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Struggling Whitecaps go back to basics as they look for answers in Austin

VANCOUVER — It's been a rough start to the season for the Vancouver Whitecaps. With a single win in seven games, the 'Caps (1-5-1) linger near the bottom of Major League Soccer's Western Conference standings.
CF Montreal's Victor Wanyama challenges Vancouver Whitecaps' Lucas Cavallini (9) during second half MLS soccer action in Montreal, Saturday, April 16, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

VANCOUVER — It's been a rough start to the season for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

With a single win in seven games, the 'Caps (1-5-1) linger near the bottom of Major League Soccer's Western Conference standings.

Turning the campaign around will take a degree of simplicity, said head coach Vanni Sartini.

“We have to be realistic," he said Friday. "We didn’t start the way that we wanted both for results and I would say in some games even for performance they didn’t go the way that we wanted. So we’ve been very honest with each other this week and we said that we need to go back to the basics. We need to really stick to the plan.”

That means playing solid defence, simple, aggressive offence and staying together as a team as they take on Austin FC (4-1-2) in Texas this weekend, Sartini said.

“We’re a blue collar team so that’s who we are," he said.

The task won't be easy, though.

The 'Caps will have to play without several key pieces including star midfielder Ryan Gauld, who is in concussion protocol after suffering a head injury in Vancouver's 2-1 loss to CF Montreal last week.

Fellow midfielders Caio Alexandre (left hand fracture) and Leonard Owusu (right foot contusion) are also out, as are defender Cristian Gutierrez (left calf tightness) and forward Deiber Caicedo (non-COVID illness).

To help round out the roster, the Whitecaps have signed two players from their NEXT Pro team to short-term MLS contracts.

Wingback Ali Ahmed and midfielder Vasco Fry trained with the team on Friday and will travel to Austin for Saturday's game.

Vancouver has had bad luck with injuries this season, said striker Lucas Cavallini, who missed a game against the Portland Timbers earlier this month due to a non-COVID illness.

"We haven’t had the chance to put out the full, full strong, strong squad," he said. "Everybody’s trying to get healthy now and trying to form the best team we can. The boys are still hungry and we need to win games.”

Austin comes into Saturday's match unbeaten in four straight and tied with Los Angeles FC for the most goals in the league (17).

Argentine striker Sebastian Driussi has been a force for the club with five goals on the season, tied for first spot in the MLS scoring race.

"Any time you get to go into a place like Austin who have a good front line, have a good team and are going in a good way this year, it’s going to be a big test," said 'Caps defender Tristan Blackmon. "As a defender you look to deal with as many opportunities as you can and try to limit the amount of attacking for them.”

The Whitecaps have work to do at the other end of the field, too.

Vancouver sits at the bottom of the league in shots on target (18) and has scored just six goals this year, tied with Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders for the fewest in the Western Conference.

The club's offence is a work in progress, said Cavallini, who has one goal on the season.

"It’s coming. Each game we’re improving on certain things, certain qualities," he said. "I guess we just need to put it in the back of the net no matter what, capitalize on our chances. We’re creating a lot but we have to be confident that we can put that ball in the net.”

Every player on the squad knows how important it will be at their best on Saturday, Cavallini said, calling the game a "must win."

“I don’t think we can ask less than that or expect less than that," he said. "We need to get back on track and winning the game will put us there."


Saturday, Q2 Stadium

HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE: Austin has not lost a game at Q2 Stadium this season, going 3-0-1 at home. Meanwhile, Vancouver has yet to take a point on the road (0-4-0).

HISTORY BOOKS: The Whitecaps swept the season series between the two sides last year, winning both matchups 2-1.

FAMILIAR FACES: 'Caps midfielder Sebastian Berhalter spent last season playing for Austin FC on loan from the Columbus Crew. Vancouver acquired the 20-year-old American from Columbus in February and he's started four games for the club this year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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