VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps aren't about to be lulled into a false sense of security as they head to the American Midwest this weekend.
The 'Caps (0-2-2) know seven of Minnesota United's usual starters will be away on international duty when the two sides take the field in Saint Paul on Saturday, but Vancouver coach Vanni Sartini said victory is far from assured.
"Last year, we played against (the Seattle Sounders), it was an international break, they were missing 10 players, we got smashed," he said Friday. "We played against them (again) when they are 100 per cent and we won. So it's not a guarantee."
Minnesota has not been friendly to the Whitecaps. Vancouver has gone 0-3-2 on the Loons' home turf, including a 2-0 loss that ended their season last year.
This time around, Minnesota (2-0-1) will be without goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair (Canada), defenders Kemar Lawrence (Jamaica) and Michael Boxall (New Zealand), midfielders Kevin Arriaga (Honduras), Joseph Rosales (Honduras) and Robin Lod (Finland), and forward Bongokuhle Hlongwane (South Africa).
Whitecaps defender Javain Brown (Jamaica) and midfielder Andres Cubas (Paraguay) are also away with their national teams.
With Cubas out, American midfielder Sebastian Berhalter is poised to makes his first start of the season.
“I think I’ve just been staying patient in training, working hard," he said. "And for it to come now, it’s great. I’m ready to take advantage."
On defence, Mattias Laborda is expected to fill in for Brown at right back.
Vancouver isn't thinking about who will be missing from the either lineup, Berhalter added. Instead, the focus is on the 'Caps getting their first victory of the Major League Soccer season.
"It’s just another game, honestly," Berhalter said. "And it doesn’t really matter who we’re playing. We just want to go out there and get a win.”
After dropping 2-1 decisions in their first two games of the 2023 campaign, the Whitecaps are coming off back-to-back 1-1 draws against FC Dallas and the L.A. Galaxy.
A solid start will be key to securing all three points on Saturday, Sartini said, especially as Minnesota integrates new faces into its lineup.
“We need to set up the tone immediately," the coach said. "The more that they are on the field and they get confidence, they're all good players so is not going to be felt after 20,25 minutes. I think the start of the game is going to be very important."
The Loons chalked up a 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids last weekend and have yet to suffer a loss this year.
Set pieces have been a big part of the team's success — and are an area where Vancouver's defence has struggled at times.
The 'Caps need to continue the form they showed against Galaxy last weekend, Sartini said, when L.A. failed to score off 13 corners.
Solid all-around defence should be a focus as the team heads to Minnesota, the coach added.
“I think it's time to get a clean sheet," he said. "So I think we are focused too much on the fact that we need to score more goals. Maybe we need also to concede less.”
In order to keep the Loons off the scoresheet, Sartini will look to his centre backs, Ranko Veselinovic and Tristan Blackmon.
The duo evolved into a reliable defensive pairing for the 'Caps last season, and their partnership has continued to grow early this year.
"We know each other very good. We are even off the field always together, so we understand each other good," Veselinovic said. "We’ve played a lot of games now and last season, so we just need to keep going like that. And we need that clean sheet.”
Keeping the ball out of the back of Vancouver's net is a major part of earning the first win of the season, the Serbian defender added.
"We have to do everything we can so we score three points on the road," he said.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (0-2-2) AT MINNESOTA UNITED (2-0-1)
Saturday, Allianz Field
THE INJURED LIST: The Whitecaps announced earlier this week that newly acquired Venezuelan striker Sergio Cordova will miss six to eight weeks with a right hamstring strain. Veteran midfielder Russell Teibert will also miss Saturday's game with an ankle injury. Minnesota is without midfielder Emanuel Reynoso (suspended), and defenders Bakay Dibassy (thigh) and Ryen Jiba (knee).
THE HISTORY BOOKS: United holds a 5-3-3 all-time record against the 'Caps.
THE HELP: Midfielder Julian Gressel has contributed assists on three of Vancouver's four MLS goals this season. He's tied with Eduard Lowen for the second most helpers across the league.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2023.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press