VANCOUVER — In a season full of memorable moments, the one Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini will hold onto is a celebration with the fans.
The 'Caps had just battled the Seattle Sounders to a 1-1 draw and clinched their first playoff spot in four years. The final whistle blew and following some brief celebrations among themselves, Sartini, his players and staff put their arms around one another and walked towards the supporters section, singing along to "Stand by Me." In the stands, phones glowed as the crowd swayed and sang back.
“I will remember that night for a long time," Sartini said Tuesday. "Hopefully I will remember that night as one of the nights because next year we’re going to have more moments like that.”
The Whitecaps saw it all this season — crushing losses and triumphant victories, the addition of new heroes and the firing of a coach.
Pandemic border restrictions saw the club start its season based out of Sandy, Utah, sharing facilities with Real Salt Lake.
By the beginning of August, the Whitecaps had fallen to the bottom of the Western Conference standings. An Aug. 26 loss to Canadian Premier League side Pacific FC in the first round of the Canadian Championship prompted the dismissal of head coach Marc Dos Santos the following day.
Sartini was handed the coaching duties on an interim basis and Vancouver rallied under his leadership. He was officially named the club's head coach on Tuesday, agreeing to a two-year contract through the 2023 season.
The Whitecaps finished the campaign with a 12-9-13 record, good for sixth in the West. The draw against Seattle on Nov. 7 clinched the club's first playoff spot since 2017.
While Vancouver lost the first-round playoff matchup 3-1 to Sporting Kansas City, the roller-coaster campaign has heightened expectations for the team, said veteran defender Jake Nerwinski.
"The way this season ended, I think we showed not only ourselves, not only our fans, but the entire MLS that we’re a team that is feared now," he said.
"You don’t think you just come in (to Vancouver) and get three points. And even when we go on the road, too, we’re tough to play. So that just needs to all come together again for an entire season. And if it does, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll get a home game.”
The Whitecaps added some key pieces over the course of the season, starting with striker Brian White, who the club acquired from the New York Red Bulls for general allocation money at the beginning of June.
While White was quiet offensively to start, he finished the regular season with a team-leading 12 goals.
"Finding a place that valued me meant a lot. I came into the team and played a lot of games right away. Granted, the results weren’t really going our way," the 25-year-old New Jersey native said of his move to the Whitecaps. "I kept saying it would just take time, the first goal would come and it would snowball a bit. And then we added players like (attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld) and (defender Florian Jungwirth) and things just started to come together even more.
"It meant a lot to be part of a group, a club with teammates that valued me and saw me producing and had value in me. And I was able to build off those feelings, those emotions and really just continue to grow my game within the team.”
Vancouver signed Gauld at the end of July and the 25-year-old Scot quickly developed a reputation as a crafty playmaker. He finished the year with four goals and six assists in 18 appearances.
What made the team special, though, wasn't a single player, Sartini said.
"It’s really no secret the togetherness, the willingness of the group going through obstacles and achieving something great has been some of the most important ingredients of our success in the last part of the season," the coach said. "And I say every time that the group is the leader and that’s what it actually is. You don’t have one single player or two players that stand out, it was really a chemistry of a lot of players.”
Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster recognizes how important that chemistry is. He said he doesn't expect to make any big changes to the roster this off-season, but will consider ways to improve the group.
Scouting and recruiting become more complicated as the club looks to take another step forward, he added.
“As I always say, we don’t want to sign the first one, we don’t want to just fill in a need that we just have," he said. "We want to get it done right.”
Schuster said there is, however, a player who wants to look at other options because he didn't get the minutes he wanted this season. Both the club and player are looking for solutions "that satisfy everyone," he said, declining to name the player.
"Every player in this club is for sale. It depends always on the offer," Schuster said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press