[MLS SPOTLIGHT] The last thing that Vancouver president Bob Lendarduzziwants is for his team to be the western Canada version of Toronto FC, which has blown through coaches like tissue paper since entering Major League Soccer in 2007.
So why has he turned to a former TFC player, Carl Robinson, to rectify the unsuccessful tenures of Teitur Thordarson -- who lasted just 12 games into the inaugural MLS (2011) season -- and Martin Rennie, dismissed in October after a second straight late-season fizzle that left it short of a playoff spot?
"Desperation" is the term attached to this move from a segment of Whitecaps Nation. Disgruntlement has set in after long-rumored target Frank Yallop, a native of Vancouver, took an offer from Chicago rather than wait around, and former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley reportedly rebuffed interest to pursue opportunities overseas.
Robinson played the first three seasons of Toronto FC’s MLS existence; he was twice named the team’s MVP and in more than a few games looked like the only TFC player worthy of the jersey. After a trade to the Red Bulls, he finished his career as a player-coach working with Hans Backe, and joined Vancouver as an assistant coach in January 2012.
His work as an assistant coach for two teams will have taught him the myriad and sometimes bizarre procedures and policies unique to MLS. He has a track record as a man-manager; strikerCamilo, the leading MLS scorer in 2013 with 22 goals, credited Robinson’s counsel as a major factor in his success.
There are pieces in place. Like several other former USL teams, Vancouver took aggressive steps in player development long before many MLS counterparts. The fan base has been supportive if demanding and occasionally flabbergasted by player moves. Captain Jay DeMerit, who missed most of the 2013 season injured, is intensely popular, and wondrous displays by Camilo -- whose amazing flying volley earned Goal of the Year honors -- along with the grittiness of several teammates are rightly lauded.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my first two seasons in Vancouver, and am looking forward to the start of the 2014 season,” Robinson said at a Monday press conference. “We have an exceptional fan base, a solid core of youth and experience, and a committed ownership group. I’m really excited about the opportunity to drive this club forward.”
He also played 52 times for Wales during a career bouncing among English teams in the Premier League and League Championship; one of his moves stemmed an early use of the Bosman Ruling, which empowers players in the last six months of a contract to negotiate their own transfers.
Of course, the last time Vancouver kept the coaching in-house it ushered out Thordarson, a holdover from the United Soccer League days. After one win in the franchise’s first 12 MLS matches, director of soccer operations Tom Soehntook over for the rest of the season. Soehn stepped down when Rennie was hired, and then left the team after the 2012 season.
As the third head coach hired by Vancouver, Robinson will be a crucial hire in the organization’s spotty MLS existence. Rennie got the team into the playoffs in 2012 after the disastrous initial campaign, but a late-season stumble prompted by midseason moves and early playoff elimination raised questions about the judgment of Rennie and Lenarduzzi in player signings. Those concerns resurfaced this past season as Japanese signing Diago Kobayashilabored and ultimately didn't have his option picked up.
Though Vancouver is north of the border and thus counts Montreal and Toronto as major rivals, its two closest MLS neighbors, Portland and Seattle, are wildly successful. Robinson’s decisions on players and tactics will be tested right away, as only doormat Chivas USA and FC Dallas finished behind the Whitecaps in 2013 once they had stopped sliding down the standings.
A Welshman in western Canada? This is MLS. It just might work. If it doesn’t, fans will fear Vancouver is moving closer to Toronto in more ways than one.