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Ryan Gauld and Brian White sat crestfallen at the post-game podium, their shoulders sagging heavily under the mantle of bitter defeat.
It won’t feel like it to them, but they were the faces of success.
There was no escaping the reality that their Major League Soccer season was over, coming to a sour conclusion with a 1-0 home playoff defeat to Los Angeles FC — and referee Tim Ford, if you were among the 30,000-plus Caps fans and players who felt aggrieved by his officiating. But this season as a whole was a giant step forward for the club.
“We weren’t played off the park tonight,” said White. “We’re not far off being successful in this league, making deep runs in the playoffs, challenging for an MLS Cup. I think that’s the positive we can take out of this is that. We can fine tune a couple of things and we’re competing for the top (spot) in this league. I think everyone in the locker room has that belief that we can be that team.
“We’re obviously disappointed, but we will learn from it and we’ll come back next year with even higher expectations. Hopefully (people) can see that we’re building something here (that’s) very special.”
Gauld and White both had career years, with the latter scoring 15 goals and five assists, while the Scotsman had 11 goals and 12 assists, taking over the team’s all-time record for career assists.
The squad will return with most of the players we saw on the pitch Sunday, with a few question marks to be answered in the off-season:
Will Richie Laryea return next season, with a Designated Player tag?
Did Canadian international Junior Hoilett do enough to earn a roster spot, should he want it?
Russell Teibert cracked 300 career appearances for the Whitecaps this year, but only seven league games and no starts; will the veteran midfielder, Mr. Whitecap himself, be back?
Triston Blackmon formed a steady centreback partnership with Ranko Veselinovic, playing more outfield minutes than anyone except Gauld, White and Veselinovic, but hasn’t signed an extension yet.
Decisions will also have to be made about some other young players who are out of contract or have team options for 2024. Ryan Raposo, Levonte Johnson, Sebastian Berhalter, Simon Becher are all up on Dec. 31, but all have outperformed expectations this season, and will likely be retained.
The Whitecaps have made the post-season two of the past three years under Vanni Sartini, won back-to-back Canadian Championships, acquitted themselves well in both CONCACAF and Leagues Cup play against out-of-MLS teams, and scored the most goals in team history this year while playing an entertaining and attractive style of play.
Add it up, and it equals 30,204 — as in, their biggest crowd in their MLS era at B.C. Place on Sunday.
“I think people enjoyed watching the Vancouver Whitecaps this year. I think that’s something important that we’ve been able to achieve,” said White. “It’s brought a lot of excitement to the club, people who maybe haven’t watched the Whitecaps and aren’t fans of the Whitecaps (have) started to enjoy the way we played hopefully a little bit more.”
“There was there was a feeling that we could really go and do something in the playoffs. So it leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth,” added Gauld.
“It adds to the disappointment of tonight that such a good crowd turned out. You could see at the start of the game what it meant to all the people in the city that came out to watch. It just feels kind of sh—y that we couldn’t give them a result.”
“It was a hell of a ride,” said Sartini. “I always say that this year would have been special. It has been special. It could have been even more special.
“I told the players they need to be proud of the season that they did. If you do things in the correct way, the city responds. Everyone was so excited for this game and the atmosphere was electric. And I hope that this is the only the start and the best is yet to come.”
The aim will be to start 2024 on a winning note. The Caps were winless in their first five games of this season (0-2-3), a trend that plagued them for years. Consider their track record the past four years: 2022 (1-6-1); 2021 (2-7-3); 2020 (2-6-1); 2019 (1-5-2).
Sartini lamented the points lost in the start and other close games this season, and said in his post-game presser that if they had those points in the bag next season, they’d probably be top four. He also alluded they’d end up playing Inter Miami in the Championship game, since MLS “want to want the big guys (teams) to go there.”
Sartini also probably won’t be around the guide the club in their first few games, after he gave a blunt and impassioned post-game press conference following his ejection for seeing a red card for abuse of officials.
His reaction aside, the officiating by Ford in Sunday’s game has been nearly universally panned: The first-half penalty on Tristan Blackmon, his non-call on a shove in the back of Richie Laryea in the box, and the injury-time sequence that saw him first run over Caps midfielder Alessandro Schopf to spring an LAFC attack the other way. They scored on the play, but it was the Video Assistant Referee who had to intervene to chalk the goal off, for an offside the on-field crew should have caught.
“I think Tim is a good guy but … the referee was a disaster. We have to be completely honest. The referee was a disaster,” he said Sunday.
“At the end, we didn’t have a fair chance, to be honest. Because today, unfortunately, the referee had a bad game.
“I think we set the foundation to a fantastic season. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the club. So there’s an added responsibility to do well.
“The biggest takeaway on this season is that we are a team that can easily start the season next year and say, ‘We want to win this thing.’ That’s the biggest takeaway.
“The other takeaway here, let’s put an American flag instead of Canadian and maybe they treat us better.”
LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo had an encounter with Sartini after the whistle, and gave a wry smile when asked about it, giving a Leslie Neilsen “nothing to see here” response.
“Moments of the game. I don’t want to get into too many details, but just moments of the game,” he said. “That’s all. There’s no absolutely no issues between us. I have a great deal of respect for him and understanding for his frustrations tonight. Some calls didn’t go his way.
“Look, he’s an emotional guy, and that’s fine. We all react differently to to situations and his is a little more … energetic than maybe mine is, and not to the referee’s liking.
“So that was it. We just discussed in certain plays, that’s all, nothing, nothing really to report.”
Key Whitecaps dates in December
Dec. 1: Deadline for clubs to exercise contract option years.
Dec. 13: Free agency opens. The full list of players eligible for the Re-Entry Process, Stage 1, will be released.
Dec. 14: Stage 1 of the Re-Entry Process.
Dec. 21: The complete list of eligible players for the Re-Entry Process, Stage 2, will be released. Stage 2 begins at 10 a.m.
Dec. 24: MLS SuperDraft.
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