Surreal Start: 10 months into tenure with Vancouver Whitecaps, Axel Schuster looks ahead to busy rest of 2020 for ‘Caps

Axel Schuster sat down with media for an hour-long roundtable this week. Here are our big takeaways from that availability, as he shared some interesting tidbits on the MLS schedule, youth development, young DPs, signing players and more. 

It’s been a few busy days off of the field for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Earlier this week, they announced that current first-team assistant coach, Vanni Startini, would become the ‘director of methodology’, moving him away from the first team into more of a role with the academy, with longtime academy director Craig Dalrymple set to leave the club on October 15th. 

A day after that, the club announced that they’d bring in a chief revenue officer and a chief marketing officer, as they decided to slightly reshuffle the front office, giving support to Axel Schuster, who is already assuming a double role as Sporting Director and Chief Executive Officier after the departure of former CEO Mark Pannes earlier this summer. 

As a result of that news, Schuster held court with reporters on Thursday, giving an update on all sorts of topics, including an update on transfers, the youth development team, DP spots, the BC Place turf and MLS’s upcoming schedule, as well as the new changes in the Front Office. 

While the changes in the structure of the club don’t appear to hugely impactful, a lot of what Schuster was asked about was quite interesting to talk about, so in this piece, we’ll dive into some of that we took away from his availability, as he shared lots of interesting tidbits ahead of a busy few months for the Whitecaps. 

From having to get set to play in the US, to their quest to bring in some new players, there’s a lot to watch for if you follow the ‘Caps in the next couple of weeks, as 2020 continues to be a strange year for the Vancouver-based MLS side. 

MLS Phase 2 schedule finally out:

Understandably, the first big talking point during the availability was MLS’s phase 2 schedule, which as of the time of Schuster’s comments, wasn’t available yet, but in the 24 hours since, the first 3 games of each team’s programs was put out to the masses. 

Obviously, Schuster had seen the release, so he wasn’t able to say anything specific until it dropped, but he did also give an idea of what things will look like beyond the 3 games, as the ‘Caps will be expected to play 12 games total, against 6 opponents, all in the Western Conference, in the span of around 2 months. 

“I think the main information that we have is that we will play 12 games in the next phase before the playoffs,” Schuster said. “And all of these games for us as the Whitecaps are games against 6 US opponents. The league wants to avoid long travels, so you all know about the geography of North America better than me, but I think it’s really easy to find out if it is 12 games, six opponents, to find out which of the six opponents might be.”

On Friday, it was then confirmed that the first 3 matches for Vancouver would be against Real Salt Lake away, LAFC away, and then against the Portland Timbers at ‘home’, which due to the border closures and quarantine rules that remain in effect to at least the end of the month, will be held at their new home-away-from-home, Portland. 

So yes, the ‘Caps will play their rivals, Portland, in a home game in their stadium, but alas, it’s 2020, anything can indeed happen. 

But aside from that, it was interesting to note that MLS only dropped the first 3 games of each team’s schedule, leaving many to wonder about the other 9 games. 

That was done by design, however, as the current border closure deadline is around the time that the 3rd matchday will wrap up, giving an idea if games could be played in Canada, but given that it’s likeliest that the border closure will indeed be extended, expect the rest of the 9 games to feature more ‘home’ games in Portland for the ‘Caps. 

As Schuster said on Thursday, all he knows his that he has those 3 games in 9 days which are confirmed, and the rest of the games are out there, but now they’ve got to wait to know exactly how long they’ll have to relocate to the US for. 

“Starting the weekend after our Montreal games, so around the 18th or 19th (of September) it will start, and then within nine days, we will have three games,” he said. “Relocating, yes, no, going to the games, going on the road trip, coming back, all of that is still a little bit in the air. And we also waiting for additional information from the federal rules in Canada and from local health.”

Player signings continue to be a struggle:

After that, the talk shifted to player signings, as the MLS’s transfer window does remain open, with teams all around the league continuing to make signings. 

With the ‘Caps selling on In Beom Hwang a month ago, leaving them with an open DP spot, some did wonder if they’d make a move, be it to bring in a DP or just to round out their squad, but as of now, they’ve yet to announce anything. 

And as Schuster told reporters, that is due to their unique situation as a Canadian team. Because they’re likely going to have to stay in the US for at least 2 months, any player arriving now from outside of Canada would have to quarantine for 14 days, and then travel to the US for 2 months, and then quarantine when they return to Canada, which is not an attractive proposition for any new player. 

Compared to teams in the US, who will be staying in their home markets and don’t have to quarantine, there’s a reason why the ‘Caps, Toronto FC and Montreal Impact have struggled to make signings, and that’s because of their unique situation as Canadian teams in an American league. 

“The next months look very special,” Schuster said. “And there are players that have different options and then they say: ‘okay, what does it mean that we relocate, we are under protocols, in quarantine, maybe (even) in quarantine until Christmas.’”

“So these are all things, where we also have sometimes get an answer like: ‘Okay, yeah maybe we discuss in December for your next season, but to tell my family now that I leave tomorrow and that I’m in quarantine until Christmas is not looking not like my favourite option.’”

As a result of all that, it makes it hard to imagine Vancouver signing a player from outside of the league until Christmas, at least not officially. Even if they do sign someone, they likely won’t see them until then, anyway, so it would be very unlikely to see any announcements of that sort for a while. 

But one option that does remain a lot more feasible is the possibility of bringing in players from within MLS and North America. 

If the ‘Caps were to sign someone from the Canadian Premier League, which head coach Marc Dos Santos has said is a possibility, they wouldn’t have to quarantine to join the squad, and if they were to acquire an MLS player in time for phase 2 who is already in the US, he could just join the squad once they’re in the States.

It won’t be easy, as Schuster did confirm that they came close to acquiring a player from within MLS until the player told them that he didn’t want to join them due to the prospect of a quarantine and potential relocation, but despite that rejection, they’ll certainly continue to look for potential pieces. 

“I don’t see that a player in the league is more expensive than a player outside, so every quality has its price,” he said. “And, of course, the trade is a different transfer business, but the point is, and it’s exactly one of this and I will not share any more details, but we spoke with one player and he said he will not come to Vancouver, and that that’s under the actual situation, that if he leaves his club right now he is in the quarantine until Christmas.”

“So, yeah, do we want to force the player to come? Because we still can do the trade, I know we could do the trade and the player has to do it. But do you think that is the right player that can help us if he already said to us: ‘I will not come’.”

Troubles with the turf? 

Ali Adnan chases Ayo Akinola on the turf at BC Place last week (Keveren Guillou)

Another talking point that came up was the artificial turf that is currently installed at BC Place, especially after In Beom Hwang stated in an interview that he wasn’t a big fan of the artificial surface. 

Obviously, that is not news to the ‘Caps, as they know that turf isn’t the preferred surface for any footballer, but due to their stadium situation, it’s something that they must deal with for now. 

If they were to one day build their own stadium, as has been the plan to do in the past, they could install a grass surface, but as long as they rent BC Place, it’s going to be turf, and Schuster says that won’t impact their ability to sign players, at least in most cases. 

“Yeah, so it is a reality that we have turf,” he said. “And we’re not the only club in the league that has turf. So of course, we share that with every player we want to sign. So I think there is not one player that comes here and is surprised that there is turf in the stadium.”

“There are players that don’t like to play on turf, some players have medical issues, they will let us know, but in the moment that you sign for the club, you know that there is a turf.”

In good news, though, Schuster did also reveal that he’d begun discussions with BC Place and PavCo, the owners of the stadium, about possibly updating the artificial surface. 

Considering that it’s been a while since the turf was last replaced, with the last change coming in 2015 ahead of the Women’s World Cup, it sounds like a new surface could be put in, which would be beneficial for the ‘Caps considering that they’ve likely still got at least a half-decade in BC Place ahead of them. 

“We were thinking about starting the process to think about what we can do to check and improve the quality of the turf,” Schuster said. “And of course, the last step is to bring in new turf. And we (the ‘Caps and PavCo) agreed to do that together.”

Youth movement continues to grow: 

A big talking point for Vancouver this season has been their injection of youth into the first team, as they’ve given minutes to 11 players 23 or younger, 7 of them being Canadians, including 4 homegrowns that came up through the academy.

When Schuster was brought in last year, the ‘Caps made it clear that they wanted to be a youth-driven team, one that relies heavily on the contributions of young players, especially those coming through the academy.  

As some teams in MLS have shown, when your top players are young, you can still compete, and as an added bonus, you can then sell them on for hefty prices, allowing you to invest more money into even more quality talent down the road. 

Obviously the ‘Caps haven’t gotten the results to show for their belief in youth quite yet, but if their players continue to progress as they have, you’d expect to see more players join the likes of Alphonso Davies and Hwang In Beom as players who made multi-million dollar moves to Europe via the ‘Caps. 

It’s a process that’s not going to be complete overnight, and Schuster admitted as much, but he also stated his satisfaction with the plan so far, especially when you consider that the ‘Caps are already the youngest team in the league. 

“Yeah, my general thoughts about that is that unfortunately, we are not able to show all of that what we had in our minds, because the club made a decision to make a restart and to change things (this past offseason),” he said. “We decided to build a culture and define what are the basics of our games are, so we defined the four cornerstones. We also decided to become more of a development club, to focus not only but also on young players, and that’s what we did.”

“We have the youngest team in the league, we had that from the first moment on, and at the same time, we are rebuilding and wanted to change our approach, and to build a culture of the game.”

But while the first team is doing a good job at integrating youngsters, partly through circumstance but also through merit, there is no doubt that the pipeline from the academy to the first team needs to be improved. 

A big part of that is not having a second team, of which the ‘Caps gave up for financial reasons back in 2017, but with them having a U23 team now, it’s hoped that they can soon put them in a league, which would help the problem of finding minutes for players who age out of the academy at 19 years of age but aren’t ready for the first team. 

Schuster revealed that while he hopes to find any sort of league for his U23 charges to play in, saying ‘I hope so, I really hope so,’ when asked about the plans to have them in a league in time for 2021, he did say that MLS is looking at creating a U23 league as well, which they hope to have by 2021.

“Everybody is working on finding a platform and MLS as well,” he said. “And building a platform as MLS wants to build the platform for U23, and the calendar should be aligned to the MLS calendar so means it will not start before 2021.”

Elsewhere in the youth system, he did also say that the ‘Caps U19 team, which is without a league to play in due to the pandemic making it impossible for them to play games in the US as they usually do, saying that they’ll be joining a Vancouver Men’s league this fall, getting them a chance to pick up some minutes. 

This won’t be a long-term solution, as the U19 team will fall under the branches of MLS Next, the new and reformed Academy league developed by MLS, but until they’re able to actually play in the States, this is the solution they came up with for now. 

“I feel very good that they have some competition,” Schuster said. “As we said that the U19s will have a place in the local men’s league.”

Much ado about DP spots: 

With the sale of In Beom, the ‘Caps have a DP spot open now, as we mentioned earlier. 

But while they’ll look to fill that as soon as possible, that might not be the only move we see them make in the DP department, as Schuster gave some more details about potential roster rule changes ahead of last year. 

It was first hinted at when the new CBA was announced, and details have leaked out from all corners about it this summer, but Schuster was the first league executive to confirm that there will likely be 3 additional ‘DP style’ spots added next year, in addition to the DP spots already in place. 

The only caveat with these new spots is that they have to be used on players who are 22-years-old or younger, which along with the open ‘Caps DP spot, and the MLS money that they have, could make them buyers this winter. 

“I think with the open DP spot, and the possibility to sign also three young DPs next January, and with the open DP spot to sign whenever we want, and at the same time, still having some additional cap money, I think we have some good ideas, where and how we can improve and where we need some additional tools for our game,” Schuster said. 

Considering the ‘Caps desire to bring in young players, this new Young DP rule could be something they look to take advantage of, and Schuster confirmed as much when asked about what the new rules could do for the club.

“The rules are changing,” he said. “By the way, it’s not 100% right now, and the rules are changing and, changing because of COVID. But the league, in general, agreed to open three additional spots for players 22 and younger. It’s not like a full DP, but there are some restrictions, but you can invest in young players outside of the cap.”

“And, of course, as we want to be a club that goes for young players and develop young players, those are way interesting spots for us.

Dajome’s happy ending:

Lastly, the big thing to take away from this availability was this incredible story that was told by Schuster, as he gave some perspective on what players can go through behind the scenes in a year like this. 

The player he talked about was Cristian Dajome, who arrived to the ‘Caps via Colombian side Atletico Nacional, after spending the 2019 season in Ecuador with Independiente Del Valle. 

Dajome arrived in time for preseason, with the plan being that he would have his family, consisting of his wife and 3 kids, join him once they sorted their visa situations sorted out, expected to be some time in March. 

Instead, the pandemic hit, forcing them to stay put as the borders closed, even though they were able to come with their paperwork situation resolved. 

Twice, the ‘Caps even tried to send a charter plane to Colombia to try and pick them up and bring them to Vancouver, and twice they were denied upon arriving to Bogota, forcing the plane to travel all the way back. 

Finally, with domestic air service starting up once again in Colombia, the ‘Caps gave it a third try, and that would prove to be the lucky attempt, as they successfully brought them to Canada, arriving earlier this week. 

While Dajome did share with Sebastian Pereira that he had been unable to have his wife and kids travel due to COVID in an exclusive interview with BTS a few months back, no one knew that the ‘Caps had gone to such lengths to reunite them, so they certainly deserve a hat tip for the effort put in for them to make that happen. 

Sometimes we forget that these players are human beings and go through things like this when signing for a new club, especially in a year like this, so it gives some perspective on what Dajome had to go through off of the pitch in 2020.

Considering that he’s played well despite that, it shows the toughness that he has for not letting that situation drag him down on the pitch, so hopefully he’s taking full advantage of this precious time to be reunited with his family once again. 

Looking Forward:

So all-in-all, it was a good chance to talk with Schuster, who gave some interesting insight into what’s going on at the club right now. 

From the plans to replace the turf, to the possibility for some new signings, as well as updates on the various youth teams, there is a lot more news to come, which Schuster alluded to. 

After a busy summer, things aren’t looking like slowing down any time soon, so nearing a year on the ‘Caps job, Schuster is happy to keep on grinding, as he looks to help pull the club out of some rough years for them on and off the pitch. 

It’s been far from the ideal first year for many reasons out of his control, but he’s appearing to still be going strong, so look for him to continue and moving the needle for the ‘Caps on various issues as they continue to rebuild themselves. 

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