CONCACAF’s top spenders in transfer fees last year, the Vancouver Whitecaps have shelled out even more money in 2021.

Article content

It’s no secret that arguments over money lead to a massive number of divorces. Carl Robinson and the Vancouver Whitecaps proved that in 2018, when their snippy, cacophonic relationship combusted over a number of issues, not the least of which was spending.

Robinson wanted to spend more, and publicly lamented the lack of support from the ownership and head office on several occasions.

A loss to FC Dallas with five games left in the season, the second straight home defeat, gave the club all the excuse they needed to make a change, even if they were still in playoff contention at that point. Robinson was fired with two years left on his contract, the culmination of a season’s worth of simmering discontent finally boiled over, the strained relationship between the coaches and front office finally fracturing in spectacular fashion.

For years, Robinson had partnered with agent David Baldwin — whom the Caps brought on as a consultant — to bring in players. Whitecaps fans were well-acquainted with this cosy arrangement — one which Robinson continues to lean on with his new Australian A-League club Western Sydney Wanderers — but despite making the playoffs three of his five years in charge, the investment in players from ownership dwindled.


This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

In 2017, the Whitecaps were ninth in overall spending. The next season, Robinson’s last, they spent US$8,233,011.71 (all figures in U.S. dollars) — good enough for just 16th out of 23 teams in MLS — and were owners of the second-lowest average salary ($257,281.62). Kei Kamara was the only player making at least $1 million.

The frugality was a direct result of an ownership and front office that had lost faith in Baldwin and Robinson’s ability to sign quality players. For every Yordy Reyna, there was an ineffective trifecta like Effy Juarez, Bernie Ibini and Anthony Blondell tipping the scales in the other direction.

In short, the player budget shrank, its constraints becoming rigid and inflexible.

“We have a number and we work within that number, which is not unlike most businesses,” then-Whitecaps’ president Bob Lenarduzzi said at the time.

“We’ve tried to make sure we have a lot of depth, and when you look at the bench sometimes, a lot of those players could be starting and there wouldn’t make much of a difference. The most important thing is you get value for money. If you want a deep roster, you spread the money out over it. So when you’re in the situation we’re in … where you’re playing multiple games in a week, that’s the approach we’ve taken.”

Not anymore.

That reputation of looking for talent on the cheap has been blown out of the water by a slew of big-money signings, at least by Whitecaps standings. Of the top five transfer fees paid in team history, four have come in the last two years.

Top of the list was the signing of Lucas Cavallini in 2020 at $5 million, followed Friday by Caio Alexandre, the Brazilian midfielder signed from Botofago for a reported $4 million. The unfortunate signing of Octavio Rivero for $3.3 million in 2015 ranks third on the list, followed by Déiber Caicedo at $2.5 million this month, and Janio Bikel at $2.2 million last year.

Add in the money spent on fullbacks — $2 million for Ali Adnan in 2019 and Bruno Gaspar, whose loan earlier this week has a $1.75M purchase option — and it’s clear the philosophy has changed. The Whitecaps even took the title as the team that spent the most money on transfer fees in CONCACAF last year, as ownership has opened up the wallet on not just the player side, but for scouting infrastructure, hiring Axel Schuster as sporting director, and the recent additions of Nikos Overheul as director of recruiting, and Moneyball man Wade Martin as CRO.


This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

The Whitecaps had some misses on the recruiting front under Marc Dos Santos in his first season — coming to mind are Joaquín Ardaiz, Lucas Venuto, Jon Erice and, yes, even Hwang In-Beom — it seems like the organization has grown positively and steadily since then.

“It’s easy to make mistakes in recruitment. We can sign every day a player, but it’s very hard to correct a mistake in recruitment,” said Schuster, pointing out they had been in talks with Alexandre since the middle of November, and only just signed him.

“So we want to take the time to get it done right. I think we have not made any big mistakes since the beginning of the last season, since I joined the club, and we want to continue with that.”

And it’s clear there is ambition there, with the team reportedly making a $5 million fee/$2 million salary bid for Porto’s Otavio to fill their vacant Senior Designated Player spot.

Ownership appears all-in on an acquisition of that level, a direct result of their comfort and confidence in the process and infrastructure they’ve put in place to vet players.

“I think it’s also our job at the end to excite them (ownership) about the player that we found, to get them signed into the amount they have to spend. It worked for Deiber, and it worked for Caio,” said Schuster. “We went on the call with them, we went with them through the whole deck, showed them a lot of clips. What we see, what we don’t see, where we think we can help the player to grow … the value of the player today, how similar players developed … we are very confident with our process.


This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

“It’s not like that the ownership gave us a budget and said ‘Hey, find an attacking midfielder for that budget.’ … There was never a moment that our ownership disagree with us at the end. And they always give us the budget we needed to sign the player. And I’m very thankful for that. And so, so we will (do the same thing) with the attacking midfielder, and I feel very comfortable we’ll be able to do that.”

“If I wanted to sign a player in Germany, my financial guy said (this is) the amount of money we have, and if you want to spend more, we have to go to a bank and we have to take a pistol … because they are not giving us money. You couldn’t change the budget,” said Schuster. “Here it is about having a good process, analysis, and scouting.”

It’s also a situation that is far more comfortable than the one he left behind has developed into.

FC Schalke 04, where Schuster served as sporting director from 2016-19, has blazed a fiery path to the bottom of the Bundesliga standings, and became the first top-tier German club to have five coaches in one season. The Royal Blues sacked their entire first-team staff two weeks ago, the latest in a series of staff purges that have ranged from communications director to their technical director.

The finger-pointing and blame is rampant, but with just one win and 16 losses in 24 games this year — and just two victories in their last 40 — Schalke appear doomed to relegation.

The situations are far different, both culturally and revenue-wise. In Germany, when the Blues made the Champions League, they earned a windfall of €17 million ($23.3 million). The same can’t be said of MLS.


This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

“There is nothing in our league that is comparable to that, that the success of a team also guarantees you that amount of revenue,” said Schuster. “I think (Schalke this year) was a club that was always under the stress and the pressure of a lot of people and the interest of everybody, the expectations. And I would say the only thing that definitely went wrong this year was that there was never a moment of patience and continuity.

“They are working now with the fifth coach in one season. This obviously is not my strategy; I believe in long-term developments, believe in continuity, I believe in long-term plans, visions and sustainability.

“You have no time to build there, because the stress to be successful, to get to that pot of money, to get to this Champions League pot, is so high that you may be with that pressure, take decisions earlier to change things than, then you would do if you don’t have that pressure.”


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here