Whitecaps counting Canadian experience in postseason push
Postseason pressure is already ratcheting up for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
With three regular-season games remaining, Vancouver sits sixth (43 pts) and in a playoff spot in the Western Conference but is also in the middle of a 10-team traffic jam.
Right now, 11th place Minnesota United (38 pts) is two spots outside of a play-in game, but just eight points from second-place Real Salt Lake (46 pts).
With every point seemingly so significant, the Whitecaps face the additional challenge of having their three final matches against three of the top four teams in the West: first-place St. Louis (Wednesday night), third-place Seattle (Oct. 7), and fourth-place LAFC (Oct. 21).
This high-pressure end to the season was one of the reasons Vancouver made a late-summer transfer splurge, adding Canadian internationals Sam Adekugbe, Richie Laryea, and Junior Hoilett.
“[The three Canadian players] are very experienced international players for Canada,” Vancouver head coach Vanni Sartini said in late September. “They have played tons of qualifying games to get to the World Cup, in the World Cup itself, and the Gold Cup.”
Not so long ago, it would have been difficult to find a team so keen to acquire Canadian players based on their big-game experience, but that is one obvious benefit of Canada qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.
Adekugbe, Laryea, and Hoilett have all achieved much for club and country and arrived in Vancouver with lengthy resumes.
“All the [Canadian] guys came in with a very strong mentality,” Sartini said. “And they came in also in a way that [is] putting themselves in service of the team, and not the other way around. It’s really good.”
The trio’s decision to move to Vancouver unfolded in two steps. Former Canadian international and current Whitecaps liaison of club and player engagement Tosaint Ricketts reached out to Adekugbe and Hoilett over the summer during the European off-season to explain how closely Vancouver wanted to tie its ambitions to Canadian talent.
Once the seed was planted, Adekugbe, Laryea, and Hoilett communicated with each other and began warming to the idea of playing together – another example of the strong bond of the Canadian men’s “brotherhood” formed throughout 2022 World Cup qualifying.
“Sam has had interest from Vancouver for some while now, and he was speaking to me about it,” Laryea said. “When [Vancouver’s] interest came about, I spoke to him about it, and then Junior shortly after as well was speaking about his interest.“We all had conversations about potentially joining, and what that would look like, and how good that would be for ourselves and the club.”
“When [Ricketts] told me they were interested, and Richie and Sam had already made the move, it made it 10 times easier for me to make the move to play with familiar faces,” Hoilett said. “I love playing with Sam and Richie. It made me settle in more quickly with a new group of players. It was a no-brainer, really.”
Still, each came to Vancouver at different points in their careers.
Adekugbe began his career in the Whitecaps development system 10 years ago. After stints in England, Sweden, and Norway, the 28-year-old left-back took the advice of former men’s national team head coach John Herdman and committed himself to earning a starting role in Turkey, one of Europe’s top 10 leagues.
In his second season with Hatayspor, Adekugbe suddenly found himself in the middle of unimaginable tragedy when a massive earthquake hit Turkey’s central region in February. As he tried to cope with the aftermath, Adekugbe was loaned to Galatasaray, and helped the Istanbul giants win the Turkish league.
Adekugbe has now signed a deal to stay in Vancouver until 2026. Although he stresses that he didn’t return to Vancouver because of any concerns following the earthquake, he does admit the event changed the way he sees soccer and life.
“When I look at that medal [for winning the Turkish league] I look at how far I’ve come in these last four or five months,” he said. “The highs and lows of life. Every day is a new day and it’s just to cherish your loved ones. When I look at it [the champions' medal], I just have more respect for myself and being able to handle the situations that I’ve faced.”Laryea saw a chance to move to Vancouver as another new challenge in a hectic 18 months full of change.
On top of helping Canada qualify for the World Cup, Laryea moved from Toronto FC to Nottingham Forest January 2022, was loaned back to TFC that August, and decided against staying in Toronto as the club underwent a number of changes.
The 28-year-old midfielder saw another loan, this time to Vancouver through to the end of the season, as the best opportunity for him right now.
“I’m happy to be here. My family’s happy here, the football has been really good club is trending in a really good direction,” Laryea said. “Right now, we have three games left in the season to set our sights right and keep pushing forward.”
Hoilett has the most European experience of the three and is playing in Major League Soccer for the first time.
The Brampton, Ont., native was a highly touted young Canadian when he debuted for Blackburn in England’s Premier League in 2009. Over a decade he played 560 times in Europe, including stops in Germany’s second division, England’s second division Championship, and 161 appearances in the Premier League.
After years of speculation about when he might return to North America, Hoilett thought a short- term deal through the end of the season made now the right time to play in Canada.
“I think it was a good time for me to come over – especially the situation I was in. I was out of a club situation, I was raring to get back in and start playing again,” he said. “So, when the opportunity came up, I was excited. It’s a new chapter for me to play back home.”
The pressure on Vancouver’s playoff pursuit and for the Canadians to produce is intensifying. The trio have made a handful of appearances, but Vancouver is winless in their past four games (0-2-2).
Much of Vancouver’s push to earn its first home playoff match since 2017 has been propelled by career seasons from attackers Ryan Gauld and Brian White. The pair have combined on 25 of Vancouver’s 51 goals this season.
Sartini recently described Vancouver as maybe not the best team in MLS, but a team capable of beating anyone in the league. Although there has been a reliance on Gauld and White’s production, Sartini says the arrival of Adekugbe, Laryea, and Hoilett continues to have a noticeable effect on the locker room.
“There is an atmosphere [in Vancouver’s locker room] that is a lot more aware of our skills and possibilities,” Sartini said.
Of the three Canadian internationals, Adekugbe is the only one to make a long-term commitment to the club. But all three are motivated to create Canadian soccer history again and use these next three games as a platform for an historic club playoff run.
“You can see the growth on and off the field,” Hoilett said. “They have an immense amount of talent here and the position they’re in now is something you want to be a part of as a player to help push forward and be a part of that journey.”