When the Whitecaps made Carl Robinson the manager of their football club, they knew that they were getting a charismatic young coach who had the respect of his players. As a former player, he could relate to them, since he had been where they are now and emerged stronger for it.
He was given the task of working within a salary cap league, something that he had assisted on before, but he had never made the hard choices. Under Martin Rennie, he could suggest, he could advise, in some cases very strongly, but the ultimate decision did not rest on his shoulders, until now.
And what a season it's been. He won the Cascadia Cup while qualifying for the Champions League and the Anschutz Cup. The only thing he didn't do was win the Supporters' Shield, and really, that would have been an unrealistic goal given the constraints he had to work under.
You just don't go out and replace a Golden Boot winner every day. Camilo Sanvezzo scored 25 goals in all competitions last year. Forgetting about Lee Young-Pyo, Kenny Miller, Jay DeMerit, and the injuries the club has had to deal with, Sanvezzo left the club in a bad way.
But Robbo didn't let it keep him down. He knew that the club was on the right track. After all, he had been an assistant here for two years, and had worked extensively with the Academy players, many of whom trained with the first team.
Oh, he brought in reinforcements. Steven Beitashour took up Lee's old position at right back. Robinson picked up Sebastián Fernández on loan with an option to buy, while also bringing in Mehdi Ballouchy, Nicolás Mezquida, , Pedro Morales, Mauro Rosales, Paolo Tornaghi, and Kendall Waston.
But perhaps the best move he made was when he took Matías Laba off Toronto's hands. Laba, a Young Designated Player, was the odd man out when Toronto decided to keep Designated Players Gilberto, Michael Bradley, and Jermain Defoe. There's no telling on which of those three will be back next year, if any.
Now the jury's still out on which was the better steal from Toronto, Robbo nicking Laba, or Rennie pinching Toronto's 2014 first round draft pick and an international spot for two years for Eric Hassli. The Big Man has since been dealt to FC Dallas, and now finds himself in NASL with San Antonio Scorpions FC.
Robinson used the draft pick, which ended up being third overall, on Christian Dean. Had it been the first overall pick, Robinson would still have taken Christian Dean, and that's a sentiment that's been growing throughout the league.
Dean is a 191 cm (6'3") tall, 90 kg (198 lb) centre back who plays with a maturity beyond his 21 years. Robinson often talks about character, and Dean is exactly the kind of player that the manager would like to build his squad around.
While there have been many young players who have developed something of an ego, Dean was never allowed to go down that path. His father Bill wouldn't let him. He kept Christian grounded, with a level head on his shoulders, and the club couldn't be happier.
In fact, Christian Dean will always be remembered as the very first player that Carl Robinson gave a professional debut. It was on March 17th in Carson, California, where the Whitecaps were playing CD Chivas. Robinson took off Andy O'Brien in a tactical move, thinking that Dean might get more involved in the play. When Dean entered the game, the Whitecaps trailed 1-0 thanks to an Erick Torres goal, but by the time the final whistle blew, the visitors had earned themselves a draw.
Dean's next outing would come in the Semifinal of the CSA Cup, where he was joined by four more debutants. Marco Carducci stood tall between the pipes, Bryce Alderson took up a position in the heart of midfield, while Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese made up the flanks of the attack.
With Vancouver trailing by one goal in the 64th minute, Bustos was sacrificed for Omar Salgado, and sadly, that would be Bustos' last efforts for the first team. Since then he's been called up by the Chile Under-20s and signed a pre-contract with MLS. The delay was for his benefit and the club's. Next year, when the contract takes effect, he will be a Homegrown Player and he'll earn more than he would have had he signed outright.
Carducci, Dean, and Alderson returned for the second leg. The more experience Matías Laba would replace Alderson in the 67th minute, while Dean was sacrificed for Sebastián Fernández as the Whitecaps looked for an equaliser. It would come a few minutes later and the match ended 2-1, meaning an extra 30 minutes would be played. In the ensuing action, Carducci would perform brilliantly, but the home side couldn't find the winner.
And so it all came down to a penalty shootout. In the end, nine players took a shot, and only one didn't find the back of the net. But Carducci could not be blamed. In 210 minutes of Cup play, he allowed only three goals, and two of them were by Designated Players.
After that, Dean would see himself come on at home against Seattle in a move designed to eat up some of the clock as the Whitecaps held on for a 1-0 victory. He also came on as a substitution against CD Chivas, and played the full 90 minutes down in Frisco, Texas, but sadly, they lost that match 2-1.
Ethen Sampson got his first action against DC United, where he put in a fine 54 minutes before going down due to cramp. Later, he would play the Lone Star State alongside Dean.
And then there's Froese. When he signed as a Homegrown Player in September, he became eligible to play in MLS. At halftime, after the injured Kekuta Manneh had put the Whitecaps up by one, Froese came in as his replacement. When we spoke to him, he said that the match was something of a blur. He may not remember it, but we do, as do the 55,765 who witnessed him battle along the touchline with Osvaldo Alonso.
Through it all, Robbo kept the faith. He knew that the club had a lot of talent coming out of the Academy, as well as the young players who were already here when he took the job.
Sam Adekugb was almost a Rascal, but got his debut in Rennie's last match. While Sam was certainly deserving, the move was forced upon Rennie due to Jordan Harvey's suspension.
For Robbo, youth and inexperience are not things to be concerned about. If a player is good enough, then they're good enough. And while it may sound straightforward in print, in practice it's anything but.
The 19-year old Manneh, 21-year old Russell Teibert, 22-year olds Laba and Nicolás Mezquida, 23-year olds Erik Hurtado and Gershon Koffie, and 24-year olds Sebastián Fernández, Johnny Leverón, and Darren Mattocks have all contributed to Vancouver's success this year.
Next year, if he has the spots available, you can expect to see the likes of Mitch Piraux and Jackson Farmer join the team. After all, they have been training extensively with them this year. Andre Lewis and Mamadou Diouf were loaned out to Charleston, but could be ready for the first team in 2015.
And there's the SuperDraft to consider. In January, assuming there are no trades between now and then, Vancouver will pick no lower than 12th. It'll be a new experience for the club. In their four years in MLS, Vancouver has picked 1st (Omar Salgado, 2011), 2nd (Darren Mattocks, 2012), 3rd (Christian Dean, 2014), 4th (Kekuta Manneh, 2013), 5th (Erik Hurtado, 2013), 7th (Andre Lewis, 2014), and 8th (Michael Nanchoff, 2011).
And if that list is anything to go by, you should expect another deal with Toronto, as they hold both the 6th and 9th overall pick this year. Stranger things have happened.