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Obituary: Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2018 MLS season died after lengthy illness

Sep 15, 2018; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Whitecaps forward Erik Hurtado (19) reacts during the second half against the Seattle Sounders at BC Place. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

VANCOUVER — RIP 2018 Vancouver Whitecaps season. If the season had a gravestone it would read, “Born on March 4, 2018. Died Oct. 29, 2018. A season of few ups and many downs, in which a fragmented squad was never able to completely get its act together under a coach who was pretty much out the door by August.”

But let us start at the beginning. 

The season started with plenty of expectations on March 4 against Canadian rival Montreal Impact – expectations that were met on opening night in the Whitecaps 2-1 home victory at BC Place. 

Overall, it wasn’t a bad start for the Whitecaps. The club won three of its first five games, drew one and lost one. So far, so good, but what followed was eight games in which the Whitecaps managed just one win (against Real Salt Lake on April 27).

Optimists would have said the club only lost one match in May (1-0 against Minnesota). At the same time, however, the Whitecaps drew four times in a row, leaking many goals during that stretch. 

The playoff hopes died then.

By the time June came around, the Whitecaps were playing catch up with the top of the Western Conference. 

Aug 8, 2018; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; Vancouver Whitecaps forward Kei Kamara (23) celebrates after scoring a goal against Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin (not pictured) during the first half at BC Place. (Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Two wins against bottom-feeders, the Colorado Rapids and Orlando City, after the World Cup break gave some hope — the sort of hope that leads to false pretexts and suggestions that this Whitecaps side could outperform all the odds to end the season with something tangible after all. 

In reality, the season was already lost.

Too many players had come and gone over the last few years. Ahead of the 2018 season, head coach Carl Robinson oversaw the transfers of 19 players, 11 incoming and eight outgoing. 

Some of those transfers made sense – the signing of striker Kei Kamara. Others were sensible despite not working out completely – Brazilian midfielder Felipe. But for every decent transfer, the Whitecaps made a move that made little to no sense. 

For example, the Whitecaps knew by August that Robinson was going to leave the club. Nonetheless, the head coach was allowed to sign El Salvadorian defender Roberto Dominguez and Dutch striker Marvin Emnes. Neither has played for the club this season. The two late signings embodied the sort of confusion that befell the Whitecaps as the season progressed. 

Observers knew the club was critically ill and that halfway through the season the Whitecaps needed a small miracle to survive into the playoffs. July saw just two wins, which led to the ultimate decision by the club that Robinson would have to leave the club at the end of the season. 

Perhaps it would have been for the best to make the cut and fire the head coach at that point, but then the Whitecaps were undefeated through August. Furthermore, the Caps also sold their biggest star, Alphonso Davies, to Bayern Munich in August. It was a transfer celebrated on almost a daily basis on Whitecaps social media.

 

The Davies transfer is without a doubt a big deal for the club, the league and even Canada as a soccer nation. But it also says a lot about a season when a club’s biggest success is selling the biggest star. 

On the field, Davies was also one of the few reasons Whitecaps fans could justify heading to BC Place. Many of the performances by the Whitecaps were dire, fitting to that of a regressing patient struggling to survive. 

The Whitecaps beat San Jose 2-3 on the road Aug. 25 and 2-1 at home Sept. 1 — two wins that gave hope for the playoffs, two wins that were quickly followed by three defeats. 

Following a 2-1 defeat to FC Dallas on Sept. 23, the Whitecaps management had enough and fired head coach Robinson. The game against Dallas was a point of no return. The season may as well have ended at that point for the Whitecaps. 

That sense of defeat was palpable in the catacombs of BC Place. Following the Dallas game, the press was made to wait for almost an hour for Carl Robinson to arrive for his postmatch press conference. Waston also spoke to the press, and his downtrodden face said it all: the Caps were down and out. 

Journalists, who were hanging out in the press room after the match joked the Caps were taking their time to start the press conference because they were going to announce that Robinson was fired. It ended up not being much of a joke when 48 hours later the Whitecaps announced the firing

The technical director of the Caps’ academy, Craig Dalrymple, was given the questionable honour to see out the season (the Whitecaps called it a playoff push). The interim head coach managed two wins, two defeats and one draw in his five games in charge.

Officially, the Whitecaps were eliminated from the playoffs Oct. 21, after a 2-2 draw against LAFC. 

 

That result only set in stone, however, what many knew for months: The Whitecaps were just not good enough for the postseason. Hence, the final day of the season was all about #FarewellPhonzie, saying goodbye to perhaps the best talent that has ever played for the club in Alphonso Davies.

The gravestone on the season will read Oct. 28 — when the Whitecaps beat Portland 2-1 in the season finale. But what will the post-mortem bring?

On Tuesday, the club held its postseason media availability, and players revealed the team had been fragmented for most of the season. 

“I’ve never seen a team that had so many cliques,” goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic said

“At a certain point, it felt like guys were here for themselves,” defender Doneil Henry added. 

“I wouldn’t say this season we had a great locker room. We all need to be pulling in the same direction,” an always outspoken Russell Teibert said. 

So while the club mourns what could have been and looks back at a season full of disappointment, the question is, “What is going to happen next?”

Aug 15, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Vancouver Whitecaps defender Marcel de Jong (17) sits on the field at the end of the second half against Toronto FC at BMO Field. (Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)

President Bobby Lenarduzzi said he knew the club had a culture problem,“there’s no doubt about it.”

A new head coach will soon be announced, likely current LAFC assistant coach Marc dos Santos, and he will be tasked with trying to create a more positive culture for the club. 

He’ll also be in charge of unifying a squad that will include many new faces. Whether captain Kendall Waston will still be in the squad seems questionable. The captain said last week that he wanted out of Vancouver

“He won’t be leaving for anything lesser than market value,” Lenarduzzi told the media on Tuesday.

So, while the season is dead and buried, it appears there is life after death — and it will provide plenty of further drama as the club faces some difficult decisions in the upcoming months. 

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