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‘I think we did a miracle’: Unique interim coach leads Whitecaps to playoffs

Vanni Sartini takes Caps from near the bottom of MLS to their first playoff spot in four years
Vancouver Whitecaps acting head coach Vanni Sartini shouts on the sideline during the second half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas in Vancouver on Saturday, September 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Vanni Sartini isn’t exactly the coach many would expect to be tasked with turning around a struggling soccer team.

But the exuberant Italian has done just that, taking the Vancouver Whitecaps from near the bottom of Major League Soccer’s Western Conference to their first playoff spot in four years.

“I think we did a miracle, pure and simple,” Sartini said Sunday after his squad locked its first post-season berth since 2017 with a 1-1 draw against the Seattle Sounders.

The result capped a hectic regular season for the ‘Caps (12-9-13).

Pandemic border restrictions forced the club to start the campaign based out of Sandy, Utah. An eight-game winless skid had many doubting the team’s trajectory in mid-July. The club fell to the bottom of the Western Conference standings at the beginning of August and a painful loss in the Canadian Championships later that month punctuated a plethora of problems.

Vancouver axed head coach Marc Dos Santos on Aug. 27 and named Sartini his interim replacement.

The move marked a departure from Sartini’s traditional role. The native of Florence, Italy, came to the ‘Caps in 2019 as Dos Santos’ assistant coach after working as a coach educator for the Italian Football Federation and the U.S. Soccer Federation, and as an assistant coach with clubs in Italy.

After two seasons with Vancouver’s first team, he became the “director of methodology” with the Whitecaps academy in 2020, and took over coaching the club’s U-23 team.

Sartini has joked that he was named interim coach of the MLS squad because he was the only person in the facility at the time. But Whitecaps sporting director and CEO Axel Schuster argues that the decision was more methodical.

“There was no doubt he was my first choice because we had in a way a special scenario,” Schuster said. “I think it would be very hard for somebody coming from outside to understand what the team went through and how difficult things have been and what the team has developed through the time.”

Schuster had watched Sartini work as an assistant and knew his skill set. He believed the animated Italian could deliver the two things the team needed: a wake-up call and better structure on the field.

The squad was quick to respond, dominating Real Salt Lake 4-1 in Sartini’s first game as bench boss. His record as head coach stands at a stellar 7-2-5.

Asked whether he envisioned the Whitecaps making the playoffs when he was named interim coach, Sartini gives a typically candid answer.

“I’m a very cocky person, so yes. But I also thought I was going to be there for a week or two weeks,” he said before paraphrasing political philosopher Antonio Gramsci: “We need to always have the optimism of the will and the pessimism of the reason.”

“You need to be optimistic but also pessimistic in that you need to plan for everything in case things are not going well and work at 1,000 per cent,” he added. “And we did it so I’m very happy.”

Sartini relies on 3-4-1-2 tactical formation that puts the club’s top attacking threats at the top of the field then bolsters them with a stacked midfield and a three-man defence.

And he isn’t afraid to mix up his lineup. Over 14 games at the helm, he’s used 22 different players in the starting 11.

“Having an ideal starting 11, it’s like having a landline. It’s a 20th century thing. We are in the 21st,” Sartini said of constant rotation. “The game is so demanding that we need to play 100 per cent every game. So that’s my philosophy.”

The variation has given every player on the team a sense that they can contribute, said ‘Caps ‘keeper Maxime Crepeau.

“Vanni’s an amazing guy that makes everyone in this team feel important. It’s true,” he said. “Everyone is important to our system and anyone can play anywhere. … Honestly, the human being is fantastic, too, so every single one of us wants to fight for him.”

During games, Sartini paces the sidelines, gesturing wildly as he shouts instructions to his players in multiple languages or loudly confers with officials on calls. When the ‘Caps score, he leaps and cheers as if the ball has sailed off his own foot into the back of the net.

It’s a demeanour that’s spread through the entire club, creating a unique buzz and excitement.

“You guys see how he is in the games. He’s the same exact way in the locker room,” said Vancouver defender Jake Nerwinski. “His mentality, his attitude is infectious, it really is. So it’s been great having him.”

The coach’s boisterous nature hasn’t gone unnoticed throughout the league. During a recent tilt between the Whitecaps and Los Angeles FC in California, actor Will Ferrell — a part owner of LAFC — compared Sartini’s mannerisms to Mr. Bean, a goofy TV character portrayed by Rowan Atkinson in the early 1990s.

Sartini took Ferrell’s comments as a compliment, saying in an Instagram post: “Will, if you have a part for me in your next movie, just call me.”

Everyone on the Whitecaps has loved playing for Sartini, said attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld.

“When you see his enthusiasm on the pitch, I think it’s pretty difficult not to like him as a person and also what he’s doing as a manager,” he said. “Everyone’s really enjoying it and I think that shows in the results as well, everyone’s working hard for each other and we know where we have to be tactically and stuff. There’s not a bad word to say about him.”

Whether Sartini’s success will see him take over the head coaching job permanently remains to be seen.

For now, he not only coaches the MLS squad, but remains involved in his old role of director of methodology. Schuster said Sartini is constantly asking for detailed updates on what’s happening with the club’s U-17 and U-23 teams.

The pair have spoken about the future, Schuster said, but don’t want to seriously discuss options until the season is over because they don’t want to jeopardize the current run.

“We don’t want to change the success of the team going on,” said the ‘Caps CEO. “I would be very happy if our conversation gets delayed.”

As for Sartini, he’s taken a typically philosophical approach to what happens next.

“Soccer coach is an interim job,” he said. “Even if you don’t have the title of interim, everyone is interim in this position.”

But pressed on whether he’s interested in the gig, Sartini answers honestly once again.

“I’d be lying if I say I didn’t want it,” he said.

—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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