Blue and White #1

2016 has been a lot of fun here at From The Backline. The podcast has hosted some terrific guests and has managed the enthrall on a weekly basis, nobody came close to the quality and consistency of Soren Elsay's Whitecaps FC 2 coverage and we've all developed some brilliant friendships with readers, listeners and fellow supporters along the way. We even managed to come together to record a show in Coquitlam and assemble at UBC to watch the Thundercaps this summer.

The blog section of the site launched in January and has achieved a lot of what we had hoped it would in its first season of operation, however my sporadic contribution down the stretch definitely limited what it was capable of. That's on me. With so much cynicism plaguing social media off the field and the Caps regularly failing to inspire on it, finding the motivation to write was difficult at the best of times towards the business end of the campaign. Too much hysteria isn't healthy.

With that being said, we're just as confident in ourselves to improve production on the site as we are in the team to bounce back in 2017. There is still a place for longform feature writing here, but the first team content is going to look quite a bit different. Starting with the page you're currently reading, I will be writing a regular column for FTBL.com discussing anything and everything Whitecaps. There will be match analysis, interviews and plenty of hot takes here, rest assured.

My hope for this column is effectively to translate the FTBL format you can listen to on iTunes and elsewhere into something that you can just as enjoyably consume in writing. That's a big ask - in my three years listening to the show I haven't found a single competitor worth mentioning - however it's a challenge I'm extremely excited to undertake. Blue and White figures to play an integral role in our plans for the offseason and, more so, preseason, so watch this space for more on that end.


The Extension

Carl Robinson was a victim of his own success this term. In his first two years as head coach, the 40-year-old completely redefined what is expected within the club, and after the record-breaking success accomplished in 2015 those expectations soon spread to the stands. This year saw the guys crowned Kings of Cascadia for the sixth time, qualify as the #1 seed for the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stages and come within a few precious seconds of winning back-to-back Voyageurs Cups - please save the hard liquor for after you've finished reading.

The Whitecaps Robinson inherited when he took the top job would have been met with a totally different response from everyone following the team, and that is exactly why the club have decided to extend the Welshman's contract - as well as renewing assistants Martyn Pert and Gordon Forrest - through to 2020. Unlike the informed/sane/decent portions of America, I anticipate everyone in Vancouver will want four more years when that deal expires - and I look forward to reminding everyone of that - but some additional perspective may be required to totally convince some fans. 

In a regular season only matched by the NFL this year where the bizarre is concerned, the Caps looked a shadow of the side that finished second and earned a first round playoff bye in the ridiculously stacked West a year earlier. Therein lies much of the disappointment with the last seven months and Robbo's performance in that time. I will go to the grave adamant that Octavio Rivero was one of the most influential members of the roster in his time here, and his exit was detrimental, but the explanation for that collective regression extends beyond one transaction.

The same applies for the offseason departure of Steven Beitashour; who some seem to believe would have been able to solve world hunger whilst carrying the Caps to the Supporters' Shield if he wasn't dealt for the second round pick used on Christopher Hellmann. In reality it was a lethal cocktail of complacency mixed with poor discipline, along with an unexpected decline in chemistry, that caused Vancouver to stagnate in MLS. And yes, part of the blame for that can be attributed to Robbo's handling of the various situations he was forced to deal with as the schedule rolled on.

Although it would be an exaggeration to suggest that he lost the locker room amid the adversity, it was clear that Robinson didn't receive the same kind of commitment to the cause he had reaped from certain players previously. It appears fairly probable that such individuals will pay with their jobs as the focus shifts to rediscovering the direction towards the league's elite the club had been following until crashing into the iceberg that was 2016. Respect is certainly owed to the violinists who refused to drop their instruments and stop playing, instead choosing to diligently do their job.

While it's difficult enough to emerge as a contender in MLS, the slim margin for error makes remaining one of the preeminent forces in your conference an even greater conquest for any outsider. Robinson took his first full coaching role, as assistant here, as recently as 2012, and has honed his craft on the job. His experience in the league as a player afforded him an education that most foreign managers aren't blessed with, and now his three years as head coach have afforded him the type of education that few managers in any league receive so soon into their careers.

Conscientious observers plead patience with young players in the early stages of their professional existence, and the principle behind that applies equally in the coaching world. Robbo will now be able to call upon the vital experience he's gained this year in seasons to come, acknowledging where he perhaps had room for improvement the same way his developing players will be able to; it's all part of the learning process. The advantages of the humility produced by the failure to meet expectations should not go understated for a project that is still immature at this moment in time. 

Those that don't deserve to wear the shirt will be moving onto their next endeavour, and those who have proven that they want to be here will benefit from the same opportunities to excel they always have. Enforcing that turnover in personnel is essential, and the testicular fortitude required for that was demonstrated when Beita and Gersh found new homes. For a team that built everything on its harmonious chemistry in happier times, looking beyond potential on-field upside and reconsidering what each player brings to the group's balance will be tantamount to the recovery process though.

As crucial as it is to strip the roster of harmful influences, progress will be impossible without the right replacements to justify an offseason makeover. Not that this hasn't been the case in winters gone by, but it's now even more important that additions are made with a clear tactical philosophy in mind. It is valuable to be chameleonic in a league where the Caps will meet many unique opponents, yet that ability to adapt isn't worthwhile unless the side can master one approach as a foundation first. The team's ceiling will rise exponentially if that clear style can be implemented.

I still have every confidence in how the club evaluate talent, and in how Robinson has established his recruitment system. Learning from your mistakes is the quickest and easiest way to become adept in the transfer market, and the most recent offseason's activity should inform what the next influx of talent consists of. Moreover, this trial and error kind of methodology - while sub-optimal in the meantime when guys don't work out - will in theory help to make Robinson's criteria for new additions more accurate, if his process of self-evaluation remains unemotional and objective.

It's worth remembering that Vancouver were tipped by numerous pundits to capture MLS Cup for good reason. Two years removed from appointing Robbo as the ostensible third choice candidate behind Bob Bradley and Frank Yallop, that kind of progress represents an outstanding feat for the club. If he had arrived ten years into his managerial career my optimism would not be of the same fervour, but there's genuine cause for belief that he can develop as a manager and recapture the essence of his earlier magic. That's why he deserves the vote of confidence, as well as your faith.


In Appreciation of Erik Hurtado

Compared to the events of 2015 that have cast a shadow over the column to this point, it hasn't been as easy to create a highlight reel worth remembering in contrast to a whole lot more worth forgetting from the turbulence of the past year. For some, Alphonso Davies's breathtaking breakthrough before his 16th birthday will spring to mind. For others, watching the Thundercaps deliver an exceptional sophomore campaign in the USL under Alan Koch will stand out. For me, it was the transformation of a lethargic frustration into a key contributor that illuminated dark days.

Erik Hurtado's rejuvenation after being exiled to Norway in 2015 was the feel good story of the season that never got any attention from those with the platform to tell it. It's time we did something about that. There are many players out there who infuriate fans with their relaxed work ethic and absent motivation to make the most of their abilities, and for a while Erik was guilty of that. He was a talent, to be sure, but a talent that needed moulding to a specific function in the team. Growth that we've since enjoyed, despite the presumed unlikelihood that was assigned to it ever happening. 

The minutes in the Tippeligaen did benefit the 26-year-old, however the loan spell should be heralded for what it did for Hurtado the person more so than Hurtado the player. The latter had become irrelevant in Vancouver without the maturation of the former. As it turned out, a small town in Norway with a population, Erik estimates, of 12,000 was the perfect location to facilitate the long awaited development the club, realizing the urgency of the matter, were so desperate to elicit out of him in dispatching him to Europe. A course of action worth considering with other Caps too.

During the preseason preparations, with a lot to prove amid the arrivals of Masato Kudo and Blas Perez, Erik offered the kind of dedication to the cause every manager dreams of receiving from their attacking players. It was exactly what he needed to do to buy more time in which to convince his coach that he belonged on the team, and more than that, to become the kind of asset on the field his uninspiring approach to the game had prevented beforehand. Circumstances out of his control allowed him to demonstrate that, but it was an opportunity that was earned nevertheless.

In one of his best examples of resourcefulness, Robinson successfully found an internal replacement for the outgoing Rivero through one of his best examples of man-management. Hurtado isn't as technically gifted as Octavio is, but with his new lease of life was able to replicate the effort that is demanded by Robbo's system. He was also able to deliver a lot of the same movement out of possession that his predecessor mastered, alleviating the disruption to the side's balance El Cabeza's exit forced despite his remarkable resurgence not being enough to save the season.

There lies the answer to what sort of involvement Hurtado should have next season if Vancouver are to make the playoffs or, at least, do anything in the playoffs. He's illustrated his capacity to improve so I wouldn't rule out him turning it around someday, but Erik doesn't quite offer everything Rivero did for Robinson to look past his mediocre finishing and production. The starting forward, if like Highlander there can be only one, will probably be asked to do some of the same things, but will also have new properties to their role that aren't suited to the ghosts of Caps strikers past.

Nobody values everything else higher than I do, and that's why I believe he has a future at BC Place so long as he doesn't return to old habits. If he is needed to come on and stretch the defence, or to rest whoever the first choice turns out to be - particularly if their legs have run many miles - Hurtado will do what is asked of him to the highest standard he's capable of. Because of his reliability, I would suggest Erik's current employment status is more secure than any of the other options up front. The morals of the story: hard work pays off and second chances are worth giving.


Real Friends

The shrewdest investment in a designated player ever made by an MLS club is now a free agent, having seen his latest contract with the LA Galaxy expire without renewal. 83 goals and 45 assists in 125 regular season appearances and a wide array of clutch displays in the playoffs, along with three MLS Cups, is one heck of a legacy to leave, but now a new challenge awaits Robbie Keane. A challenge that will, it seems, take place someplace new in North America. The speculation as to where that might be exactly has been rampant since LA's postseason ended abruptly in Colorado.

Expansion outfits Minnesota and Atlanta would seem logical fits for a number of reasons, should there be mutual interest in making a collaboration happen this offseason. Both are effectively starting from scratch where their roster is concerned and because of that are blessed with more financial flexibility than the teams they will be competing with in 2017. Keane, one of the greatest players this league has ever seen, would signal their intentions and give either of them a more talented goalscorer in their first season of MLS existence than the Caps have had in six.

Neither club, nor any other hypothetical landing spot across the league, should be taken more seriously than Vancouver's pursuit of the 36-year-old however. The Caps are blessed with one of the few cities capable of matching the quality of the lifestyle Keane's family enjoyed in South California, a young team that he would instantly become the focal point of as a leader (and likely captain) and, most importantly, one of the Irishman's closest friends in the game. The relationship shared with head coach Carl Robinson is the biggest unique selling point anyone can offer Keane.

It's a friendship that has spanned two decades, beginning when the two featured in the Wolves first team together as kids and continuing as they moved on to pastures new in their footballing careers; Robbie even travelled to Mid Wales to attend Carl's engagement party in his hometown of Llandrindod Wells. Keane, four years his junior, was able to lean on Robinson's experience coming through the ranks in the West Midlands and could now reunite with his old team-mate to conclude his playing days. No other move would be as poetic, and I'm certain that both parties realize that.

As enjoyable as the sentimentality of the situation is, there are aspects to a deal with the Whitecaps that require more consideration than to simply hand Keane a blank contract. He is declining physically - Keane missed ten regular season fixtures across the duration of the campaign with injury - as you would expect from a striker of Robbie's vintage, however his productivity in front of goal hasn't to this point suffered the same slip. His goals per 90 rate of 0.67, per Squakwa, was actually the same as it was in 2014 when his efforts were recognized with Most Valuable Player distinction.

Keane's contribution did fall off creatively as he averaged a paltry, by comparison with his other seasons in LA, 0.6 key passes per 90 and only managed to assist a single goal in his 1533 minutes on the field. That said, the dynamic of the Galaxy shifted drastically last term - for the first time since Beckham retired - as dos Santos and Gerrard accounted for much of the playmaking responsibilities Keane had assumed before. There wasn't the same need for him to drop deeper or move out wide to make chances for others in the final third, perhaps by design given his mileage.

How Robbo would use his old friend next season remains to be seen, but don't expect the same treatment Rivero, Hurtado or even the comparably seasoned Blas Perez have received. Keane's talent would need to be protected to such an extent that the Caps could rely on his preserved instincts in front of goal; presumably meaning minutes restrictions and a lot less distance covered within his movement in and out of possession. The need to circumvent the problem of isolation other forwards have suffered in Vancouver is exacerbated by these very necessary accommodations too.

These are discussions for the coaching staff to contemplate - a unit one could imagine Keane joining in the future for much of the same reasons this current discussion is even happening. Robbie obtained his UEFA A License earlier this year, and it's hard to envisage another MLS franchise offering the same direct avenue to a coaching role when he ultimately hangs up his boots. Keane's coaching odyssey could mirror the start of his playing endeavours back in Wolverhampton with Robbo, and I wouldn't sleep on this route influencing his decision to move north of the border.

It seems likely that the Caps will rely on the development, as much as the electricity, of Kekuta Manneh and Alphonso Davies where the attack is concerned. Both guys have incredibly high ceilings, and the best way for Robbo to ensure that their potential is explored in Upper Cascadia is to surround them with the kind of quality they can learn from first hand and aspire to emulate. Everyone would gain from being surrounded by Keane's presence, yet the effects on Kekuta and Alphonso would be especially valuable. He would earn part of his salary through that guidance.

One of the catalysts for Vancouver's struggles in 2016 was the lack of leadership inside the locker room at the most fragile junctures of the campaign. Morales was able to lead by example in his first two years at BC Place when things were generally good, but disappointed with the armband amid postseason adversity and when his side had their backs against the wall last season. Adding Keane to the mix would symbolize an instant solution to that problem - an issue that needs addressing regardless - and that's where the wisdom in meeting whatever his demands are financially lies.

The Whitecaps have to take risks if they are to resurrect as a contender in 2017, and this should be the first gamble the club takes after prolonging their commitment to the Carl Robinson project.


The Podcast

On the latest episode of From The Backline, Mark and Jorge were joined by ChuBoi to talk about the 2016 campaign, which Whitecaps they believe should remain and which they think ought to be moved on, and Chu discusses the latest projects he's been working on.

You can download or subscribe to the From the Backline podcast on iTunesStitcherGoogle Play, Tune-inPocket Casts or with show's RSS feed.