive windfall from Alphonso Davies’ impending move to Bayern Munich in January.

The expiring deals of Kamara and Shea, the option on Ghazal and Davies’ MLS-record $13 million transfer fee – up to $750,000 of which can be converted into General Allocation Money – will give Dos Santos plenty of space remake a squad that has missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons.

“I think the club’s in a good spot to make intelligent moves,” he said. “We just have to be smart and we have to stick to how we want to look on the field.”

That flexibility will be important, as Dos Santos’ vision for how he wants the Whitecaps to look could require some significant turnover. The 41-year-old, who had a great deal of success as a head coach in the lower divisions with the Montreal Impact, Ottawa Fury, Sporting KC-affiliate Swope Park Rangers and San Francisco Deltas and as a youth coach in Brazil before he joined LAFC as an assistant this past season, has a demanding set of principles he hopes to use to build a new identity for Vancouver.

He wants an aggressive defensive scheme in which individual players will press to win the ball while the team remains compact regardless of where they are on the field. He pictures a fast-paced attack that will quickly look to get vertical and will be able to keep the ball for long stretches. He’ll build his roster with that model in mind – even if realizing it could be tough for a Vancouver team that had the least possession and conceded the fourth most goals in MLS in 2018.

“I’m trying to take every decision for the club with my eyes on the model. What type of team we want to be, how we want to play, what type of intensity, what type of behaviors we want,” he said. “All my decisions are being taken based on the model and nothing else. So, the players that fit that model are in a good spot. The ones that don’t fit, we move on. It’s as simple as that.”

Dos Santos repeatedly returned to the idea of building a “model” or “identity” for Vancouver. He thinks the ‘Caps have lacked a consistent identity from the first-team through the academy in recent years. If they want to regularly compete with MLS’s biggest spenders, he said that will have to change. To compensate for their comparatively small payroll, they’ll need clearer ideas and more cohesion than their rivals.

Fortunately for the Whitecaps, Dos Santos has built successfully at his previous stops. His teams typically didn’t have the deepest pockets in their respective leagues, but they almost always thrived. That was in large part due to Dos Santos’ ability to sign and integrate players that fit his desired model.

He won the USL title with Montreal in 2009, took over Ottawa ahead of their debut season in 2014 and led them to the NASL title game in 2015, guided Swope Park Rangers to a runner-up finish in USL in their expansion season in 2016, then won the 2017 NASL Soccer Bowl in San Francisco’s first and only year as a club. He’s never done it in MLS, but the Montreal-born Canadian-Portuguese dual citizen has clear ideas about how he wants to play and a long history of finding players that fit his system and budget.

“I often say that I wasn’t microwaved. I’m not a coach that was playing and two years later became head coach or was an assistant coach for one year and became head coach,” he said. “I don’t come from that type of background. I think I was a lot of years in the school of coaching, I would call it, to learn to become better, to learn about the league.

“Going from the Impact, to Brazil, to building an NASL club in Ottawa, building an NASL club in San Francisco, working with the reserve team where Peter Vermes was the first-team head coach, working directly with Bob Bradley at LAFC, I think all of those were rich, very rich situations in my life that were more than a coaching course. All of those steps have allowed me to learn, to grow, to become better, and I took some experience in everywhere that I was.”

Of course, Dos Santos started with a blank slate in most of his previous jobs. He led Ottawa, Swope Park and San Francisco during their debut seasons, and was on hand for LAFC’s maiden run in MLS. Working for a first-year team has its challenges, but dos Santos didn’t have to worry about how roster holdovers would adapt to his system. All the players were his.

That won’t be the case in Vancouver, even with their flexibility heading into this offseason. Ten Whitecaps have guaranteed contracts for 2019, including midfielders Felipe, Yordy Reyna, Russell Teibert and Efrain Juarez and DP defender and captain Kendall Waston. Several of those players sniped at each other during Vancouver’s end-of-season media availability, and Waston has said repeatedly in recent weeks that he wants to leave the club this winter.

Dos Santos didn’t commit to moving Waston on Wednesday, but he reiterated his position from his introductory press conference that “the guys that are going to stay here are the guys that want to be here.” He hasn’t yet spoken with the Costa Rican international, but said he’s hoping to sit down with him this week. If Waston still wants to leave after that meeting, Dos Santos indicated that the Whitecaps will move forward accordingly.

Elsewhere, Dos Santos is working with Vancouver VP of soccer operations Greg Anderson to evaluate the current roster and determine which options the Whitecaps will pick up. He said the club is “100 percent looking” at Designated Player targets this offseason – they could have as many as three DP spots available this winter. He’s also in talks to hire three assistant coaches, something he hopes to finalize by the end of November.

Outside of the roster build, his biggest priority might be finding a head scout. Dos Santos will travel to Europe in coming weeks to pick the brains of several different clubs with “incredible scouting departments.” Dos Santos knows he need to ace the hire if Vancouver are going to find players that fit his model, get the club back to the postseason and continue his long history of winning.

“I just feel that I’ve prepared myself for 12 years for this job,” he said. “I feel ready. I feel re-energized in my levels and ambition. I want this club to do well.”