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Valour FC Phillip Dos Santos

‘We Need To Be Ambitious Here’: Dos Santos Dreaming Big For Valour’s 2024 Season

By on March 10, 2024 0 1300 Views

Heading into its sixth Canadian Premier League season, Valour FC is looking straight towards a few big hurdles – and it’s ready to jump over them.

The Winnipeg-based side has never cracked playoffs before, with attendance still yet to hit the highs of its pre-pandemic numbers. Head coach Phillip Dos Santos is back for his third season in charge, and he’s stepping up to bat knowing what could happen if he strikes out.

While it’s easy to paint doom-and-gloom, the Valour boss shines in with a contrasting perspective based on learned experience and what he hopes is a recipe for success this year.

Valour FC Diego Gutierrez Goal
Photo Credit: Canadian Premier League

The Illusive Playoff Push

The clearest objective of them all? It’s a no-brainer: make playoffs. It’s been the white whale of the club since its inception, and something that Valour was just one agonizing point away from in 2021. The last two years saw the club trend the wrong direction, but Dos Santos is firm in his belief that they can climb right back into the mix of things in the months to come.

“It’s hard to to to look at the top of the stairs when you haven’t taken that first or second step, I get it,” says the head coach. “But I really think that we need to be ambitious here. I think that within the CPL, that parity exists.”

Dos Santos doesn’t have his eyes solely set on playoffs, though. He wants to bring Valour to brighter spotlights in the Canadian Championship or, some day, land them in a spot similar to what Cavalry and Forge experienced in continental play this year.

“For me, the challenge for this club needs to go beyond there: I want these fans to experience something special. I want these fans to live a playoff home game, to live a Canadian championship home game. I would love to host an MLS team here, I would love to win something with this club.”

“Now, is it difficult? Of course, because every team wants that…but we also know that it’s not impossible, so we have to believe that there’s a little bit more for us, and we need to be ambitious in our speech and the way we approach things. That, for me, is important.”

Valour FC Phillip Dos Santos
Photo Credit: John Jacques

The Support Network

There has been a growing volume of dissent online regarding a lack of investment from Winnipeg Football Group, but that’s something Dos Santos says isn’t right.

“Since I arrived here, I felt growth in every front,” Phillip insists. “I have a lot of people that speak to me about the club not spending at cap, and it’s not real information – it’s not. We have other challenges, but not that one. There is investment. I’m in contact with upper management every day.”

Dos Santos says bigger challenges are the fact that Winnipeg finds itself somewhat isolated from the Canadian footballing landscape at large: there isn’t a local player pool ready to step into the pro ranks like you see with the League1 Canada provinces, and that has a cascading effect that comes with it.

That lack of local players means the club must put more of its cap towards player housing and accommodations, as they’ve got to bring in larger numbers of the domestic squad from out-of-province while hosting the international athletes too. Both groups eat into the cap.

“So, there are other challenges, but do I feel a lack of support? Not at all. Actually, I feel that I’m well-supported. Since I arrived from an MLS club, understanding the standards that we need to work on a day-to-day environment that’s going to allow us to be at our best… everything that I’ve asked for, I haven’t gotten a no that often.”

An example of the positive growth is the supporting staff that sounds Phillip: when he arrived, the club didn’t have a full-time equipment manager or team ops, which he says are all things has addressed. There’ll be a new addition to his technical staff this year, too.

Valour FC Walter Ponce
Photo Credit: Canadian Premier League

The Missing Elements In 2023

There’s no bones about it: Valour’s last-place finish in the fall leaves a lot to be desired. It gave Dos Santos plenty to reflect on, if nothing else.

“For us, it started to to be very clear in our minds that it wasn’t enough [last season] and that there were major things to address still,” he reflects. “At the end of the day, it was a very difficult season.”

One thing the gaffer acknowledges is that the club gambled too much on its signings: there were lots of players new to the league, and others coming off injury years or seasons without big minutes. That hasn’t panned out, resulting in a large roster overhaul that preceded the club’s more-calculated approach for 2024: there’s been a large focus on athletes with CPL experience, and those without were getting minutes to showcase themselves prior.

While the club did ‘everything it could’ to keep hold of players like Diego Gutierrez and Matteo de Brienne, their departures have left some big shoes to fill, too. The club had even tabled a mid-season offer for Gutierrez, but to no avail.

“He wanted to explore free agency, he wanted something different. You know, there’s Champions League out there, and I respect that,” reflects Guti’s former boss.

That being said, they retained one of their brightest sparks – Kian Williams – and recently signed him to a new contract extension.

“We have a good starting point in a person like like Kian,” says Phillip. “To give you an idea, he had a minor surgery in the offseason and he was playing in a lot of pain, and he’s still a guy that, in his first year, got ten points for the club. That puts him up there with with the likes of Moses Dyer. So, we know that he’s going to come into the second year better.”

When doing the post-mortem on the season, Dos Santos felt that overall the club lacked a little bit, and that’s something they’ve addressed going into 2023. Gone is captain Andrew Jean-Baptiste, who never fully recovered from his injury spell. Full-back Andy Baquero had seemed solid, but perhaps was a little too comfortable with things in Manitoba – his departure caught many by surprise.

“These are decisions that are never easy, but roster spots are so valuable, cap space is so valuable, that there’s just moments where you need to make these difficult decisions,” continues Phillip.

“It’s not because you finish last that everything you did was bad, or everything you you didn’t do is good. You need to assess. I think there was still a good foundation, a good platform that said we still want to be at front-foot team,” he concludes.

Valour FC Phillip Dos Santos
Photo Credit: John Jacques

On Being The Boss

When Phillip Dos Santos was hired as Valour’s second-ever head coach, it was his first time stepping out of the assistant role he held at five previous clubs split between USL, NASL, and MLS.

“I think you’re forged in fire,” reflects Dos Santos of the transition. “I think that when you arrive in an environment that everything is perfect – it could be deceiving.”

He describes his transition to a head coach role as exactly what he needed at this time in his life, as it’s something that has helped him acquired a good maturity and grow both personally and professionally.

“I feel that if you want to grow, grow in a in a place where you’ll get to know your true self. That often comes with adversity – and when I talk about adversity, it hasn’t been easy.”

Dos Santos arrived to a what he describes as a broken locker room back in 2021: they had not won a match in about eleven games, and Dos Santos himself had come from an environment in the Whitecaps which had seen him let go alongside his brother.

“Finding the courage and the energy to try to build guys for ten games and still push for the playoffs, it forced me to get out of my comfort zone. Then having my first roster build in a league that I didn’t know much about, I had to learn the rules and understand the different elements.”

As he experienced what it was like to lead a club in a salary-cap league and develop his understanding of not just how he wants the team to play, but what benefits the team most. He felt personal and professional growth managing both players and staff, with last season – painful as it was – seeing him unearth areas where he and the team could improve.

“When you’re under pressure and under fire, the people that will suffer the most or pay the price the most are people around you. I think that in moments, where things weren’t going well for us, if I snapped, the easy prey was always first my family, and then my staff. That’s something that I don’t want to be about,” he says.

“I don’t want football to drive my moods and the way I am with people. So for me, you can’t ask for better because this is going to be a journey for me. I’ll be coaching for many years. I know that, I believe it. I know that I was equipped for this, but I also think that you’re never the end product and moments like these, what I encountered, what I had to build, what I had to put in place, I feel that I couldn’t have asked for better.”

Valour FC Phillip Dos Santos
Photo Credit: Valour FC

Building For 2024

Looking at the Valour depth chart is something Dos Santos does every day from his office – he opens it every day, even when the season is on, and anytime a player is mentioned he sees how they might fit in or change the team dynamic.

As the 2023 CPL season got underway, the club knew it would be moving on from some players fairly early, which allowed Dos Santos to make inquiries to the market early – something that he’s found has been increasingly necessary as the Canadian Premier League continues to grow in stature.

“The market is extremely competitive, way more than it has been in past past two years, at least since I arrived in the CPL,” he adds.

He also points out that with Forge and Cavalry starting their season camps extremely early due to their Concacaf Champions Cup schedule, the other CPL clubs can’t afford to let them get an exclusive window to make offers. He’s been working at it behind the scenes for several months, well ahead of even preseason’s earliest stages, to get things in place.

“It’s a lot of it’s a lot of meetings, sitting down every day with your staff,” he says.

The larger philosophical questions are posed: how does the team react when it has the ball versus without it? How does the team still put forth a front-foot mentality when it’s defending, and how does that identify what type of full-backs to recruit, or what players have the resolve and tenacity to play out of the back under pressure? By this stage, we’ve seen the players Valour believes brought the answers to those questions.

Finding them, of course, was a challenge in its own.

Valour FC Chantzopoulos
Photo Credit: Valour FC

Ways To Scout In Winnipeg

“We don’t have a scouting department like many of the MLS teams will have. So it’s the staff, it’s people we rely on, it’s a lot of phone calls, it’s character checks. There’s a lot of work that goes into it, and this season that started fairly early.”

There will always be a category of players Phillip has a good idea on because he’s seen Valour square off against them all season long: players like Tass Mourdoukoutas or Shaan Hundal, the latter of whom had a stellar start out west before being played out of position, were easier choices to prioritize. There’s no doubt that they’ve fully bought-in on what Dos Santos has planned for them, either.

This season sees the recruitments largely come in with CPL receipts in their playing history, or athletes who have put in good minutes last year that provided the club with ample footage to review before undergoing character checks and bringing them in.

The head coach believes he and his coaching staff have made great networks when it comes to player recruitment, particularly as each of them brings their own unique elements and connections. Fordyce has close ties with several of his former clubs and a unique player’s perspective, and Bhindi allows them a closer connection to player pools in the GTA, or even BC and Quebec.

While we reported that Valour was in discussions with Jose Escalante, Dos Santos says that the players’ contract still remains with Cavalry FC and, at the time of our interview, that was all there was to say.

“Of course there’s the interest. Right now, there’s no deal on the table. There’s nothing that has progressed differently than that. There were inquiries and trying to see if there was a possibility, as we speak, I could tell you right away that it’s black-and-white, and Escalante is not a Valour player.”

Phillip and his coaching staff have tried to surround themselves with people who can help them get eyes on markets that are further away, in area where it’s just impractical for them to see regularly.

“I think that’s a competitive advantage when you could go to Toronto, or you’re just there, and there are so many good players that you could track, even if they’re playing in League1. I think that’s that’s an important market for us to also have a grasp on – I think the big three three centers between Quebec, GTA, British Columbia… I think those are our centers we needed to to get closer to and I think that we did that in this offseason with people that we could trust and and rely on.”

“When you’re ten years in the in the industry, you will learn to trust certain agents more than others, head of scouts that are that are even working in other other environments, which of course, my time and in Vancouver helped me get close to quite a few even working in other markets like the US. So, we use all the resources that are at our disposal for sure, because it’s so difficult to do it alone. I think it’s impossible.”

Valour FC Squad 2023
Photo Credit: John Jacques

The Coaching Staff

Dos Santos will head into the 2024 CPL season having retained his existing coaching staff in former captain Daryl Fordyce, assistant coach Jay Bhindi, and club original goalkeeper coach Patrick Di Stefani. The club has been given the green light to add a head of performance, too.

“I think I have a little bit of everything in my path, and I think the blend is what’s important,” says the gaffer on his coaching team.

The club has a solid track record of goalkeepers under De Stefani, who has been with the side since year one. He offers a local connection to the city, which helps bring the club closer to Winnipeg’s football landscape. Then there’s Jay Bhindi, who arrived as a known quality from FC Edmonton, with Dos Santos having worked with him back in the Ottawa Fury Days. He’s an energetic force on the sidelines, and one who had decided early on that coaching was his main aspiration.

“That’s what Jay needs to be looked as: an aspiration for a lot of youth coaches that don’t have a massive football playing background,” Phillip describes. “Yet, he finds a way through by perseverance and work, and that’s something to be seen when it comes to the type of character he brings to the mix.”

The playing experience angle on his staff comes from Daryl Fordyce, who wrapped up his eighteen-year playing career to transition to a coaching role with Valour last season.

“Daryl has that presence – I call him my locker room guy. Apart from his football head and his understanding of the intracacies of what it is to be on the field and how things work in players’ minds, he is still also a leader in that locker room. He’s a guy that will be attentive to all the little things that could affect the group performances. For me, it was a no-brainer: if you have a person who was the captain of your team is now transitioning to be a manager, there’s the X’s and O’s that you could teach, but then there’s all the rest of it where if you haven’t been in there, it’s hard to get in there – and Daryl brings me that.”

In addition to the returning athletes, the club’s first head of performance has already been hired and will come in from outside of the organization. Dos Santos says that’s an area he had earmarked for improvement, to make sure the club minimizes its issues with injuries, setbacks, and areas that need improvement which could be addressed by someone who has played in professional environments across the world.

Valour FC Diego Gutierrez
Photo Credit: John Jacques

The Community Impact

Valour has received its fair share of criticism – perhaps more than most Canadian Premier League sides – when it comes to its community impact, or lack thereof. There were some alarm bells that rang when the club’s high-performance program was quietly dissembled last year, with Valour re-shuffling its efforts and launching a new skill builders program for 2024 – though WFG’s Wade Miller had earlier suggested that the club would look or new inroads that involve local clubs and academies more symbiotically rather than Valour running separately programs.

“When you’re serving people, and you’re in the business of serving people, it’s hard to please everyone, because people want service in different areas,” explains Dos Santos. “For example, if I run a soccer camp, some people will like it and appreciate it, but it could be that they would prefer that our staff goes out and conducts training sessions in club-like environments, and then you’re criticized for one but not for the other.”

‘I’ll give you this example: I wash dishes because it’s relaxing, honestly. But sometimes I’m gonna wash a pot in a way that my wife doesn’t like, and she’s gonna criticize me. I’m still trying to do my best, I’m still doing my pans, you know?”

Dos Santos certainly does not invalidate those who have spoken out about the club online, however.

“I don’t want to disrespect people, because I think that the vocal people, it could also be because they care the most. I do feel that the clubs to take steps in how they want to grow in the community, and everyone is going to have different ideas about how to go about it, and how to address things – I think that’s where the criticism comes from.”

He says the club is navigating the best way it can maximize its resources while optimizing the environment it has and, of course, recognizing the restrictions of a six-year-old Canadian Premier League side has and how much they can do.

“Sometimes progress is not as fast as people would like to be, and I respect that. But unfortunately, there’s so many fronts: we’re working very hard and making sure that we could affect as many people as possible. Now, is there more that we need to be doing outside in the community be more active? I think that when it comes to community, it’s never enough? Never.”

Valour FC Dante Campbell
Photo Credit: Canadian Premier League

For Valour

With preseason now underway, the sentiment down to a man is simple: regardless of the club’s past performances, everyone is dialed in and focused solely on the upcoming season. The vibes in camp are good, with the club also set to spend some time in Portugal before kicking off the season away to Vancouver FC on April 14.

Atletico Ottawa loanee Noah Verhoeven summed up the atmosphere nicely in a recent interview with Ed Tait:

“As for what’s happened here in the past… everybody has been realistic about that and has come in with the attitude of wanting much more,” said the midfielder. “This is a club that is aspiring for bigger things.”

Whether the club can start off like Toronto FC has in MLS following that club’s tumultuous 2023 season remains to be seen, but Phillip looks to have the locker room at his back as Valour marches towards the 2024 Canadian Premier League season.

Header Image Photo Credit: John Jacques

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