MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Vancouver Whitecaps face unfamiliar territory in 2022 under Vanni Sartini: Big expectations

It was end-of-season media day for Vancouver Whitecaps FC, but the big topic on Tuesday was the announcement that, after a wonderful stint as interim manager, Vanni Sartini was named head coach of the club.

Captain Russell Teibert was up first to address the media. But as Teibert was in the hallway about to turn the corner to the media room, he ran into the man of the hour.

Sartini joked with Teibert that he should tell the media how disappointed he is with the club's choice of a new head coach. The pair shared a big laugh.

“Vanni Sartini is one of a kind,” defender Jake Nerwinski said. “He’s exactly how you think he is in the facility, in the locker room.”

“He just makes you love the game by how much he loves it,” Teibert added.

It was no surprise Vancouver gave the authentically positive and genuinely charismatic Sartini the job, but he wasn't selected without a process. After Sartini took over as interim in late August, the club began conducting their coaching search. More than 100 applicants reached out, which seems to be par for the course around the league, and sporting director Axel Schuster talked about a couple of “interesting” candidates he spoke with. Sartini wasn't handed anything; he earned it.

“Vanni is not just getting the job because he was here and everyone was excited,” Schuster said. “He’s getting the job because he was the best candidate. … Vanni has got this job because at the end of the whole process, he was also the strongest candidate and the candidate that convinced us more to continue on our path to be an organization that develops itself step by step."

It became clear to Schuster at some point during their magical end-of-season run that Sartini would be the right man for the job, or at the very least their leading candidate. So Schuster quietly pulled back on the coaching search.

“I’m truly honored the club chose me,” Sartini said. “I will give one-thousand percent to try to repay that trust, to bring success to the city and to the club.”

Sartini joked negotiations didn’t take more than a minute over his contract, which lasts through 2023.

“It was very easy to talk. They wanted me to stay and I wanted to stay, so that was easy,” Sartini said. He noted his only demand was that his entire coaching staff remained in place. And they did.

Sartini even received a few inquiries himself, but he had no interest.

“My heart was here,” Sartini said. “I have to be honest, I won’t tell you who, but I had some guys who gently inquired to see if the deal was already done with Vancouver. But there was no chance for me to go to another club if Vancouver wanted me. I’m very happy to stay here.”

After an enthralling run over the second half of the season, Vancouver enter 2022 in something of an unfamiliar space compared to recent offseasons: There will be big expectations on this club, both internally and externally.

All three players interviewed Tuesday said the goal next season is making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, bare minimum, if not to host a postseason game at BC Place. Sartini said the natural expectation will be to get at least to the Conference Semifinals after being eliminated in Round One this year by Sporting Kansas City. Schuster consistently discusses taking the next step, so simply making the playoffs again won’t be enough.

The squad is in a really good spot as they enter the offseason. But it’s a delicate balance: Do you give them room to grow after a promising 14-game sample size or aggressively chase additions that may backfire or unbalance the locker room dynamic?

"To touch this group, it's dangerous"

The answer, as is often the case, is probably somewhere in the middle.

In the 14 games under Sartini, Vancouver had the second-best record in the Western Conference and third-best in the league. While a small sample size, it happened as Sartini worked to mold the team to his vision on the fly and wasn’t aided by a soft part of the schedule – they went 4W-2L-2D (1.75 PPG) against playoff teams.

Again, this came with little training time between games, let alone a full preseason to impart his ideas onto the squad. A number of players made individual improvements, as the team made an obvious jump. What can be accomplished when Sartini is given a full season?

“The group has been fantastic,” Sartini said. “This year, it’s no secret their togetherness and willingness to go through the obstacles to achieve something great is the most important ingredients to our success. The group is the leader. You don’t have one or two players who stand out, it was really a chemistry between a lot of players. I look forward to working with these guys next year.”

The roster has top-end, in-prime talent like Ryan Gauld and Maxime Crepeau, but they boast a number of talented young players like Deiber Caicedo, Javain Brown and many more. In a vacuum, all of that is a recipe for natural progression.

“To touch this group, it’s dangerous,” Schuster said. “Because you can make things worse.”

Schuster also joked they pretty much already have two new signings: Pedro Vite and Caio Alexandre.

Both highly-rated U22 Initiative signings, neither played a role under Sartini. 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.

Alexandre is likely a nailed-on starter on the preseason depth chart, and Vite wasn’t acquired for nothing. Both are expected to play big roles in 2022.

“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.

"With Pedro, he’s interesting. 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.”

There may be some outgoings, though. Eyes are on club-record signing Lucas Cavallini.

Cavallini endured a stop-start 2021, missing time with his national team and small injuries, both multiple times. Brian White was acquired to be another striker option in addition to the Canadian international but played so well he was undroppable by season’s end, leaving Cavallini on the bench more often than he’d like. He has a strong track record in Mexico and there are likely to be Liga MX teams looking at him.

That would open another Designated Player spot for the club to use alongside Gauld.

“In the second half of the season, when we had most of our players, we were the third-best team in the league,” Schuster said. “You better not touch too much in the group. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make the next step, but we still see a lot of those guys haven’t reached their ceiling. There is a lot we can do with this group, but we will react.”

Unlike any season in recent memory, though, the Whitecaps don’t have any obvious holes (pending departures). They have the flexibility to add to an already strong group and take their time being picky with the right acquisitions.

“While we’re working to increase the quality and the level of play of our team, scouting and recruitment becomes more complicated,” Schuster said. “We want to make the next step. Every new addition and change should increase the quality of our group. You have to find very good players to do that because we were the second best West team in the second half of the season. As I always say, we don’t want to sign the first one, we want to sign the right one. Last season proved we’re in the right direction.”