The Vancouver Whitecaps had a successful 2023 season.

They had won the Canadian Championship for the second straight year. The club also won the Cascadia Cup for the first time since 2016. Call it a tinpot double all you want but it is still a good achievement.

The Whitecaps also made the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. For the first time since 2017, hosted a home playoff game. That ended in disappointment.

After bowing out in two games to LAFC in the first round, the Whitecaps and their fans felt like more could have been achieved in what was the most successful season in their MLS era. But as much as the early exit in the playoffs stings, it is time to look forward to the 2024 season.

On Tuesday afternoon, Whitecaps sporting director and CEO Axel Schuster and head coach Vanni Sartini met with the media at UBC’s National Soccer Development Centre to talk about the season that was and the upcoming offseason.

Sartini apologizes

Sartini is one of the biggest personalities in MLS, if not, the biggest. He is a man who is passionate about his job and wears his heart on his sleeve.

During Sunday’s playoff loss, Sartini was sent off by referee Tim Ford late in the game. He subsequently flipped him off . Before the post-game press conference began, made a comment about Ford lying face down in False Creek.

The Professional Soccer Referees Association was not happy with Sartini’s comments. That isn’t surprising at all. Sartini is due to get fined and likely suspended for at least one game next season.

Sartini talked about the comments he made on Wednesday.

Schuster also chimed in with his thoughts. He sees the whole thing as a learning experience for everyone at the club.

“There have been a lot of things I haven’t liked,” he said on Sunday’s game. “There are things we have to review internally…We need to speak to everyone about how we can do better as part of the whole review of the season. The important thing is we have a team of young players and some of them have not acted really great in the late parts of the game. And we have a very young staff and they also have not acted the right way. We allow mistakes to happen. The most important thing is we learn from those mistakes.”

Sartini also said he spoke to PRO Referees but has not reached out to Ford.

Learning and growing

Both Schuster and Sartini spoke about the success of the 2023 season and what could be better.

“I think we did a fantastic season in terms of quality of play [and] in terms of development of some individuals,” said Sartini. “So the main thing…is to consolidate the work we have done with the players we have. If you tell me what’s missing of this team…we need to set a target to concede less goals…I think in order to become an elite team, we need to concede six or seven less goals, maybe 40 a season.”

The Whitecaps gave up 48 goals in 2023 and that was 15th most in MLS. They also gave up 14 goals on set pieces which was tied for most in the league with Inter Miami.

Offensively, the Whitecaps were one of the better teams. They scored 55 goals. That was sixth in MLS and second in the Western Conference just behind LAFC. But the Whitecaps attack looked very dull in game two against LAFC. Sartini talked about what needed to change in the attack.

“In terms of offence, we need to be more unpredictable,” he said.

Schuster didn’t go into specifics on what targets for the improvement of the squad. But he did talk about the importance of the club getting better for 2024.

“We need to grow in a sustainable way,” he said. “This is the starting point for next year…The one thing you have to improve consistently is to prove things have changed. The club has not done the right things in the past and we were criticized for the right reasons…I was fully aware and it wasn’t surprising for me that it would take time to build this confidence in the way the club is doing things and in the performance of the team. I spoke to a lot of the guys after the game and it was impressive to see the crowd, the biggest crowd the club has seen…For us, it is not only to enjoy this momentum but to use it to build and understand what has brought us there. We have to continue to do this and we have to continue to tell our story.”

“When I arrived at this club, you know how many people were telling me ‘you should spend big, spend big, spend big!” I have not heard that from anyone after these games.”

Squad rotation and formations

On the subject of learning and growing, Sartini was asked about what he could’ve done better as head coach this past season.

“For the road stretch, I think we could’ve done better with the rotation of the players…and to give more chances to the guys that didn’t play, to play more,” he said.

For context, Simon Becher had a good run of form in April and scored four goals in 87 minutes. He was the fastest player to score four goals in MLS history. But he barely saw game time since July. The same goes for Levonte Johnson who was in good form in the Canadian Championship games and looked promising MLS play. But he barely played after June.

Yohei Takaoka started 33 out of the 34 regular season games with Thomas Hasal starting only one between the sticks. (That was the 3-1 loss to St. Louis and Sartini also blasted the referee in that game) Isaac Boehmer did not play a single minute.

Ranko Veselinovic was behind Takaoka in appearances with 31.

At the beginning of the season, Sartini used the 4-3-2-1 formation or the “Christmas tree.” It was after the 3-2 road win against LAFC that he started using the 3-1-4-2 formation. He talked about using the two formations throughout the season.

“The other thing we probably could have done better, in my opinion, [was] to figure out we were more solid with the back three than the back four,” said Sartini. “It doesn’t mean we had to play every time with the back three or with the back four but at the beginning of the year road wise when we weren’t doing very well, I think one of the big changes we did on the road was the change in the system when we started with a different way of playing.”

Looking to 2024

Schuster was asked about having over 30,000 on Sunday and how the early start time (4:30 pm) helped the attendance as well as the possibility of more early start times next season.

“I don’t think it’s the best time to address that now,” he said. “I can tell you we had over 8000 soccer kids. There would have been no chance that we would have so many soccer kids in the stadium if the game would have been late.”

Last winter the Whitecaps signed Mathias Laborda, Takaoka and Sergio Córdova. (Now with Alanyaspor) The latter two were officially announced about a week before the season started. Schuster was asked about the importance of making signings earlier so they can be better prepared for the season.

“Ideally, we would like every player to be there on the first day of camp,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it, that’s the ideal scenario. I think we have already changed the approach last season and signed every player before the first game of the season while in the years before we were waiting for the second window and we brought in players late…I feel pretty optimistic that we will be at a better starting point this season than last season…but I cannot guarantee that there is not one player or one target we are waiting for or have to wait for because, in the end, it is important to get the right player.”

Schuster also said that the club is working and will continue to work on what needs to be improved. He believes a huge squad turnover isn’t needed.

“I don’t think we have a lot of changes to make,” said. “We have strong pieces and the core group is under contract next season…we’ve been working on this for a while…I feel optimistic that we can start better next season.”

Important offseason dates

November 22 is the deadline to submit bona fide offers. A player who accepts a bona fide offer can still participate in free agency and can’t enter the re-entry draft but can still test free agency.

December 1 is the deadline for club options. The trade window opens officially for MLS teams on December 11 and the end-of-year waivers and free agency period open on December 12 and 13 respectively.

The MLS Superdraft is on December 19 while stage one of the re-entry draft is on December 14 and the second stage is on December 21.

The transfer window officially opens on January 1.