VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Whitecaps' season started early.

A shortened pre-season due to CONCACAF Champions Cup action in January and February meant the Whitecaps were back on the field sooner than in previous years.

Head coach Vanni Sartini said there have been some lessons learned for his squad following the Champions Cup matches against Mexican side Tigres UANL heading into the team's regular season home opener against Charlotte FC.

“Our defensive compactness needs to be top like it was for I would say 95 per cent of the both the games against Tigres,” he said. “When we do it we are able to create chances.”

Vancouver lost out to Tigres in the cup competition, after tying 1-1 in the first leg of the first round matchup, followed by a 3-0 loss in Mexico.

“We need to be more clinical, we need to (have) a more killer instinct,” said Sartini. “We'll work on how to unlock the defence more in the final third and to be better in the final third, because I think that is the main piece.”

The Whitecaps' offence was led by captain Ryan Gauld and striker Brian White last season, who combined for nearly half of the team's 55 goals.

Gauld had 11 goals and 12 assists while White had 15 goals and four assists. The rest of the team combined for 25 goals and 29 assists in regular-season play.

“Large parts of both games we match them and all that we need to do is, you know, shaping up in the in the final third and finishing,” said Gauld about what his team can take away from the matches against Tigres into the MLS regular season.

“I think there are a lot of positive I can take from those games.”

Vancouver has looked to ease some of that offensive output with the signing of MLS veteran Damir Kreilach after Real Salt Lake declined to pick up his contract option at the end of the 2023 season.

Kreilach, 34, spent much of 2023 dealing with the after-effects of surgery for a back injury picked up the previous year and was limited to four goals and one assist in 27 games.

“I want to help all of them with my experience,” he said. “Of course it's going to be ups and downs, but at the end of the day, we have to minimize this down situation I would say and stay on top of it.”

The Whitecaps have traditionally been slow starters, something Sartini would like to change this season.

“We want to win,” Sartini said. “We know making points at the beginning is very important”

He added that the team decided to go with a second pre-season training in Palm Springs in order to be focused on winning the opening matches.

The opening match also means a difference in coaching for the Whitecaps, with Sartini serving the first game of his six game suspension by MLS.

The Italian coach was shown a red card and dismissed from the game by match officials in Vancouver's playoff loss at the end of last season.

Along with the automatic one-match suspension that accompanies a red card, Major League Soccer tacked on an additional five-game ban for multiple violations including entering the field of play in a confrontational manner and public criticism following the match.

Sartini is allowed to be in the team's locker room up to 90 minutes before the match and then isn't allowed to communicate with the team until after the match.

Only Atlanta and Real Salt Lake allowed more than the 48 goals allowed by Vancouver among playoff teams.

The Whitecaps finished sixth in the 2023 Western Conference standings, up from ninth-place the year before, and scored 14 more goals.

Charlotte won its opening game 1-0 over New York City FC last week, courtesy of a goal from Adilson Malanda in the eighth minute.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2024.