Whitecaps 2014; How I learned to stop worrying and love Robbo

December 6, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Whitecaps season 2014 | Leave a comment
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The 2014 season represented a remarkable turnaround for the Vancouver Whitecaps. After a frustrating 2013 and what looked like an absolutely disastrous off-season, things were getting worse, not better.

Since joining MLS the Whitecaps had made a few coaching gaffes. In the first season they fired Teitur Thordarson and put Tommy Soehn, an inferior coach, in charge of the squad. The team went downhill rapidly and things were so bad they felt the need to prematurely announce that Martin Rennie had been signed for 2012. Rennie lasted two unspectacular years, spending the first year clearing out the players we loved so much from the year before. While the team made the playoffs in 2012, it was largely because other teams in the Western Conference were very poor. We made the 2012 playoffs with only 43 points.

Robbo's previous role in Vancouver: Midfield for TFC!

Robbo’s previous role in Vancouver: Midfield for TFC!

Martin Rennie was fired from his head coaching job soon after the final whistle blew for the 2013 season in spite of the fact the team had earned 5 more points than in 2012 and had come within two points of making the playoffs. No one really mourned the loss of Rennie, however, who came across as a rather cold technocrat who didn’t seem to be getting the best out of what was, in his defence, a young and rather mediocre squad.

During the off-season several distinguished coaches including American Bob Bradley and Canadian Frank Yallop turned their nose up at the Whitecaps when approached; it all made us look like a provincial team only someone desperate or down on their luck would want to go work for. Stuart “psycho” Pearce expressed an interest, but was rejected because he had no “MLS experience”. The thought of Pearce trying to master MLS rules such as super drafts and designated players among many others was itself a bit of a comedy.

Then, to add injury to insult, Camilo Sanvezzo absconded to Queretero in Mexico in the middle of the night. We had lost the top goalscorer in MLS and the best player on our team. The Whitecaps had failed to negotiate a pay raise for the little Brazilian, who had dollar signs in his eyes after a stunning goalscoring rampage through MLS in 2013.

Having lost its best player and having been spurned by all recognizable coaches, the club and its embattled President, Bob Lenarduzzi, faced a huge crisis. With people baying for Lenarduzzi’s blood, it looked like the teflon don was finished.

After being rebuffed by virtually all coaches who were approached, Lenarduzzi looked around the Whitecaps boot room and found Carl Robinson, who acted as Rennie’s assistant, standing there. Lenarduzzi tagged him with the job of head coach. It looked like a desperate move which would only last as long as it took to find a more high profile candidate.

Robinson was a former central midfielder who had hovered around the Championship for most of his career in England before playing in MLS for Toronto and New York. He had honed his coaching skills quietly behind Martin Rennie, building up a rapport and respect among the players in the squad. Everybody in the team liked him, even if he was unknown to the vast majority of fans.

Robbo impressed with his first press conference, immediately coming off as a more open, humble and likeable guy than Martin Rennie. He spoke about his late father and how he wished his father was here to see him take the reigns of his first club as head coach. He just seemed so earnest and likeable that we soon fell for him. We were willing to give him a chance.

The team then set about finding some much needed footballing talent. Two no-name players were signed from Uruguay, Nico Mezquida and Seba Fernandez. The club managed to make a deal to have young Argentinian star Mati Laba come over from Toronto FC. The big news came when Pedro Morales signed. Though he was no household name in world football, Morales had played in the illustrious La Liga in Spain for Malaga CF. He had even scored for his Malaga masters against Barcelona FC in Camp Nou, no less, with a stunning volley. He had eleven caps with the Chilean national team. Robbo now had some talent at his disposal, even if it was mostly no-name talent.

When the first match came at BC Place against the New York Red Bulls in March, all of the new signings showed their stuff, thrilling the crowd with a brand of football we had not seen in Vancouver since the days of Alan Ball, Willie Johnston and Rudi Krol. When Pedro Morales came on as a substitute in the second half, his performance was electrifying. The Whitecaps won 4-1.

Carl Robinson had won his first match in charge in spectacular fashion; he had put his best foot forward. One brilliant match erased all of the turmoil of the off-season, and Robinson looked well in charge of matters.

Looking back on the season, which was a modest success with the Whitecaps finishing fifth in the Western Conference and earning a one game knockout match with Dallas FC, it is hard to point to any particular coaching error where Robinson had clearly gotten it wrong. The one criticism was the dip in form the Whitecaps had in the middle of the year, especially after the World Cup break. The players seemed to lose both motivation and fitness during the break, and Robinson would have to accept his share of the blame in that.

Robinson showed he was no shrinking violet in the case of Omar Salgado, who appeared the one player who did not buy into his program. Once during the pre-season and once during the season Robinson subbed Salgado off and the young player refused to shake his coach’s hand when it was offered. Salgado became a marginal figure and barely featured for the Whitecaps all season. Robinson showed he could be tough as well. We won’t be seeing Salgado in a Whitecaps jersey next year.

Robinson seems to have discovered that the key to MLS success is to find talent in Latin and Central America, where a huge pool of talented players are seeking moves to stable leagues and clubs outside their home countries. While MLS may not pay the big salaries of the big 5 in Europe, the pay is decent and players actually do get paid what clubs have promised.

When you look at where we were in the off-season last year, Robinson played his part in pulling the club out of what looked like disastrous circumstances. While in the years since Teitur Thordarson was fired I have had my doubts about Whitecaps coaching, I now feel confident with Carl Robinson in charge. Now Robbo has had one full season under his belt, he can only get better.

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