VANCOUVER – By the time the new MLS season gets underway in March, Vancouver Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson will have racked up thousands of air miles in his search to strengthen his squad and make the ‘Caps playoff contenders once again.
As soon as the Whitecaps disappointing 2016 MLS season wrapped up at the end of October, Robinson and his assistant Martyn Pert headed to South America in the search for new players. Those travels took the pair to Brazil and Argentina. Robinson is hopeful that it will prove to be a fruitful trip, but a lot of that will depend on one key thing – money.
“It was an excellent 12-day trip, based upon seeing the standards of players” Robinson told the AFTN podcast. “There were some exceptional young players there, who obviously are worth a lot of money, and there are some exceptional older, talented players. The market is strong and the market is expensive. That’s the problem you have.”
Top South American talent doesn’t come cheap and in the past Robinson has had to seek out some hidden gems from the continent, to mixed results, but teams like Seattle have shown what can be achieved by bringing in a real difference maker like Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro.
The ‘Caps coach is a longtime admirer of the Latin style of play, but Vancouver is keen not to put all its eggs in one basket. Robinson is currently in the UK for Christmas and will take in a couple of matches while there, with an eye on watching a couple of potential players, but he’s also keen to look at available options much closer to home.
“There are targets,” Robinson said. “There are obviously boundaries which we have. It’s all based upon budgets, but we’ll try and find the best player suited. We won’t forget about looking inside the league as well.
“There are a number of teams that have shown that if you get core players inside [MLS], then they’re able to deal with a little bit of adversity during the season. We’ll look inside and we’ll look to add one or two from outside as well, but we won’t be spending millions and millions like Seattle did with Lodeiro.”
MLS experience is crucial to teams with budgetary constraints like the Whitecaps and there’s a few free agents out there this offseason that have caught Robinson’s eye.
“I’ve spoken to a number of out-of-contract players when it allowed me to after the MLS Cup final,” Robinson added. “We’ve had some productive conversations. These players individually have got to make their own decisions and there are a number of factors that go in to it. The free agents are obviously older players who have families, who have to make decisions based upon families but also based upon money.
“If they’re going to sample the free agency market, it’s for a reason. It’s either because the current club don’t want to keep them or they feel they can get more money elsewhere at another club. I have spoken to a number of them but we won’t overpay. That’s important to know because that goes against what we do, but we will try and tempt one or two of them to join our squad.”
The areas in which Vancouver needs improvement were very clear to see this past season. The Whitecaps went from having the league-leading defense to the second-worst in the West, after a year littered with costly individual errors. Robinson has made in-roads into remedying that with the addition of experienced right back Sheanon Williams from Houston Dynamo. Whether that will be enough on its own remains to be seen.
At the other end of the pitch, goals, and in particular a higher conversion rate of chances created, continued to be a blight for the Whitecaps. They certainly weren’t the worst in MLS, in a low-scoring year, but you were left with the feeling of what could have been with the number of wasted opportunities in matches — always a problem when your defense is shipping so many.
Reports in the Honduran press had prolific Olimpia striker Romell Quioto heading to Vancouver as a done deal, but Robinson was quick to refute those rumors.
“Rommel was here when we played against them [in the Champions League in 2015],” Robinson said. “He got injured and we looked after him fantastically well. The club took him under their wing and we looked after him. He is someone that I know very well but I will clarify we have not signed him, so that will put that to bed.”
The Whitecaps have signed striker Erik Hurtado to a contract extension and added USL standout Kyle Greig to their MLS roster. They also have the experienced Giles Barnes and Japanese forward Masato Kudo in their squad as attacking options.
But with both Barnes and Kudo commanding high salaries totaling over a million dollars, and with two designated player spots currently available in Vancouver, it’s looking unlikely that both will remain with the club if Robinson is to get the difference makers he keenly desires.
“We’re definitely going to bring in one [striker] and there might be room to bring in two,” Robinson confirmed. “Based upon if we decide to shake things up a little bit or move some things about.”
With reports of a couple of European clubs being interested in Barnes and with Kudo currently back in Japan, whether either will be back for preseason in Vancouver is up in the air right now.
While there are no definite names currently being linked with the Whitecaps, it’s expected that Robinson will look to bring several new players before the new season gets underway, but he’s also keen not to block development opportunities for the promising players he already has at the club.
“We’re looking to strengthen the squad without putting blocks in the pathways of our younger players,” Robinson said. “We will go young again next year. We’ve got our young nucleus. We’ve got our really good group of young players and we will continue to build and grow with them. We’ve got to get the right senior players in around them.”