With MLS First Kick looming, Carl Robinson looks back on time with New York Red Bulls

Robinson set for head-coaching debut against former club

Robinson closeup - training

Photo Credit: 
Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps FC

VANCOUVER, BC – It’s almost as if the Major League Soccer schedule-makers knew Carl Robinson would become the new head coach of Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

It was announced on November 25 that Whitecaps FC would kick off the 2014 MLS season on March 8 against the defending Supporters Shield-winning New York Red Bulls. Three weeks later, Robinson took over the ‘Caps head-coaching gig.

For Robinson, who spent two years with the Red Bulls before hanging up his boots, they couldn’t have written a better script.

Any manager will tell you that they always remember their first game, but for Robinson to make his head-coaching debut against his former team only adds to the occasion.

“I believe it does,” Robinson told whitecapsfc.com. “Obviously, I know [Red Bulls head coach] Mike Petke very well. It will be pretty cool to go up against each other on day one.”

Petke and Robinson played together in 2010 and coached together in 2011. In that second year, Petke was also New York’s manager of business operations, while Robinson served the dual role as a player/assistant coach.

The duo was also responsible for managing the club’s reserve team – Petke handled the defence while Robinson took care of the attacking side of things – and they always “exchanged ideas,” Robinson said.

In fact, they still do.

“It’s about learning,” he said. “I think if you speak to managers, everyone has their own ideas and philosophies. It’s not about pinching any ideas. Just people see things in different lights. I can guarantee that Mike and I see the game in different ways. Both of us are right and both of us are probably wrong.”

Petke was right more often than not this past season – his first as a head coach. Under the 38-year-old, New York posted a 17W-9L-8D record en route to their first Supporters Shield in club history.

The way Robinson sees it: if Petke had success in his first season as a head coach, like others before him, what’s to say he can’t too?

“I want to be successful every year that I’m a manager,” Robinson said. “This is the first year, the first step on my ladder.”

Petke took over as Red Bulls head coach in January 2013 – following in the footsteps of former Manchester City and Mexican national team assistant coach Hans Backe. At both posts, Backe was assistant to countryman Sven-Goran Eriksson. 

When asked about his experience with the Red Bulls, Robinson was quick to single out Backe as someone who “had a big influence on his career.”

“You can’t not learn from a guy like that,” Robinson said. “The way he spoke to players, the way he dealt with players, and the way he structured and organized training was fantastic.”

Watch Robinson's goal against Toronto FC at the 4:50 mark

Looking back on his time in New York, Robinson said there’s one clear highlight that comes to mind.

It wasn’t his first and only goal with the club, which happened to come against his former team Toronto FC. That’s not his style, as evidenced by his celebration on that day.

Instead, it was a game in which he didn’t even play.

In August 2010, Backe granted Robinson permission to take a leave of absence to go back to his native Wales to spend time with his ill father. The doctors had given Robinson’s father just a few weeks to live.

On the day of Robinson’s father’s funeral a few weeks later, the Red Bulls had a game against the Colorado Rapids. The whole team wore black armbands.

And after Thierry Henry scored a first-half goal, the Frenchman ran to the sidelines and motioned teammates away. Then, as MLSsoccer.com described it at the time: “Leaning down, he gathered his hands as if to cover the armband and then, slowly rising, he rose his hands as if the spirit was rising from the ground towards heaven.”

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a gesture towards me,” Robinson said. “I appreciated that very greatly.”

The fact that Henry took it upon himself to honour Robinson and his father in that manner speaks volumes about their relationship. Robinson said he and Henry always got along very well and they still keep in touch every so often.

“He’s a top, top player as everyone knows,” Robinson said. “But more importantly he’s a top-class individual. He puts demands on players. Some can handle it, some can’t. His belief, mentality and focus on the game is absolutely phenomenal. It’s something I want to try and instill in this group.”

The first test for that group will be a clash with Henry’s Red Bulls on Saturday. But will the former English Premier League star, who has yet to appear in a match at BC Place in Vancouver, even play?

“I hope not,” Robinson laughed. “Yeah, I’m sure he will. I think the Vancouver fans want to see him play. And I want to try and beat New York with Thierry in the team.”

Whether or not the French superstar graces Vancouver with his attendance, Robinson said it’s going to be a great first test for a young ‘Caps side still trying to establish a new identity and style of play.

It’s going to take some time, Robinson said, but he has seen progress made throughout the preseason – especially in the build-up play leading to goals.

“That’s a credit to the players, that’s not a credit to me,” he said. “I want to implement it, but it’s them that have to put the style into play and they’ve done that. Along the way, we’ll have hiccups, ups and downs, but we’ll make sure we stick together. The home opener is the first chance for us to show what we’re all about.”

Whitecaps FC begin their 2014 MLS season on March 8 versus New York Red Bulls at BC Place. Season tickets start at just $349 and single-match tickets start at $22, subject to applicable fees. The 'Caps also offer a flexible range of ticket products, including half-season tickets ($244), 5-packs ($149), student season tickets ($199), and a youth soccer half-season ticket ($100). For more information on all Whitecaps FC ticket options, call 604.669.9283 ext. 2 or visit whitecapsfc.com/tickets.