If you’ve heard or read much about Vancouver Whitecaps FC head coach Vanni Sartini, it will not surprise you to hear that he is most definitely NOT a believer in the "stick to soccer" mentality.

Raised in publicly subsidized housing in Florence amid what he’s called “a very working-class background,” the 47-year-old grew up to be a leftist and atheist. In 2021 he told The Athletic, “if there was no kind of social security or welfare state, I wouldn’t be here now.” His experiences as a player can only have reinforced that outlook: Sartini knocked around Italy’s lower divisions and amateur ranks as a goalkeeper, usually having to work side jobs to make ends meet, before moving into coaching, over time developing a specialty in training and methodology.

He proudly wears his identity on his sleeve, even in distant lands where those terms carry more baggage than they do back home. Which is no small statement given the instances of vicious, systematic violence – “the violence of which I approve and which I exalt,” in the chilling words of Benito Mussolini – inflicted on democratically elected socialists in Italy’s not-so-distant past.

He alludes to his worldview readily, usually humorously. There’s the time last season when he asked reporters not to dub Vancouver’s attacking duo of Ryan Gauld and Brian White ‘Batman and Robin,’ because “Batman is the worst superhero ever. He’s just a spoiled rich kid that defends the capitalists.” Or the postgame press conference earlier this year where he compared the beauty of a wild 'Caps victory over Portland to that of Florence, his wife Barbara and socialism itself.

A week later he upped the ante yet again after a 4-0 rout of Toronto FC.

“Being a socialist, I should have known that we always look for the utopia, and we always march towards the utopia, and everything can be better in order to reach the utopia,” Sartini said, tongue well in cheek. “So let's say that we are going there.”

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Firm beliefs

He also took the opportunity to make some extra headlines by declaring his side “the best Canadian team, and we've been the best Canadian team for the last two, three years,” mischievously tweaking the collective nose of a domestic sports media establishment widely considered to be Toronto-centric by those located outside Ontario.

Whether it’s soccer or politics, spicy takes like these naturally lead to him hearing from those who think differently. Sartini doesn’t mind when others express differing views; that’s the point.

“I have some fans on my DMs, some people that have different ideas that they're going try to say something bad against me, or something. But that is no problem. As a socialist, you have to accept every viewpoint,” he said. “Because they wouldn’t let us speak [in the past], that’s the problem. And so that's OK. I think it's well received, and it's well accepted.”

He explains the ideological aspects of his backstory openly and without pretense, not to win an argument (though he’s learned a great deal from having those over the decades), but to explain why he and his teams are built like they are. And perhaps it also sheds a bit of light on why he’s so recognizably animated on the touchlines week after week.

“I don't have an agenda to try to convert people to what I think,” Sartini explained. “But the way that I am as a person influences enormously the way that I am as a coach. All the things that I believe in tactically: that everything is about the team, the zonal defending, for me, it's very much related to who I am as a person and what I believe a society should be, how I believe a society should function.

“So that's something that affects me and I think it would be, I would say not fair, if people didn't know what I stand for.”

This egalitarian outlook permeates the current iteration of the Whitecaps, a collectivist group in both tactics and personality. Their roster carries little in the way of what most would consider household names in North American soccer, and VWFC’s salary spending was among the lowest in MLS last year, according to MLS Players Association salary data.

Even Gauld, their most lavishly-talented, highest-paid star, has been dubbed a “working-class Designated Player” by Sartini in a nod to the Scottish playmaker’s selflessness and defensive diligence. The coach goes so far as to theorize that his own absence from the sidelines in the opening weeks of the 2024 season was a key factor in the Whitecaps’ strong start, which at 4W-2L-1D in league play ranks as one of their best ever.

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Passion personified

Sartini calls it a “good accidental thing,” in retrospect, that he was suspended for the first few league games of the current campaign due to an emotional tirade after VWFC’s season-ending Round One loss to LAFC in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.

“Because of my suspension, I think we work even deeper, even more on the tactical understanding of the players,” he said. “I worked a lot on the tactical understanding on the staff, because we knew that … I was not allowed to be on the bench and doing changes or coaching during the games. So probably this extra work paid off.”

He is simultaneously mortified by his own behavior that November evening at BC Place – an outburst compounded by a reference to referee Tim Ford many interpreted as carrying violent undertones, which Sartini says were a literal translation of an Italian joke taken out of context – and earnestly committed to being himself, even when it costs him dearly.

“I always say that the team is the leader, and you don't have to forget you're part of the team. And I let my team down doing it like this, getting a red card, going away, and being completely angry after the red card. So that was something that I would say I deeply regret,” he said. “To be honest with you, every time that I’ve seen the clip on TV, I’m ashamed.”

Hit with a hefty fine and an initial ban of five matches, his punishment was later reduced after he underwent counseling and other restorative practices. Last month he poked fun at himself by wisecracking that rather than count to three when upset, he “should maybe have to count to a million” instead.

“I’m really happy that I had a long time to work on myself,” he said last week, “to reflect and to have help, even from other people, to understand better and to be more equipped, probably, from now on to also react to this kind of stress.”

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Not your average coach

There’s nothing particularly new or original in complaining about refereeing decisions. It is, however, still rather unconventional in MLS circles to hear so many quotable quips from someone whose job title usually accompanies a steady diet of, well, ‘coachspeak,’ as the canned clichés of the profession are known.

“In terms of personality. I am proud that I'm always sincere with you guys [the media] while I see all the time in our world – and let's say it is sports, even different sports – coaches being monosyllabic, players being monosyllabic, being scared of what they say and always opting for the, maybe, non-controversial answer,” said Sartini.

“The only reason why I got to this position is because of always being true with myself. So I need to be true with myself even when I speak with you guys. But at the same time, of course, there are lines that you don’t cross.”

He considers that wider cautiousness around MLS a product of structure and culture, as well as the league’s history, on which he is surprisingly well versed. A cursory glance over at the consistently feverishly overheated discourse in and around Serie A underlines how different things are in his homeland.

“First of all is the culture, of course, the culture of it's a little different, even though I think we are getting some characters and some, I would say, very good personalities – and also, even better, some very good coaches,” said Sartini. “I came to North America for work in 2016, to work with the [U.S.] federation. I think the level of coaching and quality of the game that we have now is … light-years ahead of what I've seen in 2016. And we have at the moment really, really good coaches.

“The fact that traditionally in North American sports, there’s much more strict rules about how you have to talk about the referee, how can you talk about that league, of course limit a little bit probably the margin of openness of some coaches.”

Having helped build some of the educational structures that guide the pathway navigated by many current and future MLS coaches, Sartini has made it his business to track the region’s wider evolutionary path in this regard. It’s a subject that represents a crucial if easily overlooked facet of the league’s long-range effort to climb into the ranks of the world elite.

To illustrate, he uses his own spin on a familiar nomenclature for big-picture framing.

“I divide the MLS era into three periods: MLS 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and most of the commentators, they talk about the players coming here. But for me, they are the coaches,” Sartini explained. “MLS 1.0 is from the start til 2010, 2012, where all the coaches were local, coming here through the college system, everyone was more or less the same type of coaches, not too much variation in the different way of playing so far, and even in the methodology of work. So I will say yes, good coaches, but not too much of growth.

“From 2012 on, when a lot of the American players who played abroad came back and coached, they brought a lot of ideas that they saw when they were playing abroad, and got them back here. So we’re talking about Gregg Berhalter, Greg Vanney, Peter Vermes, all these guys that actually I would say were kind of innovators and then so the guys, the traditional guys that were here, they had to catch up and then find new solutions.

“Then the third one was from ‘17, ‘18, something like this, that when you add new investment, a lot of foreign coaches come in. So new ideas, so you have guys like Tata Martino coming from different places, guys like Wilfried Nancy from France, bringing different ideas. So that's a lot of this kind of evolution, that brought even the local guys to be even better.”

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Leaving a legacy

Beyond the natural optimism that often accompanies political leanings like his, Sartini looks forward with hope. He’s witnessed a keen hunger for knowledge and growth at the grassroots, among the youth coaches who eagerly matriculate through both the US and Canadian federations’ educational pipelines as well as myriad offerings by UEFA and other overseas entities.

Sartini lights up when asked about the impact he’s already made on the North American landscape as a coaching educator, regardless of where this Whitecaps project takes him.

“I'm really happy that you mentioned that, because I really think that those three years that I worked at the federation were beautiful in the sense of, we did – not only me – but we did really a big work to try to improve the level of coaching in this country,” he said. “Not only the pro level, but also I did the A license course, the B license course, I did all the little kiddie license scores, and I was in contact with hundreds of coaches that really want to improve the game in this country, so with that … and also the people that were working at the federation.

“So if I was able to leave a little bit of legacy with a lot of guys that took the courses with me, I'm really, really happy. It's actually for me more important than every trophy that I won or will win with the Whitecaps. Even at the Whitecaps, I think what I'm very proud of is the type of culture that we have now, with the organization and technical parts of the organization. And the fact that I work with the academy for coaching the coaches of the academy, that's the kind of legacy that I would be most proud of.”

Reaching the next level

His own situation bears close watching for fans, pundits and former pupils alike. Though he’s drawn praise for fashioning previously underachieving Vancouver into a legitimate contender in the Western Conference, it’s the next step that may prove the hardest.

Sartini and the 'Caps earned plaudits for qualifying for the postseason in two of his three seasons to date. Yet they rarely looked like a genuine threat once they got there, crashing out in the first round on both occasions, first to Sporting Kansas City and last year at the hands of LAFC. Just ask the New York Red Bulls or Philadelphia Union, whose competitive model 'Caps CEO & sporting director Axel Schuster has specifically cited as a role model, about the perceived ceilings of so-called ‘system teams.’

Even this season’s scintillating start bears asterisks. Much like the LAFC series, VWFC battled gamely but were outclassed by Tigres UANL in their brief Concacaf Champions Cup campaign in February, even if Sartini frames that experience as an ultimately positive preseason wake-up call. Then, after a soft start to their domestic schedule, they got a cold slap from a legitimately stacked MLS adversary in last weekend’s home loss to the LA Galaxy.

“It's a knife in my heart. It's the worst way that we could lose. Because it's all our fault,” said a typically descriptive Sartini of his side’s naive defensive lapses.

“We need to remind ourselves that without humility, without following the plan to the tee, no one is good here. No one is good. If we don't follow the plan to the tee, we're going to suffer.”

Is this squad really talented enough to hang with the big dogs? Is it finally time to splurge on another dose of top-shelf quality? Can Sartini and the 'Caps graduate from feel-good story to heavyweight class?

This Saturday visit to Seattle Sounders FC (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), a fierce rival and the flagship club of the West for the last decade or so, looks like another key data point for him and his group. He’ll undoubtedly plan to have his team ready for the moment.

“There’s no doubt he raises the energy,” said Gauld last month. “That’s just his character, that’s what he brings.”

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