You can’t blame the Vancouver Whitecaps for looking ahead.
While the top teams in Major League Soccer begin playoffs today, Vancouver’s last-placed squad is readying for an unusual November training camp under new coach Martin Rennie and club CEO Paul Barber is already sitting in on countless meetings in preparation for 2012.
Even Eric Hassli being awarded the ESPN goal of the year yesterday for his incredible strike against Seattle (and Davide Chiumiento snagging the No. 3 spot for his turn and volley against the Red Bulls) is a measly conciliation for Barber.
The goal is clear: reverse the team’s misfortunes on the pitch while building on the success that saw the expansion team average 20,406 fans at home games (good enough for third in the entire league).
“We didn’t achieve what we set out to,” admitted Barber. “Off the field, it’s been a phenomenal year. But we have to make sure we don’t become complacent with our fans. You see it all over the world. When teams struggle, crowds drop. Ultimately, it’s about winning matches.”
The coaching landscape has already been radically altered after a dreadful season.
Interim coach Tom Soehn – who managed a poor 5W-12L-4D record – has reverted back to his role as the club’s director of soccer operations.
Barber defended Soehn’s stint as manager; saying it was extremely difficult for him to switch from an established “suit role” to a “tracksuit” one.
“These things are tough for any individual,” Barber said. “But he handled it with skill, dignity and composure. I have nothing but admiration for him.”
Assistant coaches Colin Miller and Denis Hamlett weren’t so lucky.
Both were cut loose by the organization this morning so Rennie can handpick his own coaching staff.
Reports indicate the Scot is already in contact with his first potential assistant coach.
The former Tottenham Hotspur and English Football Association executive says work is underway to improve the squad.
The technical staff, with Rennie’s input, has identified several players “in key areas” the Whitecaps want to pursue.
The former Carolina RailHawks manager will get a first-hand look at the squad when he arrives in Vancouver next week for a rare post-season training camp.
It may be unusual but time is of the essence.
Rennie must get to know the players and decide which 11 he wants to protect from the MLS expansion draft by Nov. 21.
He must then further assess the team’s needs and be ready to jump on overseas signings when the European transfer window opens briefly in January.
“We’re in a unique position in that we appointed [Rennie] two-thirds of the way to the finish.” Barber said. “We have to make sure he has every opportunity to succeed.”
Although he was still focused on the RailHawks when the Whitecaps announced his hiring, Rennie has gradually increased his influence on the MLS side as the season wore on.
“We’ve had quite a lot of discussions with him actually,” Barber said. “Certainly we were respectful of not doing it on Martin’s time with Carolina, but we had more and more dialogue with him over the phone. Since his appointment, we’ve been slowly integrating him into our club.”
The organization is adamant a complete squad overhaul isn’t necessarily needed.
“There is still a belief we have a core group of players with the skills, and now experience, to move us forward,” he said. “We know we have quality there.”?
He points to the increased success the team had when both Alain Rochat and Jay DeMerit were in the line-up together and playing in their natural positions on defence.
“You look at the results when they’ve played together and when they haven’t – it’s critical [they're in the line-up] and something like that goes to the heart of the team.”
Editor’s note: The interview with Barber was conducted before the team had officially severed its ties with Miller and Hamlett.