An MLS season full of highs and lows for soccer fans in Vancouver comes to an end Sunday afternoon when the Whitecaps host the Portland Timbers.
While the year provided some great moments, including a record MLS-transfer agreement for Canadian teenage sensation Alphonso Davies, it also brought much disappointment. Coach Carl Robinson and his staff were dismissed with a month to go in a season that saw many players under-perform.
Prior to Sunday’s matinee at BC Place, I spoke with club president Bob Lenarduzzi on a variety of topics, including the on-going search for a new coach, changes inside the locker room, and the direction the club is on heading into the off-season.
Sportsnet: As the Whitecaps get set to host the Timbers, many fans are wondering why they should even bother coming out to watch. What would you say to them?
Lenarduzzi: There’s one good reason, and that’s the last chance to see Alphonso Davies. In a season that has, at times provided optimism and at time pessimism, it’s been a roller coaster ride. Alphonso’s success from Game 1 where he got a goal and an assist to the month of negotiations with some of the top clubs in the world vying for his services… [It] was a nice distraction from the disappointments we’ve had as a team throughout this season.
Sportsnet: You’ve seen Davies grow and develop as a player. Is it safe to say you’ve seen him grow and develop as a young man as well this season?
Lenarduzzi: That’s why he’s had the success he’s had on the field. He came to us as a 14-year-old with a very level head on his shoulders. His parents had chosen to come to Canada because they wanted their kids to have a chance at a better education and a better life. I’m sure there is a huge sense of pride from his family given what Alphonso has done so far. As a club, what we’ve done is provide a framework for him. Carl [Robinson] and his staff can take credit and our youth development guys can take credit. Ultimately, it’s Alphonso and the growth that he’s shown that has made the move to Bayern Munich a reality.
Sportsnet: You mentioned it’s been a roller coaster ride the last few weeks, on and off the field for your club. Can you put your finger on why things transpired the way they did down the stretch for the Whitecaps?
Lenarduzzi: We actually had a decent second half of the season, but we had two pivotal games against Seattle and Dallas at home and we didn’t pick any points from those two games. After that I think we realized we really had to do something we hadn’t done all season… and that was go on a three or four-game win streak. If you pick up those points, you’re not only making the playoffs, but you’re battling for top spot. It did all come down to the fact we couldn’t string together those three or four wins. When you look at most of the teams making the playoffs, and look back at their records, that’s what they’ve done.
Sportsnet: Fans will see a lot of familiar names and faces in the season finale this weekend. When your team takes to the pitch next March, how many of those players will still be around?
Lenarduzzi: There will definitely be a number of changes. It will be up to the new coach coming in to determine how many will move. We’re excited about concluding the coach search and we hope that will happen relatively shortly. Getting a coach on board ASAP and believing we have the right guy is something that’s a priority for us.
Sportsnet: How wide of a scope has the coaching search been for you and the management team?
Lenarduzzi: We had coaches in mind, but what has been encouraging from a league perspective, is the number and quality of applications we’ve received unsolicited. I think it’s an illustration of the growth in MLS as a destination of choice for more people than the last time we were looking for a head coach five years ago.
Sportsnet: With Davies heading to Bayern Munich, it brings with it a lot of money to the club in the way of a record MLS transfer fee. Will the new coach play a big role into how a lot of that money might be spent, particularly when it comes to new high-end players?
Lenarduzzi: No doubt there will be a collaborative approach in that regard, but ultimately he will have the final say as to which players come in. He will more than likely have a network that he can tap into. We have existing networks as the result of relationships we’ve built since our time in MLS to ensure we have as many prospects as possible for each of the positions we feel we need to upgrade.
Sportsnet: As someone who’s been a fabric of the Vancouver soccer community for decades and who’s been a part of the organization since its inception in MLS, what is the message you want to give fans as this season winds down?
Lenarduzzi: What I would say is we’d be the first to assess our performance over eight years in MLS. We’ve made the playoffs in four of those eight years and we’ve got to a Champions League semifinal… But I think we would describe ourselves as “average.” We don’t want to be average. We want to be winning an MLS championship. We have an opportunity now to re-set, not just with the coaching position, but also with recruiting and youth development. I’m optimistic we can do that. I look forward to that final whistle blowing after beating Portland on Sunday and getting on with the task of bringing a championship team to Vancouver.