Vancouver chooses steady success over flash of newcomers like LAFC
Los Angeles FC has never lacked for attention. From the moment of its unveiling as an MLS expansion franchise, with a ceremony attended by co-owners as famous and as varied as Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Tony Robbins, eyeballs have naturally gravitated in its direction. From its objectively cool logo to its corny but catchy way of unveiling new signings on social media, LAFC was a marketing sensation long before it actually set foot on the field.
In action, too, the club has so far been impossible to ignore. It stunned defending Western Conference champion Seattle at CenturyLink Field on opening night, then ended up on the wrong side of one of the most exciting games in league history when Zlatan Ibrahimovic slayed them in the inaugural El Trafico match.
In all of this, the team LAFC faces on Friday night, the Vancouver Whitecaps, is its spiritual opposite.
Perhaps no team in MLS has a lower correlation of success to attention paid over the past few seasons. The 'Caps have qualified for the postseason in three of the past four years, reaching the conference semifinals in two of them. They won the Canadian Championship in 2015 -- which, granted, is never going to so much as tremor the needle stateside -- and reached the semis of the CONCACAF Champions League just last year. Vancouver is off to a good start again this season, ranking second in the West with 10 points from six matches. Yet tucked away out of sight and out of mind in the western corner of Canada, the Whitecaps remain mostly ignored and unloved outside of British Columbia.
"It is unfortunate, because the job that the group of players these past four years have done has been nothing short of phenomenal," Vancouver coach Carl Robinson told ESPN FC. "That goes a little bit unnoticed by the mainstream people in the U.S."
It's unfortunate for his team, Robinson is quick to clarify. The coach himself loves the perceived slights, too: they make it easier to nurse the chip on his group's collective shoulder and to get them to embrace the all-for-one mantra he so prizes.
"If I don't use us-against-them, I wouldn't be doing my job," said Robinson. "It's really important to have a good team spirit and that's why we've had the success that we've had. It helps me every day, because how else could I get my players to compete against the types of players they're playing against every week?"
That last part is important. If Vancouver is a more important market than many outside observers treat it, with a metro area of nearly 2.5 million and a vibrant, international culture, the Whitecaps conduct themselves like a smaller-market outfit.
Vancouver's payroll ranked a favorable ninth in last year's players' union rankings but it's more of a mindset than a numbers thing. The team prefers to build from within rather than spend lavishly on designated players. Robinson would rather have guys who will execute his vision than bigger-name stars who won't buy in.
Some of the lack of mainstream attention is a function of geography and nationality. Some of it, too, is style of play. Whitecaps games, to put it kindly, do not always make for appointment television. Vancouver annually finishes near the bottom of the league in possession.
Last year's supremely boring Western Conference semifinal against Seattle was illustrative. The Caps played as though they were holding out for a penalty shootout from the opening kickoff of the series. Ends might have justified the means had they held out, but once Seattle broke through in the second leg, fans were left to wonder what might have been had Vancouver actually tried to attack.
"People always look at the negatives," said Robinson, "but we had to be smart."
Because of Seattle's championship pedigree and greater resources, he said, "if we get into an open football match with them, nine times of 10 they are going to beat us. You have to find ways to get the best out of your group.
"If you're going to beat us, you're going to have to deserve it. We're not going to make it easy."
If that's not everybody's cup of tea, well, this particular coach isn't too concerned. He, at least, is content to toil in relative obscurity in the upper corner of Cascadia, rarely earning headlines but regularly making it hell on opponents like their glossy visitors on Friday night.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.