New director of soccer operations entrusted with delivering a contender
By Marc Weber
The start of the 2011 Major League Soccer season is about 420 days away. And if that seems like a long time, you don't work for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Last season, the Seattle Sounders threw down the gauntlet for MLS expansion teams. They finished 12-7-11, third in the Western Conference, and made the playoffs.
So the Whitecaps have their measuring stick, and their countdown clock. Now they have their man.
Tom Soehn, longtime MLS player and coach, met the media on Tuesday as the Whitecaps director of soccer operations.
His first responsibility is only this: to deliver an opening-day lineup that can compete with any team in the league.
"We needed someone who could give us the best chance possible for a great start, and it was important to bring someone on board early," said Caps president Bob Lenarduzzi. "He will essentially make sure we hit the ground running."
Soehn, a 43-year-old Chicago native, comes to the Caps after three seasons as head coach of MLS club D.C. United, whom he steered to a regular-season title in 2007.
His contact was up at the end of last season and United announced Soehn had withdrawn his name from consideration.
Soehn was also an assistant with United and an assistant to current U.S. men's national team coach Bob Bradley with the Chicago Fire. He played four seasons in MLS as a defender/midfielder with Dallas -- where he won an MLS Cup -- and Chicago.
But the Caps didn't hire Soehn for his playing stats, nor for his coaching record, which was 55-48-31 with United.
They hired him for the years of knowledge, contacts and credibility he's built up in the North American game. Because he has the unofficial PhD required to navigate through MLS's complex rules and regulations. And because they think he has an eye for talent and the skills to unearth a hidden gem or two.
Seattle took six players from its United Soccer Leagues squad up to MLS in 2009. Only two played regular minutes. Vancouver's task is to move with more, partly because Portland also joins in 2011, watering down the expansion draft.
"We have a year to adjust our lineup," said Soehn, "and with the residency program, which is second to none in North America, hopefully we'll have a bigger impact than that [six players carried over] on opening day.
"It's a challenge, but with the time we have, it's less of a challenge."
Soehn will also spend considerable hours scouting student-athletes for the MLS college draft, as well as trying to find the next Fredy Montero, the Sounders' 22-year-old Colombian striker who led the team with 12 goals.
"That's something we'd like to emulate," Lenarduzzi said of having a young impact import or two.
Personnel decisions will be "collaborative," Lenarduzzi said, and not simply Soehn's call. Lenarduzzi will have input, as will coach Teitur Thordarson. Almost everyone, it seems, will report to Paul Barber, the Tottenham Hotspur executive who joins as the Caps' CEO in March.
Lenarduzzi also stressed that Soehn is not here to step into a coaching role come 2011. Thordarson has a one-year extension on his contract to see out 2010 and will be a candidate for the MLS coaching position.
Soehn and Thordarson got better acquainted at the recent MLS combine and MLS draft, comparing notes and ideas. Soehn was first up here in November for a visit.
"It opened my eyes," he said of that initial meeting. "It showed me this club is visionary and is going to strive to be the best, and that's something you always want to be part of as a professional."
His previous experiences in Vancouver were limited to playing soccer. Soehn competed against the 86ers, first with Ottawa in the CSL, then with Colorado in the APSL.
"It's such a beautiful city," Soehn said. "I've always envisioned it as a place to raise the family."
Lenarduzzi, who coached the 86ers for some of those games, remembered Soehn as "not the most creative midfielder." but made amends for that dig by explaining that it spoke to Soehn's admirable no-nonsense approach to his work.
Soehn makes a quick trip home to D.C. to renew his passport and pack up the family: wife Jean, their son, T.J., and daughters Payton, Sydney and Addison. T.J. is the oldest at 12.
He'll quickly get a sense of the B.C. soccer landscape. All his kids are soccer players.
"I gave the Whitecaps a list of things they had to find me," Soehn said. "One was a list of good soccer teams."
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