VANCOUVER, BC – It’s not often that coaches or players admit that they’re looking forward to one game over another. "Every game is important," they say. "We’ll focus on the task at hand."
But when asked about returning to New York ahead of Saturday’s date with the Red Bulls (4 p.m. PT on TSN2), Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson strayed from the script.
The man they call “Robbo” ended his playing career with the Red Bulls and got his start in coaching there, too. This will be his first match back in New York as a head coach and it’s something he’s very much looking forward to.
“It’ll be a very special game for me,” Robinson told reporters. “I had two fantastic years at New York. It’s a fantastic organization with good people there. There has been quite a bit of change over the last period of time but I’ve still got very good friends there and the supporters are always good.”
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
After a decade-long playing career in the UK, Robinson made the move to Toronto FC in 2007. Around that time, the Welshman decided he wanted to be a coach one day.
“That’s why I was flying back 17 or 18 odd times during that three-year period to complete my UEFA qualifications,” Robinson said. “Some people said I was crazy and mad. It was the right thing to do.”
And it paid off.
In March 2010, Robinson was traded to New York. The following year, Red Bulls boss Hans Backe gave him an opportunity as a player/assistant coach – an opportunity he grabbed with both hands.
“Listen, it’s something I’ll never forget,” Robinson said. “People sometimes tend to forget where you come from and the opportunity you were given. I’m fortunate enough now to be the head coach of this team but Hans Backe four or five years ago in New York was fantastic with me.”
“Some people said I was crazy and mad. It was the right thing to do." - Robinson
Whenever Robinson is asked about his time at New York, he’s quick to mention Backe as someone who had a “massive influence” on his coaching career. Sometimes, Robinson said he still goes back to the notes he took when working under Backe, who was an assistant to Sven-Goran Eriksson at Manchester City and the Mexican national team. He also still turns to him for advice now and again.
“I liken myself to being in the Residency program,” Robinson said. “I’m a young coach and I’ve got a lot to learn. But I want to learn. I’ll make mistakes along the way, I know that, but I’ll learn from them.”
The big thing Robinson said he learned from Backe is how he dealt with players. At the time, the likes of Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez were both on New York’s roster and Robinson kept a close eye on how Backe communicated with them on a daily basis.
“He’s honest, he’s upfront, and he’s very detailed and disciplined,” Robinson said. “Watching him in action every day was very interesting to say the least … he taught me a hell of a lot.”
A GESTURE TO REMEMBER
Looking back on his time in New York, Robinson said there’s one clear highlight that comes to mind.
Watch Robinson's goal against Toronto FC at the 4:50 mark
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 Colorado Rapids. The whole team wore black armbands.
And after 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 told whitecapsfc.com last year. “I appreciated that very greatly.”
MOVING ON UP
In January 2012, Robinson retired as a player and joined Whitecaps FC as an assistant coach – a role he occupied for two seasons before taking over as head coach ahead of the 2014 season. Fittingly, Robinson’s first game as a head coach was against New York.
And it couldn’t have gone much better.
Robinson talks about his first match as a head coach
The ‘Caps put on a show in their 2014 season opener, defeating the Red Bulls 4-1 at BC Place. Even better, Robinson’s Designated Player signing Pedro Morales recorded a goal and an assist in a memorable 25-minute debut.
“It was very special,” Robinson said last year. “People who know me know that I had a sad loss with my father. My first game was always going to be a little special. It was nice to be against New York, a club I have a lot of respect for as well."
"To get the result the way we did … with players I brought into the club having a big part made it even more exciting for everyone else," Robinson added. "But I knew my father was looking down on me on that day.”
Since that day, the Red Bulls have undergone a number of changes. They have a new head coach, a new philosophy, and some new players, too. But Robinson is still very familiar with many of them. In fact, Robinson played a big part in bringing captain Dax McCarty to the club.
“I know what they’re about and I know what their players are like,” Robinson said. “It will be a very tough game for us. We know that, but it’ll be something to look forward to.”
Kickoff for Saturday's match is set for 4 p.m. PT at Red Bull Arena. You can watch the match live on TSN2 and listen on TSN 1410 radio.
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