Three Big Questions

Three big questions following Vancouver Whitecaps FC's 2021 season

The 2021 MLS regular season has long been over and the unforgiving nature of single-elimination playoffs has sent more and more clubs officially to the offseason, joining 13 clubs that missed the playoffs.

Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With most clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.

He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.

The big picture

Few seasons serve as a better microcosm of the highs and lows that can exist inside one MLS campaign than Vancouver Whitecaps FC's 2021.

Off the field, the year started with uncertainty thanks to the border situation between Canada and the United States resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. They spent the first half of the year "home" in Salt Lake, Utah, and never quite knew when they'd be going back to Vancouver. When the Canadian clubs eventually got the all-clear to return, Vancouver were last. They had a long-drawn-out process to sign Ryan Gauld, factoring in difficulties with his former club as well as visa/travel delays and such.

On the field, they had an early nine-game winless run that spanned more than two months. The group underperformed and there was a coaching change. That was the low.

They experienced a true high, with Vanni Sartini taking over as interim head coach and guiding the club on a memorable run above the playoff line over the season's last 14 games. Their Decision Day draw against the Seattle Sounders to secure qualification in front of a BC Place crowd of 25,000-plus was phenomenal. They crashed out of the playoffs in Round One against Sporting KC, but head into the offseason with a clear foundation and genuine optimism.

The first big question was answered, with Sartini keeping the head coaching gig on a permanent basis. We've covered Sartini's impact and future as well as Gauld's impact – sustainable in the small sample size? – at length so let's focus elsewhere in this space. What else have they got on their plate this winter?

What does Cavallini's future hold? (And FWD depth chart?)

The Whitecaps' run under Sartini happened largely without club-record signing and DP striker Lucas Cavallini.

Cavallini started just three times under Sartini and failed to score, with Brian White the preferred center forward as the season drew to a close. Cavallini and White are similar in attacking style, in that they are both traditional center forwards. Sartini generally preferred one of them alongside a more dynamic type, like Cristian Dajome or Deiber Caicedo, with Gauld operating as a free-reign creator. White is back and had the best stretch of his career in Vancouver. What does that mean for Cavallini?

“As long as he’s under contract, he will return," sporting director Axel Schuster told media after the season when asked about Cavallini's future. "This is a general saying for me, but every player at this club is for sale, it depends on the offer. If someone wants to leave or if another club is totally attracted to our player, things can change. That’s just the reality.”

Cavallini, who turns 29 at the end of December, still has value. The Canadian international has a strong record in Liga MX and Transfermarkt's Manuel Veth reports there is still interest there. Obviously Cavallini would prefer not to be a second-choice forward, and the Whitecaps would prefer not to use a DP spot on a second-choice forward, so a move would make sense if the right offer presents itself.

“Lucas had a very unlucky season," Schuster said. "He didn’t have a preseason, he was gone during the season and was twice injured. He was not in a situation that was satisfying as him, but he showed up in an amazing way in the locker room. He gave a lot of positive energy, that was a strong commitment as a DP to support the other guys. He had a part in our successful story.”

What happens with Cavallini informs what's next, and there are more questions over the attack. If he leaves, they obviously need a starter-level replacement to alleviate the scoring burden from White.

It's a bit of a difficult spot, though. Invest another DP spot in a center forward and you run the risk of creating a similar problem where the new signing or White won't find enough minutes. And that's no guarantee it'll work. The Red Bulls shelved White in favor of Fabio and Patryk Klimala. The pair had a combined 12 goals from open play ... the same as White. Fabio/Klimala played 4,292 minutes combined. White played 2,122 mins.

Dajome had a strong season, particularly under Sartini, but last year was the first time in the 27-year-old's career he scored more than five goals in a campaign. Caicedo and Pedro Vite can play that role as well, and have plenty of talent, but is it reasonable to expect either or both consistently produce goals and assists in 2022? Then again, signing another player for that role could block their opportunities and the Whitecaps' investment in the pair.

It's a good problem to have. Vancouver don't need to do anything, so they can be patient and selective with potential additions. But it's still a potential issue.

Where to focus reinforcements?

The Cavallini question dictates needs up top a bit (plus what roster mechanisms and potentially funds are available). Irrespective of what happens there, Vancouver have some flexibility with a DP spot (that can only be used on a young DP because they have all three U22 Initiative slots filled). If Cavallini goes, another DP spot will be open and can be used on a senior player.

Some players have their futures undecided as well. Vancouver are in talks with Sporting CP about finding a new purchase option for Bruno Gaspar, while they are also in talks with Andy Rose and Tosaint Ricketts. Rose played a bigger role than expected this year and is a valuable veteran presence in a young group. Gaspar played both wingback roles, an attractive quality in a salary-capped league. Ricketts was another depth option up top.

With Sartini shifting the squad to a three-center back system, perhaps another starting/rotation central defender could be on the list of targets to join Erik Godoy, Ranko Veselinovic, Florian Jungwirth, Jake Nerwinski and possibly Rose. Wingback will look light if Gaspar doesn't return, too.

For the first time in a long time, the Whitecaps don't have any obvious needs. Every team can always improve, but there aren't glaring holes/deficiencies at the moment. The foundation built over the previous four transfer windows is to thank for that.

Plus, there will be some fresh influence on the team that ended the season so strongly.

“We have already two new signings, almost," Schuster said. "Caio [Alexandre], we added him last season for a lot of money, will return. He hasn’t played a lot of minutes because of a bad injury and the other is Pedro Vite, maybe the most unlucky player in the squad. It took us two months to get the paperwork done."

Alexandre, who had an impressive first 11 starts in MLS, endured a season-ending injury two weeks before Sartini took over. Vite had to fight through a two-month visa delay and then two-week quarantine before he could even join full team training. The 19-year-old never made his MLS debut.

Can the young guys take another step forward?

To keep playing on the fan-hated "Like a New Signing!" theme, there should be natural progression in this Whitecaps squad even if they do nothing. And, again, it's worth mentioning it's wildly unlikely they won't make some meaningful change.

Alexandre seems like a no-brainer starter, it's a shame he didn't get a run under Sartini because of that injury. His forward passing and deep-lying playmaking are something no one else on the team really has. He and Gauld seem like a wonderful fit.

“Caio is a midfielder that is different from all the other midfielders we have,” Sartini said. “He has different technical qualities, he can play those vertical passes. He’s very aggressive and committed defensively. From what I’ve seen, I really like."

Vite is another dynamic attacker. The Ecuadorian youth international isn't far away from the senior team and already has Copa Libertadores experience. While he was unable to debut in MLS this year, he had plenty of time training with the Whitecaps first team and adapting to life off the pitch after visa/quarantine delays.

"With Pedro, he’s interesting," Sartini said. "We worked together for like three weeks, after he went five months without training basically. The first week I was like ‘Oof, is he really like this?’ Then after five training sessions, it was easy to see his potential. He’s very intelligent, he’s a guy who is very good technically but comes with a team-oriented spirit.”

Past those two rising talents, fellow U22 Initiative signing Caicedo had a strong debut MLS season, with 5g/7a in 33 appearances (24 starts). All while playing his age-21 season in a new country, on a team that didn't get to play at home until the summer and had a coaching change mid-season? Really strong.

Javain Brown surpassed all expectations for his rookie season and even played himself into the Jamaican national team. Veselinovic turns 23 a month into next season and there are a handful of intriguing homegrown prospects who should be pushing in preseason to make the squad. Maybe some regression will come from their 14-game run under Sartini, but there are a number of reasons for optimism as well.

Depth chart following roster decisions
VAN depth chart post roster decisions

Couple thoughts:

  • Bringing back Bruno Gaspar and Andy Rose would be strong depth/rotational moves if the money is right.
  • How often can Ryan Gauld and Pedro Vite play together?
  • Can four of White, Gauld, Vite, Caicedo and Dajome play together without sacrificing defensive structure?
  • Who is the best partner for Alexandre in the middle?