The San Jose Earthquakes roll into Vancouver Saturday night to face the shaken Whitecaps. The Vancouver squad, trying to forget the past month, insist they are focused on the games ahead of them and playing better.
Life has handed Marc Dos Santos a whole lot of lemons lately — some bitter-tasting citrus in the form of 6-1, 3-0 and 4-0 losses — so you’d forgive the Vancouver Whitecaps coach if he was to skip the lemonade and head straight for the Limoncello.
The 32-proof liqueur, a staple of the Mediterranean and the coach’s bar, might help ease the anxiety that comes with his team’s four straight setbacks — the latter three by those above scores to LAFC, Sporting Kansas City and New England.
Throw in the 1-0 loss to Seattle that preceded them, and the Caps have been outscored 14-1, shut out three times — and that’s not even including the scoreless draw to Canadian Premier League side Cavalry FC in the Canadian Championship.
But Dos Santos was clear-eyed and focused on his job Friday, getting his team ready for Saturday’s Major League Soccer match at B.C. Place Stadium against the San Jose Earthquakes with lengthy video sessions and an abbreviated on-field practice.
“I have to say that I embrace it. I love it. I’m exactly where I need to be right now,” he said. “I know these are times where I’m going to look back sometime and say it was worth it.”
Wednesday’s loss to the Revolution in Foxborough, Mass. kept the Caps (4-10-8) mired at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, stuck in a seven-game winless streak. In their first 11 games, they had three wins. In their last 11, they have one.
The recent string of losses have been perplexing, as a once-defensively stout team has been ventilated by three straight opponents, having surrendered 13 unanswered goals. The spirit that kept them in the games long enough for dramatic comeback ties against Sporting, Colorado and Dallas has been exorcised, replaced by a mentally fragile team.
“(It’s been an) especially tough 10 days. When you’re 6-1, 3-0, 4-0, it’s a lot. We’re in a moment right now that is difficult for us,” said Dos Santos. “This happens with many teams in the history of teams in MLS … we have to be strong. We can’t stay on that. We have to move on from this.
“I feel we’ve lost our identity. There’s this team, that in 10 games, had one loss and was growing and was feeling good. We have to remind players about that, because that’s who they were.
“It’s tough to read what happened. The loss in L.A. was hard. There’s kind of almost a ghost every time we concede, that how are we going to react. This wasn’t the mentality we were bringing until now. We have to find a way to click again, that if we concede a goal, it’s not over. That if we score first, it’s not over. A game has 90 minutes and we have to develop through that.”
Vancouver’s goals-for (22), goals against (38) and goal differential (-16) are all the second-lowest in MLS, just before expansion side FC Cincinnati — although the league’s newcomers have them trumped in wins, with five to the Caps’ four.
There was an understanding that this season would be a tough one at times, especially considering an unprecedented roster turnover that saw 18 players signed and 21 go out the door.
But there was hope that an organization flush with transfer money from the sale of Alphonso Davies to Bayern Munich would bring in some impactful — and expensive — players and begin a new era.
They spent nearly $2M on a transfer fee to bring in midfielder Inbeom Hwang, but the team still ranked 23rd out of 24 teams in MLS payroll, and the Caps are still near the bottom despite shelling out another $2M-plus on left back Ali Adnan’s transfer.
It shouldn’t be a surprise for those who remember the comments from minority owner Jeff Mallett at Dos Santos’s introductory news conference.
“(We have to) get the house in order first. Secondly, as far as less on absolute dollars, (focus) more on more efficient and effective spending. I think we as a club, as a collective, we haven’t have efficient and effective spending,” Mallett said in November.
“What bothers me most on that number is the inefficiencies in there. If you start with Marc settles in, lays the groundwork, gets it there, then comes in and says to be have a more effective way to identify players, to on-board players … then, at that point, Greg (Kerfoot) and I have always said, when we get to that point, OK, now we’re ready (to spend).
“We just haven’t put ourselves in that position. I’m a big believer Marc can get us there.”
The house is most definitely not in order. To continue in that renovation theme, they began a studs-down teardown only to install some plumbing that didn’t pass an inspection six months later.
Dos Santos has said he feels he has a core to work with, but is still six to seven players away from contention, and working with a roster that has some placeholder players.
And replacing them might not happen this year. The MLS secondary transfer window (July 7-Aug. 7) is open, but there has been little activity since missing out on No. 1 target Uijo Hwang.
Adding to the issues is the still-vacant opening for a head of recruiting. The Caps are still looking after failing to agree to terms with their first candidate.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. San Jose Earthquakes
7 p.m., B.C. Place Stadium, TV: TSN 1/4; Radio: TSN 1410 AM
Standing pat or bringing in a few minor players would be an unpopular decision, but Dos Santos is willing to take the heat.
“There are decisions that are good to make now, and others that we just have to take the bullets, be strong knowing that people get upset with results,” he said.
“I have to stick with the plan of improving this club, getting the best players possible into the club, and if that means I have to suffer today, it’s good. I’m made for that. There’s no problem.”
The playoffs are realistically out of reach at this point, with Vancouver nine points back of seventh place with 12 games remaining. Every opponent between the last-place team and the final playoff berth have two or more games in hand.
The post-season was one of the Caps’ primary goals this season, the other being the Canadian Championship. The former is unlikely, the latter isn’t. But it doesn’t mean that fans will see a sudden rollout of academy players into the lineup, even with Theo Bair getting two straight starts.
“We have to play every game still with the belief that anything is possible. Canada Cup is a totally different scenario,” said Dos Santos. “For us to play academy kids now because we won’t make the playoffs … no. If they don’t do well enough in training, how are they going to do in a game?
“I don’t think we should live in La La Land and think that just because they’re academy products they should play. Theo deserved (his starts). There are one or two players who have grown in training that may get their chance eventually. That has to be clear.
“Our kids have to understand it’s not going to be given to you by entitlement. Just because you sign an MLS contract you’re going to deserve to play in an MLS game. You might sign an MLS contract and never see the field.”
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