VANCOUVER, B.C. – Carl Robinson is no stranger to a stiff challenge.
The gritty former Welsh international midfielder began his head coaching career with the Vancouver Whitecaps – after serving two years as an assistant following a lengthy and decorated playing career – inheriting a team in turmoil.
They were in the process of having their leading scorer and MLS Golden Boot winner from the previous year, Camilo Sanvezzo, poached by Liga MX side Queretaro. And the Whitecaps roster as a whole was in need of serious overhaul after a disappointing 2013 season.
In the rebuilding process, Robinson assembled the youngest team in MLS, which got even more inexperienced when Scottish international striker Kenny Miller and the team agreed to part ways midway through the campaign.
But Robinson struck gold with the signing of Pedro Morales, a virtual unknown outside his native Chile who starred in Croatia before spending one season in Spain prior to his discovery by the Whitecaps, who led the team with 10 goals and 12 assists. The season ended in success, with Vancouver advancing to the Western Conference playoffs where they fell in the Knockout Round to FC Dallas. They also secured a spot in their first ever CONCACAF Champions League for the 2015-16 tournament, qualifying by finishing as the best Canadian MLS team during the regular season.
The challenge now for Robinson is following his rookie campaign with even more success.
"Football's about proving people wrong, as I say to my group of players,” Robinson told MLSsoccer.com. “The thing about this game is that no one's right and no one's wrong, and everyone has an opinion. But the one thing you get to do is you have the opportunity to prove to people how good a player you are."
One of the keys to Robinson’s success, he said, is his emphasis on scouting – especially in South America – as evidenced by the signing of Morales (right) and also the speedy Uruguayan winger Sebastian Fernandez on a now-expired loan deal.
"It's a lot of hard work," Robinson said of his scouting efforts. "As soon as the season was over, I was off travelling and galavanting everywhere. You've got to come out of your comfort zone a little bit as a manager and go and visit places and go and see games, which are probably in front of 100 supporters and on bobbly pitches, to try and find them because if you go to the top, top teams in South America then 99 percent of the time they're valued at $8 million and they want $4 million a year.
"When you go down there, it's important that you get your hands dirty, and I did.”
What came of the trip was the Designated Player signing of Uruguayan striker Octavio Rivero. With a lack of production up top plaguing the club last year, especially after the loss of Miller, the Whitecaps are hoping to have addressed that with the addition of the exciting 23-year-old.
"Hopefully goals," Robinson said with a smile when asked what he expects from Rivero. "It's the hardest thing to do in football unfortunately, and that's why they're paid more money than probably anyone else on the pitch.
"Watching Octavio, he's what you want in a modern day forward. You want someone who's mobile, someone who can hold the ball up, someone who can run in behind and someone who can score goals and he fits into that category very well.”
Robinson believes he put in the time with Rivero to expect big things from his first year in MLS.
"When I saw the hunger in his game and wanting to improve, and after sitting down with him and his father and then him telling me what his goals are, short, medium and long-term, it was a no-brainer for me,” Robinson said.
Rivero (left), who last played for Chilean first division side O’Higgins FC, said the goals laid out by Robinson for the team and him personally convinced him to make the jump to North America. The fact that he was Robinson’s No. 1 offseason target didn’t hurt, either.
"I came to Major League Soccer primarily because of the interest that the Whitecaps had in me," Rivero said. "Robbo came to Chile to talk to me. Just hearing about and knowing about the club and everything else made me want to come here. I'm very happy with the city and the club, my teammates and the coaches."
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Rivero is aware of the Whitecaps' goalscoring problems last year. If there's pressure on him to be the answer, he doesn't feel it. And from what he's seen so far, he said he’s confident that Vancouver will have a much more potent attack this season.
"They're very good players," Rivero said of his fellow strikers. "There's a reason that they're here. There's a lot of different circumstance with why you may have not have scored last year, but they all have good technique. It's going to be a good, competitive year to see who starts up top.”
It's still far too early to say just what kind of impact Rivero will have with the Whitecaps, but his preseason form – three goals and one assist in limited action – has certainly raised hopes that he might be the player they have been looking for since losing Sanvezzo and Miller.
Robinson has once again brought in a player who will be unknown to most in North America, and his hope is that Rivero will be another success story. Robinson said there’s no real secret to unearthing gems other than putting in the time and effort to find them, noting that his two weeks spent in South American resulted in watching in “14 or 15 different games.” He also said the utilization of a vast network of contacts after his 20-plus years in the game is a necessity.
“A lot of it is doing your homework, due diligence, and a lot of it is trusting people that you know and who have good intentions for yourself and the club,” he said. “Then it's down to your eye because you have to make decisions in this game, and if you don't make decisions then unfortunately it's probably the wrong decision."
And the process is never over.
Robinson would still like to add a veteran presence to the Whitecaps striker department. Former Toronto and Chicago forward Robert Earnshaw continues to trial with the team, but if a deal can't be reached with the Welsh international Robinson has no qualms of going with a strike force that ranges from 20 to 24 years old.
"Again people have asked me, why have I gone young?," Robinson said. "Age is just a number for me. I've got an experienced player in [34-year-old midfielder]
and [34-year-old center back]
Pa Modou Kah
, and they're good players. So I don't care if you're old or young; it's irrelevant to me. I just want good players on the team who bring something to the table.”
For Robinson, it’s about building a club that its passionate support “can be proud of for a number of years.”
"A solid group of top quality young players that can make this club proud and this city proud because they deserve it,” he said. “That's where I'm at."
And if it’s viewed as another uphill battle – another stiff challenge – Robinson said there’s only one way to overcome it.
"The best way for me to answer that is what an achievement it would be to win MLS with a very young team, the youngest probable team," Robinson said. "I think we were the youngest team last year. Why not? Do I think I can win MLS? I'm sure you've got 20-odd managers that think they can win MLS Cup. … you never say never."