I got the chance to chat this week with Samuel Rowen over at our sister site Eighty-Six Forever (SBNation’s Vancouver Whitecaps site). We exchanged a few questions to get some thoughts about the current state of the clubs and how Saturday’s match might go.
We Asked Them
Q. Vancouver went on a tear last season to make the playoffs, but at the start of this season, they have lost three and drawn one. What changed in-between the end of last season and the beginning of this one to cause this?
A. Luck, for one. The Whitecaps were winning on the thinnest of margins last season and I think we saw that in the playoff matchup with SKC at the end of last year. Once they conceded a goal, it was really difficult for them to get back into the match against a really good team. Injuries would be the other answer, both Brian White and Ryan Gauld have been limited up to this point in terms of their impact and those were Vancouver’s best two contributors last season. Caio Alexandre has also been absent, first with visa issues, then fitness, and he was supposed to be a key starter in the center of the midfield.
Q. Speaking of that good run of form last season, most of it happened under the direction of interim and now permanent head coach Vanni Sartini. What do the fans think of him? What are his strengths and weaknesses as a coach?
A. Personality-wise he is very likable, but it always helps when you go on a winning run. Vanni is not afraid to rotate his squad, but he is also very consistent with his tactical identity. It’s a three at the back system that puts a lot of focus on the wingbacks and usually employs a front three with two inside forwards and a striker. As we’ve seen so far this year, the squad might not match up perfectly with this identity, so it will be interesting to see if he is willing to make tweaks to his system, or if the players will be forced to adapt. Vanni comes from a background of coaching, and in particular, coaching coaches. There is little doubt about his knowledge of the game, but it’s obviously a different animal to translate that to results at a first-team level consistently, as well as dealing with all the other responsibilities of being the bench boss. He was playing with house money last year, now we get to see him truly tested.
Q. I always kind of forget that a few of the teams in MLS including Vancouver are Canadian. What do people think of soccer in Canada? Do they get behind their local teams? How about the national team?
A. Well, I think if people didn’t notice or care about soccer six months ago, that might have changed. Qualifying for the World Cup has really altered the way the sport is viewed and covered in the country, and hopefully, that’s something that lasts well beyond this World Cup cycle. A year ago, few even knew about Canada playing Bermuda in early qualification rounds at IMG Academy in Florida, but when the team beat Jamaica this weekend, almost two million watched on National Television.
Like in the states, it’s definitely not the most popular sport, but there’s a growing minority of players, coaches, and supporters out there. The creation of the Canadian Premier League has also really helped, bringing the pro game to a wider group of communities. It’s also made the Voyageur’s Cup (like the US Open Cup) a lot more interesting with Pacific FC beating the Whitecaps last year, and Forge FC going to the cup final against Toronto.
They Asked Us
Q. It looks like Sporting Kansas City have been struggling a bit so far this season, at least in comparison to what we’ve come to expect from them. How much of that is due to the departure of Ilie Sanchez and the continued injury struggles of Alan Pulido? Or is it something else?
A. Ilie being gone absolutely hurts. While many people, including me, had concerns about the lack of athleticism he has shown with LAFC, surrounded by energetic midfielders, he still has the tools to be a top-tier midfielder in this league. Of the apparent replacements for Ilie on the roster, Uri Rosell got injured in the first game, and Jose Mauri got cut* shortly after. Add on top of that lots of injuries to our forwards and lots of new faces in the team, and it is not super surprising that SKC are slow out of the gates this year.
*[Editor: Technically Mauri is still on the roster at last check, but it seems certain he’ll be leaving when that can get worked out.]
Q. After beating the Vancouver Whitecaps, SKC lost to RSL in the second round of the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2021. Is it fair to say that every season is MLS Cup or bust for this team, and what has the organization done to switch things up since these teams last met?
A. This team always wants silverware. Full stop. But it is also a small market team that has usually gone with a bit of a Moneyball approach. That can be very effective in the regular season but it seems like the big names tend to show up big time in the playoffs. Hopefully, we can make a deeper run this year, but I have some concerns with how things have gone so far.
As to what the organization has done to change things, they went big on U22 initiative players (aka Young Money) this off-season. They went from zero to three U22 players in one off-season, and those guys are already showing some flashes of why they went out and spent some money to bring them in. It will be fun to watch them grow throughout the year.
Q. What are your thoughts on how SKC plans on approaching this match, and how you think it might play out considering recent form?
A. A lot of players are back from injury and looking pretty good. So I would expect a closer to full-strength lineup in the ever-present Peter Vermes 4-3-3. Expect the wingers to try to cut inside and the fullbacks to be pushed way up when in possession. In terms of how all that is going to work out… I do not feel like I know what this team is yet this season and could see it going either way.
On a different note, I feel like there is the start of rivalry brewing with these teams, so I expect to see some fireworks between the players. I love a little emotion in the game (assuming no one gets hurt), so I am looking forward to it.