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Personnel questions linger as Vancouver Whitecaps kick off training camp

Vancouver looks to avoid repeat of last year’s bad start after narrowly missing playoffs
Vancouver Whitecaps defenders Mathias Laborda, front left, and Karifa Yao participate in a drill during the opening day of the MLS soccer team’s training camp, in Vancouver, on Monday, January 9, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The off-season was once again too long for Vancouver Whitecaps defender Julian Gressel.

Traded to the ‘Caps from D.C. United in July, the 29-year-old wing back proved to be a standout for his new club last year, putting up two goals and two assists in 13 appearances.

But Vancouver narrowly missed the playoffs, leaving Gressel to watch post-season on television.

“The season’s over, I’m sitting there watching the playoffs and it hurts a little bit, you know?” he said. “I’m sick and tired of that feeling. And, you know, I want to want to be back there, have that feeling again.”

Making playoffs is at the forefront of the Whitecaps’ minds as Major League Soccer clubs open training camps this week.

After starting last season with a dismal 1-6-1 record, the ‘Caps took 39 points from 26 games down the stretch. Ultimately, the run wasn’t enough and the club finished with a 12-15-7 record, missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

“Obviously, we had a good amount (of success) at the end of the season. We almost made the playoffs,” striker Brian White said. “So if we’re able to have that kind of run at the beginning rather than the end, we set ourselves up for a good position in the playoffs. It’s important to start off strong.”

The shaky start was the Whitecaps’ “Achilles heel” last year, coach Vanni Sartini said.

“The pre-season is very important for the start of the season. So today in the first meeting, I told the guys that we need to go 100 per cent from the first day,” he said after his group’s first full day of training Monday.

In addition to MLS play, the 2023 campaign will see the ‘Caps take part in the CONCACAF Champions League as winners of the Canadian Championship last year. They’ll start by hosting Honduran side Real Espana on March 3, less than two weeks after MLS regular-season play begins.

“So big games will arrive immediately and we need to be ready to go,” Sartini said.

Some notable faces were missing as the Whitecaps returned to the pitch on Monday.

The club opted against picking up the options on a number of players after last season, including Canadian striker Lucas Cavallini and veteran defender Jake Nerwinski. Goalkeeper Cody Cropper, midfielder Leonard Owusu, forward Tosaint Ricketts and defenders Marcus Godinho and Florian Jungwirth also saw their contracts come to an end.

Vancouver has since made a few additions, including Canadian defender Karfia Yao, who the club acquired from CF Montreal in the MLS re-entry draft.

The ‘Caps further bolstered their back line Monday, signing Uruguayan centre back Mathias Laborda to a three-year contract. The deal includes a club option for the 2026 season.

The 23-year-old defender comes to Vancouver from Club Nacional de Football in the Uruguayan Primera Division, where he started in 82 of 101 appearances, registering six goals and an assist and helping the club to championships in 2019, 2020 and 2022.

The six-foot, 170-pound Laborda has also represented Uruguay at the U-17, U-20 and U-23 levels.

Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster said in a release announcing the move that the team has been scouting Laborda for over a year.

“He’s a young, intelligent, and tenacious defender,” he said. “Mathias is comfortable on the ball and brings a mix of experience as well as a potential for growth.”

Speaking through a translator after his first training session Monday, Laborda described himself as a focused player.

“I know what I need to do and I do what’s best for the team first of all before anything,” he said. “I’m really good aerially. I love defensive battles.”

Laborda may not be the last addition the Whitecaps make ahead of the regular season. Sartini said there could be “one or two” moves to come, but that he doesn’t want to keep a large roster of 30 players because he’d prefer to focus on 23 or 24 athletes.

The group will also benefit from having some of the players they added during last season’s run around for a full year, he said.

Vancouver signed midfielder Andreas Cubas to a four-year designated-player deal last April, but the Argentine struggled with injuries through the start of his tenure and was limited to 18 appearances in 2022.

The ‘Caps also added Gressel in July and midfielder Alessandro Schopf in August.

Having the trio around for training camp and the beginning of the 2023 season will make a difference, Sartini said.

“It’s a huge advantage. It’s an enormous advantage,” he said. “I think those three players, they should be considered like new signings in the sense that I would say I’m confident that they will be more impactful than they were last year.”

—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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