It wasn’t the end of a 15-hour drive that was the relief for Jake Nerwinski. It was the fact that he was home — really home — for the first time since April.
“I felt instantly just calm. I felt a lot better, like I was finally home, and we haven’t really had that feeling in a long time,” said the Vancouver Whitecaps’ right back.
Nerwinski, his wife Allison and their golden retriever puppy Ash made the drive back to Vancouver on Sunday. This time, when they arrived at the Peace Arch border crossing, they were able to cross together — they weren’t able to do so until they got hitched during COVID-19 — to return to the city they’ve called home for the last five years.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Minnesota United FC
7 p.m., Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy, Utah). TV: TSN. Radio: AM730
The Whitecaps have been based out of Sandy, Utah, since the beginning of April because COVID-19 border restrictions made regular-season international play impossible. They still have one more “home” game at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday versus Minnesota United, but they held their first training session at the University of B.C. on Tuesday, where they’ll be based for the rest of the season.
As the plane from Salt Lake descended into YVR on Sunday, coach Marc Dos Santos allowed himself a moment to relax, though he and his staff were back at it at 6 a.m. at UBC on Tuesday.
“Finally,” he said of the feeling of returning home. “I think if we had to stay there one more month it would have been incredibly hard for us. Mentally, it was starting to be a lot. It’s big. It’s bigger than we thought. I think even yesterday when I got home, it was a feeling of home.”
The returning players began to find their familiar haunts again, while for some, it was their first exposure to the city and the practice facility. None of the quartet of Caio Alexandre, Javain Brown, Brian White and Bruno Gaspar had been to Vancouver before.
Gaspar told Dos Santos at breakfast that he had been blown away by the city. Same for Brian White who, according to Russell Teibert, “had biked the seawall about seven times already, if you look at his instagram.”
White, a New Jersey native like Nerwinski, came away from his first exposure to the team facility with wide eyes and a full stomach.
“Brian was very excited about the lamb he saw for lunch,” said Nerwinski. “He’s like, ‘We just used to get boxed lunches at Red Bull, and they’d send us on our way.’ So he was blown away by the place.”
The Caps (3-7-5) are currently 12th in the 13-team Western Conference and play their next four games — including Saturday’s meeting with Minny in Sandy — on the road. But, including their return to B.C. Place Stadium on Aug. 21, 10 out of their last 15 games will be at home.
Being the constant road team has been a constant grind, the attrition wearing away at the Caps’ attitude. Even when they played at home in Utah, the visiting teams would have more fans than them — like the Chicharito jerseys that dotted the stands when the L.A. Galaxy visited twice.
“I remember our home game against Salt Lake in Salt Lake. It was packed full of Salt Lake fans and there were four guys behind the bench — very annoying — and I was thinking about myself, ‘We are playing home,’ ” said Dos Santos.
“I just hope that Vancouver is able to create the type of environment that we face when we’re on the road. We just want to walk into a stadium where we see the Vancouver Whitecaps’ jerseys in blue-and-white, because we’re fed up (with being the road team). We just can’t wait to walk in a stadium that is ours and see a lot of Vancouver jerseys and say, ‘Hey, this is our fans, this is our stadium.’ ”
Dos Santos felt that they would have at least six more points if they had been at home this season, flirting with the playoff line, but felt the team’s confidence had been boosted by a series of tough draws in inhospitable stadiums like Seattle, Dallas and LAFC.
Minnesota (6-5-3) started the season 0-4, but have rebounded to climb all the way to sixth place. They snapped their winless start with a 1-0 victory over Vancouver on May 12, and have only lost once during that time. They come into Saturday’s game on a short turnaround, as they take on LAFC — which shipped Canadian international Mark Anthony-Kaye to Colorado for a cool US$1 million in general allocation money Tuesday — on Wednesday night.
Nerwinski was confident the Whitecaps still has a lot left to give. The Caps have lost just once in their last six games, a stretch that included ties in some of the toughest stadiums in MLS to record points.
“It was really difficult to play away from home for so long,” he said. “And our goal going into those first four months was to just make sure that we’re still in it. Ideally, yeah, we’d want to be above the playoff line right now, but if you looked at it right now, we’re just six points out.
“We’re going to have a lot more home games towards the end of the season. It’s going to be difficult for teams to come in — it always is — for teams to come in and play on the turf. So I’m optimistic. We can definitely turn this around, and it only takes a few games.”