Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The 2012 Major League Soccer season ended with the MLS Cup on December 1st.

Seven weeks later and the teams are all back in pre-season mode, looking forward to 2013's "First Kick" on March 2nd.

For Vancouver Whitecaps, there was an extra month to sit around and improve their golf handicap, having bowed out of the playoffs in the first round at the start of November.

It was a historic season for the Club, making the playoffs in only their second MLS season and becoming the first Canadian club to ever do so.

Some change from their previous bottom of the heap finish, but it set the expectations. 2013 had to be even better.

For Whitecaps fans that means several things: winning the Canadian championship for the first time and qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League; and reaching the playoffs once again, but this time hosting and winning at least one game.

Anything less will be deemed a failure and although he would never admit it publically, Head Coach Martin Rennie knows this to be the case and the Scot, who pushes himself harder at every opportunity, would have it no other way.

Last season, the Thurso born Rennie decided to rely on the help of some fellow Scots and other UK expats.

'Designated Players' Kenny Miller and Barry Robson, were joined by former Newcastle and Irish national team defender Andy O'Brien.

The first two came in amongst huge fanfare, and pay packets to match (Miller on $1.24 million and Robson on $596,000). The softly spoken O'Brien came in under the radar, picked up only $192,250, and outperformed his two bigger name signings every step of the way.

The daggers of many fans were soon out for the seemingly underperforming Scots. Barry Robson finished the season with 3 goals in 17 appearances and Kenny Miller just 2 in 13.

Not the best production. Not the worst. But when you're talking about the team's two biggest earners, more was expected.

Fans were quick to point the favouritism finger and accused Rennie, and his assistant, ex Jambo Paul Ritchie, of bringing in their countrymen on reputation alone and just because they were Scots.

Maybe they did, but either way, it didn't seem to be working.

The axe was particularly out for Miller, with many fans hoping he would arrange a loan or permanent move back to the UK this off-season. The addition of several new and younger strikers and wingers seemed to indicate that Miller's days in Vancouver were numbered.

Rennie though seems keen to keep hold of Miller, and for his part in it, the Scottish captain is very happy in Vancouver and wants to stay and prove he is not a busted flush.

The jury was out on Robson. Some felt we were going to see the best of him this season. Others just wanted him gone too, partly from his on field performances and partly due to his on field actions and overall demeanour. The general consensus though was that he was the best midfielder that the Whitecaps had.

Somewhat ironically, and unexpectedly, as Whitecaps pre-season training got underway on January 21st, Miller was there all smiles and raring to go and Barry Robson was absent.

It was then revealed hours later that Robson and the Whitecaps had parted ways with the Club and player having mutually agreed to terminate the contract, playing the good old "family never fully settled in Vancouver" card.

When Robson was announced as joining the Caps in February last year, there was genuine excitement at what the experienced midfielder could bring to the team.

Unfortunately, once he started playing in July the reality was a player from a different footballing culture who just didn't seem to have what it takes to cut it in Major League Soccer.

Is the game really that different in North America to the UK? Others have struggled and Kris Boyd has just been bought out of his contract at Portland Timbers. Maybe it's just the Scots!

The sometimes lengthy travel between games takes some getting used to. So does the often poor quality officiating. How you deal with such things, and frustrations in general, tend to shape people's perceptions of you and Robson's biggest struggles seemed to be shaking off the perception of him by some fans and the media.

Many didn't like his on field attitude and he was plagued by rumours of dressing room disharmony. He was certainly hard to like at times out there.

If you were to ask fans for their lasting impressions of Robson, it wouldn't be his standout performance against Beckham's LA side in July (where Robson was the best midfielder on the park), instead it would be his constant arm waving to either berate of team-mates (including the club captain in one heated exchange) or the officials, the failure to track back or look interested at times, the sitting on his ass complaining about everything when the game was going on round about him, sometimes to the detriment of the Caps.

All sadly true and all attributes of a player that will always find it hard to settle into the North American game and win the warm affection of the fans here.

When he arrived in Vancouver he told AFTN: "I wear my heart on my sleeve. That’s the type of guy I am."

And he did. For all to see. And many didn't like what they saw.

I can't knock him for that to an extent. I want to see passion and the desire to win. At least he showed he cared.

Fans in particular can accept such actions if the player himself is without sin. Sadly Robson performed so far below his game on many occasions that it really was a case of pots and black kettles and his actions were clearly born out of frustrations at himself at times.

He was seen and portrayed as dour and surly by sections of the media, but it has to be remembered that he came from a background where the football media are not to be trusted. He wasn't used to be forced to chat to the press pack on a daily basis and less than enamoured by the post match open dressing room, which he never liked or got used to. I still find it weird wandering in there after a game!

I never found him to be hard to deal with personally. He always had time to speak with me. We shared a laugh and joke about a few things. Maybe it was just being a fellow Scot in unfamiliar surroundings, but as his time went on he did start to crack some smiles in the press scrums and come across as more friendly and approachable. Not that such things make as interesting reporting of course.

Are the Whitecaps a better team now without Robson? At this precise moment, no. There is now a huge gap in the midfield.

Will they be a better team when Rennie brings in a younger, more creative, productive and athletic midfielder in his place? Undoubtedly.

Given a full season here, I think the fans would have seen the Barry Robson I've watched since his early days playing against East Fife. Unfortunately we only ever got to see some very rare glimpses of that player in MLS.

Something didn't work with the Robson experiment. Whether it was the player, the tactics, the team-mates, the environment or a combination of all of that, we may never truly know.

Now, as pre-season continues and it's six weeks till the new season kicks off, the Whitecaps have a massive gaping hole in the middle of the park. Whoever replaces Robson needs to be strong, creative and someone to build the team around for several years to come. I'm guessing he won't be Scottish.

This is shaping up to be a very intriguing season for Vancouver Whitecaps from the off. We'll keep you posted.

[You can get daily news on all things Vancouver Whitecaps on AFTN's Canadian website at: www.aftn.ca]

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