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Looking Back on the Weekend: Charter Flights, MLS Officiating & the Profile of a “Sporting Director”

We take a look at Rooney’s post-match comments, as well as what an ideal “Sporting Director” candidate might look like.

MLS: D.C. United at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Not only did Saturday night at BC Place bring the Vancouver Whitecaps their first home win since May 25, but the post-match discussion also produced a number of interesting, and oft recurring, storylines in MLS.

No matter how we feel about it, figures like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney inevitably hog the majority of the spotlight when they come to town - and for what it’s worth, I thought that the crowd at BC Place on Saturday was a great mix of loyal Whitecaps fans and those simply there to see Rooney play. In my opinion, it made for one of the most boisterous and lively crowds of the season, and I think that’s what we all want to see at the end of the day.

While Rooney wasn’t necessarily “exceptional” on the pitch Saturday, (He had 5 key passes, but also lost possession 14 times and passed at a rate of just 77% in his 74 minutes of action.) the English forward made headlines as he left the field, as well as with his post match comments on officiating in MLS, and chartered flights.

While the tone of Rooney’s comments felt much more derived out of pettiness than an effort to be constructive, the former Manchester United player did bring about two of the biggest issues facing the league at the moment.

In regards to officiating, I’ll agree with Rooney in the sense that what you can expect from officiating crews appears to be a moving target on a weekly basis - and there’s little accountability from PRO or the league in backing their decisions. Specifically, the way in which handballs, offsides and red cards are called is tremendously unclear - and the addition of VAR has only seemed to complicate this process.

As someone who watches the MLS produced “Instant Replay” on a weekly basis, it seems obvious that Andrew Wiebe and Bobby Warshaw are just as confused about the way these decisions are made as we are (their definitions of “handball”, “offside” and “DOGSO” change week to week). So, if league employees have no idea what’s going on, that’s probably not a good sign. Also, the fact that MLS openly endorses and discusses “the most controversial calls and decisions each week” probably sends the wrong message to fans.

The second comment Rooney made following the match on Saturday is likely less controversial: MLS travel is a mess.

While the restrictions on chartered flights in MLS have long been a source of discussion, there’s a growing sense that changing the rules on travel is a “need-to-do” rather than a “nice-to-do” if MLS wants to consider itself a top global league. The more MLS continues to bring in top talent and grow their league through expansion, the greater this issue is likely to become.

As DC head coach Ben Olsen pointed out post-match, the lack of a charter couldn’t really be used as an excuse for DC’s loss on the weekend, as they had six days to prepare and travel in advance of their match in Vancouver, but Olsen did support the spirit of Rooney’s comments - as well as adding a cheeky comment about the possibility of an Ozil signing.

Turning the page to issues specifically pertaining to Vancouver, the search for a “Sporting Director” is supposedly on in ernest, but the question remains, what kind of person should the Whitecaps be targeting?

Over the weekend, someone reached out to me and made a suggestion. The man they wanted to draw my attention to was Dan Ashworth, the current Technical Director at Brighton Hove & Albion.

While Ashworth never quite made it as a professional footballer in his own right and was released from the Norwich youth system in his late teens, he continued to pursue a career in football on the management side and landed himself his first big opportunity with West Bromwich Albion as an Assistant Youth Manager in 2004. Over the next three years, Ashworth worked his way up through the Club and was appointed Technical Director in December 2007. As Technical Director, Ashworth helped lead West Brom to an FA Cup Semi-Final, as well as two first-attempt promotions back into the Premier League, and laid the groundwork for West Brom’s eight season run (from 2010-2011 to 2017-2018) in England’s top flight.

In 2012, Ashworth left WBA and took up a position with the English FA as the Director of “Elite Development”. During his time with the FA, Ashworth grew acclaim for his work with then youth coach Gareth Southgate, as well as his work on the “England DNA” player development plan - which has helped reinvigorate English national teams at all levels, highlighted by the Senior Men's Teams’ 2018 World Cup success. In August 2018, it was reported that Ashworth had been shortlisted by Manchester United as a candidate for the Technical Director and in September 2018, it was announced that Ashworth had resigned his role with the FA, and would take up the post of Technical Director at Brighton.

While obviously it would be a real reach for the Whitecaps to bring in someone of Ashworth’s stature, I think there’s a valuable lesson to be learned from his story. The top football countries in Europe are filled with great football minds hidden in the lower divisions, or at the Youth & Academy levels (i.e. Ashworth when he was an Assistant Youth Coach at WBA).

Furthermore, I don’t think that the challenge of making the Whitecaps competitive in MLS is half as daunting as it might have been to keep West Brom afloat in the Premier League. (We’ve seen teams on similar budgets in MLS have success by simply being much smarter with their money.) So, the Whitecaps don’t need an Ashworth grade recruit, but looking for someone built from a similar mould is likely the right place to start.

In that same line of thinking, it also seems crucial that the Whitecaps hire someone from outside their own sphere of influence. Hiring someone from the USL, or with Canadian or American soccer ties simply won’t offer much in the way of growing the Club’s networks and recognition Worldwide, even though it might feel like the safer (and cheaper) bet. At the end of the day, the more diversity of opinions and perspectives you can bring into your organization, the better off you’ll be, and that’s been a big part of the problem for far too long in Vancouver.

What do you think of Dan Ashworth as a template for a “Sporting Director” the Whitecaps should be persuing? Which countries would you be most eager to see the Caps build scouting and recruitment networks? Last but not least, what did you think of Rooney’s comments on MLS officiating and travel?