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Whitecaps express confidence in new season transfers despite high-profile absences

Vanni Sartini Vancouver Whitecaps Vanni Sartini - The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps are maintaining an air of confidence when it comes to bringing in reinforcements ahead of the upcoming 2024 Major League Soccer season, despite two high-profile absences.

Head coach Vanni Sartini said while the transfer market can be hard to predict, he's confident he will have some new signings to welcome by the time the Whitecaps kick off CONCACAF Champions League action Feb. 7 against Mexico's Tigres UANL.

"I can say for sure in a month, in the game against Tigres, we’ll have a couple players more," he said.

"The club is actively working the little things we asked to add players to the roster. It’s a question of patience."

Canadian internationals Junior Hoilett and Richie Laryea have yet to determine their futures, with Hoilett considering the implications of uprooting his family while Laryea was signed on loan from English Premier League side Nottingham Forest.

The two were part of a high-profile trio of Canadian internationals brought in last season, but both ultimately failed to provide the spark needed to help Vancouver end its playoff jinx.

Sartini said on Monday he wanted to respect Laryea's status as a member of Nottingham Forest when asked about his future in Vancouver.

"Richie is a Nottingham Forest player. He’s not our player, it’s not our decision," he said.

"Nobody knows to be honest."

At the time of their signings, the pair — along with fellow Canadian national teammate Sam Adekugbe — were heralded as a way to engage fans and showcase Canadian talent.

"If we go into the market and we have a need, we always look first at Canadian options," said Whitecaps chief executive officer Axel Schuster when the players signed in August.

"We want to continue developing Canadian players, like we have with Ali (Ahmed) and I think also Ryan Raposo has done really, really good steps in his development … we will continue to do this with new prospects."

But Hoilett and Laryea failed to provide a dynamic spark.

Laryea had one goal and three assists across 14 appearances while Hoilett made nine appearances, seven as a substitute, and didn't record a goal or assist.

Adekugbe struggled with coming back from a knee injury but said he's confident the Whitecaps remain an attractive destination for Canadian players.

"For some reasons things might work out, they might not work out, we still don’t know yet," he said alluding to Hoilett and Laryea's absence from the team.

The club declined a contract option for longtime midfielder Russell Teibert this off-season, with Sartini saying he has discussed the possibility of a non-playing role for the 31-year-old.

"We went out to have a coffee together and to discuss things. He’s in talks with the club regarding his future. His future could maybe be not playing anymore and being part of the club," Sartini said.

Vancouver brought in veteran Damir Kreilach after Real Salt Lake declined to pick up his contract option at the end of the 2023 season.

Kreilach, 34, spent much of the 2023 season dealing with the after-effects of surgery for a back injury picked up in 2022 and was limited to four goals and one assist in 27 games.

"Still hungry," he said when asked about his age and desire to play.

"I appreciate the chance Vancouver gave me to be here for the next two years."

Kreilach said Real Salt Lake offered him a chance to return, but his desire to play and feel at ease helping a team culminated in a move to Vancouver.

"I just wanted (to show) that I can still compete," he said.

Attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld acknowledged the change in squad makeup from last year but said the team retains enough quality to see success.

"No matter what happens with people coming and going, we'll have a strong team," he said. "All the boys are under contract here and are familiar with each other. We're all wanting to do better than we did last year."

Gauld is in the last year of his contract and said he and the club's management are in discussions about a new contract and that he's loved playing in Vancouver.

"Once conversations get going, it's never over in a day or two. Patience is key," he said.

Vancouver kicks off its pre-season in Marbella, Spain, before it's two-legged first round Champions League series against Tigres on Feb. 7 and 14.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2024.