Marc Dos Santos is in an unusual position as a head coach, and he doesn’t like it.
Whether it was in the USL with Montreal Impact or Swope Park Rangers, in the NASL with Ottawa Fury and San Francisco Deltas, or in MLS as the assistant at LAFC, this time of year has always meant battling for a place in the postseason and then navigating his team’s playoff run, garnering a lot of success along the way and a couple of championships.
This year is very different.
Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2019 MLS season was officially over in August. It felt over long before that. Anchored to the bottom of the Western Conference, four points adrift of second bottom Houston Dynamo with three games left to play, Dos Santos has made it clear that he feels there’s a lot still left to play for and his team won’t be easing up or just throwing young players into matches for the sake of it.
There’s the pride aspect and evaluating some newer players. And for Dos Santos, there’s another driving force. To avoid something never attached to one of his teams before – the tag of being the worst.
“It’s in our heads not to finish bottom,” Dos Santos admitted to AFTN at Whitecaps training this week. “It would be a first for me personally. Already it’s weird to be in the month of September and going through games, even if we’re keeping the right attitude in our guys, it’s hard, right? I’m used to [having something to play for].
“Man, I have incredible memories, recent of September months. Of pressure, heart beating, important games. So it’s new, but I think it’s also part of the process for you individually as a coach.”
Dos Santos has always come across as a highly driven coach. Every setback, every failure, can be used as a positive, a lesson to be learned. And that’s just how he’s approaching his current plight.
The chance to see him improve as a coach, and he fully believes he’ll come out of this season all the better for the adversity he’s faced and the acknowledged mistakes he’s made along the way.
“I know very little coaches that are gonna sit down at the end of their career at the age of 60 or 65 and you’re going to ask, ‘Hey, how was your career?’, and they’re going to say everything was incredible and we won every year,” Dos Santos told us. “No. From Ancelotti to Mourinho, Guardiola, they’re all going to have phases that were difficult.
“I remember reading a lot on [Maurizio] Sarri and how much he got sacked. Eight or nine times in his career. So the process to become Sarri, coaching Napoli, Juve, Chelsea, was difficult. Then you have examples of the first year of [Alex] Ferguson in Manchester United, Bill Belichick at New England Patriots in football, and when you read all of that, you realize that it’s part of the job. So it’s how do you take, how do you learn? I learned a lot. I learned a lot. That’s what I could say.”
Avoiding finishing worst in the West this season is looking a tall order with the games running out. This weekend’s match at home to Columbus Crew should afford them a great opportunity of closing the gap on those above them. But after that, taking points at the LA Galaxy and then at home on the last day of the season against a RSL side that are needing all they can for playoff positioning, is going to be a tough ask.
That ‘Worst in the West’ tag may just stick with Dos Santos come October 6th, but at least there is one worst label his team won’t now earn this season, that of being the worst Whitecaps team in the MLS era.
Saturday’s win over Houston saw them overtake the points total and the win total from that expansion year. A stat we’ve been watching closely these past few weeks, but it was one that Dos Santos wasn’t aware of until his brother told him after last weekend’s match. His focus instead has been on making the Whitecaps better and where he not only wants them be, but where he believes they should be as a club.
“To be honest we never thought about it,” Dos Santos said. “But Phil told me last week that there was worse than us in the club, but I never thought about it. I was always driven to be in the top seven, but now what my homework is, especially the day we got knocked out by Calgary, I started evaluating a lot of my work because you have to do that as a coach and also evaluating the roster.
“And I started to evaluate a lot. Okay, we talk about we want to be is top four in the West. What we want to do is win the Canadian Championship. That’s in general, if you would speak with owners, where they want to bring this club.”
The Whitecaps have fallen very short of those targets this season, suffering an embarrassing Voyageurs Cup exit to CPL side Cavalry FC at the quarter-final stage and being basement dwellers in MLS for much of the year.
The task now is to make sure this doesn’t happen again next season. That’s the clear goal for everyone at the club, but realistically something far easier to wish for than to perhaps achieve considering the teams in the Whitecaps’ way.
“Today, to be top four in the West,” Dos Santos mused. “If you think that in a normal year, Seattle, Galaxy and LAFC must be in the top three or the top four. And then the battle for the next four – Vancouver, Portland, Sporting, Dallas, Colorado, Houston – all teams that want to be there.
“And then when you talk about being a normality to win the Canadian Championship, that that should be something normal. We won one Canadian Championship in 11, so as a club, it shouldn’t be a normality. It should be very difficult to win a Canadian Championship. It’s hard. It’s hard to do it and it’s hard to be in the top four.”
It’s also hard to suddenly get up to that level when you seem so far off the pace in terms of player quality and money being spent. That’s the challenge now facing Dos Santos and the gap that is rapidly needing closed.
Mailing to supporters have already boldly stated that the Whitecaps “have money to spend” and plan to do just that. Spending money doesn’t guarantee success of course. It has to be spent on the right difference maker player(s) and the correct supporting cast.
Dos Santos and his coaching team have already begun scouting potential signings for next season and will be away between them for two months from mid-October to mid-December. They know for the most part which members of the current squad will be coming back and which ones won’t. And they know where on the pitch they have to strengthen and improve (most of them glaringly obvious after the season that’s just past).
Knowing that and then successfully addressing all of it aren’t always achievable, but Dos Santos is confident they can and he’s putting in the work to make sure it happens.
“Now our homework is much more,” Dos Santos said. “What do the other clubs have that we don’t have? What can we have that they have and some things we can have and then stretch the club to become the best we can. So that has been 60% of my work in a day right now.”