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Angry Dragons: Long Tan, Bad Tweets, and a Worse Future

Two experts in being upset at the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Two experts in being upset at the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Last week, Rob R. Scott mused upon the fate of Vancouver Whitecaps forward Long Tan. Tan, for the uninitiated, is a 24-year-old journeyman who came to the Whitecaps after a decent but underwhelming career with FC Tampa Bay in the second division. He's an exciting player to watch with good athleticism but little real technical ability. I gave my detailed opinion on Long back in March and have seen nothing to change my mind.

After a few decent appearances with last year's Whitecaps, Tan's been on the outside: 27 minutes in Major League Soccer plus a bevy more in USL PDL and the MLS Reserves. It seems like small beer for a third-year professional like Tan.

Long certainly thought so. Last Friday, while I was in Cuba, he dropped a couple of tweet bombs in the middle of the night.

Tan has since deleted his tweets; these screenshots are mercilessly and unrepentently stolen from Iain McHugh on the Southsiders forum.

This is, of course, old news. Tan has been suspended by Martin Rennie and the Whitecaps for violating the team's social media policy. But it's old news that happened while I was out of the country and there's still a thing or two to be said about it.

The first question is whether Tan has a valid argument. 27 minutes aren't a lot and after 14 matches last year Tan had played 101. But of those 101, 90 came on May 28 against the New York Red Bulls when, in Teitur Thordarson's last stand, the Whitecaps played most of the nobody brigade. That single start aside, Tan is being used about as much this year under Rennie as he was last year under Thordarson.

Those 27 minutes put Tan better off than a lot of Whitecaps. Bryce Alderson, Russell Teibert, Caleb Clarke, Michael Boxall, and Brian Sylvestre all have zero. Michael Nanchoff has one. Old Rennie favourites are not exempt: Floyd Franks has nine and Etienne Barbara has ten. Basically, Martin is riding his thoroughbreds and letting his ponies forage for time where they can. This isn't bad strategy when it comes to 24-year-olds who haven't shown that they're going to be much more than what they are.

Evidently that is not Long's opinion. And, if I may attempt to parse the diction of a man who speaks broken English, it's fair to say this has been an issue for some time. Tan, after all, was in a similar position for most of last year. He had a good Mickey Mouse Cup in Orlando (one penalty aside) but other than that has shown little and been given less by Rennie.

Rennie's always said he'll give players a chance if they perform well in training. Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't. Tan continues to hammer the USL PDL level, for which he is well overqualified: three goals in two appearances, both Juan de Fuca Plate matches (one against Victoria and a brace against lowly Fraser Valley). Both those games were in late May and Tan hasn't played for the Residency since. He still sees Reserves games, or did until his suspension, but has only one goal and for my money has looked both uninterested and uninteresting. Last year he managed three.

So perhaps that's the straw that broke Tan's back. He can't even get USL PDL playing time anymore. But there's a very good reason for that, which I will explain in two slightly nerdy paragraphs.

The Whitecaps are only permitted to dress three players with MLS contracts in USL PDL matches, by United Soccer Leagues rules. Two of those spots go, pretty much automatically, to Bryce Alderson and Caleb Clarke. Both are bright young teenagers who need as much time as they can get and still have things to learn from USL PDL. I defy you to disagree with this strategy. There have been exceptions; Clarke missed the opener and of course both do Reserves duty from time to time, but if every Whitecap is available for PDL then those two will typically start.

The last spot rotates. Sometimes Tan, or Russell Teibert, or Michael Boxall, or an older player looking to get back into shape (Etienne Barbara stands out here). That's one spot in a match-day 18 going to whichever player Martin Rennie, Paul Ritchie, and Carl Robinson see fit to lend Craig Dalrymple for a day, and if there's an MLS Reserves game around the same time that player goes to the Reserves. For Tan, there are relatively few times when a) he isn't needed for the first team, b) he isn't needed for the Reserves, and c) there are no players who Rennie thinks needs the USL PDL minutes more. That's not a snub, that's logic.

Does Rennie think highly of Tan? Probably not. Tan made Rennie look stupid with his selfishness and penalty fluffing that ruined a good pre-season, he hasn't impressed in his few MLS minutes, he hasn't done much with the MLS Reserves, and frankly even when he was good he really never was. Moreover, if Tan thinks Rennie feels that way small wonder he wants to leave. So why doesn't Rennie just pull the plug?

Because Rennie is a horse trader. Tan is an asset with some reputation around the league. Rennie has made a habit of trying to get something, be it a supplementary draft pick or allocation money, for players he doesn't have any use for: witness the Jay Nolly trade, or the more recent Chris Estridge move. The significant exception was Lee Nguyen and a fan contingent is still railing Rennie for a perceived mistake there (not helped by Nguyen's timely brace against us in May).

So my betting is that Rennie is trolling for some sort of return for Tan. It wouldn't be difficult to replace him: Ben Fisk needs an MLS contract one of these days. But there's no rush for Rennie and he can afford to wait for a desperate team.

Or at least he could, until Tan aired his dirty laundry. It's unfortunate for Long but those tweets make it less likely he'll get a quick release: by broadcasting his misery, Tan's lowered his prospective price. Now the rest of MLS will think Rennie's bargaining from a bad position. Meanwhile, if Martin just cuts Long for his indiscretion then he sends a message to any other dissatisfied players that he probably doesn't want to send.

So far, the team and the player are both handling things the right way. Two deleted tweets, a quiet suspension, and business as usual. The real consequences will come behind the scenes, and we'll never know whether Long cost the Whitecaps nothing or whether he cost them something potentially useful.