Is Vancouver following Toronto down a dead end?

By Paul Gardner

Is it possible -- after all these years -- that foreign-born coaches in U.S. pro leagues still can see no further than the end of their ethnic noses? Can it be that, deep down, they really have faith only in their countrymen? You bet it can.

When I say “all these years” -- let me date that back to the beginning of the modern era in North American soccer, to 1967 when well-financed pro leagues began operating. Forty-five years, then.

Back in those days, it was taken for granted that the ethnic affiliation was paramount. When you appointed a Brit coach, he would immediately import a bunch of Brit players. Didn’t he ever. In 1967 the National Professional Soccer League started creating teams. Welshman Phil Woosnam had 10 Brits on the Atlanta Chiefs roster. Elsewhere, Dutch coach Co Prins at the Pittsburgh Phantoms had six Dutch men; Yugoslav Aleksandar Obradovic had five Yugoslavs on the Oakland Clippers; while another Yugoslav, George Mihaljevic, had seven of his countrymen on the St. Louis Stars; Argentine Hector Marinaro brought five Argentines to the Toronto Falcons.

Things are less blatant these days, but ethnic ties still loom large. Let us take the case of Vancouver coach Martin Rennie, a Scot. He took over the Whitecaps this year, and quickly added Paul Ritchie as his assistant -- another Scot. Also an assistant is another Brit, Welshman Carl Robinson. No, the Whitecaps roster is not bristling with Brits -- but three players signed this year tell the tale. All three are aged 32-plus veterans ... of British soccer. Two Scots -- Kenny Miller and Barry Robson (who is a Designated Player), and Englishman Andy O’Brien. Evidently all three are highly valued by Rennie.

One might wonder why. Having seen most of Vancouver’s games this year -- on television -- I’d be hard put to remember anything memorable done by any one of that trio. Miller, a goalscorer, has looked like a player hopelessly out of form. Watching him this weekend, playing for Scotland, did nothing to change that impression. His record so far for Vancouver is one goal in seven games.

The Scottish connection was also seen in Portland where former coach John Spencer, a Scot, brought in fellow Scot Kris Boyd as a Designated Player. A goalscorer who has so far scored seven times in 25 games for the Timbers. Neither particularly good nor bad, but not good enough for interim coach Gavin Wilkinson (he replaced Spencer in July), who has been leaving Boyd out of the starting lineup.

One might further wonder whether Spencer and Rennie were paying attention. Were they not aware of the fiasco created by fellow Scot Mo Johnston in Toronto? Could they not see that Mo’s insistence on bringing in Brits to play (among them, Carl Robinson), and then to coach, brought on a disaster from which the club has yet to recover?

In short, the ethnic propensity, which tries to turn the American soccer scene into another Scotland -- or Yugoslavia or Italy or Brazil -- has a unrewarding history. That ought to be known by Rennie, who is surely an intelligent man. But it’s not just ethnic thinking, of course. It is more, I think, Rennie’s devotion to a certain style of soccer. To the Scottish style, if you like, certainly the workmanlike Brit style. Fair enough -- but to make it work he’ll have to fly in the face of decades of negative experience.

I’ve listened to quite a few of Rennie’s post-game and sideline interviews, and have found them articulate and level-headed, better than most such talks. But he evidently finds it difficult to shed the constricting shackles of that ethnic/stylistic thinking. Where he comes from, midfielders are terriers. They get stuck in.

Apparently contradicting that approach is the presence on the Vancouver roster – surprisingly -- of a Brazilian midfielder, Tiago Ulisses. But Rennie quickly obliterates any thought that he might be opting for creativity, when he describes Ulisses as “a tough tackler.” Merely a Brit type player, then -- but with the bonus that he “can keep possession.”

Anyway, why would Rennie need another tough-tackling midfielder when he already has the menacing Gershon Kofie, who has so far this season racked up 50 fouls and 7 yellow cards, and occupies 8th place in the league’s top-foulers table?

Even so ... there is another Brazilian on Rennie’s roster, a very different type of player: Camilo Sanvezzo. A young player (he’s 24) with Brazilian attacking skills in abundance. But Camilo has found it difficult to command a starting spot on Rennie’s team. He has started 15 of 23 games, but has played the full 90 minutes only three times as he has been subbed off in 12 games. At the beginning of the season he had a run of 9 consecutive starts. Of the 18 games since then, he has started only 7, playing the full 90 only once. This curiously erratic use of Camilo does not suggest that he is one of Rennie’s favorite players.

Maybe Rennie considers Camilo’s four goals and five assists not good enough. And maybe Rennie is right to expect more ... but that remark about Ulisses cannot be ignored. If Rennie’s idea of a good Brazilian player is a tough tackler, then Camilo is never going to satisfy him.

History -- taking in the 18 years of the NPSL and the North American Soccer League -- speaks harshly about the ability of Brit coaches to impose their style on this country's pro leagues. If Rennie fails to see that, he might want to listen to another Scot, ManU’s legendary Alex Ferguson, who had this to say this past weekend on the matter of recruiting players:

“The South Americans love playing football, it's just in their blood. The three Brazilians -- Anderson, Rafael and Fabio -- love it and are first to training every morning. It's a breath of fresh air. Antonio Valencia is as tough as nails with great discipline about him. Chicharito has a fantastic attitude to playing and everything else. It's really good. Our scouting there has increased. We've got an operative in Mexico, two in Brazil and four South American scouts now. We've done very well in Central and South America in the last two or three years.”

Words -- advice, even -- from the master himself. And this is decidedly not a call for recruiting along ethnic lines. It sounds much more like an appeal for style, and it is not his native Scottish, of even Brit, style that he is talking about.

It would be a shame to see Vancouver, with its tremendous fan base, led down the same dead end into which Mo Johnston took the equally fervently backed Toronto FC.

12 comments about "Is Vancouver following Toronto down a dead end?".
  1. Clayton Berling, September 10, 2012 at 2:03 a.m.

    In the political world, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

    Like wise in the soccer world, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

    Paul Gardner has the facts right, so it's not just a matter of opinion.

  2. Soccer Innovations, September 10, 2012 at 2:28 a.m.

    Paul, right on. The South Americans have a unique flair and skill that our US Boys and English have not been able to grab onto, yet. Even our US / S. American decent players have something in their blood that we white guys lack. But we white guys have a few assets ourselves. Mixing the 2 is ideal! But mixing our boys with more players lacking creative flair and attacking skill is not the recipe, is it...

  3. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, September 10, 2012 at 5:13 a.m.

    Buying 'slaves' and 'importing players' results in the same non-performing problem at some stage down the road.

    Ethnic? Maybe! Comfortable with ‘the only market you truly know? Possible! What is certain though is, the LONG-TERM DEVELOPMENT and Financing issues in Football that relies on foreigners will always be difficult.

    All Clubs have got to start Development Projects and Programmes whose FIRST CRITERIA is to Develop Players WHO SUPPORT THE CLUB!

    Football is littered with MERCENARIES who move-on to a higher salaries and 'better' jobs when the rats reach the last port and 'sense the last voyage of this clanger'!

    TO DEVELOP TALENT POOLS - and this applies to ALL SPORTS (and the Club Support mentioned above) is not essential)

    When Clubs have Talent Pools to draw from even the sky is no limit!

    * 1,000 Education Institutions - Primary School to University sign-up and ANNUALLY supply the Names, Ages, Positions (preferred), Strengths, Weaknesses etc of 8 of their MOST TALENTED YOUTH (in Football for this example); 4 Male and 4 Female, to a National, State, Provincial or Regional Database (depending on the size of a Country)

    * This creates a Talent Pool of 8,000 Talented Youth Annually to feed into your Local Leagues and for export

    * A NEW Industry of Coaches, Managers, Mentors, Administrators etc then plan the Development of these Youth

    I don't need to explain the benefits! Imports and the use of Sports 'slaves' is the result of an Industry that 'operates' without a constant supply of GOOD QUALITY MATERIAL FROM AND SUITED-TO AREA


  4. Ivan Mark Radhakrishnan, September 10, 2012 at 5:22 a.m.

    Extract - 'The South Americans love playing football, it's just in their blood'_____________

    Ivan Mark R / But the South Americans now play like Europeans! There are exceptions like Lionel Messi, but the majority have had THEIR TALENT re-engineered to suit the European game._____________

    And here, Coaches are 'to blame'! But if Talent Pools had Players constantly improving Football, South America would have 10 Countries with hundreds of Leagues fighting to keep South American Talent home for the benefit of its Club Supporters, Advertisers, Tax Payers (who make Football happen!), Sponsors._____________ The 'export' of Players often leads to AN INFERIOR PRODUCT at home and often NOT A SUPERIOR PRODUCT to the importer! - IMR20910121121

  5. David Sirias, September 10, 2012 at 10:59 a.m.

    Thè minute Hassli and Chumiento were let go was the end

    100% Route 1 football does not work even in MLS It's too easy to defend And it's boring to boot

    But as I have consistently said, "who's the GM in Vacouver?" Look no further

  6. Ramon Creager, September 10, 2012 at 12:01 p.m.

    So, what does that mean for our US Men's National Team, now that we have a German coach? In the most recent game at Jamaica, 4 German born players saw action: Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, Terrence Boyd (the latter 2 were subs), whereas only 2 MLS players saw the field (Beckerman and Shea). I'm worried that Klinsmann is doing a little of what Gardner speaks of here, and that he does not value MLS players as he should. (Jamaica, a much smaller nation to whom MLS is yet another foreign league, had more MLS players on the roster for that game as the USMNT did!) Are these German born players that much better? Is MLS not good enough? Or is it coach bias? I for one would like to see more of our MLS up-and-comers get some playing time: Zusi and Pontius I've mentioned before, and both might have helped maintain possession in that dreadful midfield (and Zusi was available for that game). DC's Nick DeLeon certainly deserves a look, and Wondolowski has done enough to show he is in good form. I'm sure there are others.

  7. Mike Gaire, September 10, 2012 at 12:52 p.m.

    Paul, if you are really that desperate to find something to whine about why don't you have a moan about the number of Frenchmen on the Arsenal team?!!

    Or, better still, just retire!!!

  8. Albert Harris, September 10, 2012 at 2:48 p.m.

    I guess to people of Mike's intellect, "Your mother wears combat boots" constitutes a rational argument. Try giving us a reasoned opinion, not more invective. One man's opinion: yellow card offense.

  9. beautiful game, September 10, 2012 at 6:55 p.m.

    Lots of opinions here amici sportive, but anyone who wants to compete in the MLS or the USMNT needs a soccer IQ, consistency, and efficacy; it's too thin and the argument of ethnicity is mute.

  10. Jack vrankovic, September 10, 2012 at 9:09 p.m.


    Do you want to see more MLS players, or more American raised USMNT players? Poaching and citizenship issues affect almost every NT in today's game.

    I also follow the Croatian NT and this is an issue for them as well. (Eduardo, Reus, Sammir etc).

    Recently, Marco Reus wanted to play for the NT and the diaspora as well as domestic press were debating the merits.

    Who would you knock out of the team for Wondolowski and Zusi (two proven MLS players)?

    Honestly, the Bundesliga is lightyears ahead of MLS. From top to bottom every team is tactically aware, professional and technically proficient. FOX soccer has better production values with their EPL broadcasts, but I still prefer GOLTV's non HD Bundesliga matches.

    If I had to choose one league for my children to watch and emulate it would be the Bundesliga.

  11. Ramon Creager, September 12, 2012 at 8:02 a.m.

    Jack, I guess we all saw what Zusi can do in Columbus!

  12. Jack vrankovic, September 12, 2012 at 7:36 p.m.


    He is a good player. With that being said, whose place would you want him to take if the USMNT had a full/healthy/fit roster? Do you see him as a depth player?

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