By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 19, 2019) US Soccer Players - Wednesday night in Vancouver was a big one. The Whitecaps, a team that hired a new head coach and turned over two-thirds of their roster this winter, won their first game of the season. The 1-0 victory over LAFC happened because of a smart defensive gameplan, the skillful work of Inbeom Hwang, and individual effort across the team.
LAFC dominated possession and fluffed a few half-chances, but in general terms, the Whitecaps managed the game well. It was not a smash-and-grab. At no point was the home side overwhelmed by the visitors. Even if it had been, the fact that Vancouver was the first team to keep LAFC goalless all year is a credit to them.
The Whitecaps haven’t been impressive this season. There was hope that new boss Marc Dos Santos would eventually find the right lineup and the right tactics to bring the MLS Cup playoffs back to western Canada. For years, Vancouver has existed in a zone of mediocrity that saw them bounce between being among the best performing teams in the league for shorts stretches and being an also-ran in an increasingly difficult Western Conference.
For the Whitecaps, identity was a nebulous thing. They didn’t play any particular brand of soccer. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re winning, it’s often a mark of questionable leadership. The club doesn’t spend enough money to keep up on talent alone and hasn’t taken a strong enough philosophical stance to carve a different, successful path.
Carl Robinson struggled to bring consistency to Vancouver and paid with his job late last year. Though the club only missed the playoffs by a handful of points, there was no real hope for dramatic improvement in 2019. Rifts in the locker room exposed in the harsh glare of the season’s failure only added to their issues.
Dos Santos will get time to make his plans work. Getting the job in Vancouver was a big deal for the 41-year old and something of a coup for the club. Dos Santos is Canadian who earned his chance to coach a top-flight team in his home country after years of working as a lower division manager and an assistant at the MLS level. His success in the NASL, USL, and as an MLS assistant made him something of a hot property going into the winter.
In a league that is turning strongly toward foreign coaches with proven pedigrees abroad, Dos Santos’s hiring bucked the trend. It sent the message that it was still possible to climb the ladder into MLS. It was also a very Vancouver hire, meaning that Dos Santos was well-respected but not flashy.
The win over Bob Bradley and LAFC on Wednesday was made sweeter by the fact that Dos Santos served on Bradley’s staff last season. In the lead up to the game, Dos Santos talked about the soft spot he had for the California club but downplayed the need to prove anything. For Dos Santos, the goal is to turn Vancouver into a winner.
The Whitecaps needed seven games before getting the first win of the new season. Dos Santos waited two-and-a-half months for his first division victory as a head coach.
Under normal circumstances, the win would be the headline in British Columbia and a hopeful step forward. The ‘Caps players and coaches exploded with emotion at the final whistle, a reflection of the work necessary to get to that moment. The first victory of a new era is certainly worth celebrating, especially when it comes against a top team. Not only did the ‘Caps win, but they also beat the consensus best side in the league.
However, dark clouds swirl around the Whitecaps. Any joy taken from the win on Wednesday night is dampened by a troubling story that is breaking open in the current moment. Though it has nothing to do with Dos Santos or any of his players, it is affecting the relationship between the club and its fans.
In the 35th minute of Wednesday’s game, two of the team’s leading supporters groups executed a planned walkout. The move was a protest, meant to express displeasure on the part of The Southsiders and Curva Collective with the club’s response to allegations it failed to police abuse by a coach in its ranks 10 years ago.
Players in the club’s women’s U-20 program in 2008 spoke out in recent months to outline a series of troubling, and in some cases potentially criminal, acts on the part of a coach employed by the team. If the story was simply a Whitecaps one, it would be bad enough. That the ‘Caps were the dominant force in Canadian player development in the women’s game at the time connects the scandal to the Canadian Soccer Association. Back then, Vancouver conducted an investigation and parted ways with the coach by mutual consent. Neither the Whitecaps nor the CSA took further action.
That decision allowed the coach to pop up elsewhere in the girls’ youth game in Canada. When Whitecaps supporters discovered that fact through the revelations of Ciara McCormick and others, they took it upon themselves to send a message.
Those responsible for the failure should be held accountable and there are things that are much more important than soccer. Still, Dos Santos’s job is made harder by problems that affect his bosses. Instability at the club, in any form, will impact the MLS team. It would be silly to suggest that the Whitecaps senior men’s side will simply move along, never affected by the scandal that is rising quickly around them.
Dos Santos is juggling plenty with a squad rebuilt from the ground up during the offseason. Eighteen new players arrived in Vancouver this season, representing a vast array of countries and soccer cultures. By putting together a team so rich in perspective and experience, Dos Santos is hoping to build a winner in British Columbia.
Wednesday might have been the first glimpses of what could be. The squad has exciting talent with Inbeom and others and Dos Santos has clear ideas on how to win games. Fans are willing to forgive a slow start for a likable team that tries to entertain as it also tries to win.
On the field, Vancouver has answers. As the supporters made clear on Wednesday night, that's not necessarily true for the club as a whole.
More From Jason Davis:
- Barco and Browne in a changing MLS
- The LA Galaxy makes a defensive move
- Depth becomes an issue for DC United
- Detroit City looks for its place in American soccer
Logo courtesy of the Vancouver Whitecaps