After a lengthy search that included flirting with at least one big-name candidate, the Vancouver Whitecaps didn’t have to go very far to find their new head coach.
The Major League Soccer club promoted assistant Carl Robinson to the top job on Monday, handing the 37-year-old Welshman the reins to a team that will have its fourth coach in four years when it takes the field for pre-season training in late January.
“It’s a very proud moment for me,” Robinson said at his introductory press conference. “It’s something that I have always dreamed of doing and it’s the natural progression for me in my career.”
The former Toronto FC midfielder spent the last two seasons with the Whitecaps as an assistant coach under Martin Rennie, who was fired in October after Vancouver missed the playoffs.
And while Robinson is well-liked by Whitecaps players for his honesty and no-nonsense style, club president Bob Lenarduzzi confirmed discussions were held with former U.S. and Egyptian national team coach Bob Bradley, who visited Vancouver for a weekend to discuss the post.
“If a Bob Bradley comes up through your selection process and he expresses and interest and he takes the time to come here, why would you not investigate that fully?” Lenarduzzi asked.
He said Robinson and all of the other candidates were kept appraised of the situation while the Whitecaps explored the “unique opportunity” to speak with the 55-year-old Bradley.
“As far as the coach search taking longer than we would have anticipated, if Bob Bradley doesn’t come up then more than likely it would have been done sooner,” said Lenarduzzi. “But for us not to pursue that I think would have been wrong on our part.”
Robinson had no problem with the six-week process to decide on a new coach.
“I was actually privileged to be in contention with people like Bob Bradley and the other candidates,” he said. “I take that as a positive that the club sees me in that esteem.”
Consistency was a word that Lenarduzzi brought up repeatedly after the Whitecaps axed Rennie. The team started strong but faded during each of Rennie’s two years in charge, salvaging a playoff berth in 2012 before missing out this past season.
“On our day we’ve shown we can be as good as anyone ... but on our bad day we’ve shown we can be as poor as anyone. That needs to change,” said Robinson. “Sometimes you can’t help the ball going in off the post, or rolling across the line, or an own goal or a controversial penalty, but there are other areas that you can help and I’ll make sure that those are addressed.”
Vancouver has also never won the Amway Canadian Championship, which the club has put an emphasis on because it means a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“It’s a task I’m looking forward to. I know I’m going to face this challenge head on,” said Robinson, who will have full autonomy on personnel decisions. “There will be hard work along the way, but I’m up for that challenge.”
After Rennie was shown the door, Lenarduzzi said MLS experience would be an important trait for his successor.
Robinson has that, although not as a head coach.
The former midfielder played 12 years in England before spending three seasons with Toronto FC and one campaign with the New York Red Bulls.
“I loved Carl Robinson as a player, the way he played the game,” said Lenarduzzi. “He put a massive premium on possession of the ball. He was a leader on the field.”
Robinson, who played 52 times for his country and made 86 MLS appearances, was twice named TFC’s most valuable player.
“I like to pass the ball, I like to move the ball. That will be shown in my team,” he said. “It’s going to be an attacking brand. I want to attack, I want to score goals.”
Added Lenarduzzi: “His vision aligns with ours as a club.”
That vision includes developing young players, something of which Vancouver has an abundance.
Camilo Sanvezzo, 25, won the MLS Golden Boot award in 2013 with a league-high 22 goals, while fellow striker Kekuta Manneh, 18, burst onto the scene with a memorable hat trick against the Seattle Sounders late in the season.
Add to that two Canadians — 20-year-old midfielder Russell Teibert and 18-year-old defender Sam Adekugbe — and Robinson’s cupboard is stocked.
“I’m a firm believer that you can win things with kids,” he said. “I will be giving young players opportunities because if they’re good enough, they’re old enough.
“My job is to unlock the potential of those youngsters. It’s important we give them chances to show and shine.”
Despite the emphasis on youth, one of Robinson’s first decisions will be the future of veteran captain Jay DeMerit.
The 34-year-old defender doesn’t have a contract for next season, but has expressed his desire to remain on the West Coast.
“I’ll be touching base with Jay in the next two days because he’s an important piece of the club moving forward,” said Robinson. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Jay. He’s a total leader on and off the field.
“He’s someone that I would like to bring back.”
Whitecaps players said in November after Rennie was fired that Robinson would be a good choice as his successor, with Teibert crediting the then-assistant with his development.
Robinson said there will be differences in training and tactics with him in charge, but added the players can expected to be treated the same.
“What won’t change is my honesty towards them, the way I act towards them in my day-to-day dealings with them,” said Robinson. “I think the respect that I’ve gained from the players is because I am who I am.”
Notes: The retirement of Whitecaps defender Y.P. Lee creates a hole on the backline, something that Robinson said will be one of his first orders of business. ... Robinson and Lenarduzzi also addressed the status of striker Darren Mattocks, who made negative comments in his native Jamaica about the team and Rennie after the season. Lenarduzzi said Mattocks was “very apologetic” about the incident before adding: “He’s going to need to come back and get his head down and work hard because he probably pissed off a few people in Vancouver at the time, aside from us not liking it.” ... Since joining MLS in 2011, the Whitecaps have been coached by Teitur Thordarson, Tom Soehn, Rennie and now Robinson.