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To know where you’re going, you must know where you’ve been, but that’s a painful exercise for many Vancouver Whitecaps fans.
Consider November 2019: The Cascadia Cup Seattle Sounders had just won their second MLS Cup. Los Angeles FC, now just two years old, had finished the regular season as the Supporters Shield champions. And the Whitecaps had just completed their worst season on record — last in the Western Conference, and only better than an expansion team in the overall standings. Their leading scorer, Fredy Montero, had a meagre eight goals, and was about to defect back south to Seattle. The DP pool was a mixed bag, but also without any lasting power: Hwang In-Beom, Ali Adnan and Joaquin Ardaiz.
Jon Erice was supposed to be the midfield maestro, dishing out assists to the likes of Lass Bangoura and Yordy Reyna, but the Spaniard’s 33-year-old legs couldn’t keep up in MLS and he, too, was gone in a month.
And all the while, the stench of Bob Birarda and Anthony Blondell was still lingering, an ugly miasma that circulated around the team as the club hit its low point as a franchise.
So take a look around, Caps fans, breath in deeply and enjoy this moment.
Four years later, the team enters Decision Day having comfortably qualified for the playoffs, playing a brand of soccer that can be described with an adjective hitherto unused in team history — “attractive” — with likable, long-term (likely) and effective star players. The echoes of past scandals have waned, the executives involved in that time long departed or quietly sidelined.
There have been Cup wins — the Canadian Championship, twice, the Cascadia Cup — and fan-approved signings in Canadian international Sam Adekugbe and Richie Laryea.
A win against LAFC on Saturday (6 p.m., Apple TV, AM730), combined with a couple of other results, could see the Whitecaps finish the season as high as third place. Since that fateful November, when Axel Schuster also arrived at the club, the trend has been uphill.
“I think I said in the very first (news conference) that we want to develop the step-by-step. We don’t want to go for the one-hit wonder. We want to build something sustainable … ” said Schuster. “So if I go back to that and I look at this season, I think we definitely have done a step forward … So I’m happy with where we are at compared to if I go back to November 2019.
“Am I happy? Look, I’m never happy because I’m always thinking ahead, and thinking we could have done something better … I think the moment of happiness is really coming at some point in December when (Caps coach Vanni Sartini and I) go for dinner with a nice red wine and we think about the whole year, and we can enjoy the moment.”
The average attendance in the 2019 season was 19,514; this season, it’s been 16,220. It’s been nearly five years since the lower bowl has been sold out. Saturday’s game, with 22,000 tickets sold, is the first time that the team has reached the 20,000 mark this season, and only three times have they hit 19,000.
But the team has reason for optimism; season ticket renewals hit 95.4 per cent, and more than 1,500 new packages have been sold.
“I have said very often we have to continue to do what we do, do the best possible job, we have to continue to play exciting soccer and getting good results, and then people will automatically come and show up,” said Schuster. “I think (Saturday) is a perfect stage to showcase what this team has been the whole season. Not everyone has been here all season. Some people haven’t shown up that often. And now they’re all coming and I think for us it’s also a great stage to prove how we have developed this team, the performance of this team … and how exciting the soccer is that we play.”
If dealing with COVID-19 wasn’t enough — it’s an easily forgettable fact that the Caps played nearly a full season away from B.C. Place over 2020-21 — Schuster has to wrangle with a quickly evolving league. The club has never been a spend-free one, and even though ownership at one point had pledged to get in the top-third of roster payrolls in the league, that will never happen in the modern MLS. Not in a league where multiple teams have single players whose salary exceeds the Caps’ entire payroll.
The team has leaned heavily into the everyman image, with a wildly popular and vocally socialist coach, and star players in Ryan Gauld, Brian White and Andres Cubas, who are primarily described by their work rate — especially their “Working Class DP.”
Schuster has been communicating with Gauld’s agent all season about extension talks, with his contract expiring at the end of next season, and will get back to work with Nottingham Forrest and Laryea about constructing a DP contract for the wingback in the off-season.
“It goes back to what I said before (in 2019); we want to develop this club in a sustainable way,” said Schuster. “We want to do that in a certain concept, with a certain philosophy. And we have been very clear about that from the first day on … There are a lot of things we cannot even influence, they are outside of our scope. How does the worldwide soccer market develop? What are other teams doing in this league?
“For Saturday, for example, the only thing we can impact and influence is our own game and its own performance. And if we continue to focus on that week-in-week-out, I think we will become a better organization. There are good trends, but at the end, we have to prove every weekend again, and this is another weekend and that’s the only thing we can focus on.”
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