Carl Robinson

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Carl Robinson on Alphonso Davies, MLS, and what’s next for him

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Canada named its Gold Cup squad this week, but you didn’t need to check a list to know one name was included on coach John Herdman’s list: Alphonso Davies, the 18-year-old Bayern Munich youngster who scored his first Bundesliga goal this March.

The Canadian teen hasn’t necessarily been top of mind this side of the Atlantic since his transfer; He’s being brought along slowly by Bayern, and didn’t quite get the publicity worthy of his immense talent while with Vancouver in Major League Soccer, either.

[ MORE: 3 key battles in UCL Final ]

So what should we expect from Davies at the Gold Cup, as the 18-year-old looks to build off a 3-goal performance at the 2017 edition which labeled him the youngest goal scorer in tournament history? Pro Soccer Talk asked the man perhaps most responsible for Davies’ development, former Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson, as part of a wide-ranging interview that touches on Davies, Tyler Adams, the future of MLS, and his desire to get back in a manager’s chair.

A former Norwich City, Toronto FC, and Welsh national team mainstay, Robinson is eight months removed from his first foray into management. From 2013-18 with Vancouver, Robinson led the ‘Caps to the MLS Cup Playoffs thrice, earning 50-plus points on all three occasions, and the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals once. He also became part of a select group to win the Canadian Championship as a player and as a manager.

PST: Let’s start here, how did you go about the development of Alphonso Davies with Vancouver?

Carl Robinson: “I used a plan that Arsene Wenger had with Aaron Ramsey, having known Aaron through the Wales set-up. When Aaron moved from Cardiff to Arsenal at age 17 for six million quid, he couldn’t understand why after every fourth game he got left out no matter how well he played. When he went to speak to the manager, the manager explained to him that this is what he’s done with young players, whether Cesc Fabregas or whomever.

“I used that, not letter of the law, but I used that plan with Alphonso. When I sensed a little drop off in training, I’d leave him out. People thought he should play every minute of every game, but I disagreed. I knew the fans wanted to see him as a wonder kid, but I knew the right plan for him. We tried to keep him away from the media, because he needed to concentrate on his football only. Looking back on it, it was the correct way of dealing with it and all credit to him for understanding.”

PST: At 16, he was being linked with Chelsea, Liverpool, reports even went as far as a reported trial with Manchester United. How did Bayern Munich become his destination two years later?

Robinson: “There were lots of rumors, but nothing ever concrete. The summer of 2018, everything went pretty quickly. A number of clubs explained their interest. Some were serious, some were very serious, and some weren’t serious because when a top club like Bayern Munich comes in, it alerts the other top clubs.

“Bayern did their homework. They watched the player, met the player, got references from people around him, then sat down with him and his representatives and laid down a five-year plan for him. In that plan was opportunities with first and second team, and that’s what people don’t understand with young players. It’s not just about what they do on a Saturday in front of 30,000 people. It’s what they do off the field. It’s what they do from Monday to Friday.

“When I saw the plan from Bayern Munich, and Alphonso saw it, it was an unbelievable opportunity for him. He’s been part of lifting two trophies but there’s still a lot left for his development. There are a lot of fantastic players in Bayern’s U-23 side who haven’t gotten a chance. He’ll have a fight on his hands but he’s got the right mentality to do it.”

PST: It can be difficult for those of us in MLS or American soccer circles to get a gauge for what we should expect from our phenoms, from Landon Donovan to Christian Pulisic to Diego Lainez? What should we be looking for when it comes to Davies? What’s his ceiling?

Robinson: “How good is he? He has got the potential to be an exceptional player. He’s a very good player at the moment, but I’ve seen players with huge potential. Ravel Morrison with Manchester United, Tyler Adams with the Red Bulls. It can go different ways.

“Tyler was in the German Cup final, Alphonso wasn’t in the 18. Tyler’s more suited now because of his positional awareness. The key element for Alphonso is attacking players are judged on outputs, goals and assists. He’s not judged on he worked really hard. Midfield players we can talk about pass location, covering ground, how hard they work, because Tyler’s as good as there is in relation to that.

“Alphonso needs to take his game to the next level when it comes to scoring goals and making assists. And Bayern will help him with all that. He was able to beat players in MLS with his power and his pace, but there are going to be players in the Bundesliga who have his power and his pace.

“Again, I don’t get carried away with saying he’s a superstar already. His football over there will make him a superstar. He’s still got a lot of work ahead of him but he has the mindset and mentality to get there for sure. Look at (Liverpool’s) Harry Wilson and (Chelsea’s) Mason Mount at Derby, there are high value players who are playing in the Championship, so he needs to find regular football. He might need to go on loan. He may break in with Robben and Ribery leaving.

“It’s going to take him some time to adjust, but there might be a bigger upside at the end of it if he can get himself into a rhythm, a groove, and play to a level in which I know he can get. Knowing the kid, and probably being a bit biased, he can make it. But there are also better players than him who have not reached their potential, so I think Bayern is a wonderful place for him.”

PST: MLS is a lot different then 2007, when you arrived from Norwich City and became TFC’s Player of the Season. What’s changed most? What’s your overall take on the league?

Robinson: “Back in 2007, there was a lot of hullaballoo with David Beckham arriving a week after I came over. Since then we’ve had Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, David Villa… The league has grown dramatically. The insertion of high level DPs has been important. It’s made people sit up and take notice. The addition of TAM money, even though it’s complicated and like Monopoly money, is increasing the quality over the squad.

“The way they’ve tried to build it slowly is correct. There still should be a big focus on development with the USL teams, which will help the Major League Soccer teams grow, and academies as well. It’s probably grown quicker than I thought it would, but now people don’t want to see it stagnate. That probably means more investment, and more TAM and more DPs. Given the new CBA, they have to figure out the way to do it right.”

PST: So there’s no denying your debut foray into management was a success in Vancouver. For a club spending in the bottom half at best to be a regular threat to host home playoff games… that’s pretty decent. Your numbers compare with the bigger American names in coaching: Vermes, Berhalter, Vanney. What’s next?

Robinson: “I’ve taken a much needed break. I wanted to spend more time with my family. I have two children, ages 17 and 11, and I missed a lot of their growing up because the commitment of being a player, coach, and manager. This is 24-7. I needed that time with them.

“But I’m still watching more football and traveling everywhere. Learning is paramount and I’ve been able to do that more. Spending time with other managers has been refreshing and valuable. There are also some excellent people within MLS clubs that have been great with me. You earn respect and trust. 10 years over here has been great. I know MLS inside out now. Although rules are always changing… These things don’t change. I’ll start to look at opportunities I feel are right. There have a number of conversations I’ve had with a people and teams in different countries, but what I’ve said to my family is I’ll take the right opportunity, not any opportunity. Being a manager for five years and inside one club for seven you understand how it works, and what you need to be successful  I’m looking forward to wherever my next challenge. I’m in no rush but I know my passion is football.”

PST: One more odd note. Your playing resume reads like a list of teams who were playoff-bound or promoted this year: Norwich, Sheffield United, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Wolves. Do you still root for all of them? Any more than the others?

“I follow all my former teams. I have friends and respect for them all. I still follow Red Bulls, Toronto. Wolves staying in the PL is a great opportunity. Norwich & Sheffield United getting promoted, that’s brilliant. Sunderland, that’s heartache. I know the Mackem fans will be absolutely devastated. Portsmouth too. What you learn in football is taking nothing for granted although people have short memories. I genuinely believe where I’m at at the moment, there’s a reason. What I do next, there’s a reason.”

The Vancouver Whitecaps had a very lively postseason media day

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP
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You know what sounds terrible? Being a part of the 2018 Vancouver Whitecaps.

Aside from Alphonso Davies’ sale to Bayern Munich, the ‘Caps struggled to keep any semblance of momentum all season and saw their poor campaign cost longtime coach Carl Robinson his job.

[ MORE: MLS Playoff Preview ]

“Robbo” must’ve been smirking a little today, as the Whitecaps had a post-season press conference for the ages. It included tears, a captain asking out (again), and some pretty damning complaints.

Take this one, from 24-times capped New Zealand international and starting goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic.

Cue the “This is fine” meme.

Vancouver fired Robinson with five matches left in the season and playoff hopes still alive. They promptly took four points out of the next 12 and were eliminated before winning on the Decision Day and finishing two points back of sixth.

Captain Kendall Waston wasn’t happy with the move then, and spoke out more forcefully on Tuesday. Waston said he “doesn’t like two-faced people” and expects a transfer. Vancouver says he won’t be sold for less than market value.

Felipe Martins was in tears as he recapped a rough personal season that included his father-in-law dying, a loss of a family dog, and further unnamed family issues.

And Efrain Juarez was not pleased with his teammates speaking out in public.

Waston, Kamara upset by Vancouver coaching change

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The Vancouver Whitecaps parted ways with one of the longer tenured managers in Major League Soccer, and two of its stars are not happy with the move.

Carl Robinson was fired Tuesday after nearly five years in charge of the Caps, when Vancouver elected to hire him over Bob Bradley and other candidates.

[ MORE: Pulisic shines in BVB blowout ]

But things turned sour this season, and Vancouver president Bob Lenarduzzi is hoping a late coaching change can propel the Caps back into the playoffs. Vancouver is four points back of the final spot with five matches to play.

Kendall Waston joined Vancouver at the end of Robinson’s first season, and was twice named to the MLS Best XI in addition to making the All Star Team in 2016. From MLSSoccer.com:

“It’s a difficult moment. I’m not happy at all. But as a player, you have bosses, and even if you don’t like the things that happen, you have to respect what those bosses say. … I was thinking, with five games to go, was this the right moment? Personally, I don’t think it was the right moment, but I’m not in charge of the club.”

The Costa Rican captains Vancouver, so his feelings certainly matter when it comes to how they rebound from the decision.

And star striker Kei Kamara admits he feels the firing in his bones.

“He believed in me, he believed in how I could play, he believed that I can fit the system, and I respect him so much as a coach and for everything he’s done here,” Kamara said. “So when I heard the news, I took it personally too because I feel that we did that to him as players. … I feel responsible for part of it.”

The Caps have a rough run into the end of the season, with a visit to the desperate LA Galaxy before heading across the continent to meet Toronto FC at BMO Field. They finish home to Sporting KC, away to LAFC, and home to Portland.

MLS wrap: Friedel, Vancouver in focus; More Zlatan thoughts

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We’re fairly positive you heard at least one Major League Soccer score from this weekend.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic took his status as a living legend to our shores, and came off the bench to make an instant impact on debut in the LA Galaxy’s thrilling 4-3 win over LAFC on Saturday.

[ MORE: Arsenal beats Stoke ]

Ibrahimovic scored a wild shot off a bounce from almost 40 yards before heading in the winner as the Galaxy rallied back from a 3-0 deficit in the first “El Trafico.”

“I saw the goalkeeper he was out and I said I will shoot it over, but it was all depending how do I shoot, do I shoot high or in front to put power on it,” Ibrahimovic said. “I chose the power way and it went in. Then the adrenaline starts, you start, and you don’t want it to finish. You take off your shirt and you just want to celebrate with the fans. You want to feel the energy that is going through the stadium. If I would have more strength, I would have run all over the pitch, but I just managed one side of the field.”

A couple other thoughts on the game, and Zlatan:

— The next time someone tells you that MLS, or any league brand, needs players more than names, ask yourself if the league would be better served if Saturday’s meter would have moved with “random 20-year-old South American or European prospects” had the same performances as Carlos Vela and Ibrahimovic. If you said yes, well, enjoy making “Use Your Illusion III.”

Bob Bradley, likely the most impressive American-born manager in history, has had enough of Zlatan. The LAFC boss oversaw Saturday’s come-from-ahead loss as well as a 3-1 loss to Manchester United as Swansea boss which included a brace from the Big Swede. Four goals in about 113 minutes. Woof.

— In our rush to call it the “best game in MLS history,” please don’t forget David Beckham’s first start, which finished three goals off his set pieces and markers from a 17-year-old Jozy Altidore in addition to Landon Donovan, a bullet from Clint Mathis, Edson Buddle, and Juan Pablo Angel:

Some other things we learned on Saturday (and Friday).

— Toronto is going to be fine. The Reds have a huge CONCACAF Champions League match looming at midweek, and still battered Real Salt Lake 3-1 at BMO Field. Of course they should usually handle their business, like most good MLS teams, when a team travels across a continent as they did Friday. But off an 0-2 league start, surely seeing two goals from Jozy Altidore — and 12 combined shots from the USMNT striker and Sebastian Giovinco — feels good.

— The only match Brad Friedel has lost as New England Revolution boss was his opener, and that saw the Revs go two men down. If Friedel and I were friends, I’d like to think I’d call him “Frieds.”

“Frieds,” I’d say, “Looks like I was wrong about you being able to find the talent in that bunch and do well as a first year manager.”

That’s because New England is now 2-1-1 after beating Houston 2-0, albeit up a man for most of the match. Keep an eye on a manager the league would love to trumpet with more success.

— Orlando City and the New York Red Bulls staged a 4-3 wonder in Florida, but you can be happy you weren’t watching live to see the officials send soccer back 20 years by not calling Dom Dwyer for his rugby style stiff arm of Luis Robles in scoring off a corner. You have to feel for the video editor here, because the below highlight is state-run TV level funny. Imagine trying to build a lifelong fan out of someone who’s watched any other high level soccer in his life when this happens to their team:

— There’s a reason Carl Robinson is still in charge over in British Columbia, and the Vancouver Whitecaps‘ 2-1 win in Columbus show just why. The Crew are a tight, thriving unit, but Robinson’s men didn’t flinch when Gyasi Zardes put them down a goal. Well-utilized Brek Shea continued a productive start to the season with an equalizer, and Federico Higuain’s old pal Kei Kamara gave the ‘Caps all three points level with Sporting KC for first in the West.

— Speaking of Sporting, KC scored a third minute goal and a welcomed clean sheet in moving to 3-1-1 with a win over Ben Olsen’s DC United. Goal scorer Felipe Gutierrez might be the league’s top performer over the first month of the season. After failing to score in KC’s season-opening loss, he has five goals in five games.

— It was another big name veteran who starred for Chicago Fire and kept Gio Savarese from a win as Portland Timbers manager. Bastian Schweinsteiger set-up goals from Nemanja Nikolic and Brandon Vincent in a 2-2 tie at Toyota Park in Illinois.

— No snow globe this time around, and no real goals in Atlanta United‘s win at Minnesota United. An own goal hurts, but the Loons are looking much better in Year Two of MLS.

— It’s going to take San Jose some time to become a consistent side under Mikael Stahre, with a number of new pieces playing a new system, but there’s some encouragement in scoring early and sticking with dangerous NYCFC before falling 2-1. Most importantly, and we’ve said this before, Stahre has unleashed Valeri Qazaishvili, who recorded seven more shots as the West Coast, younger, poor man’s Sebastian Giovinco.

— Colorado Rapids handled their business again under head coach Anthony Hudson, with Dominique Badji bagging a hat trick in a 3-0 win over visiting Philadelphia. Tim Howard made four saves for the Rapids, who were outshot at home to spite the score line.

— Three games, three red cards for Seattle. This one helped them lose 1-0 to a Jeisson Vargas goal in Montreal.

Twenty-three* thoughts from MLS Week 2

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We here at the Twenty-Three are both capable of admitting our errors and stubborn enough to stick with ’em.

Major League Soccer has 23 teams, meaning at least one will be absent from the schedule most weeks.

Hence, calling a weekly status report the “Twenty-Three” is inaccurate.

[ MORE: West Ham fallout ]

So we move on with weekly thoughts on almost every team, on average, and still titled Twenty-Three, because we like the title and there are most certainly 23 franchises in the Majorest of Soccering Leagues.

Off this weekend: FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union, San Jose Earthquakes. Of the bunch, spare a thought or two for Seattle and Toronto, who are off to Mexico for midweek CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal second legs and have a very good chance of dancing to semifinal berths this week.

Atlanta United: For all of what Major League Soccer is, isn’t, and won’t be for some time, there’s no debate that having a boss with the tactical acumen of Tata Martino is important. Don’t know what it says about last week’s 4-0 drubbing in Texas, but our own Andy Edwards has a solid take on why Tata and tactics matter.

Columbus Crew: I’m not ready to anoint Gyasi Zardes as the Comeback Player of the Year, but he’s finishing his chances early this season. The extra g in Gregg Berhalter may stand for genius, as the Crew man continues to spin successful game plans with a changing roster.

[ MORE: All #SaveTheCrew news ]

And, oh yeah, #SaveTheCrew.

Chicago Fire: Was down 2-0 and came back to lead 3-2 by scoring thrice in under 15 minutes, which is nice. Lost 4-3, which was not at all nice.

Colorado Rapids: The Rapids, to no one’s surprise, lost after a long trip across the country, but can take some pride in the debut of 22-year-old Grand Canyon product Niki Jackson.

DC United: The Black-and-Red regressed against a step up in competition from Week 1, getting just six shots off in a 3-1 loss at Atlanta. But Darren Mattocks is being allowed to fire at will, now with eight shots over two matches. The mercurial underachiever is apparently going to get every chance to meet his potential in Washington.

Houston Dynamo: No one was expecting a repeat of Houston 4-0 Atlanta, but the Dynamo didn’t much resemble their opening week form aside from the continued dynamite skill set of Alberth Elis, who scored their lone goal. Lots to consider for Wilmer Cabrera with a trip to DC and a road match they’d like to count as result-worthy.

LAFC: Now, it may just turn out that the recipe for expansion success in MLS is the same as putting any sort of decent team together: a tactically-wise, experienced manager with creative attacking talents who can perform at a much higher level than MLS. Bob Bradley, Carlos Vela, and Diego Rossi, take a bow and then get back to work.

LA Galaxy: It’s hard to win on the road, especially adjusting for the tiny pitch at Yankee Stadium, so L.A. gets a bit of a pass for this week.

Minnesota United: As the kids on the social media say, “I am here for” Ethan Finlay finding his stride closer to home. The Duluth-born winger, 27, has five goals in 14 total appearances, two in two this season, for the Loons after scoring just seven times in his last 53 for Columbus.

The Loons showed supreme resolve in blocking 10 of Orlando’s 20 attempts on goal. And considering the criticism Minnesota boss Adrian Heath has faced, it’s solid for him to get a win against his former club.

Montreal Impact: Another loss, and it seems like we’ll see a bunch of those from the Quebecois side, but what a goal from Raheem Edwards. The cross getting to him is an argument against Columbus’ back line, but quite a hit:

New England Revolution: Brad Friedel did what he was supposed to do in picking up his first win — punish a cross-country traveling non-conference power. Still it’s not worth sleeping on the fact that Colorado won a load of 50/50 battles against a midfield which shouldn’t lose that many.

New York City FC: It’s improbable for me to describe the feeling in my soccer soul when I’m tuning the TV to an NYC game against a skilled opponent (or any time, really) only to see my mind made me forget they are playing on postage stamp which will only serve to produce a game of glorified Buffalo Blizzard vs. Cleveland Crunch. #WelcomeHomeOttoOrf.

New York Red Bulls: TFW you’re already going to lavish praise on Jesse Marsch and then get this email from intrepid RBNY PR man Gordon Stevenson: “Per Elias, 17-year-old (Ben) Mines is the fifth-youngest player to earn an MLS start in club history, and the third youngest to score, behind Eddie Gaven and Jozy Altidore.”

Red Bulls won 4-0 with Kyle Duncan, Derrick Etienne, and Mines in the Starting XI. Full marks if you know two of three (and that’s giving you a relative gimme in Etienne).

New York continues to churn out effective players many have never heard of until they impress on an MLS weekend. Mines doesn’t even have a blue check.

Orlando City: The Lions will be dismayed to take just one point from two matches, but remember we haven’t seen a minute from each of Sacha Kljestan and Dom Dwyer.

Portland Timbers: Gio Savarese is a good manager, but consider “losing to a bunch of kids in a match RBNY was willing to risk throwing away” a proper warning sign.

Real Salt Lake: Losing 5-1 at home to an expansion club would make any fan base want an apology. RSL’s boss is the kinda fella who’s not tone deaf and willing to proffer one. Back to the drawing board in Utah.

Sporting KC: We’ve long felt Peter Vermes in a potential USMNT coach, and his side put in a “Crazy Jurgen friendly win” performance in what Andy Edwards rightly called an “early game of the year contender.” Now can they find their reliable striker, or is this going to be a component scoring team?

Vancouver Whitecaps: Carl Robinson’s men continued to make a case for West Coast bias, heading into a building that witnessed a 4-0 defeat of Atlanta United and improving to 2-0 through Kei Kamara‘s 100th goal and a Break Shea winner.

Robinson was a bulldog of a player and his teams frequently do what it takes to get the job done, through any number of roster iterations. An inspired if “settling” hire from the ‘Caps  continues to pay off, as you don’t often see the assistant of a departed boss take over in trying times and go on to become a mainstay.