Vanni Sartini would play chess, not checkers, and definitely not poker, since he’s never been one to hide his emotions.
The Vancouver Whitecaps’ coach is tactical and cerebral, but isn’t one to avoid risk when it comes to choosing his lineups, having platooned some unconventional lineups against Los Angeles FC in the past. So how is he going to approach Saturday’s MLS playoff game against L.A. at BMO Stadium?
“It’s time to be unpredictable,” he said. “But at the same time, even if you’re not predictable, you can be dangerous.
“For example, LAFC played against us in the same way for four games with the same kind of system, same kind of lineup, same kind of ideas and they were very hard to beat.
“Even if you know (Golden Boot winner Denis) Bouanga is very good, Bouanga scored anyways.”
In the Whitecaps’ first trip to L.A. to take on the Black and Gold this year, April’s CONCACAF Champions League game, Sartini readily admits his choice of starting 11 and formation was more plinko than chess. The Caps were down 3-0 in the aggregate two-leg series, and needed a massive performance to beat L.A.
Game 1: Whitecaps at LAFC
Oct. 28, 5 p.m., BMO Stadium
TV: Apple TV (free). Radio: AM730
Game 2: LAFC at Whitecaps
Nov. 5, 4:30 p.m., B.C. Place
TV: Apple TV, TSN, RDS. Radio: AM730.
Game 3: Whitecaps at LAFC (If necessary)
Nov. 9, 7 p.m., BMO Stadium
TV: Apple TV. Radio: AM730
An experimental, offensive-minded lineup saw Ranko Veselinovic as the only true centre back, Ali Ahmed and Ryan Rapaso as quasi-fullbacks, and Sebastian Berhalter in the middle of midfield. The experiment was over in 45 minutes with Vancouver trailing 2-0 in the game, and 5-0 on aggregate.
Two months later, the Whitecaps were back at BMO Stadium for a regular-season visit. Again, the offbeat lineup was straight out of a Nathan Shelley notebook — Ryan Gauld as a left wingback beside Pedro Vite, ball-moving defenders Luis Martins and Mathias Laborda bracketing Ranko Veselinovic on the backline.
This time, the queen’s gambit worked, with the Caps taking home a 3-2 victory — the first in MLS team history over LAFC on the road.
Sartini says he won’t unveil some madcap formation or lineup, or maybe he will, when kickoff rolls around at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
“We are … rooted in our identity,” he said. “But our identity doesn’t mean that you have do the things in the same way every time. The last two games we played in Seattle with three guys up top — Junior (Hoilett), Brian (White) and Ryan (Gauld). We played against LAFC with two guys. We can still make some little tweaks in who play with.
“So the most important thing is to be true to our principle and the choice that we’ll make … about the lineup and about the system will be only a part of the strategy.”
The last time the Whitecaps made the playoffs, it came down to a dramatic Decision Day result that was only made possible by a remarkable turnaround that saw them lose just twice in their final 22 games.
“I’m glad the game is in two weeks, because tonight we’re getting so drunk, we cannot play,” he said after the team’s 1-1 draw with Seattle that put them through to the post-season.
But it was back to earth in Kansas City, where Sporting blindsided them by switching up their high-press tactics in favour of a low block, confounding and frustrating the Caps in a 3-1 win. Sartini made himself accountable for the result, and wished he’d made adjustments earlier in the game, but it was a growth experience not just for him, but also for the players.
“When we went to the playoff in 2021 was we felt it like it was a miracle. We did an enormous celebration, the day that we went to the playoff — it was like winning the league,” he said. “So I think we arrived at the playoff game actually a little bit deflated. And Kansas City was much more used to playing that (type of) game instead of us, approached the game probably the better way than us.
“This time I think there’s much more awareness that we are not here because it’s a miracle, but because we deserve (to) and are a playoff team.”
LAFC isn’t a team that needs to switch styles or strategy, because they’re simply that good. It’s the same 4-3-3, the same wide wingers isolating players in one-vs.-ones, attacking through speed and transition, that Sartini has seen from them “99 per cent of the time” this year.
He expects to see the same thing Saturday, just amped up even more for the playoffs.
“I have to expect something different than last Saturday — I think expect (LAFC) to be even more aggressive. Yesterday, you saw Red Bulls-Charlotte,” Sartini said of the Eastern Conference play-in game, handily won 5-2 by New York over expansion Charlotte.
“I think it’s a classic game between a team that’s played the playoffs 14 times in a row, and a team in the playoffs for the first time. We need to know that the playoffs are different animal and we need to approach it … (turning) up a notch on the quality and intensity of the game that we have.”
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