The Vancouver Whitecaps may have bumbled and stumbled their way down the stretch to the MLS playoffs, but given how steady they have been with their vision to build a team in 2012, there are some takeaways that the other two Canadian teams would do well to learn from.
It wasn't always that way, though.
A year ago, the Vancouver Whitecaps found themselves lurching from problem to problem in their expansion year of MLS. Head coach Teitur Thordarson had been brought along from the NASL days, partly as a hat tip to where they came from, partly to ensure they transitioned well into their new digs.
Many felt though that his days were marked before he began. The hiring of Tom Soehn, a well-travelled manager in MLS, to the Whitecaps front office raised red flags for observers of the North American game. Prior to being hired on there, he had been actively interviewing for coaching positions around MLS.
It didn't take long for it to become clear there would be conflict.
A slow start from Thordarson's Whitecaps, coupled with some backroom politics, and the Icelander was sent sailing. Soehn stepped in as interim head coach and immediately set about putting his brand on the team. He changed player personnel, their style and formation and created a more militant culture.
It did little to change their course and resulted in sending the first-year Whitecaps spiralling down to the bottom of the MLS table.
Expansion years are often fraught with challenges, but that turbulent first year, which was supposed to be their coming-out party in a hockey-mad city, served as a wakeup call to the soccer-savvy brass in Vancouver.
They needed a consistent vision and they found it with the hiring of Martin Rennie. I spoke with Rennie shortly after he was brought on as head coach of the Whitecaps and asked him if he was confident he'd be able to make the signings he wanted -- as in making the signings he wanted without the other cooks in the kitchen throwing in their advice.
His answer was that it couldn't work any other way. And if history serves as the example, he was right.
Rennie has slowly brought together pieces that work for now and the long term in Vancouver. He has given confidence to young standouts like Darren Mattocks and taken risks to bring in aging superstars like Young-Pyo Lee. And while there are questions about whether fellow countrymen Kenny Miller and Barry Robson are really up for the job, he has made only a few missteps along the way. Certainly, the addition and quick disposal of Sebastian Le Toux certainly seems like a blemish on his record, but he probably deserves a pass for given how little it cost to get the prolific scorer from Philadelphia.
Overall, what it adds up to is a measured approach by a coach who has operated with little interference. And if you compare that to the jerking back and forth that has gone on with Toronto FC and Montreal this season, it paints a pretty clear picture of what it takes to be successful in MLS.
BUILT TO WIN NOW
Montreal has just wrapped its expansion season, so can be forgiven for taking some lumps along the way. From the outset, it was no secret that Impact owner Joey Saputo was desperate to make the playoffs in Year 1 the way the Seattle Sounders did in their inaugural stretch. If you'll pardon the pun, Montreal is an impact town and Saputo wanted to make a statement.
After a slow start, the Impact brought in big names Marco Di Vaio and Alessandro Nesta to slow the bleeding and jumpstart ticket sales among Montreal's Italian population. It worked for a time and the shipping out of Donovan Ricketts in goal certainly seemed to be key in finding some consistency in their results.
However, the noose that has been swinging and swirling around Jesse Marsch's head this season -- with his possible dismissal being brought up after each loss in the early days of 2012 -- has done nothing to instill confidence or consistency in the American coach.
With 11 players over 30 years-old on the roster, Montreal was a team that was built to win now. Di Viao and Nesta struggled to survive half a season playing in the rough and tumble MLS. And there is no telling how they, along with the rest of the over-30 class, will manage during a full, 34-game season, but their window for success is small.
SEVEN COACHES IN SIX SEASONS
As for Toronto, what can be said that hasn't already been written a million times over about the course of its six years as an expansion squad? Seven coaches in six seasons signed and shipped out over 100 players during that time -- big-name signings followed by big-time drama, coupled with big-time fan support, followed by what seems like a big-time fan exodus. And outside of that fan support, there has been absolutely nothing consistent about the way Toronto FC has approached its time in MLS.
Now heading into its seventh season, which will likely see the latest head coach, Paul Mariner, drop players and bring in another round of recruits, it's hard to imagine Toronto will be able to find the level of consistency needed to be successful in MLS.
Vancouver has found a formula that works and, with it, has become the first Canadian team to make the MLS playoffs. The question remains when the other two Canadian clubs will do the same and join it.
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