Carl Robinson is in the middle of it, always.
Three pictures of the rookie head coach of the surging Vancouver Whitecaps: last Sunday in Portland, as the clock expired and the Whitecaps won a raucous 4-3 match on the road, Robinson is nose-to-nose with Timbers coach Caleb Porter, an animated discussion; on Tuesday, back in Vancouver, Robinson is on the training pitch, walking the fringes of an offensive drill and shouting words of encouragement to his young players; the next day, one of those young men, Omar Salgado, unleashes a retaliatory maybe-red-card foul on a teammate in a scrimmage, and Robinson yanks Salgado from the pitch, and after training spends several minutes talking him through the mistake.
Salgado, 20, strolled off the field – in good spirits. “He’s a players’ coach,” said Salgado of Robinson. The counsel was control: “To just let it go, so it doesn’t happen on a Saturday. When you get hit, don’t cheap shot. Give it back in a different way.”
In their fourth season, after a near-constant tumult since the start – the steady arrival and departure of coaches, executives, and highly paid players – the Vancouver Whitecaps are having fun. A lot of the credit for the stoking the good spirits is the boss on the sidelines, who was not long ago on the pitch himself.
Robinson, 37, is a Welshman who spent a dozen years in England’s top two leagues as a combative defensive midfielder before a move to Major League Soccer, where he was the best player on the terrible Toronto FC teams of the earliest days. Following retirement in New York, he landed as an assistant manager in Vancouver for two seasons and took the helm last December.
It was a dark winter, as Robinson got the gig only after the Whitecaps pursued other candidates. Then the team’s top scorer bolted for Mexico. Robinson was unbowed. He envisioned a free-spirited team, the kind whose play would lift him to his feet in excitement and awe. He saw potential in the young, underused names on the roster and brought in several key players, led by Chilean Pedro Morales, to bolster the team’s woeful midfield.
The results have been immediate: the team has the fourth-best record in the league, 5-2-5, and play with the creative freedom Robinson has instilled. Don’t be afraid to be amazing. The challenge, however, is this team has been here before, two years ago, under another young rookie manager, Martin Rennie, who led the Whitecaps to a 8-4-5 record at 2012’s halfway mark before stumbling through the season’s second half. They made the playoffs, barely, and lasted one game.
What went awry in 2012 was the midseason push to load up with highly paid names from Great Britain. It didn’t work and the chemistry cracked. This year, to Robinson, it is about a lively vibe underpinning the long road to the playoffs in the late autumn.
Robinson has had his eye on a manager’s job since his early 20s, playing in England, and in all the years thereafter has been making notes, of everything from training sessions to what managers have said in certain situations. He has 40 or so notebooks full of scribbled ideas – and lesson No. 1 is the best teams he played for had the strongest bonds among teammates.
“I’m very passionate. It’s about how I can get the best out of my players,” said Robinson in an interview on Wednesday, sitting on the bleachers in the sun after training. “I’m trying to build a team culture, a team spirit, here.”
The spirits had been on display, the contretemps with Salgado, but they quickly eased, too, and a playful water fight ensued. “We’ve got an incredible team spirit,” said veteran Nigel Reo-Coker.
Robinson’s life has been in soccer. Growing up in Wales, he swam competitively and played soccer until 13 – before he chose the game his father Phil loved. Phil Robinson, who died four years ago, was a top local player as a youth and had a shot at a pro career but didn’t chase it. He made a living as a truck driver and in construction. “If I’m honest,” said Carl Robinson, “I wanted to play football because my dad didn’t do it and he should have done it. And he missed out on that opportunity. I wanted to do it for him.”
At the end of last season, the playoffs missed, Whitecaps owners Greg Kerfoot and Jeff Mallett considered their club after three campaigns and decided they needed a new manager to propel the team forward. They chased names like Bob Bradley, who had coached the United States national team, and settled on Robinson – whose hiring was celebrated by the players. What the owners liked was his ability to assess talent and communicate, with everyone from the owners to the players.
“To improve we needed to find someone that has Carl’s attributes,” said Mallett. “This is what we hoped for.”
Robinson stands apart from the previous three managers, said team captain Jay DeMerit who has been with the Whitecaps since inception. “He’s part of the new-school mentality. He’s been there. He knows the players’ perspective.”
Among the 40-plus notebooks of Robinson’s compiled soccer wisdom, he has also drafted one-, three– and five-year plans for the Whitecaps. He knows he might not last that long – but right now, sitting in the warm sun of late spring, spirits soaring, it is looking good.
“At the rate we’re going,” he said, “with the young players, in literally two or three years, the club’s going to be in a super place.”