The Vancouver Whitecaps now have a week and a half under their preseason belts. That training has brought players kept on from last season, new signings, MLS SuperDraft picks and invitees together not only to fight for a spot in the 30-man maximum senior roster but also to gain match fitness for the upcoming season.

And as part of that, the Whitecaps played their first preseason match against German 2. Bundesliga club, Hamburger SV.

Head coach Vanni Sartini sat down with reporters over an online feed from their training camp, currently in Marbella, Spain.

Whitecaps lose first preseason match

The first match was exactly what people should expect, a 2–0 win for the German club.

Hamburger was the more dominant side, but they are also the side in form. Hamburger is currently in the winter break of their season, having already played 17 matches and sitting in second in the table, only two points behind Darmstadt.

“[Hamburger] will start to play league games next week, so they played basically with their starting XI for 65 minutes and tried to get the best, having like a real game,” Sartini said.

For their part, Sartini said he was happy with how things played out tactically, but acknowledged a lot of work still had to be done.

“We lost a lot of half-and-half battles that put us a little bit on the back pedal for part of the game,” he said. “But we also reacted. We had a lot of chances. I think that at the end, even the result could have been, probably they would have deserved to win, but not by two goals, maybe 2–1.”

The match also allowed the coaching staff to watch newcomers Mathías Laborda and Karifa Yao as well as trialist Daniel Krutzen. Several of the Whitecaps MLS SuperDraft picks from this year and the last were also involved in the match.

“And I was very happy at the end of the game today when Hamburg staff say, ‘Hey, it’s just your first game. You guys look very good for a first game. We’re three weeks more than you in the preparation and we played an even game,’” Sartini said.

And another centre-back makes it three?

While the Whitecaps have bolstered their backline with Laborda and Yao in the past couple of weeks, there are signings expected. Speculation about Israeli striker Tai Baribo has played out over the last week and is expected to continue given that his domestic club, Austrian Bundesliga’s Wolfsberger AC is the Whitecaps’ next preseason opponent.

However, several questions were about another trialist currently with the Whitecaps: Salif Sané.

“Salif doesn’t need any introduction. He’s a very, very good player,” Sartini said. “We see his defensive positioning, he has the capacity of defending high balls, heading. It’s really good.”

The 6-foot-5 centre-back would give a commanding veteran presence on the backline. But there are some questions as to whether he would be able to make the transition to MLS and, in particular, the hard turf playing surface of BC Place.

Sané has been a free agent since he left Shalke 04 in July 2022. There is a history of persistent knee issues with the player, and Whitecaps’ medical staff will need to be absolutely sure he will be able to withstand the impact of playing on an artificial surface.

“In the evaluation, the physical evaluation, we’re working a lot with performance, with our medical staff to understand…if the thing is sustainable or not. On a character standpoint, [he’s a] top, top guy. He’s helping the young centre-backs. He’s putting himself at the disposal of the team 100 per cent. So, for sure, if he would be 100 per cent full, we wouldn’t even think about it. He would be a part of the squad.”

A bounce-back year for Dájome

It is safe to say that Cristian Dajome’s season last year did not go as expected. With 10 goals and 4 assists in 2021, the Columbian attacking midfielder’s production dropped precipitously in 2022, netting only a pair of goals and adding 4 assists.

But the drop in offensive productivity was not wholly down to the player. It was also significantly influenced by a change in formation and consequentially, a change in the player’s role last year.

“We can say easily that the experiment to transforming [Dájome] into a full-time wingback didn’t work very well last season. And I think that he had a couple of good performances at wingback, but his best performance was when he was in the front three. And so this season, he will play mainly as a player of the front three. And I hope that putting him back on a more stable position, is the position that’s more natural to him, is going to help him have a more consistent season.”

Yet, Sartini also called Dájome a “team-oriented guy,” stating that the player never complained about the new role.

There is a belief he will rediscover his form in his more familiar role.

Competition in full-back

Where Dájome struggled to transition to wingback, Ryan Raposo managed it rather effectively last season. But as the Whitecaps have been working with a back 4 in the preseason so far, Raposo’s versatility may be tested again.

He has been seen playing at left-back as well as higher up the pitch. If this plays out successfully, Sartini will have competition in that position. Luís Martins came into form playing there at the end of last season, and Cristián Gutiérrez has worked his way back into the good graces of the coaching staff. Ali Ahmed, previously of Whitecaps 2, has signed a senior contract and will also be fighting to win that spot.

At right-back, Javain Brown and Tristan Blackmon will compete for that role.

“When there’s a lot of competition, it’s a beautiful thing because we’ll choose every time the guy who gives us the best guarantee in that position,” the head coach said. “At the same moment, a lot of these guys can play a secondary position. Tristan and Jervain can play centre-back. Ryan Raposo can play higher on the pitch. Ali can play higher on the pitch. So, there will be space for everyone for sure if everyone will work in the right way.”

Upcoming schedule

Vancouver continues their preseason in Marbella with a match against Wolfsberger AC from the Austrian Bundesliga.

They head to California in early February for the Coachella Valley Invitational, where they will play several MLS clubs including D.C. United, Toronto FC and new expansion club St. Louis City SC.