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Whitecaps, Toronto FC set for Canadian clash

John Herdman John Herdman - The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — Vanni Sartini isn't surprised at the early success Toronto FC has experienced this season.

Anyone who doesn't understand where the club's newly aggressive playing style came from need only look to the Canadian men's soccer team, said the Vancouver Whitecaps' head coach.

John Herdman spun magic during his tenure with the national team, Sartini said, and he's brought the same approach to his role as leader of the Major League Soccer club.

"We all know John Herdman and how he transformed the Canadian program in terms of trust and confidence in the team, having always a team that was going there and trying to be in the face of every opponent. And that’s what (Toronto FC) is trying to do," Sartini said.

“The biggest difference is the mentality. You can see now that they believe in what they’re doing."

The 'Caps (3-1-1) will get a firsthand look at their revitalized Canadian rivals on Saturday when TFC (3-2-1) visits BC Place.

Facing Toronto will be emotional for Vancouver fullback Sam Adekugbe, who played for Herdman on the Canadian men's squad.

"It’ll be a lot. I worked with John and the staff there for, I don’t know, four or five years. And I’ve had some really good moments with him," Adekugbe said. "It’ll be nice to see him come to BC Place but also nice to see him leave with zero points.”

Adekugbe made his return from a knee injury last week, coming off the bench in his first appearance of the season as the Whitecaps outlasted the Portland Timbers for a 3-2 home win.

The game showcased some of Vancouver's best play so far this season, with the 'Caps jumping out to a 2-0 lead before conceding a pair of goals midway through the second half. Ryan Raposo scored the game winner — his second goal of the season — in the 87th minute.

The Whitecaps showed a lot of spirit in rallying for the victory late, said captain Ryan Gauld.

The team has work to do, though, in creating consistency across a game, he added.

“We have yet to piece together a really good 90 minutes," Gauld said. "We’ve had patches in all the games so far where we’ve looked really good and then patches where we’ve looked vulnerable, a little bit more fragile.”

While the Whitecaps sit tied with the Timbers for the third-most goals in MLS play (10), Sartini wants to see his group maintain a solid defensive structure for a full game.

“In our way of playing, all 11 players need to defend, from the (forwards) to the goalkeeper, everyone needs to put a shift on and to follow the principal of the team," the coach said.

"We need to keep being aggressive and structured. Because that’s the only way for our way of playing to limit the other teams.”

For Toronto coach John Herdman, the trip to Vancouver offers a chance to reunite with family. His wife, daughter and son remain in B.C. with his daughter in school and son Jay a member of the Whitecaps FC 2

Toronto is without injured Italian star attacker Lorenzo Insigne and fullback Richie Laryea, who spent time on loan with the Whitecaps last season. Defender Raoul Petretta and midfielder Brandon Servania are also injured.

Defender Nicksoen Gomis is questionable as he continues his recovery from wrist surgery.

The good news is starting goalkeeper Sean Johnson is available to play after missing the last four games with a hamstring injury.

"He's back, which is great for the team," said Herdman. "He's a hell of a leader and a big presence in the environment."

Luka Gravran played well deputizing for Johnson, with two clean sheets in his four appearances.

Toronto is coming off a 3-1 loss to visiting Sporting Kansas City, a performance that took some of the shine from the club's sunny start to the season.

"The response has been good," Herdman said of his players at training this week. "They were wounded, there's no doubt coming out of that game. I think everyone felt there was a missed opportunity there. With a home win against KC, Toronto would have sat top of the league.

"We said prior to going in, three points at home would give us a big opportunity to tell people what we were about this season. And we missed that opportunity."

Herdman said his team looks "ready" for a derby match with the Whitecaps.

"Similar to us, they've had a good start. They've probably lost a game that they should have won, in their minds. But I think they're a really well-organized team. Vanni Sartini's done a terrific job with the group."

A win and Toronto will match its modest victory total of last season when it finished last in the league at 4-20-10.


Saturday, BC Place

INS AND OUTS: The Whitecaps will be without fullback Luis Martins (hamstring) while striker Brian White (concussion) is listed as questionable.

HISTORY BOOKS: Vancouver holds a 7-6-3 edge over Toronto in MLS regular-season play, including a 2-1 win at BMO Field last September. Toronto has winning record, though, in Canadian Championship action between the two sides, going 6-3-7 in the tournament.

-- With files from Neil Davidson in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2024.