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Coach’s firing should be ‘wake up call’ for Vancouver Whitecaps: sporting director

‘We decided this morning that this project needs another push, that this project needs some new life’
Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos gives instructions to players during an MLS soccer club training session, in Vancouver, on Monday, August 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Marc Dos Santos is out as head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps, and sporting director Axel Schuster believes the move could be the jolt the club needs as it battles for a playoff position.

“I’m convinced it could be at exactly the right moment, that it’s the wake-up call to go back and focus also on the small things that we’re not doing well,” Schuster told reporters on a video call Friday after the team announced Dos Santos had been fired.

“We decided this morning that this project needs another push, that this project needs some new life.”

Phil Dos Santos, Marc’s brother and an assistant coach with the club, was also relieved of his duties.

Whitecaps director of methodology Vanni Sartini will lead the team as acting head coach. Assistant coach Ricardo Clark and goalkeeper coach Youssef Dahha will remain in their posts, the team said.

Sartini said he’d developed a friendship with the Dos Santos brothers since the trio arrived in Vancouver in 2018.

“I know how much they worked and how much energy they pushed for the club and the team,” he said.

News of the regime change came after the Whitecaps (5-7-8) suffered a 4-3 upset loss to Canadian Premier League side Pacific FC on Thursday, crashing out of the Canadian Championship for the second time under Dos Santos’ leadership.

The Whitecaps were at the bottom of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference standings early this season after losing five straight games but have rebounded of late and are riding an eight-game undefeated streak in MLS play. The club sat three points outside of a playoff spot on Friday.

Dismissing Dos Santos wasn’t simply about the result of Thursday’s game, Schuster said, noting he’d recently spoken with the coaching staff about what needed to change.

“We are on a good run here results-wise but we could be even on a better one, maybe,” he said.

“I also don’t want to wait until the results copy what we see on the pitch, or saw on the pitch in several games.”

One area where the team needs to improve is on defence, Schuster said.

The Whitecaps have conceded the third-most goals (30) in the Western Conference this season and starting ‘keeper Maxime Crepeau has registered 50 saves in just 15 appearances.

“I think we have now the skill level, we have the quality to score goals,” Schuster said. “If we continue to concede goals in the way we have conceded goals, we will always be in trouble.”

Fans shouldn’t expect big changes on the field on Sunday, though, when the Whitecaps host Real Salt Lake at B.C. Place.

Sartini said he isn’t planning to do anything “crazy or different” for the game because the team has been getting results. The interim coach said if changes are going to be made, they’ll come next week.

The Whitecaps ended last year three points below the playoff bar with a 9-14-0 record and missed the post-season for the third year in a row.

Making the playoffs this year is key, Schuster said.

Whether firing Dos Santos will distract from that goal remains to be seen, he added.

“We’ll find out later,” the sporting director said. “Again, it’s a wake up call to make everyone in the locker room aware that we have to do better than we have done in the last weeks.”

Dos Santos, 44, was in the final year of his contract with Vancouver. He took over as coach in November 2018 after spending a year as an assistant with upstart Los Angeles FC.

The Montreal-born coach repeatedly said the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were difficult for the Whitecaps, who were forced to finish the 2020 campaign based out of Portland and began this year playing home games in Sandy, Utah.

Living away from his family took a personal toll, Dos Santos said.

“It’s not easy. It’s not easy for the staff, it’s not easy for the players,” he said. “And of course it’s easier when you win a lot, but when you don’t, it makes it even more difficult, for sure.”

Despite the club’s poor record early this year, Dos Santos said he didn’t feel as if he were under pressure. He maintained that real pressure would come from not being able to feed his family, or having cancer or a brain tumour.

“Pressure of getting fired? It’s part of every coach’s pathway, you know? It’s even important for a coach on his pathway to get fired,” he said on June 24, the day after Vancouver dropped a 2-1 decision to the L.A. Galaxy for a fifth straight loss.

“I never got fired in my life. So I think it’s an important step on your pathway as a coach to grow. So I don’t feel pressure, I feel frustration.”

Before joining MLS, Dos Santos worked with the San Francisco Deltas of the North American Soccer League, where he earned manager of the year honours in 2017. He also guided the Ottawa Fury to the NASL final in 2015, his second and final year with the squad.

Weeks before Dos Santos took over the ‘Caps squad, players and the team’s general manager said the group suffered from a “divided” locker-room — an issue that grew after coach Carl Robinson and his staff were fired mid-season.

The dual Canadian-Portuguese citizen said he knew he was arriving at a “difficult moment” for the club, and acknowledged that creating change and forming a new identity wouldn’t be easy.

“It’s not a PowerPoint presentation to the players or a motivational speaker or Harry Potter with a wand and now we have culture. That’s done in the day-to-day, every day,” he told reporters at his first press conference as the Whitecaps head coach.

The Whitecaps finished the 2019 campaign with a dismal 8-16-10 record, and were ousted from the Canadian Championship when they dropped a 2-1 decision to the CPL’s Cavalry FC.

Fans hoping to see a new face behind the ‘Caps bench this season may be disappointed. Schuster said he the club doesn’t feel rushed to find a replacement and that he doesn’t have any specific candidates in mind.

“We never want to hire the first one. We want to hire the right one,” he said.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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