Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini has apologized for comments he made about refereeing after his team's playoff elimination.
Vancouver was swept in its best-of-three playoff series with reigning Major League Soccer champion Los Angeles FC after a 1-0 loss Sunday at B.C. Place. It was the second time in three seasons that the Whitecaps were eliminated in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
Sartini started his season-ending press conference Tuesday apologizing for his post-match comments directed at referee Tim Ford after Sunday's match.
Sartini called Ford's performance "disgraceful" after Sunday's game and made a joke about being a suspect if Ford was found dead after the match, prompting a rebuke from the union representing North American soccer referees.
"I'm sorry, there was no malicious intent," Sartini said on Tuesday. "I could've done much better and I'm sorry for that."
Major League Soccer has launched a review of Vancouver's behaviour on Sunday, Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster said, adding that the team is co-operating with the league.
Schuster said the team has also launched an internal review of how its players and staff behaved at the end of the game, and that Sartini has reached out to Major League Soccer's Professional Referee Organization.
He pointed out the relatively young age of Vancouver's squad and coaching staff when commenting on their behaviour.
"The most important thing for me is we learn from mistakes," said Schuster.
The Whitecaps may have ended their season with frustration and sharp words for the referee, but players and staff say they're already looking ahead to next year.
Despite how the season ended, and with changes likely coming before next season, Sartini believes his team can challenge for the MLS Cup.
"We're always looking for something new, but we need to make sure the good things we did this year we do even better next year," he said.
Sartini said the team can improve in two areas: conceding fewer goals and being more unpredictable and dynamic in attacking play.
The Whitecaps finished sixth in the Western Conference standings, an improvement from ninth last season, while establishing a distinct style of play.
"We set our standard very high, we wanted to play the best soccer we've ever played, we wanted to go to the playoffs, we wanted to win the Canadian Championship again and we wanted to be a handful for every team," said Sartini. "It was a hell of a ride."
The team was led on offence by the tandem of midfielder Ryan Gauld and striker Brian White, who had a combined 26 goals — more than the rest of the team put together — and 17 assists.
"At the end of the year, you remember what the team achieved," said Gauld when asked about his and White's individual achievements this past season.
"We managed to win the Canadian cup for a second year in a row which was nice, but it was a feeling that we could really go and do something in the playoffs so it leaves a sour taste in the mouth."
But there are some bright spots.
The past season has seen younger players establish themselves in the squad. Midfielder Ali Ahmed was named the Whitecaps' Most Promising Male Player of the Year, and the play of forward Simon Becher and midfielder Sebastian Berhalter was encouraging.
Ahmed made 16 starts and 28 appearances across all competitions for Vancouver, scoring three goals and adding two assists.
His fine domestic form was rewarded with a place on the Canadian men's squad, making four appearances in 2023.
One upside of the season, White says, was drawing fans back to B.C. Place with a club-record 30,204 watching the second game of their first-round playoff series on Sunday.
“I think it made the city alive and interested in the Vancouver Whitecaps again, and that’s something we want to continue to build on," he said. "We’re hoping to continue this momentum from this year and carry it onto next year."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2023.
Nick Wells, The Canadian Press