Jeff Mallett, who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, isn’t going to let the worst record in Major League Soccer get him down about the longer-term fortunes of the Vancouver Whitecaps – and the aggressive work to better the struggling expansion club includes the pursuit of oft-injured international star Owen Hargreaves.
“He knows of our interest. He’s a great player. He’s a Calgary boy, has connections with the club. We’ll stay in contact,” said co-owner Mallett in an interview on Monday night before the Whitecaps lost 2-1 in an international friendly against visiting FA Cup champs Manchester City.
It is the first official confirmation the Whitecaps are after the midfielder who is arguably the best soccer player ever reared in Canada.
“We’ll make sure, when [Hargreaves] makes the decision, that we’re on the option list,” Mallett said.
Hargreaves, 30, grew up in Calgary, left for Bayern Munich at 16 and has starred at top levels of global soccer. The highlight reel includes his leadership for England at the 2006 World Cup and two UEFA Champions League crowns, with Bayern and Manchester United.
But at Man U, which recently released him, he played less than 30 league matches in the past four seasons as his knees were tortured by persistent tendinitis.
Determined to return, Hargreaves issued a series of short lo-fi YouTube videos in late June and early June, to demonstrate his fitness as he hustled through various drills, on the pitch and on a treadmill. West Bromwich, a club that has bounced in and out of the Premiership and last season finished in the middle of the top-tier of British soccer, has had talks with Hargreaves and hopes to meet with him this month.
Mallett knows competition for Hargreaves could be intense, especially if the longevity of his health is proven.
“He’s doing the right thing and making sure he’s really fit this time,” Mallett said. “This is maybe the last chance to go back. He’s looking really good. He’s holding back all of his options until this point. He wants to play at the highest level possible. He’s played at the highest level. If he can get back at that level, he would like to play at that level. You can’t blame him, at all.”
Several days ago, on West Brom’s website, team sporting and technical director Dan Ashworth said their position in the Premiership is “attractive in itself” and noted the club has a “fantastic medical team.”
The deep-pocketed Whitecaps belie their expansion status, even with the MLS-worst 2-10-8 record and only 19 goals, the fewest in the Western Conference. Mallett was one of the earliest employees at upstart Yahoo Inc. and is a co-owner of the San Francisco Giants. Reclusive Greg Kerfoot, another Whitecaps co-owner, is a local Vancouver software titan, and a third backer is NBA superstar Steve Nash. Ambition is not lacking. In March, Mallett told The Globe and Mail: “We want to compete on a global basis. Eventually we want to be considered one of the top football clubs in the world.”
On Monday night, the Whitecaps looked reasonably strong against City, who is in fact one of the top clubs in the world at present, after an injection of $1-billion from Abu Dhabi Sheik Mansour over the past several years to buy the club’s way to the top ranks of English soccer.
The Whitecaps, beset this season by injuries and other problems, pressed a relaxed City side, who were backstopped by the outstanding goaltending of Joe Hart, one of the best in the Premiership and the starter for England’s national team.
Vancouver striker Camilo, after impressive blasts saved by Hart, notched a goal in the 30th minute on a shot that deflected off a City defender and slipped in. The Whitecaps put in reserves for the second half, as the team prepares for a MLS match on Wednesday night in San Jose, and City scored two to take the contest. Regardless, on a sunny and reasonable warm Monday night during an unseasonably cold summer, a packed house of 24,074 enjoyed the show at Empire Field in east Vancouver.
Roberto Mancini, manager of City, said it was difficult for his side to play two matches in a short span after just playing Mexico's Club America on Saturday. He credited the Whitecaps and said they were the stronger team in the first half.
“They played a good game,” said Mancini after the match.
He saluted the boisterous crowd and said Vancouver appears to have a strong foundation for soccer.
“[The crowd] was fantastic,” he said. “The stadium was incredible. Vancouver can have an important future in soccer.”
Vancouver has room to sign a big name, if Hargreaves gives up on Premiership dreams or simply decides it’s finally time to come home. The team has an open third designated player spot – the category where MLS clubs can spend far beyond the league’s team salary cap of roughly $2.5-million. The Whitecaps’ two designated players together earn less than $1.5-million, far below the $6.5-million the Los Angeles Galaxy lavish on David Beckham, the league’s highest-paid player.
On Monday night, Mallett was his usual chipper self. He’s confident the core of the team is strong, from veterans to young players- but knows more is needed.
“We have the nucleus. But it hasn’t gelled. The league’s competitive. If you’re not on your game you’re going to lose,” he said. “Do we see enough progress in Year One? Yes. Can we see where this club is going? Yes. Do we still need to make improvements? Absolutely.”