VANCOUVER—Last week, Vancouver Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson set off for South America, accompanied by assistant coach Martyn Pert. Their goal: to find the difference-makers needed to reverse the club’s fortunes next year.
Speaking to the media during the post-mortem on the 2016 season, Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi was emphatic that, despite a disappointing campaign in which the side failed to reach Major League Soccer’s playoffs and finished eighth in the Western Conference, there will be no blowing up the team. In Lenarduzzi’s view, the core is a solid one; what’s needed is a handful of players to complete the mix.
But just what the Whitecaps will look like in 2017 is difficult to predict. So, what’s next for Vancouver, and what might Robinson and Co. be shopping for this winter?
Before leaving for the first of several off-season scouting trips, Robinson affirmed that the Whitecaps’ long-standing philosophy will not change: they will not be spending an eye-popping sum on a single player like some teams in the league have in order to acquire Sebastian Giovinco–calibre players.
“Will we be spending eight, nine, 10 million? No, we won’t,” Robinson said. “And I’m quite happy with that. Sometimes that causes you problems.”
The coach explained his recruiting approach as a hunt for hidden gems, looking carefully for players who aren’t in the limelight, but whose talent could transition well to MLS.
Robinson will likely be looking for a striker, as a lack of finish caused the Whitecaps problems this season. Octavio Rivero, unproductive and rumoured to be unhappy in Vancouver, was sold off over the summer, while Masato Kudo struggled in his transition from the Japanese league, first with a horrific injury, and then with settling into a league in which his style of play seemed mismatched. Erik Hurtado had a nice run toward the end of the campaign, though he’s not the sort of player who’s likely to score goals in the double digits over the course of an MLS season.
Robinson may also be hunting for a No. 10 to fill the role occupied by captain Pedro Morales, whose contract is up. The Chilean midfielder is doubtful to return next year—he was Vancouver’s highest earner with a salary of $1.23 million, but while he scored a team-leading nine goals, his performance hasn’t matched his price tag since his first year in MLS.
Another area of need is at right fullback. After trading Steven Beitashour to Toronto FC last December, the Whitecaps struggled to find a solid solution to fill the gap. They employed Fraser Aird, on loan from Rangers FC, in the position for much of 2016, but the Canadian international is a natural winger, and he never looked comfortable at the back, even if he improved in spurts. Jordan Smith, on loan from Deportivo Saprissa, filled in on occasion, though he also struggled and has already returned to Costa Rica.
Whichever new players are acquired, Lenarduzzi vowed that the club would be “diligent” in doing their homework and in their decision-making. Vancouver has faced criticism in the past for mishandling player acquisition, but Lenarduzzi made it clear that Robinson would be sitting down with the potential pick-ups to “eliminate any issues” there might be.
Just who from the 2016 iteration of the Whitecaps will return is tough to determine, in part because several players underwhelmed this year but might be given another shot, and in part because of the MLS Expansion Draft, which takes place on Dec. 13.
As Minnesota United and Atlanta United prepare to enter MLS, they’ll be selecting five players each from the league’s 20 current teams, which means it’s possible the ’Caps could lose a player to one of these new sides (each team can lose a maximum of one player in the draft). Clubs are permitted to protect 11 players on their roster (Generation Adidas and homegrown players on a team’s supplemental or reserve rosters are likewise protected), so some careful decisions will need to be made.
It’s impossible to know which players Robinson plans to keep, and which he’s hoping to trade, but there are a few who seem less likely to return, including Morales and Blas Perez. Perez, who was on a one-year deal with Vancouver, was effective this season, but his minutes were limited and he’s an expensive option off the bench.
Two things are clear: Vancouver will pick seventh in January’s MLS SuperDraft, and will hold pre-season training in Europe. After two straight years in which players seemed slow to find their form, Robinson wants his squad ready when they take on the New York Red Bulls in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals starting in late February.
“We’re both on the same page, me and the organization,” Robinson said when asked about his off-season mission, adding: “It’s about me finding the best players available to make this city proud.”
Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues.