As they prepare for the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, the Vancouver Whitecaps suddenly find themselves down some of their most important players.
In roster updates announced on July 7, Vancouver revealed they'll be missing a handful of key contributors for the tournament, due to a combination of medical precautions and family obligations. Forwards Lucas Cavallini, Fredy Montero and Tosaint Ricketts, as well as midfielders Georges Mukumbilwa and Andy Rose will all not be participating when the 'Caps kick off tournament play.
They're all significant losses, with Cavallini standing out as perhaps the biggest, as the club's Designated Player forward. Speaking with reporters over Zoom from Orlando, Vancouver head coach Marc Dos Santos said they weren't easy decisions, but he felt it was important that the players knew they were supported by the club.
"It was hard for them," Dos Santos said. "Every individual conversation, if you take a guy like Lucas for example, he's already an emotional guy and he knows the effort that the club made to bring him here. He was emotional about not being with the team. But he always felt supported by the staff and everybody at the club that the most important is the situation with how he feels with his family, how he feels with what happened.
"A guy like [Ricketts], it was out of his control. He wanted to be here. Doctors said it was important not to be here in case something would happen. A guy like Andy and Fredy — all guys that wanted to be with us. It was emotional, it was hard talks. But what was important for them was to feel that everybody in the club supported the decision."
It won't be easy to fill the void, particularly at forward where Cavallini, Ricketts and Montero all play and all would have commanded significant minutes in a tournament set to have lots of fixture congestion and squad rotation. When he's thinking about how to manage his lineups, however, Dos Santos said he views the situation as an opportunity that he's hoping young players will grasp to make their name, as well as a chance for established players that are featuring to step up and fill the void.
Vancouver Whitecaps forward Lucas Cavallini (right) has withdrawn from the MLS is Back Tournament | USA Today Sports
"There's no doubt that the players that are not present are key players and players that help the team," Dos Santos said. "Now, with that being said, it opens the door for other young players. Ryan Raposo is going to have maybe more minutes than what was expected. Players like Yordy Reyna have the opportunity of stepping up and contributing more to the team.
"I think it's going to open doors for young players who are going to have the availability to showcase themselves and I don't have a doubt from what I've seen in training and what I've seen from them that we're still going to be a hard team to play against and beat."
Mentality-wise, Dos Santos said his hope is that his team will be able to spin it to their advantage.
Few were picking the 'Caps to make a run in the tournament anyway, given they finished last in the Western Conference last year, and they're probably being written off to an even greater degree given all the missing pieces now. But Dos Santos said that if there's a benefit that can come from that, it's that the team will be playing with nothing to lose, which can be a freeing feeling.
If that manifests itself on the field, Dos Santos said he still has plenty of belief the team can surprise people at the tournament.
"I have the belief, guys. I have the belief in these young guys, I have the belief somebody's going to show up, we'll get goals in other ways," Dos Santos said. "I want our team to be aggressive, to push. I don't want to back off and be afraid and 'Oh, now we're just going to wait for a mistake and bunker and counter.' No. If we lose, we lose with our head up and we lose because we tried to be aggressive to go at the opponent. Right now, we have nothing to lose. Right now, pressure cannot be on us. Whatever happens, it's not [a reflection of] reality, when you miss so many guys. So we have nothing to lose and that can play in our favor."