The Whitecaps need a goalscorer. That was the stuck record that played out in Vancouver last season. There were only so many spins you could put on what was becoming a never-ending angle.
Carl Robinson knew it. The ‘Caps higher echelons knew it. The players knew it. Fans, pundits and my dog knew it.
The Whitecaps addressed the issue quickly in the offseason with the addition of young Designated Player Octavio Rivero. It’s still an unknown as to whether the Uruguayan will be the answer to the ‘Caps goalscoring prayers, but what is almost a certainty is that the 23-year-old can’t do it all by himself. He’s going to need some help up front and ideally from an experienced and proven goalscorer.
And maybe even more ideally, one with a previous record of banging in the goals in Major League Soccer. But then, every club in MLS would like one of those.
The Whitecaps have a player in their preseason camp right now that ticks all the right boxes. Welsh striker Robert Earnshaw has already shown what he can do in the league with Toronto and Chicago, and while neither side is committing to or even talking about a long term relationship right now, the addition of the 33-year-old would make a lot of sense on a lot of fronts.
AFTN caught up with Earnshaw after training on Friday for an exclusive one-on-one chat about his plans, his career, his thoughts on MLS and a lot more besides….
Four trialists headed down to Arizona with the Whitecaps last week, but Earnshaw is the only one that is still sticking around. When Robinson brought him in he said the reason was twofold. The Welsh internationals go way back and Robinson wanted to help the prolific striker work on his fitness levels, while being in an environment that would allow the ‘Caps coach to take a closer look at him in the process.
Two weeks later, Robinson is still noncommittal, telling reporters on Friday that “We’ll take a look at him and just see how it goes. There’s no commitment from either end.”
From talking to both, you get the feeling that club and player would love things to work out. But with the new CBA still to be finalised, salary cap issues, and what to do with the current crop of strikers amongst other logistical aspects of signing a deal, you can understand both sides being cagey. There’s a lot of work to do before we’ll see Earnshaw running out at BC Place in a blue and white jersey.
“It’s too early to say, but really it comes down to when we sit down and where we are at that moment,” Earnshaw told AFTN. “How long that’s going to be, I’m not sure.”
As all investors know, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Earnshaw has got goals everywhere he has gone during a distinguished footballing career. He’s played at the top level for both club and country. But he still has to convince Robinson that he not only deserves a spot on the Whitecaps MLS roster, but that he’ll also be a key contributing cog.
That all starts with getting himself into top footballing shape again and that’s the prime reason that Earnshaw is training with the Whitecaps right now.
“For me, coming here was mainly about getting fitness because I’m probably ten days, two weeks, behind everybody else,” Earnshaw told us. “I started last week where everybody else started before that.
“I’m kind of catching up. This week, today, it felt much better. So it’s really just trying to creep up on everybody else’s fitness. It’s getting there. I’m pleased with how last week went.
Earnshaw met up with Robinson and the Whitecaps down in Tucson last week, playing 89 minutes over the three games against New England, San Jose and Houston. He didn’t find the back of the net but the games gave him his first match minutes since October 2nd, as he strives to get back to full match fitness.
“Arizona I thought was brilliant,” Earnshaw continued. “Very good for me, very good for the team. Just to be around the guys, get a feel of the ball again and really just to pick up my fitness slowly. I actually felt better every day this week right up to today, so it’s just that progress.”
The Welsh striker fits the mould of the player that the Whitecaps badly need for the young group of forwards that the club currently have. An experienced head, with a proven track record and the right attitude a veteran should be bringing to a dressing room. He wants to impart the knowledge that he’s picked up from the game over the years.
Earnshaw is clearly cut out for a mentoring role to the ‘Caps young strikers but he doesn’t want to put the cart before the horse and start talking too much about that, or the group, whilst not officially part of the squad.
“It’s funny. I can’t talk about being here because I’ve not signed a contract, so it wouldn’t be right for me to say this is how it is or this is what it needs. That’s for Robbo to decide. I’ve definitely found myself over the last two or three years in that role anyway.
But if it were to come about, it wouldn’t be an unfamiliar role for Earnshaw, who has relished and enjoyed the development of that part of his game these past couple of seasons.
“I find myself talking more. I find myself giving more advice. I find myself giving what I’ve learnt and what I think with more inexperienced players. I find myself kind of going into their mind a little but and saying ‘I know you were thinking this but think about this’ and giving advice.
“I’ve found myself just going into that role anyway, so I’m definitely at that stage and I’m more open where I want to give out that experience. There’s no point in me playing for, I think this is going to be my 18th season, and I still have loads of energy and want to play, but in the secondary role where you get to a certain point where you’ve gathered so much information, you find yourself that it’s natural for me to give that out.
“I feel that the reason that I’ve played 18 years is because I was willing to learn. I was learning off, I could roll off so many players that were a big, big influence on me. I was picking their brains, asking questions and for me, if that wasn’t the case, I probably wouldn’t be playing here now because I wouldn’t have learned.
When Kenny Miller headed back to Scotland last May, the Whitecaps attack fell on the shoulders of early twenty-somethings like Darren Mattocks and Erik Hurtado. Veterans like Andy O’Brien, and then later Mauro Rosales, tried to impart their knowledge to help the likes of them and Kekuta Manneh develop their games at the higher level, but what was missing was Miller’s experience and in particular the reading of the game from a top striker’s perspective.
What runs to make, what to watch the defence doing, how to turn various situations to your advantage. The Whitecaps still don’t have that and it’s something that Earnshaw could certainly add and already has been.
“Again, it’s not for me to say about this team yet,” Earnshaw told us. “But even here, the last ten days, I’ve found myself just wanting to give out the experience that I have got and I think it’s only right for me because I enjoy that. I enjoy if someone comes up to me and asks a question, what about this or what was it like playing in the Premier League or all these different questions that have popped up over the last ten days or so.
“I enjoy if someone else can learn of me, if that’s possible, and giving out that info to them so that they can get better. I really enjoy when I can see players really develop on the pitch and with the teammates around me, seeing the enthusiasm to learn but then actually get better on the field and then you actually see it. That’s a great thing, especially when you’re a teammate as well. I think one of the greatest things you can give out to a teammate is to give them confidence but you give them an experience or make them better and that’s what I enjoy.”
It’s an impressive attitude to have and one that not all players in the twilight of their career sometimes show. But that’s the kind of character of players that Robinson wants in Vancouver and having known Earnshaw for some time, that undoubtedly one of the reasons why he feels it’s been worth bringing him into camp for a look.
So how has Earnshaw found his time with the Whitecaps so far, especially compared to his experiences in Toronto and Chicago?
“Every team is different, definitely,” he feels. “Just different philosophies, different ways of working. Little details are different. Generally the whole package is similar because MLS has great facilities. The teams really have a great platform to play in, to train in. So that’s very good. That’s what I enjoy. And it gives you a chance to get better on the field then because you’re not worrying about certain details that are missing that are critical to once you go out on the field.
“But things are good. I’ve enjoyed it here so far. I’ve been here just over a week and a half and I’m very pleased with how this group has worked. I think there’s a good group here. I like the players that are here. Great ability, but very young. It’s very early stages. It’s very early for me to say this is how it is and this is how they are because they’re very young. Not a lot of experience and needing that experience.”
Earnshaw has a rich goalscoring pedigree. He’s scored goals wherever he’s been and holds the distinction of being the only player to have scored a hat-trick in every division of English league football, along with the FA Cup, League Cup and internationally. All that’s missing is a MLS hat-trick now and it would be good to see that happen in a Whitecaps strip.
He’s played in the Premier League and he’s played on the international stage, earning 58 senior caps for Wales.
With all that experience under his belt, he could have easily carved out the remainder of his career in England, especially helping out a multitude of Championship sides over the coming years. But instead, the Welshman wanted a change. New horizons and new challenges. And that’s what brought him to MLS in 2013, joining Toronto FC.
“At the time I felt that I needed the change,” Earnshaw told us. “I needed to experience football elsewhere. For me, to develop as a player, and maybe to go into coaching one day, I don’t know, but to develop as a footballer, I needed to experience it in different settings, different mentalities.
“I went to Israel. I went to Maccabi Tel Aviv. That was great. In the three or four months that I was there, it was definitely a great thing for me. I actually learned probably more in the three or four months than I probably learned in four or five years playing in the UK. That’s how rapid it was.
“Also I wanted to come over to MLS because I enjoyed the league. I saw the league, I’ve seen it over the last few years developing. I’ve seen very good players playing in the league and it’s a very good league to play in. I think people are taking notice of that now, but I took notice a few year ago, so that’s why I came over.
And despite now trying to lock down a contract with his third MLS club in three seasons, Earnshaw has no regrets about heading over to North America.
“I’ve enjoyed it. Everything I’ve experienced over in the league is what I came to experience. For me, it’s not about turning the switch off now. I want to get better, I want to score goals. I want to play for as long as possible and I want to enjoy it.
“I still enjoy playing football. I still enjoy going out there. Today you see we’re doing the running. It’s tough, it’s not nice. It’s horrible! But it’s what you’re there for. It’s what you enjoy. You know it’s part of the game – getting fit, making yourself right, kicking the ball. All those things is everything I enjoy and that’s why I’m here.”
Earnshaw continued his goalscoring exploits in MLS. His first season in the league was pretty successful considering who he was playing for, scoring 8 goals in 26 appearances for TFC. Toronto decided not to take up the Welshman’s option for the following season, however, which must have come as something of a surprise for Earnshaw.
“Not really,” was his honest admission. “Traditionally Toronto always change the team, change the managers. It was half expected. It was just a case of whether we agreed or not and we didn’t agree a contract, we didn’t agree terms, so it wasn’t right to stay. And also with the players that they brought in at the time, I didn’t fit in to the salary cap.
“The salary cap is what it came down to I think. Maybe if it wasn’t for the salary cap, maybe I might have stayed, but sometimes that’s what it comes down to and that’s the difficulty sometimes in MLS – fitting your best players within your budget and that’s the difficult part.
“It’s no surprise. That’s how it is. I went to Chicago and I really enjoyed it there. The training was great. The club was brilliant I got a few goals as well, which is always nice, so I really enjoyed that. These things you just experience and go through. Sometimes you stay with a team for a long time and it’s unexpected, sometimes you actually move when it’s unexpected and that’s just part of the game.”
After bumping around in 2014, Earnshaw ended up in a brief stint in Chicago, where he added another 3 goals in 5 appearances for the Fire, only one of which he started.
Once again he’s proved he can score wherever he goes, but how has he found playing in MLS and the level of the league?
“I burst onto the scene really because I scored in my first game, I scored in my second game and I got a few goals. I’ve enjoyed actually playing in MLS. Physically, it’s really demanding. I find myself really having to use the cleverness a lot more because I think that’s one of the key things.
“Sometimes I find myself not so much really getting up and down and running here, there and running a million miles all the way round. I find myself having to really think what’s happening on the pitch and finding space and that’s one of the key things that I’ve found my experience has helped me find goals in MLS. So that’s been good. I’ve really enjoyed it and it would be great for me to carry that on and carry on scoring goals.”
Earnshaw is now hoping to get the chance to do just that with the Whitecaps.
It’s still early days and his training stint could really still go either way. A couple of goals in the remaining preseason friendlies and some friendly CBA terms would particularly help his cause.
He still has that hunger and that desire to not only succeed, but also to keep improving his game. It’s refreshing to see that in a 33-year-old and it’s very similar to the work ethic and ethos we see week in and week out from Mauro Rosales.
With his track record and experience, Earnshaw could easily head back to the UK and find a club but he’s really keen to stay in MLS and the Whitecaps could be his next home. He’s liked what he’s seen so far and the opportunities that await him here are just what he’s looking for at this stage of his career.
“If I can first of all help my teammates, give people my experience of playing in Europe, then that’s a great thing for whatever team I’m at. But also because I enjoy it. I enjoy the league. I enjoy being here. I’ve definitely enjoyed Canada, I’ve definitely enjoyed the US.
“Like I said, for me, it’s not a case of where I switch off and say I’m not going to learn anymore or I’m not going to get better or I’m not going to play any longer. For me, it’s about playing longer, learning more. I want to be out, I want to be playing. I want to touch the ball and score goals and celebrate. All these things is what I enjoy, so that’s why I’m here. That’s why I play. The enjoyment of wanting to be out there and wanting to work hard and when that ball hits the net and the whole team gets around you.
“Those are the things that I’m here for. It’s really that simple. I want to be part of a successful team and be a piece within a group of players that achieves things. That’s what you aim for.”
And let’s hope he finds all that with the Whitecaps, for as Valentine’s Day is upon us, Vancouver and the goals and experience that Robert Earnshaw could provide them with could indeed prove to be a marriage made in heaven.