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Whitecaps hope Welsh adventure serves them well ahead of 2017 season

Whitecaps off to Wales ahead of 2017 season

Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson is a proud Welshman.

Known to show up at the odd media availability holding a coffee mug emblazoned with his country's flag, Robinson earned 52 caps for Wales during his playing days and revelled in the national team's run to the semifinals at Euro 2016. 

David Ousted and his teammates are looking forward to finally seeing what all the fuss is about.

"Apparently it's heaven and it never rains there," the Whitecaps' veteran goalkeeper joked. "It's perfect weather and all that, but we'll see."

Since joining Major League Soccer in 2011, Vancouver has spent a portion of its pre-season schedule in the Arizona desert. But after a sputtering start to 2016 that eventually saw the Whitecaps miss the playoffs, and with a CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final just a month away, the club has set out on an 11-day training stint in Vale of Glamorgan, just outside the Welsh capital of Cardiff.

"I'm going to miss the sun and the warmth a little bit," Ousted said this week before the Whitecaps left Vancouver. "But I'm looking forward to a new experience and playing some games that are going to be different.

"It's going to challenge us."

During their stint across the Atlantic, the Whitecaps will suit up for friendly matches against Cardiff City and Bristol City of the second-tier English Championship, as well as Oxford United of the third division.

All three British clubs are expected to use mix of under-23 players and reserves, with the first game set for Friday against Cardiff.

"It'll be a good change," said Vancouver striker Erik Hurtado. "We'll get a more broad range of football."

Robinson travelled to Wales ahead of his team last week, but assistant Martyn Pert said getting work in against battle tested opponents should serve the Whitecaps well before returning to North America for three more exhibition games.

"The fact that they're in the middle of their season, they're sharper," said Pert, who was a member of the Cardiff City staff before joining the Whitecaps. "The level of play there will be good."

Vancouver made a move to sign Peruvian international Yordy Reyna this week, an attacking player who could help an offence that once again struggled to score goals last season, and also tried to shore up a leaky defence by adding right back Sheanon Williams via trade in December.

But the Whitecaps have yet to add the dominant striker fans have longed for since Camilo Sanvezzo left after the 2013. The biggest off-season move thus far is the decision to cut ties with the club's highest-paid player, captain Pedro Morales.

Veteran defender Jordan Harvey said he isn't concerned by the lack of movement.

"We have made signings within pre-season in the last few years," he said. "You're going to see this roster unfold, I think, throughout this pre-season."

The goal of the trip to Wales is to bond as a team, get out of a comfort zone and face tough competition in order to hit the ground running ahead of the first leg of the Champions League quarters — Feb. 22 on the road against the New York Red Bulls. 

"We start off fast this year," said Ousted. "A really important one for us, both as a team and as a club.

"It's about everybody putting the work in now so we're ready for that game."

The return leg with New York goes eight days later in Vancouver before the Whitecaps open their MLS season March 5 at home against the Philadelphia Union.

"We need to come out strong, and I think historically this team has," said Harvey. "I'm not worried about coming out strong, it's about maintaining it."

Note: Whitecaps forward-midfielder Kekuta Manneh rejoined the club ahead of the trip to Wales after being called up to a U.S. national team training camp for the first time last month. An American citizen, 22-year-old was born in Gambia, but still needs a waiver from FIFA to suit up for his adopted homeland.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press