Russel Tiebert has been with the Whitecaps since even before the team joined MLS in 2011. He’s lived through every up and down, but one thing he hasn’t seen is a playoff game at BC Place.
“It’s massive to have a home game in Vancouver. We owe this to the fans, and we owe them a lot more because they’ve had our backs for the past five years,” says Tiebert, now 22. “It’s about time we give them something to cheer about.”
Vancouver will play the second part of their two-game series against the Portland Timbers Sunday in the conference semi final of the MLS Cup Playoffs. After taking the first game to a 0-0 draw in Portland, they need to win by at least a goal to advance to the conference finals.
The Whitecaps have seen a steady swell in their points in the standings over the five years – 28, 43, 48, 50, 53. They’ve made it to the knockout playoff round twice, but never as far as the conference semis.
A lot has changed since 2011, from the stadium the team plays in – the Whitecaps started in Empire Stadium before moving to the renovated BC Place – to the coaching staff – they’ve been through four head coaches – to most of the roster – only Tiebert, Gershon Koffie and Jordan Harvey remain from the first year.
Tiebert says the atmosphere around the team, rather than the talent on the roster, is the reason they’re doing so well. “You think about the first year, we probably had some of the most talented guys you’ll ever see with Davide Chiumiento, Eric Hassli, Alain Rochat – their talent and skill was second to none.”
What’s different is the way the Whitecaps have meshed on and off the field. According to Tiebert, the team’s atmosphere has been crafted by the man who was nominated to be MLS coach of the year this week – Carl Robinson.
The key to Robinson’s success is he has every player buying in.
“As an ex-player myself many years ago, I knew what I liked and what I didn’t like. I think players will perform better if they’re in a happy environment,” says Robinson. “I give them a little bit of rope for themselves, but when I need to come down on them, I’ll come down on them.”
To maintain an enthusiastic group the coach ensures the guys who aren’t playing as much stay engaged and motivated.
“It’s not players one through eleven that you spend a lot of time with – they’re happy because they’re playing,” says Robinson. “Me and my coaches spend lots of time with the players not playing regular minutes, but we tell them to keep in mind they will get their chances and their opportunities.”
Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi says the team’s plan has not deviated since joining MLS: they invested in a residency system to develop players while scouting and finding young players from around the world to supplement the home grown talent.
And the plan has worked: Vancouver has the youngest roster in the league with an average age of 24.3 years.
Not all coaches are able to cultivate the youth, though.
Lenarduzzi explains his team’s success: “It’s a combination of the club deciding to go the route it has and staying the course, and then finding the right guy to coach the team who will not only tell you he agrees with the direction we’re going in, but will incorporate it.”
Robinson has embraced the development of the young players, says Lenarduzzi.
“There are likely coaches that would rather go with experience, as opposed to giving the young guys chances,” he says, saying something fans of that other prominent Vancouver team will understand well.
“Carl’s been true to his word, and from the outset he said he wanted to work with the young players and give them a chance when they’re ready.”
With such a young roster, you wonder if the Whitecaps will be content having made it further than ever before.
“It’s a semi-final series, which is a major achievement for the football club and the group of players in there,” says Robinson. “They should be proud of themselves, but I want them to go out now and embrace that challenge.”
Russell Tiebert, asked what he hopes the Whitecaps will achieve in the playoffs, gives an answer that will make many Canucks fans smile.
“I want to win the Cup.”