Disappointed with season, Whitecaps see need for small changes but not an overhaul

Missing the playoffs was a disappointment for the Vancouver Whitecaps but that doesn’t mean the club needs a major overhaul during the off-season, Axel Schuster, the Major League Soccer team’s sporting director, said Wednesday.

“Everything is on the table,” Schuster told a season-ending news conference. “That doesn’t mean everything has to change.

“If you play in this league you want to make the playoffs. We missed them. Our job is to look into a lot of details of how that happened. Not looking for any excuses, but we have to look at explanations (for) what happened.”

Vancouver missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, finishing ninth in the MLS Western Conference with a 12-15-7 record. Their 43 points left the Whitecaps four behind Real Salt Lake who held the seventh and final playoff spot.

It was a roller-coaster of a season for the Whitecaps. They began the year 1-6-1 and sat at the bottom of the table following their first eight games.

Vancouver turned things around by collecting 39 points in 26 games — the second most of any team in the Western Conference — and winning the Canadian Championship.

The planets aligned down the stretch and Vancouver headed into the final game of the season needing a win to punch a ticket to the playoffs but lost 2-0 to Minnesota on the road.

“There are definitely a few things we have to improve,” said Schuster. “We have to do better next season.”

Head coach Vanni Sartini said he learned some important lessons in his first full season.

Sartini believes he could have made adjustments sooner to improve the team during the first eight games of the season. He also tried not to let emotions influence his decisions.

“I’m a very emotional person,” said Sartini. “When things go bad you need to be very strong in your convictions and try to work in a more objective way and not in an emotional way.”

Schuster said several factors contributed to the Whitecaps slow start. The team’s training camp was impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, limiting the exhibition games the Whitecaps could play.

Players were also dealing with injuries early in the season.

This year the Whitecaps plan to hold part of their training camp in Europe then attend a tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., where they will play other MLS teams, Schuster said.

The team is also looking at its travel arrangements. Four times last year the Whitecaps flew into cities two days early, thinking it would help players adjust to different time zones. They lost all four matches.

“Everything is on the table,” said Schuster. “How do we help players to perform better. There are lots of areas we can do that, on the performance side, on the physical side, on the medical side.”

On the personnel front, the Whitecaps have picked up the options on players like midfielders Sebastian Berhalter and Ryan Raposo, goaltender Isaac Boehmer and defender Julian Gressel. They remain in talks with defender Florian Jungwirth who is eligible for free agency.

The future of striker Lucas Cavallini remains in question. Schuster said the team remains in conversation with the Canadian-born designated player who earned US$1.4 million last season. The Whitecaps own his option.

“We have to be all on the same page,” he said. “What is his role? What we see for him as a role and what he expects for his role.

“It relates to a lot of other things. What kind of system do we play? What other players do we have? What are the signings we expect to have?”

Cavallini, who joined the team in December 2019 after the Whitecaps paid Liga Mx’s Club Puebla a club-record transfer fee of around US$6 million, led the team with nine goals and was second with 53 shots.

He also was suspended for four games late in the season after receiving a red card for stepping on the head of Nashville SC midfielder Alex Muyl’s head in the 53rd minute of 3-0 loss.

During the season Cavallini collected nine yellow cards and another red

The Whitecaps have until Nov. 14 to decide on Cavallini along with players like defender Jake Nerwinski, midfielder Leonard Owusu and forward Tosaint Ricketts. 

How the Whitecaps begin next season could impact Sartini’s job. He took over the team after Marc Dos Santos was fired in late August 2021 and guided Vancouver to a 7-2-5 record and a playoff spot. That earned him a two-year contract.

Schuster signed a four-year contract extension earlier this month.

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