By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Sep 26, 2018) US Soccer Players – To call Carl Robinson’s nearly five years on the job as the head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps anything but “fraught” would be to avoid the overarching theme of his run there. Robinson is no longer the head coach in Vancouver as of Tuesday.
In a surprisingly wordy statement posted to their website, the Whitecaps announced that the club “released” Robinson and his staff with immediate effect. The move comes with just five games left in the MLS regular season and with the Whitecaps just four points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The “whys” of the oddly-timed decision are already trickling out, just hours after the change. Reports of a locker room confrontation back in July are hitting news and providing context for Robinson’s ouster. Robinson wanted new contracts for his assistants, something the team wanted to put off until after the season.
Perhaps Robinson overplayed his hand. Perhaps the Whitecaps’ leadership felt ripping off the band-aid now, even with the season still ongoing, was the best approach. Either way, Robinson’s term in Vancouver was always bracketed by a looming sense that his time was on the verge of running out.
Before he even coached a game for the Whitecaps, Robinson had to deal with controversy. The offseason between the 2013 and 2014 campaigns not only brought change to the sidelines when Robinson replaced Martin Rennie, but turmoil in the form of Camilo Sanvezzo’s highly publicized fight to force a transfer to Mexico. At the time, Robinson did the best he could to mollify Camilo and properly prepare his team for the season.
In the end, Camilo left for Mexico. The Whitecaps soldiered on without the reigning MLS Golden Boot winner. Robinson handled it well enough that the Caps made the playoffs as a knockout round qualifier, where they lost to FC Dallas. The club’s identity centered around a stingy defense led by center back Kendall Waston and goalkeeper David Ousted. Vancouver tied with Seattle for the best defense in the league, conceding just 36 goals in 34 matches. Not a bad start for a rookie head coach.
Robinson built on his debut season in 2015, taking Vancouver to second place in the West and third in the league overall. This was the Whitecaps at their stingiest under Robinson. The club tied Seattle for the best defense in MLS, conceding just 36 goals in 34 matches. In the playoffs, Vancouver entered at the conference semifinal stage. They lost that series to eventual MLS Cup champion Portland.
2016 was a regression. The Whitecaps missed the playoffs after finishing eighth and the excellent defense of the previous year largely disappeared. Grumblings over Robinson’s preferred style bubbled to the surface during 2015’s playoff loss to Portland exploded in the discussion around the club in 2016. Vancouver simply didn’t score enough goals. Robinson seemed overly committed to a style of sitting deep and waiting for counter-attacking opportunities. The club’s most dangerous attacker, Kekuta Manneh, missed large portions of the season with a foot injury.
Robinson’s mandate for 2017 was to revitalize the roster and get back to the playoffs. With the help of the former, he accomplished the latter, leading Vancouver to a 3rd-place finish in the West. Despite the postseason berth, there was some disquiet in British Columbia, however. An October swoon meant one point earned from a possible nine, costing them a run at the Western Conference title. Vancouver crushed San Jose in the knockout round 5-0, then lost to eventual champion Seattle 2-0 on aggregate in the conference semifinals.
That brings us to 2018, a season that will end without Robinson in charge. Vancouver added one of the league’s best-ever aerial threats up top in Kei Kamara. They secured a Matias Laba replacement when they traded Tim Parker to New York for Felipe. They also committed to 17-year old phenom Alphonso Davies as a key part for the team.
Kamara has 16 goals, a good return, and Davies earned himself a record transfer to Bayern Munich with his dynamic play. However, the team never really found a groove in 2018, dancing above and below the playoff line for much of the year. Far from a bad team, there was never much certainty that Vancouver could compete with the best in their conference, much less the best in MLS.
A peek at Robinson’s regular season record during his time in Vancouver puts him in good company among the coaches whose tenures coincided with his and who are are still in their jobs. His 234 points earned in 165 games is just a shade worse than Peter Vermes at 247 points in the same number of games in the period. Three playoff seasons, regardless of how they ended, is a strong line on Robinson’s resume. Whatever concerns might have surfaced about the way his teams played, they consistently did better than half of the league.
Robinson leaves his first head coaching job with a solid reputation. Beyond his on-field success with a club that will more often than not rank in the bottom half of clubs by total payroll, players almost universally adore the Welshman. It’s not inconsequential to the future of both Robinson and the Whitecaps that the coach had almost complete control over scouting, recruiting, and player acquisition during his run.
Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi claimed Robinson’s departure is about looking to the “longer-term future” while not throwing in the towel on the playoff chase for 2018. It’s difficult to reconcile that, especially considering that no coach on the senior technical staff remains in place to take the reigns. The job given to academy technical director Craig Dalrymple is a nearly impossible one. Improve results in the last five games, jump over two clubs in the process, while figuring out tactics and personalities on the fly.
Now, Vancouver is one of several clubs looking for a coach this offseason. Vancouver should want to talk to the likes of Caleb Porter, Marc Dos Santos, Jeremy Gunn, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, all names linked to the San Jose Earthquakes in the last week. Lenarduzzi remained committed to a decision-making hierarchy that puts the final say in the hands of the coach. Finding someone capable of managing those responsibilities won’t be easy.
The season is not over for the Whitecaps, but the search for the next man to lead them has already begun. Robinson was solid for a middle-class club for close to five seasons. His resume will earn him another chance somewhere soon, even if it always felt like he was a poor season away from the end in Vancouver. In a strange twist, that end came sooner than we expected.
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/davisjsn.
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Photo by Michael Janosz – ISIPhotos.com