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  1. What makes a team successful? Talent, skill and the ability to produce that on a consistent basis are clearly important ingredients. But other vital components to the mix are that of harmony, trust, respect and relationship building. All of those attributes, and others, help make a successful environment at a football club. Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson is a firm believer that how you handle your players off the pitch contributes massively to how they perform on it. "It's an absolute must in the game, in modern day football," is how Robinson views the importance of building personal relationships with his squad. "90% of the job is the man management side of it. Coaching is just a small percentage of getting the best out of the players. "It's important that I spend a lot of time individually with my players individually as well as collectively to tell them what they're good at, what they need to improve on. Although he plays down his own influence in it all, the much lauded harmonious locker room atmosphere starts at the top and Robinson's approach to player management kicks it all off. He's relaxed, but tough when he needs to be, and he places high importance on one-to-one relationship building with all of his squad. The now departed Andy O'Brien probably summed it up best. "He's got a nice balance between disciplining us and putting an arm round us," the veteran defender said of Robinson's management style. "He's got the relationship, not only with the younger players but also with the older players, and the ability to do that is a big thing. Man management is a massive part of the game and it's something that he possesses a lot of." Football is a game played as much in the mind as it is on the pitch at times. The mental strength needed by both players and management to succeed should never be underestimated. Players have to be mentally tough to get them through the goalscoring droughts, the dips in form, the times they ride the pine on the bench and the abuse they'll get from fans and pundits alike. Managers are no different. If you're not mentally strong, the insecure world of football management is not the career path you should likely have chosen to follow. That's why Robinson sees a two way flow of trust and belief between himself and his players to be crucial to the Whitecaps success. "They know I've got their back through thick and thin," Robinson said. "It's important that when I see some players sticking up for me, as well, that I know that they've got my back. It's part of a successful team. You need to have that within the club, within the organisation and that's slowly building here." It may have been slowly building in Robinson's eyes last summer, but by the end of the season is was very evident to anyone that spent even a modicum of their time around the team at training or on a matchday. Goalkeeper David Ousted puts a lot of the good relationship the players have with their coach down to that trust and belief shown in them. "That's huge," Ousted said of the trust instilled in himself and others by Robinson. "Feeling that the manager trusts you and will put some responsibility on your shoulders just makes you want to grow as a player and develop as well, so that's a big thing." Ousted may be an experienced player but it's still always good to have that feeling from your manager, and the same is even more true for the younger players and the rookies. Erik Hurtado was one of the young players that Robinson kept faith in last season and it paid off in spurts on the pitch, but in a lot more ways going forward off it. "It means the world to me to get that chance [from him]," Hurtado said. "A lot of the time coaches don't want to put their faith in the younger players and then let them get experience. His motto is if you're good enough, you're going to play and if you deserve to play you're going to play. That's a great attitude to have as a coach." It all makes for a happy dressing room. Well on the whole. You can't legislate for having a player with a perpetual pout like Omar Salgado. With the South American influence heavily cited as part of the great atmosphere at the club last season, there were some concerns when a couple of those players moved on in the offseason. Add in the influence a much loved player like O'Brien had on all the players, and eyes were on how quickly that harmonious locker room environment would take to resurface this season. Would the fun, belief and trust still be prevalent with the new mix of players brought in? The answer was quick in coming in day one of preseason training camp. The same spirit appears to still be in abundance and the upbeat, and at times downright jokey, nature of the entire squad is infectious. Whether it's new addition Pa Modou Kah nicking a camera and filming his teammates or veteran Jordan Harvey having a Gatorade shower on his birthday, this is a squad that clearly gets along and that can go a long way in terms of results on the pitch. Some may dismiss just how much of an impact a good dressing room can have to on field results, but Robinson's not one of those people. "The players believing they've got your trust, believing that they've got your belief and if they have, I think they'll run that extra yard, make that extra tackle and know they'll hurt themselves, in a good way." And it needs to be like that. After last year's highs, the pressure is on Robinson and the Whitecaps to take another step forward. The Western Conference has got even tougher, there's been strong, big name signings made around the league and the 'Caps now have additional games in their first ever CONCACAF Champions League campaign. The Whitecaps haven't gone for the big name or the big money signings. It's still a very young squad. More than ever, a close knit unit is required to continue all that Robinson and the club achieved last season. And Robinson's relationship building with his players will continue to have an important part to play in it all, especially as there will be the prospect of more unhappy players in the squad looking to get more MLS minutes than might be getting afforded to them. That will test Robinson's man management and the dressing room harmony more than ever this season. When Robinson's contract extension was announced a few weeks back, you'd have been hard pressed to find to find any detractors both outwith and within the club of the job the Welshman has done in his first year as a head coach. The players have bought into what he is trying to do at the Whitecaps and so have the fans and much of the media. It's refreshing, and somewhat unusual, to find these days. The pressure now comes in abundance in his second year in charge. To his players, he's seen as approachable, honest, and perhaps most importantly, fair. "I think he's easy to talk to," is goalkeeper Ousted's view. "He's passionate about things. He listens to the players as to what their needs are. He's played himself so he knows the little twerks and things that people can have. I think he's good at making everybody feel that they're part of the team. A player who has had his fair share of managers over his footballing career so far is Nigel Reo-Coker, but the now departed Whitecap echoed Ousted's thoughts. "His door's always open for your ideas and if you have any issues," Reo-Coker felt. "He's more than just a manager. He's got a personal touch to him where he does genuinely care about his players. He's wanting to speak to his players if he has any issues off the field and he's willing to help you in any way he can." And if anyone knows how Robinson handles players off the field issues, it would have been Reo-Coker. It's interesting to note that the bond Robinson develops with his players does appear to carry on once they are no longer under his management. Robbo and Reo-Coker kept in regular contact after the 'Caps coach traded the Englishman to Chivas USA. Robinson still hears regularly from Camilo and has previously told us that he hears from his good friend Kenny Miller almost every day since he moved back to Scotland. There has to be a line of course and it's one each of the management team are aware of and will speak about. They have to be the boss. They're not there to be every players friend and confidant. That said, Robinson does come across as more than just a coach to his players. There does appear to be an obvious friendship connection with Robinson and the players in his squad. "I think there is," Ousted continued. "Carl feels that he's a big part of the team and he is and I feel that the guys in here respect him a lot." What should be remembered in all of this is that last year was Robinson's first year as a head coach. He's the first to admit he made mistakes and needs to improve himself as a manager, never mind simply improving his squad. Coaching qualifications are all well and good but putting them into practice is not always so easy. For Robinson, his management style has helped to be shaped by some of the experiences he shared himself as a player, and there's one manager he had in particular who has played a key part in that. "Mick McCarthy," Robinson stated. "He was my manager at Sunderland. He wore his heart on his sleeve. He always said he wasn't the most talented player, but he'd go to war with you. If you wanted a fight in the trenches he'd be one that would be right behind you. That stood out to me as a young player at Sunderland and I've always remembered that. "That's what I want to try and instil here. I'll go to war for these boys as long as they give me their unbelievable effort, which they have done. Hard work, concentration and I'll back them to the hilt every day." Can that attitude and the squad of 2015 take Robinson and the Whitecaps to the next level they need to get to? We'll soon see. It takes more than money and big name to build a winning team and Vancouver have that other part in abundance right now under Carl Robinson's tutelage.
  2. Rodriguez comes to Vancouver as an unknown quantity. He spent three years with La Liga side Malaga, making 42 appearances for their reserve side and scoring five goals, before returning to play with Uruguayan Primera Division side Juventud last season. He's not exactly a household name in Uruguay, never mind Canada, but his highlight video (which we'll put at the end of this article), experience and his obvious skillset certainly seems to indicate that he has what it takes to be a success in MLS. The proof will come on the pitch of course. Robinson identified Rodriguez on his scouting trip to South America in December and watched the defender play and train on three separate occasions and feel he will fit right in with the 'Caps style of play. "Excellent signing for us," Robinson told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday afternoon. "Got experience of going to Europe. He was over there for two years with Malaga. Manuel Pellegrini had recruited him. He had the background, he had the potential, without playing any games for their senior team. "One of the hardest positions to find is a central defender who nowadays enjoys defending and he's got a huge upside in him being so young." Although he feels Rodriguez still has work to do in his game, Robinson liked what he saw and what he can bring to the Whitecaps. "He's a good talker and has got a presence with him as well," Robinson added. "The fundamentals you want any player to have and to do, he does very well. His footwork is excellent, his strength and his dropping. He's a defender, He loves clearing balls and he loves putting himself in situations to block the ball from going into the goal." But what of those weaknesses? "He should have more attacking attributes than he's got," Robinson noted. "One of my observations was that he probably should score more goals. In one of the games that I watched, he probably should have scored four goals from set pieces. He will bring an element of aggression in the opposition box as well as Kendall and Octavio. It's something we need to improve on as we haven't been good at set pieces for a long time now and we'll try and address that." Robinson has often talked about bringing in players with the correct character and the right mentality and he feels he's found another such player in Rodriguez, highlighted by their first chat together. "He wants to learn," Robinson said of Rodriguez's desire to improve. "One of the first questions when I sat down with him that he aimed at me was "how can you make me better?". From a manager's point of view, that's actually refreshing to hear. A player is asking you the question as to how you can make him better and what can you do to let him progress to the next level. He's got the right mentality and mentality in this game is a major thing." So all in all, it looks like a good addition for the Whitecaps. But there are some concerns, aside from establishing an immediate chemistry with Waston. As we mentioned, the Whitecaps defence last season was strong, solid and stingy. It was also quite unsettled in the centre, as it has been for the past few years. Robinson will be hoping that will come to something of an end now, with Waston and Rodriguez marshalling the middle of the box moving forward. We know that Waston is going to pick up at least a couple of suspensions over the season and could also be missing on international duty. Let's not even look at any possible injury jinx hitting that spot yet again. There will be changes in the backline as the season progresses due to the sheer volume of games as well in MLS, Champions League and Canadian Championship action. As things currently stand, the Whitecaps are heading into training camp next weekend with just three signed centrebacks, with Christian Dean making up the trio. O'Brien and Leveron were both taking up international spots and last season took home $371,187 between them. Veteran O'Brien took home the bulk of that on $280,000 and we're led to believe that the Caps offered him the chance to return to Vancouver this season on around half of that. Whilst O'Brien loved being with the 'Caps and was prepared to take some kind of cut, the feeling was that this was just too much of a reduction for him to consider and it looks pretty certain that the former Irish international won't be back. "Over the last few weeks, we've had very, very good discussions with Andy but we've been unable to come to an agreement," Robinson sadly admitted. "We're probably going to be moving in a different direction now and Andy's exploring things over in Europe at the moment. "After having discussions with Andy and his agent on a number of occasions, there was some very good talk. We have to be a club that moves forward at some time and the time is probably now for us. Unfortunately we haven't come to an agreement, so we move on." A player, media and fan favourite, O'Brien's departure will leave a void in the locker room as well as the middle of the defence. Sure there were times last season where he was starting to look his age, but his experience helped the younger players both on and off the pitch and we would have loved to have seen him come back and take on some kind of player/coach role. O'Brien made it clear though last season that he wanted to play and he still felt he had another good season of playing in him. The chances were he was going to have more of a bench role and the Whitecaps couldn't afford to pay big bucks to someone for that. They also couldn't risk signing a big money deal and then O'Brien going down injured with a season ending injury like DeMerit. Always a risk with a 35-year-old. But O'Brien looks set to not be the only defender moving on and Robinson admitted that talks with Johnny Leveron have not progressed well, with the indication being that the Honduran international is another one not likely to be back in Vancouver for the new season. "We're still speaking to Johnny at the moment," Robinson added. "We're going to have 40 plus games next year, so I want to build a strong squad. If that means that's with Johnny, then great. If that means it's not with Johnny, then we'll move on. At the moment we're in talks with him and his agent but we're not very close to agreeing anything. We're just keeping our options open on that one. "I don't know if we'll come to an agreement or not, which is why I've made the move [for Rodriguez] now." So, the Caps are down to three central defenders, but this isn't likely to be the situation for too long. "Ideally I would like to have five centrebacks on my roster because I know it will be a very long season and there will be injuries and suspensions," Robinson continued. "I've got three [signed]. The minimum I will require is four, so I hope over the next few days we can add a fourth. There could be a fifth." Whilst the Whitecaps have some age and experience in the fullback positions through Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey, it's a fairly young central defensive mix right now. Waston is 27, with Rodriguez 24 and Dean 21. They need to have an experienced head in there and Robinson hinted that that might be coming and it won't be from overseas. "It's a tricky dilemma bringing in international players, as we all know, because we only have a certain amount of players. Ideally I like to try and bring in international forward thinking players. My belief, and my coaches belief, with Diego was too good to pass on because he brings a quality that I think we've been missing and I know that he will step up to the plate. "Having said that, I've got Kendall, who is an international centreback, and also Diego now. It is important that we do keep some core guys, some American guys, some Canadian guys, which obviously we've got a lot of younger ones of them, but domestic players. "I will be looking at trying to bring a domestic centrehalf in because I think it is important. A lot of successful teams in Major League Soccer do have a lot of domestic players. I'm not shying away from that element. It's important to have that as well but I will be looking for a domestic centreback." But before the pro-Canadian player crowd get too excited, it doesn't look like Whitecaps Residency alumni, and current Canadian U20 international, Jackson Farmer is going to be that guy just yet. "Jackson is an option for us," Robinson admitted before adding, "I see Jackson more as a USL player for us next year. He needs a little bit more experience and a little bit more games in a competitive environment. Our USL team will help us to do that. He will be coming in preseason to get a little bit more experience with us but if I can add someone that's got perhaps a little bit more experience than Jackson and allow Jackson to get competitive games under his belt in the USL, that's probably the way I'm thinking at the moment." The Caps may also look at adding a centreback from Thursday's MLS SuperDraft, with Robinson admitting that they've identified five or six possible options from their scouting. In amongst all of this centreback upheaval, it should also be remembered that the Whitecaps' offseason additions are still in their early stages. Rodriguez is only the second new player to be added so far, but he's far from the last. "I'm still looking at two or three new additions," Robinson said. "There will be more faces coming in. Can I give you a definitive timeline on that? No. But we are in the works with a few targets." So with less than two months till the new season kicks off (CBA pending of course!), what does Robinson see as still the main areas of concern in the Whitecaps squad that he needs to address? "I want to try and build this squad as strong as I can," he said. "I want to have a pool of players I'm comfortable with, whether they're young or old. There are still three areas that I'm looking at. "I'm looking in a wide area, I'm looking at the centreback area and I'm looking at the forward area as well. I've got good options in the midfield areas, I've got good options in the number 10 areas, so it's just those three areas I'm looking to strengthen. "Hopefully I'll be able to do that by the time training camp starts. If it means me starting tomorrow by getting the player I want or have identified, then I'll do that. There will be four or five news paces, including the picks we have tomorrow, coming in in preseason." The Whitecaps player report back to training on January 24th. Exactly who will be there still remains to be seen.
  3. Carl Robinson has already indicated that the Honduran will get the start for Waston, ahead of other choices Christian Dean and Carlyle Mitchell. It's a bit of a downgrade on Waston in terms of aerial presence, but then who wouldn't be?! Leveron though bring a calm, steady and usually reliable mindset to the backline. Just what the Caps could be needing in what could be a night of hot heads in Northern California. "He's ready, he's fine," Robinson said of Leveron's return to the team. "Johnny lost his place, not because he was playing poorly but because he went away with the national team, so sometimes you get penalised for being a top quality player unfortunately. "He was playing probably as well as he's played in the last two years. Unfortunately he picked up an injury, he's come back and Andy and Kendall have done great. "Kendall being suspended is a big loss for us. Johnny is a different kind of player but I've got no worries about him stepping in. He'll be confident as always, he'll defend right and hopefully he can fit in with the team we're going to pick." There is no doubting that Vancouver will miss Waston's presence, as I covered over on MLSsoccer.com earlier in the week, but having an international player like Leveron at your disposal to replace him, is a nice luxury for Robinson to have at this key stage of the season. It may not feel like it, but Leveron has made only three fewer appearances (15 in total) for the Whitecaps this season than he did last year. Robinson had been keen to keep as settled a side as possible down the stretch. Sometimes his hand is forced, but having that settled backline the last couple of games has been important. Leveron now has to come in, readjust and settle back into the swing of things pretty quickly, with a lot on the line. The man that will be directly behind him, goalkeeper David Ousted, is unconcerned about the enforced change. "The continuity's nice and you get to learn the people in there," Ousted admitted. "But Johnny's a good player and Johnny's shown before that he can go in and fill that spot. Like I said last week with Seba out, where's there's people out, others need to step up and Johnny has to step up now and we know he can do that." His centre half partner Andy O'Brien has been getting used to partner swapping these past two seasons, but O'Brien and Leveron have played multiple games together now and know each other's game inside out. "I played with Johnny before so hopefully we can get back in the groove we had prior to Kendall coming in," O'Brien told reporters at training. "That's what we've done well in recent weeks, the relationships across the whole team. Not only in the 11 that have started but the whole 18 squad and the guys that are not involved. They may have played together before, but defenders get a familiarity built up with each other. How they're going to play and move and pass. O'Brien has had that with Waston over the last eight games, so what kind of extra challenge does having to adjust to a new partner pose for the veteran? "It is different," O'Brien admitted to AFTN. "They're very different players in terms of their style. As I've said before, it sometimes isn't who you're playing with but who you're playing against and what do you need to do to counteract what they're doing. "I think there's a real team ethic that even if you're marking but you can intercept the ball, don't think you're happy enough just doing your job. Guys are filling in and there's been times where I've been playing a little bit higher than I normally would do, but guys are filling in. Whether it be a full back or whether it be Rusty, and likewise if strikers drop short the pocket in front of us is getting well protected in terms of the defensive screening. "Sometimes you have to do other people's jobs and I think a lot of the guys are doing that and when they are doing that, other lads are filling in, so it's working well." Exactly how much the Caps will be tested by the Quakes tonight is the unknown commodity. San Jose are a bit of a shambles of a team at the moment. A 13 game winless streak, two goals in their last four games, they've just sacked their manager and looked woefully out of form the last couple of matches. Can they find the scoresheet no matter who is playing in the defence? Can the Caps? 0-0 would do the job! There's always a danger going in to a game like this that last weeks heroics against Seattle could lead to a flatter performance against a weaker team. We have seen it all season from Vancouver. Having the pressure of knowing that they have to come away with at least a point is another factor as well. Robinson knows the pitfalls and admits to a little apprehension. "For me, this is a more difficult game than against Seattle away," Robinson told reporters. "At Seattle, no-one expects anything from us, obviously everybody expects us to go there [to San Jose] and get a result. But all the information we're getting out of San Jose is that they've nothing to lose. They're fighting for contracts those players. Dominic's going to be going in for next season, so they're going to be wanting to prove a point to him." The Whitecaps themselves would no doubt settle for a point tonight. But if they can get all three, then next week is set to be a barnstorming season finale. To get there, the defence will likely be the key. So keep calm and Leveron.
  4. "The meeting we had a few weeks ago, the penny has dropped and players said their pieces," O'Brien admitted to reporters at training on Thursday. "There's been a real coming together and we want to make sure that we can keep on performing and be out there on the pitch, which is all it's about, as long as possible now. "Not everyone is going to be here next year. We've got a real opportunity to make a statement, to do something together. I think we're determined to continue what we've got for as long as possible. I think it is a special dressing room and it's certainly one I've enjoyed being part of this year. Long may it continue." It's all part of the right culture that Robinson wants to instil at the club. You'll always have pissed off players, not happy at not getting more playing time, but it's how they carry themselves with their teammates at training and behind closed doors that is the true mark of what the dressing room harmony is. You could kick lumps out of them (cough, Omar Salgado) or you could realise that the coach is making what he feels is the best decision for the team and you change his mind with your abilities on the training pitch. Of course, the big culture at the Whitecaps this season has been some Argentine, Chilean and Uruguayan Latino flair. Matias Laba is cited by many players as being the joker of the locker room, but the others aren't too far behind. "The South American boys that we've brought in are the life and soul of the dressing room. They keep chanting my name for some reason, I don't know why it is!", O'Brien laughed. "I don't know if you get a feel of it out there in training but behind closed doors they're the life and soul of the party. Even though some of them have not played as much as they would have wanted to, they're still supportive of the players. "And although he's not South American, Sam [Adekugbe]. I don't know if you noticed but when we scored recently the smile on his face epitomises what the team is about. He'd have liked to have played more than he has done, but he's as happy as anybody when we score and we win. "I think to have that in a young boy and to have that in huge amounts with the South American boys, it's infectious." You saw it on Monday when the players joined supporters on the bleachers during training at UBC on Monday to sing Carl Robinson 'Happy Birthday' That singing and chanting certainly seems to be a key part of the team camaraderie. And the whole team spirit thing is something we've talked about before. Russell Teibert was another player to talk about the "special" locker room atmosphere yesterday, sharing a tale of what last week's trip to Seattle was like. "The bus ride down to Seattle is just something I'll never forget," Teibert told reporters. "It was an unbelievable bus ride. We had guys singing. The bus ride to the game was tense and we were late for the game but the amount of team spirit we had on the bus, and everyone singing on the way to the stadium. "When I say we have something special in this locker room, I really mean it. Whether we're at training, whether we're off the field, guys get on really well here. Guys believe in each other and the talent speaks for itself." When asked what they were singing, Teibert said he has no idea. It was mostly in Spanish! That's infectious atmosphere O'Brien was talking about before adding that even for an older guys like himself, "stuck in his ways", it's impossible not to get swept along with it. So when O’Brien came over to Major League Soccer from England, did he ever think that he would get so emotionally invested in a team thousands of miles from home that he had no previous connections with? "No," was O'Brien's honest reply, but he went on to explain why and what's changed. "In 2011, these are only private thoughts, I was close to packing it in, stop playing football. It had been the best part of my life for 15, 16 years then. The opportunity I was given, firstly by Martin wanting me, it taught me that even though you can go through a rough period. if you can keep digging away, there's light at the end of the tunnel. "I've certainly enjoyed my time here. I think physically, I'm as fit as I've ever been. Mentally, I'm enjoying coming in to work every day and that's testament to what the club have done in terms of the players that they've brought in." "I've found it a real nice experience and one that I'll learn from and one that I think the European model can learn from. I know that MLS and North America aspire to be like the Premier League but I think there's a lot that could be learned from the North American model." O’Brien is now 35-years-old, hardly ancient, but in footballing terms, especially for a central defender, age can play a part in how much in demand you are. His Whitecaps contract runs out at the end of the year. He hopes to remain in Vancouver, but whatever happens here, he has no intentions of hanging up his boots. "Whether anyone wants me or not is another story," O'Brien joked. "But in terms of my desire and wish to play, yeah."
  5. "It's vitally important," coach Carl Robinson told reporters on Thursday. "Getting into the playoffs is the first goal that we set and if you manage to get in then it's being in form when you're hitting the playoffs. You see, year in, year out, a number of teams that get into the playoffs, sneak into the playoffs, when they're not playing very well end up going out. "It's important that focus is maintained. It's important that you do get a bit of momentum going into the playoffs because it is a lottery when you get there. It's just a one off game or a two-legged game if you get past that first stage and anything can happen. It's still a long way off, and it's a hard trek to get there, but we're willing to meet the challenge head on." The playoff race in the West looks like it may go right down to the wire and Vancouver know that if they are to make it to the postseason they will have to do it by producing some of their best form in the remaining matches. It's a factor which left back Jordan Harvey feels that can only serve them well. "That is an advantage," Harvey admitted to AFTN. "If you do get on form these last four games leading into the playoffs, that's huge. That's what most teams are successful with. We have to get in form, we have to get some more points and that will allow us to carry that [form] in." If Vancouver can clinch fifth spot in the Western Conference, they will likely face a first round playoff match away to FC Dallas or Real Salt Lake. Last Saturday's defeat of RSL gave the Whitecaps a slight mental edge over one of their prospective postseason opponents and they are unbeaten against Real Salt Lake all season, including two hard-fought draws down in Utah. The 'Caps are hoping for more of the same mental boost when Dallas head to BC Place this weekend. For veteran defender Andy O'Brien that psychological side of the game is one of the important keys for the Whitecaps down the stretch and beyond. "I think you need to be composed, especially from a mental point of view because there's so much emphasis in getting into the playoffs," O'Brien said. "There's a lot of pressure to get in there and then once you're in there, you've got a job to do and it's not as if you down tools when you meet one objective. "It's got to be a progression thing. We want to go, if possible, into the playoffs with four good results now and take that on to whoever we may play should we get there. It's important that we keep ourselves mentally prepared and physically prepared for it."
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