Canadian defender Yao among fresh faces looking to crack Whitecaps' roster

VANCOUVER — Sporting director Axel Schuster knew heading into the off-season that he had work to do reshaping the Vancouver Whitecaps' roster.

Though the club took 39 points from 26 games down the stretch last season, it finished with a disappointing 12-15-7 record and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

“I think we feel — and felt — the need to strengthen our defence," Schuster said Friday. "I think we conceded too many goals, we also allowed too many shots. For that reason, in some of the games, we couldn’t get some stability because of that.”

At the end of the campaign, Vancouver opted not to pick up options on a number of players, including Canadian striker Lucas Cavallini, veteran defender Jake Nerwinski, goalkeeper Cody Cropper and midfielder Leonard Owusu. In total, 11 players from last year's roster are not with the team this season.

“We have made some hard decisions," Schuster said. "Some of the players (we) let go have done a good job last year, and (they're) players that we really liked and they have not done anything wrong. But it was not only about the quality, it was also that that has to fit well."

The Whitecaps looked to bolster their back line Monday when they signed Uruguayan centre back Mathias Laborda to a two-year contract. Earlier in the off-season, the club picked up Canadian centre back Karifa Yao from CF Montreal in the MLS re-entry draft.

The 22-year-old Montreal native spent the last two seasons on loan with Cavalry FC of the Canadian Premier League, registering two goals and two assists in 56 appearances.

The time spent in Calgary was full of lessons both on and off the field, Yao said.

"It was the first time that I left my family, so I became more a man," he said. "And on the field, tactically, those little details that a defender has to deal with.”

While getting back onto CF Montreal's roster had been Yao's goal during his time in the CPL, he was happy to land a home at another Canadian MLS club in November.

"Things happen differently," said the six-foot-two, 180-pound defender. "So, at least I played a lot of games, I learned a lot of things. And a new opportunity came and I take it. And now I need to continue to keep working hard so more opportunities can come.”

Yao is currently with the 'Caps as they prepare for the season in Marbella, Spain, and said he feels like he's fitting in well with the defensive corps.

"I think my main capacities defensively, I’m a strong a defender, I like to tackle," he said. "So I think I can help them defensively and try to help them to keep more clean sheets.”

On Friday, the young Canadian trained alongside Salif Sané, a Senegalese international who spent nearly a decade playing in Germany's Bundesliga before his career was derailed by injuries.

Schuster confirmed that the 32-year-old defender is working with the 'Caps in Spain, but cautioned anyone hoping to see Sane in a Vancouver jersey to curb their expectations.

“I think this is a situation where I would say both sides can benefit right now," said the sporting director, who got to know Sané during his time at German club Schalke.

"He gets a chance to train with us here on a very high level. And he's used here like a full-squad player, so he can test himself out, his body out. Is his body ready after all those injuries to tolerate such a load? And the load in camp is very high.

"For us, it's great to have such a player who is, by his normal potential, far better than the players that we are used to having in our squad. He has a very high quality that you only would see in our league as a DP.”

Sané's status with the Whitecaps is "day to day," Schuster added.

Schuster does expect to bring in other players as the regular season grows closer, however.

After all, the 'Caps will likely need extra bodies to weather a packed schedule this season. The club is playing not only in MLS, but in the CONCACAF Champions League as winners of last year's Canadian Championship, a title they'll look to defend this summer.

With Cavallini gone, Vancouver has an open designated player position — and an offensive void. The Toronto native led the 'Caps in scoring with nine goals last season.

Finding the right striker may be a challenge, though, Schuster said.

“You know those players are rare and those who have scored a bunch of goals are also very attractive for everyone in the market," he said, noting that strikers are always expensive.

“We want to get the right one, the one that also fits to our DNA, somebody who also sees MLS as a challenge, and who will fit into our budget. And all of that has to fit together.”

Work on bringing in new faces continues, Schuster said, but he has faith in the group that's in Spain preparing to take on Bundesliga 2 side Hamburger SV in a friendly match on Wednesday.

“We have a group here together that can easily start (the season)," Schuster said. "If no one would come, we would still feel comfortable that we can start well into the season. But still, we want to add one, or at least one, other player.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2023.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press