Old, new, old and new, old. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
In the past twelve months the Vancouver Whitecaps have disposed of two head coaches and announced the impending departure of their chief executive officer. They've finished bottom of the table, they've turned over huge swathes of their playing roster, and they have hired and fired members of the front office you never hear about but who are important to this team's success.
You don't have to look too far for a pundit willing to talk about how the Whitecaps are in turmoil. It seems like every other day comes some discouraging headline (most written by the same people who use those headlines to convince us how screwed up the Whitecaps are but never mind). I think even the organization itself would admit that they aren't where they dreamed they'd be this time last year.
The Whitecaps had an awful season on the field, obviously, and this is colouring fans' perceptions of the organization. Had the Whitecaps mounted a valiant playoff charge and won the Voyageurs Cup, there wouldn't be nearly as much angst over front office changes. However, in the atmosphere of a Wooden Spoon-winning team with a new head coach trying to win his name in MLS, it feels like just one more thing that can go wrong. People are even using the word "crisis".
Nonsense. The Whitecaps have handled significant power transitions before and come out stronger. The leader may be stepping aside in a few months but the organization, as well as much of its talent, remains. The Whitecaps are doing business, improving their team, and hardly behaving like a group without direction or leadership. Going by the evidence, the Whitecaps aren't one of the top 25 clubs in the world but they are, at least, fine.
The degree of upheaval Barber's impending resignation brings is sometimes overstated. I've seen it written by quite serious observers that "Barber is leaving after only one year" as though forgetting that the Whitecaps existed before 2011 and Barber signed his contract on March 1, 2010. He is also being replaced within the organization, with Bob Lenarduzzi and Rachel Lewis splitting the same job they did quite successfully in the second-division days.
They're not alone. A run down the Whitecaps front office directory will reveal several familiar, important names with positive reputations. A lot of talent and a lot of goodwill in that front office which has been with this team since Tom Soehn was just some American ex-coach.
We fans like to focus on the big personalities who are in the press a lot, like the chief executive officer, but he's the one who sets the policy rather than the one who does the work. There's been turnover in the front office, with some departments harder-hit than others, but given the vast expansion in scale the Whitecaps have undergone in the last year and a half I hardly find that astonishing. And it's those employees who have been turned over that are actually most enthusiastic about Barber's departure.
It's hard to argue that Barber deserves to go and then call the Whitecaps out when he goes. Some writers, most notably the esteemed Michael McColl, have called Barber an outright failure. There were too many bums in seats and too much off-field success in the Whitecaps' first MLS season for me to say that, but the more die-hard a supporter you are the less likely you are to be upset Barber is gone. There are fans who simultaneously cheer Barber's departure and fret that he's gone. If the Whitecaps aren't falling head-over-heels to keep somebody many fans think is useless in a business where the front-office decision makers are too often insulated from responsibility, that's a good thing.
The Whitecaps are hardly behaving like a club in turmoil. The Young-Pyo Lee signing is a good example: at the same time this club is supposed to be in big trouble, they're going out and signing big-name players to fill key positions for substantial money. Season ticket sales are continuing much more smoothly than they did last year and the sales department is handling the difficult job of relocating supporters with aplomb. Full-time media members are still getting their quotes and no cone of silence has fallen over the front office.
A similar drama played out last year in the Whitecaps organization on a smaller scale. The Vancouver Whitecaps Residency is coming off its own existential crisis: in February of 2010 the program's founding supremo, Thomas Niendorf, resigned in acrimonious circumstances. He was replaced on an interim basis by Colin Miller, already part of the organization. Miller, who had PDL coaching experience with the Victoria Highlanders, coached the Residency through the 2010 USL PDL season but did not get the job permanently, being replaced by Dutch import Richard Grootscholten in November.
When Niendorf resigned, it meant the Residency was losing arguably the most esteemed soccer development expert in Canada and there was no shortage of naysayers both inside and outside of Vancouver who criticized the Whitecaps. The fools, not doing everything they could to retain a talent like Niendorf's.
In fact, by all accounts, Niendorf and the Whitecaps had a simple if irreconcilable disagreement over strategy and, while Niendorf's abilities were never in doubt neither was the correctness of his resignation. It's not uncommon for a talented man and an ambitious organization to be unable to work together simply because their objectives are too different.
Luckily, the Whitecaps took their time finding a replacement and appeared to have hired a good one. Grootscholten came into Vancouver without much of a profile but his teams have been competitive while the talent on those teams has improved. He's already graduated Bryce Alderson to the Whitecaps first team and more is certain to come. Far from being ruined by the loss of its talented leader, the Whitecaps Residency is arguably in the best shape it's ever been in, contributing more players than ever before to Canada's youth national teams.
So no, the departure of Barber does not mean the Whitecaps are a rudderless ship drifting into the shoals. They certainly aren't behaving like one and, so far, are handling their transitions between coaches and between executives as well as any team possibly could. If the team hadn't struggled so badly on the field last season we wouldn't even be worried, but negativity in one aspect of an organization can easily lead to negativity over others even when they're not particularly related.
What's important is whether the Whitecaps are continuing to improve and make the right decisions. So far, so good. This off-season is already shaping up better than the last: if this is a crisis then give me more of them.