May 22nd, 2024

Whitecaps put unbeaten road record on the line in Los Angeles

By Carol Schram, The Canadian Press on May 10, 2024.

Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini looks on from the sideline against the Seattle Sounders during the first half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, April 20, 2024, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

VANCOUVER – Amid a busy month of May, the Vancouver Whitecaps (5-2-3) will put their unbeaten road record on the line when they visit a familiar foe on Saturday in LAFC (4-4-3).

“Last year, it was probably our biggest rivalry of the year,” said Whitecaps coach Vanni Sartini following a training session in Vancouver on Thursday.

“We played in every competition – Champions Cup, regular season, playoffs. So I’m really looking forward to this game.”

The 2022 MLS Cup Champions, LAFC went back to the 2023 Cup Final after sweeping the Whitecaps out of the first round last November. They also took out Vancouver on their way to the final of the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League.

This season, the Falcons sit seventh in the Western Conference standings. But they have dominated at BMO Stadium, boasting a home record of 4-0-2.

“We know them really well,” said centre back Ranko Veselinovic. “We know it’s going to be a tough game in that stadium. We’re going to have to be focused all 90 minutes, to work hard all 90 minutes because nothing’s going to come easy on that field.”

The Whitecaps’ last MLS outing was a 0-0 home draw against Austin FC last Saturday, where newcomer Fafa Picault played the full 90 minutes in his fifth start of the year. With three goals and two assists, he has added another layer of offence for Vancouver, which has logged a solid 18 goals in its 10 games to date.

Now 33, Picault says his role in Vancouver is similar to his past MLS stops, most recently in Nashville. “I still feel extremely young, but I’m definitely a seasoned vet now,” he said. “I get to play the part of leadership and also just blending in with the group and knowing what I have to do both on and off the field as a player.”

Vancouver has also been strong defensively. Goalkeeper Yohei Takaoka has allowed just 10 goals in 10 MLS matches and is tied for the MLS lead with four clean sheets.

“In terms of shot-stopping, we could see that he was a very good goalkeeper,” Sartini said, explaining that Takaoka’s ability to defend the space behind the line allows the Whitecaps to play higher with or without the ball.

“I think that his all-around usefulness for the team makes him one of the best fits in the league for us,” he added.

The Whitecaps have a heavy eight-game schedule in May. As the two-time defending Canadian Championship winners, they began the defence of their title with a 2-1 road win over Cavalry FC on Tuesday.

Isaac Boehmer guarded the net in that match, and Sartini’s other lineup changes included the first start of the year for Levonte Johnson, who scored both goals, and inserting newly acquired Australian teenager Giuseppe Bovalina for his first minutes with his new squad.

“I really love when we have a lot of games,” said Sartini, who embraces the value of high-pressure situations and the opportunity to rotate more players into match action. “If things are going well, we can keep momentum. If things are not going well in some games, we have the possibility to bounce back immediately.

“I’m really excited for this month.”

CANUCKS FEVER

With hockey fever sweeping Vancouver, Sartini was in the stands at Rogers Arena on Wednesday for the Canucks’ 5-4 comeback win over the Edmonton Oilers. “The environment was beautiful,” he said. “It’s another, I would say, proof that when there’s a lot of belief – everyone was pushing to try to get this comeback and they did it.”

INJURY UPDATE

Sartini characterized the calf strain which Sam Adekugbe suffered against Austin last Saturday as ‘”˜mild,” and expects him to miss a few weeks. Damir Kreilach (ankle) also won’t travel to Los Angeles. Sartini is hopeful that he can re-join team training in about a week.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Saturday’s match will be the first of three meetings between the two sides this year. They’ll meet twice in Leagues Cup play: in Los Angeles on July 30, then at BC Place on Aug. 24.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2024.

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