Whitecaps adopt style a little more down to earth - The Vancouver Sun

Iain Macintyre As a world power, Norway peaked about 1,000 years ago in the age of vikings. But the country came close to recapturing this dominance in the 1990s when Norway's national soccer team made it to No. 2 in FIFA's world rankings. Theirs, however, was not a beautiful game. The Norwegians won by running teams off the park while lumping high balls forward to a 6-4 forward named Jostein Flo, an accomplished high-jumper who as a soccer player was as subtle as Eric The Red. It was effective soccer -- Norway thumped Brazil 4-2 in one memorable game -- but artless. So, when the Vancouver Whitecaps' new coach Teitur Thordarson, who learned much of his trade in Norway, arrived this spring championing "direct" and "attacking" soccer, well, you wondered if they'd bother maintaining the grass at Swangard Stadium because the ball might never be on it. "Yes, they pumped it up [the field], that's all," Thordarson recalled Thursday of Norwegian soccer's glory years. "Basically, nothing offensively. They didn't have any good attacking play; they just kicked the ball up and hoped they would win it. "[But] my biggest influence in football came in France, when I was playing in France. I had some fantastic good coaches there, like Gerard Houllier, like Arsene Wenger. These coaches have influenced me quite a lot." Just as Thordarson is now trying to influence the Whitecaps. Thankfully, as the Whitecaps have neither John Catliff nor Benoit Benjamin, the ball is still getting played on the turf much of the time at Swangard. But through two games, the Whitecaps haven't often played it into the opponents' net. And that was the failing of previous coach Bob Lilley, whose defence-based, ball-possession system was lauded for earning Vancouver the United Soccer Leagues championship in 2006, but got him fired after last season when the Whitecaps scored only 27 times in 28 games and crashed early from the playoffs. With a two-week break in their schedule -- the team doesn't play again until next Saturday against Rochester -- Thordarson is busy trying to recast the Whitecaps, who are 1-1 with one goal scored in 180 minutes. "We have just taken the first steps," Thordarson said. "The last guys came into the group here only two weeks ago. But I feel we've come some steps forward. The team is getting quite good. I'm happy with the players group we have here. I think the players are doing quite well. I think they like what we're doing. The focus is attacking soccer." It had better be. Whitecap president Bob Lenarduzzi made it clear when he hired Thordarson that the mandate is for a return to attacking soccer. For the Whitecaps, that style represents a throwback. But the hiring of the Iceland-born 56-year-old is also indicative of the team's evolution. The hiring of the American Lilley in 2005 represented a major shift in thinking for the Whitecaps, whose coaches had been ex-players plucked from the alumni. Lenarduzzi went even farther afield to find Thordarson, who was recommended by Canadian women's coach Evan Pellerud, a Norwegian. Born in Iceland, Thordarson worked in France in the early 1980s where he played for Houllier at Lens, scoring 19 goals in one season. The striker moved to Cannes, where Wenger was an assistant and Thordarson first began coaching as a fill-in manager for the youth team. Thordarson finished his career in 1987 as a player-manager in Sweden, launching a coaching odyssey that took him to several European countries and included a four-year stint with Estonia's national team, which rose to 68th from 145th in FIFA rankings. The internationalism of soccer was reflected this week in the semi-finals of the Champions League in Europe, where none of the four coaches were born in the countries in which they work. Spaniard Rafael Benitez is in charge of Liverpool, Israeli Avram Grant coaches London's Chelsea and Dutchman Frank Rijkaard guides Barcelona. Even Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson is a foreigner, and if you don't believe me ask him. He's Scottish. So, an Icelandic manager from Norway for Vancouver? Why not? "He's different," veteran Whitecap Jeff Clarke said. "He's more subdued at times than what we've been used to [with Lilley]. But I'm into my 30s, so I've had many managers and coaches through the years. He just brings something different. It's pretty obvious he likes top play direct and likes to get guys going forward early and consistently." "Bob and Teitur are not too different," midfielder Martin Nash said. "The basic structure isn't much different -- the set up and zonal defence. There are a few little differences offensively. We're learning to look forward first, then keep [the ball]. Last year, it was just keep it." Like Nash, Thordarson feels that Lilley was unfairly criticized, that the Whitecaps under him generated plenty of scoring chances but were unable to finish. Still, Thordarson faces the same weighty expectations from fans and management to produce goals, not only wins. "No, I don't feel that I'm under any pressure that way because it's in my nature to try to do it," he said. "As a coach, I've always been focussing more on attack. That just fitted in to my way of seeing it. But this always has to go along with good results. "In some way it's different [for the players], and I think they feel that clearly. I actually want us to be able to keep possession when that's needed. But you also have to attack quickly when that's possible because if you don't you'll have to play through the whole opposite side sometimes, and that's not good. You have to take chances of going direct when you have it, otherwise you can be playing the whole day and never break them down." With a two-week break in their schedule -- the team doesn't play again until next Saturday against Rochester -- Thordarson is busy trying to recast the Whitecaps, who are 1-1 with one goal scored in 180 minutes. "We have just taken the first steps," Thordarson said. "The last guys came into the group here only two weeks ago. But I feel we've come some steps forward. The team is getting quite good. I'm happy with the players group we have here. I think the players are doing quite well. I think they like what we're doing. The focus is attacking soccer." It had better be. Whitecap president Bob Lenarduzzi made it clear when he hired Thordarson that the mandate is for a return to attacking soccer. For the Whitecaps, that style represents a throwback. But the hiring of the Iceland-born 56-year-old is also indicative of the team's evolution. The hiring of the American Lilley in 2005 represented a major shift in thinking for the Whitecaps, whose coaches had been ex-players plucked from the alumni. Lenarduzzi went even farther afield to find Thordarson, who was recommended by Canadian women's coach Evan Pellerud, a Norwegian. Born in Iceland, Thordarson worked in France in the early 1980s where he played for Houllier at Lens, scoring 19 goals in one season. The striker moved to Cannes, where Wenger was an assistant and Thordarson first began coaching as a fill-in manager for the youth team. Thordarson finished his career in 1987 as a player-manager in Sweden, launching a coaching odyssey that took him to several European countries and included a four-year stint with Estonia's national team, which rose to 68th from 145th in FIFA rankings. The internationalism of soccer was reflected this week in the semifinals of the Champions League in Europe, where none of the four coaches were born in the countries in which they work. Spaniard Rafael Benitez is in charge of Liverpool, Israeli Avram Grant coaches London's Chelsea and Dutchman Frank Rijkaard guides Barcelona. Even Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson is a foreigner, and if you don't believe me ask him. He's Scottish. So, an Icelandic manager from Norway for Vancouver? Why not? "He's different," veteran Whitecap Jeff Clarke said. "He's more subdued at times than what we've been used to [with Lilley]. But I'm into my 30s, so I've had many managers and coaches through the years. He just brings something different. It's pretty obvious he likes to play direct and likes to get guys going forward early and consistently." "Bob and Teitur are not too different," midfielder Martin Nash said. "The basic structure isn't much different -- the set up and zonal defence. There are a few little differences offensively. We're learning to look forward first, then keep [the ball]. Last year, it was just keep it." Like Nash, Thordarson feels that Lilley was unfairly criticized, that the Whitecaps under him generated plenty of scoring chances but were unable to finish. Still, Thordarson faces the same weighty expectations from fans and management to produce goals, not only wins. "No, I don't feel that I'm under any pressure that way because it's in my nature to try to do it," he said. "As a coach, I've always been focussing more on attack. That just fitted in to my way of seeing it. But this always has to go along with good results. "In some way it's different [for the players], and I think they feel that clearly. I actually want us to be able to keep possession when that's needed. But you also have to attack quickly when that's possible because if you don't you'll have to play through the whole opposite side sometimes, and that's not good. "You have to take chances of going direct when you have it, otherwise you can be playing the whole day and never break them down." imacintyre@png.canwest.com © The Vancouver Sun 2008