SmorgasBorg: Was Vancouver premature in firing Thordarson?

Teitur Thordarson

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Top 25 in the world.

Rarely does an expansion team come out of the gates setting the bar this way. But that’s what the Vancouver Whitecaps did ahead of their 2011 maiden voyage in MLS.

And Top 25 aspirants surely cannot afford themselves the luxury of going on an 11-game winless run, right? After all, ambition leaves no room for patience.

This is perhaps the main reason why Whitecaps manager Teitur Thordarson has been shown the door in Vancouver after just two months on the job.

Unless there are bombshell allegations that surface after the fact, there is little that you can fault Thordarson with except maybe for little tactical flexibility, specifically regarding the position played by his most creative player, Davide Chiumiento. Nonetheless, his team was one of the most exciting to watch in the league and his players left everything on the field in every match.

Sure, Vancouver have fallen well behind the pace — eight points out of the final playoff spot if the season ended today. But with 66 points still up for grabs for this season, Thordarson’s firing seems like a premature move.

The reality is the Whitecaps were in every game they played this season. They lost by two goals only once – 3-1 in Houston on April 10 – and there was never any public indication in these first two months that the players were somehow dissatisfied with their coach. On the contrary, the signs pointed to quite the opposite.

For example, when the Whitecaps refused to fold when faced with a 3-0 deficit against Sporting Kansas City before fighting back for a 3-3 tie on April 2. There was Chiumiento’s stoppage-time goal to tie San Jose on May 11. Vancouver could have come away with a 1-0 win down two men to New England on April 6, and they nearly snatched a late equalizer down 2-0 in Columbus on April 30.

Not that it’s a notable achievement for a professional team to keep fighting. But it is generally an indication that they believe in their coach.

There are a laundry list of other things that Thordarson could point to in his own defense.

To start, the club has played 16 matches in all competitions in the 70 days since the March 19 opener. That’s a game every four days for a team that has played shorthanded for the most part.

There is more. The Whitecaps’ big money offseason signings of goalkeeper Joe Cannon, midfielder John Thorrington and defender Jay DeMerit have combined for only four starts in MLS, mainly due to injuries. On the other hand, they were all signed with full knowledge of their health issues.

Staying on the injury front, Atiba Harris, who was a key player for Thordarson’s up-tempo high-pressure system early on, went down to a long-term knee injury after just a handful of games. Vancouver’s best player in preseason, Shea Salinas, has only recently recovered to make two starts. Thordarson had to wait for central defender Mouloud Akloul to come back from ankle surgery, and so Thordarson was forced to play his left back at center back.

Designated player Eric Hassli has missed three games due to suspension, not to mention the minutes he left his club shorthanded on the field after his two ejections. Central midfielder Gershon Koffie and promising winger Russell Teibert have missed time on youth international duty. Thordarson had to bleed in rookies Jeb Brovsky and Michael Boxall, who have been forced into significant minutes.

And what to say of the club’s top two draft picks? The Whitecaps bypassed surefire starters at No. 1 and No. 8 in the 2011 SuperDraft to take on two projects: Omar Salgado and Michael Nanchoff. The former wasn’t supposed to be eligible until September, while the latter carried a groin injury which had him on the injury report until May 10.

But that January SuperDraft seemingly proved that the Vancouver Whitecaps had designs on being different and not just because they had a residential academy. It was a club that was prepared to make the unconventional choices and exercise patience for long-term gain. Even the decision to stick with Thordarson in the transition to MLS fit that mold.

Except no games had been played up to that point.

Today, the club’s philosophy and identity are at a crossroads. Not because of Thordarson. But because the Whitecaps let him go.

This is what club president Bob Lenarduzzi said back in September when the Whitecaps named Thordarson manager: "We'd love to have short-term success [but] what we don't want to do is try and produce an instant winner by sacrificing the initiatives that involve player development and getting young players in and having them grow with our club … Our plan is to build slowly and he's proven he's prepared to use the young players."

The Whitecaps decision to stick with their division-two coach – unlike Portland – was a daring one, a difficult one, even. Firing him after just 12 games seems too easy.

But in these days of ambitious clubs and visions of trophies and world domination, it’s become tough to ride out the inevitable storm clouds.

In Thordarson’s situation it was a storm cloud that did him in, literally and figuratively. Irrespective of the result against the Red Bulls on Saturday, would the club have fired him had he won the Nutrilite Canadian Championship trophy just a few days ago?

He was 30 minutes away from that win in Toronto. This firing was written in the clouds.