'This year can be special': CanChamp title earned, Sartini aims to avoid 'crime' of missing playoffs
When Vanni Sartini was hired as interim head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps back in August of 2021, the idea of winning trophies still felt like quite a distant goal.
Having just seen the club get eliminated from the preliminary round of the 2021 Canadian Championship to Canadia Premier League side Pacific FC – the second time in three years that they’d been eliminated by a CPL outfit, mind you – the sentiment surrounding the 2022 tournament was that showing well and making a real go at it would be seen as a sign of progress.
The Whitecaps had only the one Voyageurs Cup crown despite being around since the trophy's inception in 2002; and, frankly, they didn’t look likely to be adding anymore anytime soon as the tournament continued to grow year over year. Worse, they weren't winning regularly back when the tournament had three, four or five teams throughout most of the 2010s.
If so, how were they going to handle winning a tournament with 14 teams, especially after failing to win a round in the first two editions since the tournament's CPL-led initial expansion?
Fast-forward two years, however, and the idea of a 'tournament curse' seems equally far, far away for the Whitecaps. The club have now won back-to-back Canadian Championships for the first time ever, dispatching both Toronto FC and, this year, CF Montreal, to claim the Kings of Canada crown, and will hold tight to the Voyageurs Cup for at least another year.
The Whitecaps have made massive strides since 2021. That’s not lost on Sartini, who, in his fifth year at the club, has seen glimpses of just how far this team can go. The fact that he’s even able to joke about his team now chasing a three-peat seems surreal, but goes to show just how much things have grown for the Whitecaps in this competition since Sartini’s arrival.
He's yet to lose a game in it.
"I'm happy that we had the 'curse' – it’s because of that I got the job here," Sartini joked after the game. "But yeah, it was a very dark period (for the club). I wasn’t part of the loss in Victoria, but for the one where we lost against Cavalry, I was the assistant coach. So we knew that it wasn't acceptable. It’s hard to win this trophy, to be honest, this trophy now means a lot more now than it did 10-12 years ago when there were just three, four teams.
"Now, you need to win three or four rounds, and you’re going against CPL teams that when they play you, it’s the most important game of the league, and when you beat CPL teams, those are professional teams, too. So I'm really happy that we’ve done so well in these two years, and hey, in basketball, I'm a Chicago Bulls fan, so let's go for the three-peat next year."
Even more fitting is that the Whitecaps have been able to win both of these trophies at home.
Their loss to Pacific in 2021 was only a ferry ride away on Vancouver Island. Previously, Cavalry walked into BC Place and stunned them, too. A certain strength has been restored to their home grounds now, with trophy wins easing the painful memories of past missteps. Barring that one and only previous triumph in 2015, BC Place hasn't seen many moments like that – but now they have.
From the sheer grind that was winning the 2022 edition, which saw the Whitecaps have to work from minute one of the preliminary round to the final minute of the final, to this year’s more ruthless and calculated approach and execution, there’s a lot to like with how the Whitecaps went about their business, as well.
They never put anything less than their maximum into this competition, even at the detriment of league results, and from there, they’ve been rewarded for that with their success, which has also contributed to their overall growth.
"Well, obviously it’s a great feeling to win it at home," Ryan Gauld said on Wednesday. "We won at home against Toronto last year, so when the draw came out this year and we saw that if we won against the CPL teams we’d play at home again, we were excited. Everyone took belief from that, and I think we've done a lot better this year against the CPL sides.
"Last year, on our way to the final, we struggled. We went to penalties against Cavalry, and we won a game 2-1 at home against York United, so we struggled, but we got better results and had more convincing performances this year, both away from home. That gives us confidence, knowing that next year if we play against those teams, we can make it even easier for ourselves than we did the year before."
And this final is just a sign of how far they’ve come.
Not only did they down CF Montréal 2-1 on the day, but did so by putting in one of their performances of the season, too.
Right from minute one, the Whitecaps came out on the front foot, eager to take over and win the game. If it were not for the heroics of Montréal’s goalkeeper, former Valour loanee Jonathan Sirois, this could’ve gotten ugly for the visitors, quickly.
So although the scoreboard indicates that the game was close, with a late push from Montréal nearly forcing penalties, credit has to be given to Sirois for even making that possible.
The stats suggest as much, too, as the Whitecaps had 20 shots to Montréal’s nine, had nine shots on target to Montréal’s five, and won the xG battle 2.77 to 0.83.
Compare that to last year’s final, where Toronto outshot Vancouver 17-14, and had six shots on target to Vancouver’s five (although Vancouver won the xG battle 1.22-1.03), that just shows the big difference between this year’s Whitecaps team and last.
Vanni Sartini is on an all-time heater in his press conference:— Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic (@AlexGangueRuzic) June 8, 2023
“When we play like this, it’s better than sex”
“We will be drunk tonight”
Are just some of what was thrown about by the #VWFC gaffer#CanChamp
Yet, for those paying attention, the Whitecaps have been doing this all season. They might not always have had the results to show for it in MLS play this year, especially on the road, but they’ve been fun to watch and have had the underlying numbers to match.
And that’s huge. Not only have fans of the Whitecaps been starved for success and trophies in their MLS history, but even fluid, free-flowing soccer hasn’t always been on the menu for them, either.
When they were at their best in the 2010s, defending well and hitting on the counter-attack was usually the preferred tactic, which while successful, isn’t as easy on the eye, especially not at home.
Because of that, for them to now be playing the way they did on Wednesday, in a final no less, is no small accomplishment. Especially given that it came in front of their best crowd of the year, an announced attendance of 20 072, it will go a long way towards showing that this team can win and do so while playing some fun soccer, attracting more fans from around the city to come out and watch them on a regular basis.
"I think we've done it all year, and it's not a joke," Whitecaps midfielder and tournament MVP, Julian Gressel, said afterwards. "I think statistically we’re one of the better teams in MLS, and we are playing like that every week.
"Obviously, we have to figure out things a little bit on the road, but if you come into this stadium and you support us and watch us, you’ll see that type of soccer, and I think we've shown that over 16 games, and we're going to have that the rest of the year, as well."
Vanni Sartini: “I’m really happy with how we played for 80 minutes. For 80 minutes it was like… Messi’s coming, but the Whitecaps play better than Messi.”#VWFC— Oliver Platt (@plattoli) June 8, 2023
Now, the Whitecaps have a new goal – or, rather, they return to their main objective for the year – make the MLS Cup playoffs, and go on a deep run. Having only made the playoffs once since 2017, when Sartini had a run for the ages in 2021 after arriving as interim head coach, they’re eager to change that.
Having only won one round in the team’s history, they want to add to that this fall. Given how they’ve played, you’d back them in that quest, but now, they must now make it a reality.
Along with a decent run in the new Leagues Cup (although the importance of that has just now gone down significantly given that the Whitecaps have already qualified for the Concacaf Champions Cup), and that leaves Vancouver with still plenty to play for this season.
So while they’ll enjoy being able to win another trophy, they know that this is just the start of what this team can do, and want to prove as much now.
"Well, now we are in the Champions Cup, so while the Leagues Cup is going to be very important, we're not going to have as much pressure now," Sartini said. “So let's go all-in on MLS. We'll start probably after Cincinnati, as tonight we’re going to be drunk. But yeah, I think it would be a crime against ourselves, a crime against football and a crime against everything if we don't make the playoffs.’
"We are a very, very good team, this year can be special, and we’ve harvested less than what we’ve planted so far."
Speaking of special... always one to selflessly look out for others, Sartini had some propositions for next year’s tournament, as well.
Having seen the magic of the TSS Rovers cupset over Valour FC, and the potential for other stories, he wants this cup to be opened up even further with the inclusion of more League 1 Canada teams.
"It is important, I want to say something about this competition to the CSA," Sartini noted. "First of all, we need more teams from League 1 Canada to play in this tournament. Just this year when CF Montréal played Vaughan Azzurri, that was fantastic, imagine us playing a League 1 BC team, that would be the highlight of the year for their team, and they’d make loads of money.
"I don’t know about League 1 Ontario or Ligue 1 Québec, but League 1 here is a good level. You've seen it this year with the TSS Rovers, so, I think more teams from the League 1 should play in this competition."