Ed Willes: Budget-minded Robinson rebuilds Whitecaps on the fly, again

 

 
 
 
 
It may be difficult to believe, but the Vancouver Whitecaps open training camp in six weeks and head coach Carl Robinson expects to have some new blood competing for positions on the "rebuilding" MLS squad.
 

It may be difficult to believe, but the Vancouver Whitecaps open training camp in six weeks and head coach Carl Robinson expects to have some new blood competing for positions on the "rebuilding" MLS squad.

Photograph by: DARRYL DYCK, The Province

The parallels are difficult to miss.

The Vancouver Canucks have to upgrade their roster. The Vancouver Whitecaps have to upgrade their roster. The Canucks have to add offence, preferably in the form of a dynamic, young star. The Whitecaps have to add offence, preferably in the form of a dynamic, young star. The Canucks have to make bold moves that capture the imagination of their fan base and it’s the same thing with the Caps.

But there are some subtle differences between the two clubs as they face, altogether now, a rebuild.

The Canucks will have three, four, five years to complete their master plan. Carl Robinson has three, four, five weeks to complete his.

The Whitecaps’ coach and chief architect has now laid the foundation for his club in 2018 and he believes this time he got it right. OK, he thought the same thing in 2014, ’15, ’16 and ’17 but isn’t that the beauty of his job?

Things in MLS are fluid and today’s rebuild might take on a different shape by tomorrow. As of this writing the key figures are Kei Kamara, Anthony Blondell and, perhaps, players to be named later. As of July, that might change again but Robinson understands this is the hand he’s been dealt and the cards are seldom the same.

“Rebuilds happen quite often in MLS and you have to win while you’re rebuilding!,” Robinson said. “I took over here four years ago and there are only a couple of players left (midfielder Nicolas Mezquida is the biggest name, others include Russell Teibert, Erik Hurtado and Sam Adekugbe).

“I looked at the roster and what we did well and what we didn’t. It’s finding different characteristics in players and different options, trying to get better by inches.”

And that search is the one constant to his job.

With the Whitecaps’ training camp now — can it be? — just six weeks away, Robinson believes he’s addressed his team’s biggest problem by adding two goal scorers from different ends of the game’s spectrum.

Blondell, 23, led Venezuela’s first division with 23 goals last year and registers as a more dynamic option upfront. Kamara, 33, is an 11-year MLS vet who’s been an accomplished goal scorer throughout his career and sets up as a more physical target man than Fredy Montero.

Both represent upgrades for the Caps and fit into Robinson’s model for a deep, versatile team. As it happens, both players also fit into the Whitecaps’ business model which is the other part of this story.

Blondell was signed in late November, some three weeks after the Whitecaps were eliminated from the second round of the playoffs by the Seattle Sounders. At this stage in his career, he’s far from a known quantity but known quantities cost considerably more than their unknown counterparts — which explains why the Venezuelan is now in Vancouver.

“We weren’t the only team who watched him,” said Robinson. “But we were the team that made the decision very quickly. I think in this game you have to make your decisions quickly and live with them.”

In Robinson’s second year, he acted quickly on another South American striker, Uruguay’s Octavio Rivero. He was gone within 18 months of his signing.

Say this for Robinson. He isn’t married to his mistakes.

“We compete with all the MLS teams and we have to find avenues to find the best players,” said Robinson. “It might mean taking them a year earlier than we would have liked, but if Anthony Blondell would have stayed in Venezuela and scored 20-plus goals again, his transfer fee might have been $5 million (reports in Venezuela pegged the transfer fee at $1.3 million).

“We can’t afford to take that risk. There are some you get right and some you don’t.”

But you keep trying.

During the course of a wide-ranging conversation, Robinson ruminated on his team’s post-season and the Sounders’ series. The Vancouver coach has been criticized for his conservative game plan against the eventual Western Conference champions, but he points out the two sides were in a nil-nil stalemate in Seattle until Clint Dempsey’s “wonder goal,” in the second half.

Dempsey, just so you know, was paid just under $4 million last season, more than double Montero, the highest-paid Whitecap.

Robinson is asked if he gets frustrated over the Whitecaps’ inability to sign a Dempsey-level player.

“No frustration,” he said. “How do we find ways? By trying to unearth gems like Yordy Reyna and Anthony Blondell.

“The moves I’m making are to find a different answer to the problem because we’ve had the same problem (scoring against elite competition) twice in the last there years.”

Reyna, for the uninitiated, was a revelation last year when he came on in mid-season and transformed the Whitecaps’ attack before disappearing against the Sounders. The Peruvian has since become entangled in a legal matter in his home country but Robinson insisted: “Yordy will be back (in 2018).”

As for others, the Whitecaps figure to be losing a number of veterans including goalie David Ousted, defender Jordan Harvey, midfielder Andrew Jacobson and striker Montero.

Robinson said the Caps are still in negotiations with the Colombian, who was on loan from the Chinese club Tianjin last season and his savvy, along with Kamara and Blondell, would add another dimension to the Whitecaps’ attack.

But, as mentioned, those dimensions cost money.

“The depth on our squad got us (within) one point behind Portland (the first-place team in the West),” Robinson said. “You have to find a way to be competitive and our way was to have a deep squad.

“We’re not that far away.”

It just remains to be seen if they’re moving closer.

Ewilles@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/willesonsports

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It may be difficult to believe, but the Vancouver Whitecaps open training camp in six weeks and head coach Carl Robinson expects to have some new blood competing for positions on the "rebuilding" MLS squad.
 

It may be difficult to believe, but the Vancouver Whitecaps open training camp in six weeks and head coach Carl Robinson expects to have some new blood competing for positions on the "rebuilding" MLS squad.

Photograph by: DARRYL DYCK, The Province

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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