VANCOUVER, B.C. – It’s been a tough year for the Vancouver Whitecaps. The season seemed to offer so much after their good form last season, but the side failed to build upon their successes, regressing instead, and are in danger of missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Just where it's gone wrong is both easy to pinpoint and puzzling. Last season’s league-leading defense has been shipping goals with alarming frequency, while key performers from a year ago have struggled, and individual errors have plagued the whole team.
"You can go back over the season and you can [look at those mistakes]," Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi told MLSsoccer.com this week. "It's just shutting off at pivotal times and it really is more about the amount of goals we've given up, and how we've given them up, that really differentiates us between this season and last season."
This year marks Carl Robinson’s third season in charge of the club. In his first two he’s seen a year-on-year improvement, posting club record wins and points totals, and given the Whitecaps their highest-ever finish in Major League Soccer when they finished second in the West last year, and third overall. Those performances raised expectations all around.
Yet a quick glance online after Vancouver’s recent matches and you’ll see a small, but vocal and growing, section of the ‘Caps supporters calling for change. Short memories or unrealistic expectations, it’s hard to say, but Lenarduzzi feels that Robinson has helped the club to "evolve" from where they were a few years ago.
"Since Carl has taken over, the squad that we have now doesn't resemble the squad that he took over," Lenarduzzi stated. "There's been a lot of changes that have taken place and the players that are being criticized now as not being good enough were good enough last year. Why there's been subpar performances, who knows?
"To me, I actually see, and perhaps in some fans minds it's not quick enough growth, but there's been an evolution. And as a result of that evolution, expectations have risen. When expectations are higher, and you don't achieve those expectations or you fall short, people get emotional. People get mad. That's the business that we're in."
It's not the first time that's he's been asked about his coach's future in recent weeks, but Lenarduzzi reiterated that Robinson isn’t going anywhere. Far from it.
"With Carl, it's been, for the most part, an upward trend," Lenarduzzi added. "He's disappointed, we're disappointed, but by no means are we going to do anything rash. We have full faith in him and his staff.
"I always believe that you find out the most about people in times of adversity and we're going through adversity right now. But ideally it's viewed as a learning experience. We take the lessons that we've learned in adversity and from now we look at each game that's left and we try to secure a playoff spot."
But there is also a larger element of the support who want to see not a managerial change, but one in the club’s front office. Seeing their rivals spend money to bring in big name players, difference makers, while the Whitecaps haven’t, has raised the ire of supporters, and Lenarduzzi himself has been the man to take the brunt of that, with fans also calling for him to go.
He acknowledges that, but Vancouver’s club’s modus operandi has been made very clear – they want to develop young players, especially Homegrowns, adding in some experienced heads to steady the ship. While other clubs are spending millions in bringing in Designated Players, the Whitecaps are looking for lesser-known, and sometimes unknown, names to the fanbase, especially from the South American market.
The ‘Caps have made it clear they will not be a club that spends millions bringing in a big-name player just for the sake of the buzz that generates, and Lenarduzzi refutes the idea that such a philosophy is necessary to have success in MLS.
"In the end, it's irrelevant," Lenarduzzi said. "If a player turns up, regardless of what you pay for him, and he is a difference maker, which is what you need your DPs to be, then it's a good signing. I stand by that statement and I also stand by the money that we invest in player development."