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Carl Robinson had previously told us that he wouldn’t add just for the sake of adding right now and in the short term. He has some pieces lined up to add in January already. He also indicated that just adding squad players wasn’t of interest to him and that anyone he brought in would have to be a difference maker. That makes it interesting to see that the ‘Caps have added Costa Rican right back Jordan Smith on loan from Kendall Waston’s old club Deportivo Saprissa. The deal is until the end of the season and is clearly to have a look at the 24-year-old. If he impresses, the trigger will be pulled on a full transfer. What this will mean for the future of Steven Beitashour at the club will be the interesting aspect of all this. The veteran is on big money but not producing the performances to merit it. His deal will be up at the end of the season and his reputation would see him in demand from elsewhere in MLS. Smith has been brought in for right-back cover right now of course. Tim Parker can play and do well there, but you have to feel Robbo could see Parker as a starter in the centre back role by the end of the year. Of course there already is a back-up for Beitashour’s position in Ethen Sampson. The South African has failed to impress this season and has been playing left back in USL in recent games. We’ve been told that Robinson is trying to secure a loan deal to take him off the ‘Caps roster numbers and free up an international spot. I’d be surprised to see him back on the MLS roster this time next year. Wednesday night’s Champions League game against Seattle was last chance saloon for Sampson as far as I’m concerned. He didn’t excel and looks set to mosey on off into the sunset. The first of many depth players to move on? Make that the second, as it’s already started. The Whitecaps also confirmed this morning that Erik Hurtado has been loaned to Norwegian side Mjøndalen IF till the end of 2015. Robinson says that he is still very much part of the club’s plans, but I don’t think we’ll have too many people pining for him now that he is in the fjords. Erik the Viking’s move has been on the cards for a while. Robinson and Greg Anderson were seen in deep discussion with him after the game on Wednesday, with a “keep the chin up son” feel to it all. He needs to play, but not for the ‘Caps in MLS. So a great move for both parties. Hurtado and Sampson are great examples of how shallow the Whitecaps depth actually is. Wednesday night was a frightening example that the 12 to 22 spots on the roster may not be as deep as we thought. At the very least, they can’t play together as a team. The first warning signs were there with the performances of many of the players with the USL team. WFC2 play considerably better when the likes of Hurtado (not that he went down much!), Sampson and Rodriguez and their peers are not down there playing with them. There’s been a couple of times this season where there’s been nearly a full USL starting eleven of the ‘Caps MLS depth guys. They haven’t done well together there. The last time was a 4-2 defeat at Portland last month where there was little fight, spirit and competency shown outside of Robert Earnshaw, Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese. So it was no surprise to see that again and a lack of any cohesion and team chemistry midweek. Put some of these players (Parker, Dean, Froese for example) into the first team with the majority of MLS starters and they thrive. Make too many changes and chuck them all into together and it ends up looking like they met for the first time in the car park. One of Robinson’s most interesting postgame comments on Wednesday was, ”It gave me a few answers to questions I had in my mind with some players, which was good”. Good for him, not for the players in question you have to imagine. Cold fact is that some of the fringe guys are simply not MLS starting quality. Some will maybe do for one game at a push, but if they have to cover for a long time, there could be issues. That’s why Smith has come in. That’s why Hurtado has, temporarily for now, moved on. You have to think that Diego Rodriguez’s days are also numbered. I had high hopes for the Uruguayan but with, first, his injuries, and then a loss of confidence, he’s not going to be here too much longer. Factor in some poor performances in USL, the form of Parker and Dean, and Wednesday’s nightmare marking job that led to Seattle’s goal, his confidence must be close to shot just now. Shame. Nice guy and does have talent. With Hurtado gone, it’s hard not to see another attacker being added in to the mix pretty soon. Might already have been filled and still to be announced or a free agent from elsewhere. What is certain is that Smith’s addition and Hurtado’s departure should be the final warning to many of the ‘Caps current depth of shape up or you’ll most certainly be shipped out and replaced.
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.
Yet his fledgling strikeforce failed to ever really take flight. Sure, there have been a few exceptional moments, but the Whitecaps talent up top, or lack thereof, has been the target of much handwringing by fans, media, and even the club itself. Bob Lenarduzzi and Carl Robinson have both spoken about the clubs ambition to sign an impact striker, likely a Designated Player. It’s hard to blame their restlessness. Darren Mattocks, despite having every opportunity to run with the starting striker role has looked uninspired and disinterested. Omar Salgado has been shipped out as he couldn’t even make it through training without clattering teammates and arguing with coaches. And while Erik Hurtado has shown moments of quality, he’s shown equal amounts of cluelessness. Robinson has tried pretty much everything. Riding the hot hand, flipping between the strikers, even trying Fernandez as a partner in a two striker set up. No-one has been able to take a firm grasp of their opportunities and lay claim to the starting spot. But as the season winds down, Hurtado has put together a couple of decent performances in a row and the Whitecaps have found their winning ways. Hurtado has scored just one goal in his last 17 appearances, and while his cement feet and poor decision making have been on display at times, Erik has actually done well holding the ball, defending from the top, and making some simple passes that lead to quality chances. The recent scoring has come from Sebastian Fernandez and Pedro Morales. While they are being played as midfielders, it should be no surprise to fans that both have a scoring touch. Both end up in very good attacking positions on a regular basis, and both have the ability to finish. The biggest emergence of late has been the quality play of Mauro Rosales. While he’s yet to open his account in 2014, he has shown he can score on occasion, and he certainly has the skill set required to pot a goal every now and again. More importantly, Mauro’s inclusion in the attack means that opposing defences can’t just clog up the area around Pedro Morales to suffocate the Whitecaps. So maybe the magic recipe for Vancouver doesn’t include a finisher at the tip of the spear. It’s likely at this point that Carl Robinson has clued in that the best answer isn’t having your three clever midfielders feed chances in to the feet of a bumbling ox, but rather, have the ox clear a bit of the path ahead for your best players. It’s not a very smart long term plan, but the defending has been pretty good, and the midfield has been strong, so maybe Hurtado going up top, running about for 75 minutes, challenging for every header, bumping into the centre backs, and deferring the attack to the real game changers is just the recipe for success for Erik and the Whitecaps. And that’s what made Hurtado earn plaudits after the Dallas game. He pressured from the front, he showed for his team mates, and he even made a few smart passes. He didn’t really ever challenge FC Dallas’ goal, but he did just enough to get the rest of the team around him able to make a play. We’ve seen goals for Jordan Harvey, Gershon Koffie, and even Russell Teibert. Fernandez, Morales, and even Rosales look like they’re good bets when they get the ball in the box. So maybe, just maybe, Erik Hurtado just doing the spade work will be enough for the Whitecaps to surprise.