"It's special for us": After 6 year absence, Whitecaps relish Champions League return
The wait is almost over.
Almost exactly six years after they last participated in the CONCACAF Champions League, the Vancouver Whitecaps are getting set to make their long-awaited return to the competition this week, as they get set to take on Honduran side Real España in the first leg of their Round of 16 matchup this week at BC Place (live on OneSoccer).
Since then, however, a lot has changed for the Whitecaps. For starters, their team is completely different, with just one holdover, Russell Teibert, remaining from that team.
Not only that, but the format of the competition has changed, too, as the tournament used to be composed of a group stage and a knockout round, before shifting to the knockout round-only format it currently uses (one, ironically, that is now in its last season of existence, with another format change coming for 2024).
Yet, one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the excitement that the team has to play in the competition. Knowing that it’s a chance to compete with the region's best, with a trophy and a berth to the club World Cup on the line, they know that this is a chance to prove their status as a club on the rise.
“I’m very excited,” Whitecaps head coach, Vanni Sartini, enthused before the start of this season. “I’ve never played in a continental competition before, so this (is special)."
“Yeah, it's something I'm definitely looking forward to,” Whitecaps defender, Tristan Blackmon, told OneSoccer last week. “I know the guys are, as well, but for me, personally, being back in a competitive tournament like that is very exciting. There's a trophy on the line, we’re up against quality opposition, so yeah, I’ve been looking forward to it.”
And #VWFC have won their 2nd ever #CanChamp!— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) July 27, 2022
Wild scenes in BC Place. Look at what it means for the Caps and their fans, who are also heading to the CONCACAF Champions League next season
Fantastic final between them and #TFCLive pic.twitter.com/D3wGvxaWdi
Yet, while they’re excited to start their journey in this competition, however, they also know the challenge that this opportunity will provide them. In particular, there’s one factor about the Champions League that sinks teams, especially those from MLS, and that’s both the timing and nature of the tournament.
It’s an intense and gruelling tournament, one with a lot of travel, midweek games and physical play, all of which can wear on teams, especially those early on in their season, meaning they’re still working up to peak physical competition.
Therefore for a team like Vancouver, who has played just two games in MLS this season, it’s going to be a big adjustment for them to go from the speed of early season MLS games to the intensity of the Champions League, which will require adjustment.
It’s not an easy adjustment, as countless teams before them have learned, but if they can make it, it can go a long way toward finding success in this tournament.
“Yeah, it’s super important to make sure that everybody's keeping their body right, following the proper recovery protocols for each individual to make sure that he’s ready to go for every game, because we do have a bigger schedule this year, with a lot more silverware on the line,” Blackmon explained. “And that’s what every team wants going into the year, just having that opportunity to win trophies and bring silverware back to a club.”
“So yeah, because of that, it’s been about making sure everybody's in the right mind frame mentally, making sure that physically getting everybody's body right and in a good place to keep them competing at the highest level, and then being ready to go when the games come.”
At the same time, the Whitecaps welcome that challenge, one that they've preparing for ever since they lifted the Canadian Championship last summer, securing their berth in this tournament.
They’ve been slowly building up to this moment, assembling one of their deepest teams in recent memory, and a big reason for that was to be able to sustain a potential run in the Champions League.
Therefore, while they understand that this tournament could very well put a lot of strain on their team, they’re confident that they have the depth to make something happen, having made the moves to bring in the pieces to help them go on a run.
“I think a key for us is the depth of the team,” Sartini noted. “The fact that we can play almost two different starting 11s, that’s good. The club did a very good job of giving me a lot of players that can play and so it's going to be good to be able to rotate everyone in different competitions to try and be the best in all of them.”
“We have built a team for this,” Whitecaps Sporting Director, Axel Schuster, added. “And I think it's the most exciting competition we’re in, because to get in, it means you won something last season, and that's actually something we will remind everyone as we enter the Champions League, we have competed hard and done a lot to get here.”
“Then, playing teams from different countries with different setups, and different cultures and playing in this unknown, it adds a special factor to those games and it's also what makes them so attractive to us. Obviously, we’re not limiting our focus to just the Champions League, we want to do well in all four competitions, but it’s special for us.”
Plus, the Whitecaps do have a few things going for them that they believe can give them an edge in this competition.
Namely, there’s the fact that they’re a pretty young team, with key difference-makers such as Ryan Gauld (27), Andrés Cubas (26), Pedro Vite (20) all sitting in or near their primes, something that extends over the rest of the roster given that Luís Martins is the team’s elder statesmen at just 30.
For a gruelling competition like this one, that could make a difference, as usually teams who qualify out of MLS make it with much older teams, having qualified later in their life cycle as a team, which is less than ideal given how straining this tournament can be, making it a nightmare for older teams to have to deal with.
With Vancouver, however, there’s no doubt that they’re at the beginning of their journey, and that’s reflected in how young that team is, and they’ll look to use that youth to their advantage, especially in terms of overcoming the gruelling nature of the competition.
That could pay off for them, especially given the exposure that this tournament can give them, something that Blackmon made sure to stress, having been the beneficiary of that in the past, when he played for LAFC in the Champions League as a 23-year-old defender.
“Oh, no, it's super important,” Blackmon noted. “I think the exposure you get from playing in those tournaments is huge, you play against really good opposition, and that’s good for young players, especially. In the past, it helped me a lot as a young player, getting that exposure against bigger teams and playing in environments where it might not be more competitive than MLS, but there’s a lot at stake in a short period of time, making it a big deal.”
Speaking of Blackmon, however, look for him to be a key piece for this team on this run, which considering he scored the penalty that got his team here in the first place, is kind of fitting.
Given the team’s status as a younger group, it’ll be important for them to lean on those who have been here before, and given that Blackmon is one of just three players to have played in the CONCACAF Champions League before (along with Teibert and Julian Gressel), that makes him a key piece to watch.
The Whitecaps do have a hefty contingent of guys who have played in continental competition, which is a big plus, but there’s something different about playing in CONCACAF, where there are just some things that cannot be explained unless you experience them, versus other competitions.
So although the Whitecaps have names who have played in top continental competitions, such as the UEFA Champions League and Europa League (Alessandro Schöpf, Luís Martins), AFC Champions League (Yohei Takaoka), and the Libertadores (Andrés Cubas, Pedro Vite, Cristian Dajome), as well as some who have even won them, such as the Copa Sudamericana (also Dajome), Blackmon’s experience in CONCACAF will pay off immensely.
There’s just something about playing on the road in environments such as Mexico or Central America that just isn’t the same in other continents, and that hostility can often sink teams, making it imperative to have the right mindset heading into those games, no matter if you’re better, worse or the same level as your opponent.
“Yeah, I think the biggest thing is the experience that you can bring to the table, especially having been in these types of situations before,” Blackmon said. “So it's nice that it's not just me with that pressure on my shoulders (with Teibert and Gressel), but I think the big thing from my experience is to be confident heading into this tie, to put in a good shift home and away.”
“At the end of the day, I think the fact that there's something on the line and that it’s such a short amount of time, a lot of guys can rally around that idea, one of possibly bringing back another trophy to the club, I think that's a motivator in itself. And then for the guys who have been there before, it’s about handling it in a certain way, and if you do, the guys will fall in behind and follow.”
Plus, adding to Blackmon’s cause is the fact that he arguably is the hungriest player in the squad for this competition, too. Or at least you can argue that he is.
How, one might ask? Well, there’s the fact that the last time he played in this competition, all the way back in 2020, things went almost perfectly for him.
There, he was a regular starter for LAFC, who then went out and shocked onlookers in their first participation in the competition, making it all the way to the final, where they looked to become the first MLS team to ever win.
But then, they lost in heartbreaking fashion to Tigres, as they fell 2-1 late after going up 1-0 in the second half, with Blackmon going 90 in that game, holding a front-row seat for both goals that were conceded by his team.
Plus, adding salt to the wound was the fact that was the last time he played in that competition, too, meaning that he’s had to carry the sour taste of how that game went in his mouth for almost three years up until today.
Because of that, he has a point to prove when this tournament kicks off. Having had that image of Tigres celebrating a win that his team felt should’ve been his, he wants to make sure not to relive anything like that again.
And there’s no reason why he can’t believe it to be possible with Vancouver. As seen last year, when the Seattle Sounders became the first team to lift that Champions League trophy, MLS teams are finally shifting the narrative that this is a Mexican-dominated tournament, as it’s now become one where MLS teams can cause problems and go on runs.
Of course, one win does not erase years of heartbreak, but it’s a good start, one that Blackmon wants his team to build off of, all while using the fuel of what he experienced in the 2020 final as a reason to push him toward leading them in that push, as they try to improve on their best-ever showing in this competition, a run to the semi-finals from back in 2017.
“Oh, yeah. 100%. I've been waiting for this moment since the whistle blew at the end of that year,” Blackmon admitted. “Playing in a final, a Champions League final, it was an incredible moment, both for me personally, and for the club that I was part of. MLS teams weren't as competitive in this tournament as they are now, either, but now we're showing that the league is growing, we’re bringing in players that are really helping the league expand and grow, so I'm really looking forward to it, I know the guys are as well.”
“Now, the biggest thing is trying to chase a trophy and represent the club in the best way possible, and what better way to do that than in a tournament like this.”