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23 November 2:21 pm

Martin Rennie and his coaching staff will be racking up the air miles as they continue to look for that special player, that diamond in the rough, that player that could take them to the next level. To do so, they will be using all their contacts and scouts to get good leads on potential players that could make their mark with the ‘Caps in Major League Soccer (MLS).

I had the chance to sit down with assistant coach Carl Robinson who had six successful years playing in MLS and now has the chance to scout and help bring the right kind of player to Vancouver.

Carl has built up a great number of contacts around the globe through his playing days, which he relies on now to keep tabs on players throughout the world.

“We get maybe 50 players a week sent to us as foreign players realize more that North America is a great place to live and MLS is a good league to play in,” explained the Welshman. “We will go and watch a player four or five times before we make a decision.”

Building a team

When Whitecaps FC coaching staff head out to scout players they obviously have a plan. This isn’t just a one-off plan, its part of an overall map for the club’s success.

Robinson talked to me about their short, medium, and long-term plans.

Last year they worked off a short-term plan of getting the ‘Caps turned around from a last-place finish in the club’s inaugural MLS season. The goal was to make the playoffs.  Mission accomplished.

Now they can move forward with their medium and long-term plans as they look to make the ‘Caps a team that makes the playoffs every year and starts challenging for the MLS Cup.

To do that, you need the right players, and that’s where scouting comes in.

What does it take?

Aside from the obvious requirements of talent and soccer-playing ability, many off-the-field factors determine whether a foreign player will have success here.

The first thing Robinson mentioned was the adjustment players have to make in coming to North America. It has been said before that MLS is very different to many other leagues around the world. It’s been called a very athletic league, and when you combine that with other challenging factors, you can quickly see why there are a number of good players that have had trouble adapting to playing in this league.

It can take players up to six months to settle down. First off, they’re in a new country with new teammates, and if they have a family, that adds another level of adjustment. From there players must conform to a different playing style, travel, time change, and different climates that they will play in.

So before deciding on whether to bring in a player, coaches will want to feel comfortable that he’s capable of making these adjustments.

To find that out, Whitecaps FC coaching staff will first talk to the manager of whichever team their targeted player is playing for. This allows them to do a background check on a player to see what his attributes and character are like. After all, Rennie has always preached that he wants to bring in character players.

What’s on the horizon?

With the offseason providing a window of time away from training and preparing for matches, Robinson will be doing some traveling as he continues to scout for talent, having already been to South and Central America.

A possible trip to Africa could also be on the cards. Robinson would hope to find another gem like Gershon Koffie, who had a solid 2012 season for the ‘Caps.

“You find that the young African players are usually very raw, but if you can find a player that is willing to listen and work hard to reach their potential you can find that special player.”

And if he and the rest of the coaching staff are successful in finding a diamond in the rough, it could help make the ‘Caps a cut above the rest of the competition.

20 November 2:13 pm

The 2012 MLS Cup final will be a rematch of last year’s final: LA Galaxy versus Houston Dynamo at the Home Depot Center, the same venue as last year. If that’s not remarkable enough, then consider that these two teams finished fourth (LA) and fifth (Houston) in their respective conferences during the regular season.

What does this mean? Well for one, it turns out that home field advantage wasn’t much of an advantage at all.

Sporting Kansas City in the East and San Jose Earthquakes in the West won their conferences by five and nine points respectively, giving them home field advantage right to the final. Both teams had strong regular seasons, especially at home, which they would be relying on come playoff time. However, both SKC and San Jose would lose their first round matchups to much lower seeded teams in the playoffs and see their season come to an abrupt end. Kansas City had 10 more points than Houston and San Jose had 12 more points than LA.

When you see what LA and Houston have done it is easy to discredit the regular season. Of course, here in Vancouver we painfully remember the eighth-seeded LA Kings powering past everything in their way to win the Stanley Cup.

So what does home field advantage mean in a two-leg series? Well, you get to play the second match at home, which means you know what you have to do to win in front of your crowd, and if it goes to extra time or penalties you have the advantage of playing on your home field.

The problem with this is that you really need to get a favorable result on the road in the first game so you don’t have too much of a mountain to climb in the return leg (see DC United and Seattle).

You also have to consider that the team that has home field advantage has to travel twice. First to their away match, then back home. The lower seeded team gets to stay at home for the first match, without traveling, and then embark on a single trip for the second game.

DC United were a strange exception this season. They were the higher seeded team, but due to Hurricane Sandy they ended up hosting the first game in DC, with the return leg moved to New York. And guess what? That ended up working out just fine for United, as they had a 1-1 draw in the first leg before winning a thrilling 1-0 game in the second leg.

In the end, DC would fall in the Conference final when the tables were turned and they hosted the second leg after being faced with a 3-1 deficit from the first game in Houston. It proved too much to overcome.

Same thing happened to Seattle. They fell 3-0 to LA Galaxy on the road. A valiant effort saw them pull within a goal at 2-0 in the second leg, but a penalty kick awarded to the Galaxy broke their backs.

You could say that Houston is a team built for the playoffs and that the Galaxy have the best talent in the league, and that’s why they are preparing to battle for the MLS Cup again.

But the results of the MLS Cup playoffs are sure make teams think about how they approach the long and hard MLS season and what is the best route for progressing into the postseason.

14 November 4:50 pm

While the players are departing all over the globe to begin their offseason break, it is certainly no time off for our coaching staff. They have lots of work to do as they look to put next year’s team together, which will mean scouting trips across North America as college tournaments get under way, and trips around the world to unearth that next gem of a player.

Scouting through the college ranks will be very interesting this year since we have two first round picks in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft (#5 and #10) that could really fit some of the team’s needs for next year. The NCAA Division I men’s soccer tournament begins this Thursday evening as 32 teams will begin their quest for a spot in the College Cup, taking place in Hoover, Alabama, on December 7 and 9 – the weekend after MLS Cup.

When you think about the last couple of MLS SuperDrafts it is exciting to think what type of impact players we could draft with our two first round picks. We’ve already seen great young prospects join our own team in the form of Omar Salgado and Darren Mattocks. However, while those picks were number one and number two overall, there are often diamonds in the rough that can be found outside of the top couple of picks.

Look no further than this year’s Eastern Conference finals where two young draftees have been key figures for their respective teams. Will Bruin of the Houston Dynamo (11th overall in 2011) has scored four goals already these playoffs, while Nick DeLeon of DC United (7th overall in 2012) has come up with a pair of timely goals to lead his side.

These playoff performances are no surprise either.

DeLeon played in 28 games this season, scoring six goals and adding four assists for United. Bruin, meanwhile, had a solid rookie season in 2011, playing in 25 games and scoring five goals while adding one assist. This past year he showed that he’s taken his game to another level by scoring 12 goals and adding four assists in 32 games to establish himself as a regular starter.

It’s not just midfielders and strikers who are valuable in the draft. Chicago’s ninth overall pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, defender Austin Berry, started 28 games for the Fire and chipped in three goals.

These are the types of players our coaching staff will be looking for as they scout the NCAA tournament. With a year in MLS under their belt, Martin Rennie and the rest of his coaching staff now have a better understanding of what they need to help take Whitecaps FC to the next level.

Having two picks in the first round is a big opportunity for the ’Caps and they’re working hard to ensure that no stone is left unturned.

So while the players get a well deserved rest, our coaches are putting in more air miles to ensure we get the most out of the offseason.

06 November 6:11 pm

A familiar face to Whitecaps FC fans was appointed to an important role in Canadian soccer on Tuesday, as Tony Fonseca was named the Canadian Soccer Association’s new Technical Director.

The former Portuguese international, who was a Whitecaps FC player and head coach (2002-2004) during the club’s United Soccer Leagues First Division days, has been tasked with overseeing ‘the technical growth and development of soccer in Canada’. No small job…

The timing of Fonseca’s appointment is important, as Canada look to chart a new course after last month’s qualifying exit from the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. His understanding of the Canadian soccer landscape will be invaluable to addressing the many challenges of his new role.

With the responsibility of establishing new technical policies for Canadian soccer, Fonseca’s influence on player development - particularly at the elite level - will be closely scrutinized by the media and Canadian soccer supporters alike.

Canada’s three Major League Soccer clubs are currently in the business of elite player development and have expressed a willingness to strengthen their relationship with the CSA on this key issue.

Creating a productive player development system through strong collaboration will be essential to Canada’s ability to produce top players at the professional and international level.

Fonseca knows the good work that Whitecaps FC Residency, Toronto FC Academy, and Montreal Impact Academy have been doing in recent years, and is keen to establish a strong partnership between these elite soccer stakeholders.

Where the biggest challenge may lie is in further educating those involved in grassroots soccer across Canada that a different player development pathway is desperately needed. In other words, making those individuals rethink the way they see grassroots soccer in their own communities.

The CSA and Canada’s professional clubs know they have a role to play in this regard and that making such changes will be difficult. However, what should excite Canadian soccer fans is the strong desire that now exists to implement real change.

Congrats Tony and best of luck!

06 November 3:51 pm

The second year in Major League Soccer for Vancouver Whitecaps FC was marketed as Round 2. We had a new coaching staff, some new players, and lots of optimism going into the new season.

Preseason had gone well in Arizona and Florida and everybody wanted to get the season started. Martin Rennie – in his first year coaching in MLS – liked the look of his Whitecaps FC squad and felt his team could challenge for a playoff spot. Getting there would be no easy task though.

Fast start

The season began in fine fashion as our ‘Caps won their season opener at BC Place with a 2-0 victory against expansion side Montreal Impact. Optimism was high, but we all certainly knew that an opening day win does not make a season (see 2011 opening win vs. Toronto FC).

The next game, however, provided further proof that this would be a historic year. The boys got their first away win in MLS by beating Chivas USA 1-0 on a Jay DeMerit header. This was a sign that the mentality of this team had changed; Rennie was slowly but surely building a winning culture.

The next two games would end up as 0-0 draws, which meant the ‘Caps remained undefeated and had shut out the opposition in every match. The run of form continued as the team achieved an MLS record for longest shutout streak to start a season.

It was a great start for the team, but this was only the beginning. Much work remained.

Proving their mettle

April saw the ‘Caps hit with their first taste of adversity. A blown lead and first loss on the season at San Jose and a home loss to Sporting Kansas City could have sunk the ship early, but Vancouver persevered. The Blue and White grinded out a pair of 1-0 wins, at home to FC Dallas and on the road to Columbus Crew.

The early season success altered expectations. Suddenly fans and media were dreaming big, how good could this second year team really be?

Lessons learned

The season was steadily moving along until the ‘Caps faced off against Toronto FC in the Amway Canadian Championship finals. A 2-1 aggregate loss to the team that would end up finishing dead last in MLS was nothing short of a massive disappointment.

Having been brought back down to earth, it became easier to reflect and evaluate. Clearly there was still work to be done.

Rome was not built in a day

Despite the positives from the first portion of the campaign, questions also remained from fans, media, and the club itself. What is the ultimate goal for this team? Is winning the only thing that matters? What about entertainment value, many asked? Was the team scoring enough goals? What about the young players, shouldn’t they be playing more? Why aren’t there more Canadian players?

These are all important questions that need to be posed and each of them are part of the values that the club is looking to instil moving forward. But it can also be easy to lose sight of the big picture. This remained only the second year for the club in MLS. All of these questions will be answered over time, but only so many aspects can be managed at once. Building a winning team, an entertaining team, a team filled with Canadian talent on the field – it’s all a process. For now, the most important thing was to allow coach Rennie to put his own stamp on this team. He has built a winning culture at every club which he’s coached, but that takes time and patience. If he could get this team to the playoffs in his first year, it would be a massive achievement and a big step in the right direction.

Tough decisions

Many coaches would not tinker with a team that was picking up points fairly regularly, but Rennie had made it clear that he was not just building for this year; he was looking at a team that could be one of the best for years to come.

Tough decisions had to be made before the season, and it was felt at the midway point of the season that more changes were needed.

This was not an easy time for players to come into the team. It’s never easy to adjust to a new team, a new city, a new culture, and a new league. It’s especially difficult to do it in the middle of the season during a stretch of nine out of 13 games on the road.

Results were mixed, but sometimes it takes one step back to take two steps forward.

Making history

With 39 days away from home and a rough winless stretch, it would have been easy for the team to fall apart and look for excuses, but you never heard that from the coaches or players. The team showed great resiliency, and in the end the season’s body of work achieved the main goal at the beginning of the year – a first ever playoff spot for a Canadian MLS club.

Their reward? A date with the defending MLS Cup champions, the star-studded LA Galaxy, on the road no less.

In the end the boys gave them the fright of their lives – probably much more than they expected. Not only did we score an early goal, but we also nearly doubled the lead to 2-0 with 20 minutes to go. Unfortunately it was not to be, as the Galaxy eventually came back to win 2-1.

I was so proud of the performance in our first playoff game and it just reinforced what I already knew: we belonged in the playoffs after competing all season long in a tough Western Conference.

Final thoughts

We have a coach in Martin Rennie who is not afraid of making big decisions. Of course not everyone will agree with every decision – you can’t please everyone. And not every decision will be correct either. As a coach you make some choices that will work and some that will not. The key is that everyone learns from the process. That is why I am really excited for next year. 

This team has come a long way from last year and has shown it can compete with the best teams in MLS. Now Rennie and his coaching staff have a season under their belt and are more familiar with what works in this league. They will also have a squad of players that are also more accustomed to playing in North America, with the physicality and the travel.

Of course there will be more changes, but having made the playoffs this year, expectations will again be raised. There will be highs and lows again next season, as there always will be, but I’m confident that the best is yet to come.

05 November 5:18 pm

So that was the season that was…

The build-up to last Thursday’s inaugural MLS playoff game had that familiar postseason buzz that ‘Caps fans know all too well. What was also exciting to see was the amount of attention that Whitecaps FC drew from being in the playoffs.

Of course, the Blue and White filled a certain void (no NHL hockey) for Vancouver sports fans last week, and although it did not result in a win in LA, the performance of Martin Rennie’s side left some good feelings.

The feedback from media and supporters after Thursday’s game was one of pride, as most were aware of the tall task that faced the ‘Caps against the star-studded Galaxy.

The contest required spirit and commitment from Vancouver, and that was seen in abundance at The Home Depot Center. By giving the defending MLS champions a severe test of their credentials, Whitecaps FC might have even played a key role in the destiny of this year’s MLS Cup title.

Traditionally, playoff exits leave an empty feeling. In this case, however, there was an acknowledgement to the efforts made by Rennie’s side in LA and indications by observers of how it offered a glimpse into a promising future.

Vancouver Sun sports columnist Iain MacIntyre was particularly struck by what he witnessed on Thursday, as he drew comparisons to where the club was in 1977 and how it built towards an NASL Soccer Bowl title by 1979.

There was also an intriguing - some might say prophetic - tweet from former ‘Caps and Seattle Sounders FC head coach Alan Hinton (@alanhinton11): “Whitecaps FC will within two years be the number two franchise behind Seattle in MLS…I know, I have been there!”

As for yours truly, the 2012 season was one where every match offered an opportunity to Whitecaps FC. Building and growing as an MLS outfit were, in many ways, the club’s objectives this season. In other words - 2011 was about establishment; 2012 was about strengthening.

Clubs that have shown steady growth in MLS are usually amongst the league’s elite. While that challenge lies in front of Whitecaps FC, this second season suggests Vancouver are now following a similar path.

While it would have been nice for the playoff journey to continue, much was achieved this season. What is really exciting is how things can improve even more, starting in 2013.

Hunger and desire are bedrocks of successful sides, and it would not surprise this soccer scribe if those are the driving influences behind a memorable Whitecaps FC campaign in the New Year.

As we enter the quiet of this offseason, we take positive vibes from a season that gave strong glimpses of very bright days ahead.

Time to prepare for the next chapter of this great journey!

Till we reconvene in the spring…

29 October 12:28 pm

What a difference a year makes!

This time last year, Whitecaps FC were wrapping up what was a turbulent inaugural season in MLS, and head coach Martin Rennie was preparing for a postseason training camp to familiarize himself with his new squad.

Our MLS Cup Playoff experience was a distant one last year, with our television screens showing the unfolding drama in the cities of our league rivals. Fast forward to this week, and our engagement for the MLS postseason is at its highest level. On Thursday night, Whitecaps FC make history as the first Canadian club to take part in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

The midweek trip to Southern California was an effort earned over 34 regular matches by the Blue and White and sign of significant improvement for a burgeoning MLS club.

Five victories and 15 points more were achieved than at this point last year, with only MLS Supporters’ Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes and playoff-bound D.C. United making larger turnarounds statistically.

Vancouver’s 43 points was also the highest total achieved in a single MLS season by a Canadian club, with expansion club Montreal Impact also joining the ‘Caps in passing the 40-point barrier in 2012.

The club’s first three wins away from home, plus 12 clean sheets also contributed to the improvement, but even Rennie knows there is plenty of room for further progress.

Much of that can be set aside for 2013. Right now, Whitecaps FC are six results away from an MLS Cup title. If anyone knows the recent postseason history of MLS, it is not as improbable for Vancouver, as it initially looks.

This past weekend offered a very good ‘dress rehearsal’ for the clash with the Galaxy at The Home Depot Center. Like LA, Real Salt Lake can be a formidable foe when they are at home.

The type of tests that Whitecaps FC endured in Saturday’s 0-0 draw were not only good for them tactically, but also mentally. Shutting down a potent RSL attack required organization, commitment, and spirit.

The ‘Caps not only showed those characteristics in hostile territory, they left the Rio Tinto Stadium pitch feeling confident and full of anticipation for Thursday night.

Relishing the opportunity that is the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs will be a big part of the game plan in Carson, California. Few, if any, expect a Whitecaps FC postseason run, but Rennie’s squad know their chance to become MLS champions is no more or less than any of the other nine contenders that will be involved.

Long-time ‘Caps supporters will be the first to reveal their excitement at this time of year, as the club’s playoff folklore has done much to shape the identity of the Blue and White.

One only needs to look back to the championship years of 1979 and 2006 when Whitecaps FC triumphed against the odds. Now its 2012 and we’re in that familiar position again.

The key is to enjoy the journey, starting Thursday. Any achievement from this point on will be greeted with delight and excitement, as few outside Whitecaps FC nation believe Vancouver is capable of achieving anything in this year’s playoffs.

I say, “Let the skeptics think that way…we’ll worry about getting a job done on Thursday...and beyond.”

The playoff train is at the station!

All aboard for LA!

29 October 11:53 am

WATCH THE 1979 NASL NATIONAL SOCCER CONFERENCE FINAL VS. NEW YORK COSMOS (courtesy of canadianblaster09)
PART 1:
http://youtu.be/Tm2WkDW7stc
PART 2: http://youtu.be/tsMbk02WhHI
PART 3: http://youtu.be/ZPO1bfdgiiM

As we look forward to playing in our first Major League Soccer (MLS) playoff game against the mighty Los Angeles Galaxy, the task at hand appears quite daunting. The Galaxy are the reigning MLS Cup champions, and they boast three of the top players in the league in Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and of course, David Beckham.

If you are looking at this game on paper it is hard for anyone to really believe that we have any chance of going to LA and getting a result. Fortunately the game is played on the field, and not on paper. In fact, our boys can look at some playoff history that will show them they can do it.

To be the best …

It was back in 1979 when we were to face the cream of the North American Soccer League (NASL), the two-time defending Soccer Bowl champions New York Cosmos. In their team were World Cup winners Franz Beckenbauer (Germany) and Carlos Alberto (Brazil), as well as Giorgio Chinaglia (Italy) and Johan Neeskens (Netherlands) – the latter of whom led Holland to the runners-up spot in back-to-back FIFA World Cups in 1974 and 1978. Not to mention the wealth of other talented players they had on their team.

The Cosmos had finished with the best record in the NASL (24W-6L). In order to get past them, we needed not only to beat them once, but twice in a two-match home-and-home series – or in an extra mini-game should we win one match each.

We had confidence from beating them twice during the regular season, but this was the playoffs, and they had the added incentive of hosting the Soccer Bowl at their home venue – Giants Stadium.

Up against the odds

I have to say in looking at both teams’ rosters, our chances did not look too good. But we knew as a team that once both teams got out on the field that we were not going to be outworked by New York.

There was no doubt that there was more quality in their team, but mentally we felt that we had the edge. We were confident that we were more of a team and that we really trusted each other and could overcome anything that the Cosmos threw at us. But as they say, talk is cheap, and in the end you have to do your talking on the field.

Who wants it more?

We played the first game at home in front of a sell-out crowd (32,875) at Empire Stadium. The game was tense, hard fought, and very close. But we remained focused throughout the match and held strong. Eventually they were the first to blink and we came away with a 2-0 victory on goals by ‘Wee’ Willie Johnston and Trevor Whymark. The job was half done, but there was still plenty of work left to do going back to New York.

Even winning the first game did not change people’s opinions; the prevailing thought was still that the vaunted Cosmos had too much firepower for us and that would show with them playing at home.

When you go into a game as an underdog it is said that you really have nothing to lose and can play freely. There is some truth to that – there was definitely more pressure on New York than us – but we had a lot to lose. We had a chance to get to the Soccer Bowl and we were not going to let this team stand in our way.

We lost the game in a shootout, which meant that we would immediately play a 30-minute mini-game. The mini-game also ended tied, meaning the contest would go to a second shootout. After going toe-to-toe for almost four hours, we eventually came out on top.

David had conquered Goliath.

Our ’Caps face a mighty challenge against the Galaxy and will have to play their best game to advance. But I know firsthand that even the most talented of teams can be beaten.

The first step is believing that you will win.

24 October 2:00 pm

Before the season, Whitecaps FC head coach Martin Rennie set a goal to make the MLS Cup Playoffs. That may have seemed a lofty goal for a club coming off of a last-place finish in 2011, but after a long season the 'Caps achieved that goal. Along the way the team got their first MLS road victory, set a record for the longest shutout streak to start an MLS season, and put together an impressive home record by losing only three of 17 matches at BC Place.

We will most definitely be underdogs going into next week’s playoff clash versus LA Galaxy on the road, but one fact remains: this team is one of only 10 clubs left that can win MLS Cup this season.

21 October 9:00 am
The Playoff Hunter Mullet: you’ve all seen it and heard about it, complete with the power stripes. What I didn’t expect was for my one-year-old son to don the look himself.
 
A baby boy’s hair is not to be messed with unless the momma bear gives permission.  Especially when that hair is curly and blonde. Imagine my shock and, let’s be honest, heartbreak, when I walked in the door to find it strangely quiet in our apartment. Quiet doesn’t happen here much, so I knew something was up. I rounded the corner to our bathroom to find Matt going to town with the razor. I thought he was being nice to let me step out of the house alone, little did I know his plans to shave our son’s head. And the quiet? The kid has a thing for brushing his teeth, it’s like Disney World to him, so Theo happily brushed (also known as drooled) while Matt happily shaved. And I silently cried.
 
Funny thing has happened though -- Theo is slightly faster, nimbler, and not falling as much (big accomplishment for him). His head has less bruises from staying afoot. We even thought we heard him say “good” the other day when we asked him how his day was going. Could it possibly be? Could the Power of the Mullet be the cause for his advances? We like to think so.
 
I’ve now embraced his Mini Mullet. Not only is it probably enhancing his physical, as well as mental, capabilities, it looks pretty darn cool for a one-year-old.
 
To increase the Power, we joined a few of the ‘Caps at Sugar Skull Salon on Wednesday for one last shape up before today’s game. There were no tears this time, but just as much drool as Theo sat still for about three and a half minutes thanks to a lollipop and his rockstar stylist, Gracie. A few new power stripes in there, a snip or two off the top, and he was good to go. I tried to get a snapshot of Theo with the original mullet, but Theo didn’t want to share the spotlight. Clearly the Mini Mullet isn’t helping his manners.
 
Regardless, today, of all days, is really the day for the spotlight to be on our ‘Caps. So in light of this afternoon’s momentous match: here’s to faster feet and greater goals -- here’s to the Power of the Mullet.
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VIDEO: WHITECAPS FC VISIT SUGAR SKULL STUDIOS