VANCOUVER — Russell Teibert knows there are people that counted the Vancouver Whitecaps out this season.
It was a tough year for the club, a choppy campaign repeatedly interrupted by COVID-19, and various obstacles, including players and staff spending about 100 nights in hotels around the continent.
At the end of it all, the 'Caps missed the playoffs for the third year in a row. But Teibert believes there's a lot for the team to be proud of.
"We showed that the team here, no matter what situation is going to come at us, we’re going to attack it," the veteran midfielder said on a video call Thursday. "We’re always going to be a team that fights, we’re always going to be a team that never gives up. And we didn’t until the final whistle this year.”
The 'Caps finished the year with a 9-14-0 record, sitting just below the playoff bar in ninth place in Major League Soccer's Western Conference.
The result was an improvement on the 12th-place finish Vancouver had in 2019, and coach Marc Dos Santos said he "100 per cent" believes the squad would have ended the year in the top eight if it had been a normal 34-game campaign.
“The only negative, I would say, is that we weren’t able to finish in the top eight. That was an objective for us," he said.
The 'Caps had more wins than two of the playoff-bound Western teams (the San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids each had eight), and more points than the Montreal Impact and Inter Miami CF, who both made the playoffs in the East.
“I think how close we were at the end just shows how much this group has grown. And I think we’re going to be better for it next year," Teibert said. "The only way this club is going is up and we’re all looking forward to getting back out there.”
The Whitecaps offence took a step forward in 2020 with the addition of Lucas Cavallini. The 27-year-old Canadian striker signed with the club as a designated player last December after playing in Mexico and Uruguay.
Known as a goal scorer, it took "El Tanque" some time to find his touch in MLS. His first strike didn't come until Sept. 5 when the 'Caps took a 3-2 victory over Toronto FC.
“It wasn’t really consistent for me. We started to play, we stopped, we started to play again, we stopped," said Cavallini, who went on to score six goals in 18 games. "Towards the end, I was happy with my performances. I know I could have done better, but what are you going to do?”
He also accumulated seven yellow cards and one red, and was forced to sit out two games on suspensions.
Cavallini knows he needs to work on staying out of the referee's book.
“I can be a bit aggressive sometimes. But getting to know the referees here, I didn’t know they were so sensitive," he said, adding that he knows he shouldn't be making late slide tackles.
“Other than that, my aggressiveness and my passion just has to stay at the level it is.”
One area where the Whitecaps expected to excel this season was in net. Goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau was coming off a stellar season and planned to ride that momentum through 2020.
Then he suffered a fractured thumb at the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando.
Within seconds, Crepeau knew he was in trouble. His thumb had been broken at the base. A four-hour-long surgery was needed to remove shattered pieces and insert wires to hold bones together.
Despite the injury, the 'keeper stayed with the club for much of the season, even joining his teammates when border restrictions forced the Whitecaps to relocate to Portland in mid-September.
“It would have been easy for me to say ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to go. I’m comfortable in Vancouver. I think my season’s over anyway,’" Crepeau said. "But I’m not about that and it wasn’t about that at the time either.”
With Crepeau out, Vancouver was forced to turn to Thomas Hasal.
The 21 year old from Saskatchewan ended up being a bright spot for the club, seeing action in nine games and posting a 4-4-0 record with one clean sheet before he, too, was brought down by injury in late September.
After seeing Hasal in action, Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster decided that the club must find a way to get the young 'keeper more playing time next year, even if that means loaning him out to another team.
“He has to play somewhere," Schuster said. "He showed his talent and nothing is more important than he gets a lot of minutes. And we have to find a solution that he gets minutes.”
Finding a home for the young goalie is just one piece of business on the sporting director's agenda this off-season.
He's also looking to fill some holes after the Whitecaps sold creative midfielder Inbeom Hwang to Russian Premier League club FC Rubin Kazan in August, and traded speedy forward Yordy Reyna to D.C. United in September.
A few other faces are also moving on, including winger David Milinkovic, who had a goal and four assists in 16 games.
The future of forward Fredy Montero remains unclear. The 33-year-old Colombian had five goals and five assists in 2020, but his contract ends at the end of the year.
Schuster said he's had a good conversation with Montero but declined to comment on his future in Vancouver.
The sporting director does expect much of the club's current roster to remain for the 2021 season, however.
“We don’t see a lot of adjustments," he said. “Not a big turnaround. I see very few players coming and very, very few players leaving.”
Someone assured to be back is Dos Santos. The 43-year-old coach has one year left on his contract and, while the 'Caps haven't made the playoffs during his tenure, will return for next season, Schuster said.
Dos Santos knows there's questions about his future in Vancouver but said the chatter doesn't impact him personally.
“I’ve been blessed since the day that I don’t have social media and I don’t have Instagram and Twitter. I’m telling you, my life totally changed. I don’t need thumbs up of people I don’t know. I don’t need validation from outside sources," he said.
“I’m at peace by giving my best every day. That’s all I can control.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2020.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press