It may have taken a long time coming, but the Vancouver Whitecaps are finally set to play their first match of the 2024 MLS season, welcoming Charlotte FC to town. It is the visiting team’s first-ever trip to B.C. Place.

Charlotte, who finished ninth in the Eastern Conference last season, already have one match under their belt, a 1-0 win at home over New York City FC.

The Whitecaps will want to do better in their first match than they have in the previous two seasons. The last time they won a home opener was in the 2021 MLS season, a 1-0 match against Portland.

Head coach Vanni Sartini said winning the first match this time around “was important.”

“We want to win,” he said. “The last two seasons, we didn’t achieve a better objective. Two years ago, we missed the playoff on the last game. Last year, we missed the top four in the last game only because of the lack of points in the first games. So, we know that making points at the beginning is very important.”

The two clubs have only met once before in competitive play, a 2-1 win for Charlotte on May 22, 2022. Tosaint Ricketts had the lone Whitecaps goal on that day.

But that does emphasize one important point: neither of these clubs has been the same since last they met.

Getting busy in Charlotte

The eastern conference hopeful has been busy in the offseason as they looked to bolster their ranks ahead of the gruelling MLS campaign.

“A very different team,” Sartini said of Charlotte. “They have a new coach. It’s completely different than the team that we played two years ago and also last year [in preseason].”

A handful of free transfers were added, including goalkeeper David Bingham in January and midfielders Júnior Urso, Djibril Diani and Nikola Petkovic in February.

Bingham played last year for Portland, tallying 19 starts during the regular season. However, he is likely to see much of his time on the bench this year, backstopping for Charlotte’s no. 1, Kristijan Kahlina.

Urso has spent the MLS portion of his career with Orlando City SC. Last year, he only managed nine matches with The Lions. He did play the full 90 minutes in Charlotte’s opening match of this season.

Diani is a newcomer to MLS, having played for Caen in the French Ligue since 2022.

The only other real notable addition has been João Pedro. Pedro most recently played for MLS NEXT Pro side Crown Legacy FC, where he was named as part of the Best XI for the 2023 season.

“I understand that they’re still looking for players to complete the team,” Sartini said.

What to expect

If Charlotte’s first game is anything to read into, they are a team with a definite plan.

“It’s a team that is very clear in what they want to do,” Sartini said. “We saw them in the preseason games and against NYCFC. They’re a team that tries to go immediately to the front. So, quite direct, I would say.”

Charlotte likes to spread their width, which gives them space to operate. In addition, Enzo Copetti, who often plays as the lone frontman, is good at using his midfielders to bolster the attack.

Copetti, who played his first season for Charlotte (and in MLS) last year, will be hoping to better his production. In 26 matches last year, he managed only six goals and a single assist.

Against NYCFC, new head coach Dean Smith was content to let the visitors hold the ball. But once they win it back, they are lethal.

“If they win the ball, they can be really, really, really dangerous in transition. We’ll have to be very solid defensively and be intentional when we have the ball, not losing the ball. Be patient, but when we break them, try to go as fast as we can because that’s the only way to beat them.”

The opening match is at B.C. Place on March 2. Kickoff takes place at 4:30 p.m.