New Vancouver Whitecaps Sporting Director Axel Schuster excited to hit ground running in new role

With the hiring of Axel Schuster on Friday, the Vancouver Whitecaps finally got their long-awaited Sporting Director. Here are some of the things that he had to say in his first press conference:

The global search has landed and found its target.

Early Friday morning, it was reported that the Vancouver Whitecaps had hired Axel Schuster as their new Sporting Director, putting an end to their search for someone to head the football department in the front office. 

After announcing the start of their search nearly 100 days ago, it was announced Thursday that they were prepared to announce their selection Friday, much to the relief of fans. They later confirmed reports on Friday that Schuster, a former Schalke 04 and Mainz executive in Germany, had been selected to fill that much-awaited Sporting Director role. 

Schuster brings an outsider perspective to MLS, after having worked his whole life in his native Germany, first through his hometown club Mainz, and then most recently with Schalke. He helped Mainz develop their way from a smaller club, to one that consistently pumped out quality coaches and players, before moving to Schalke, where they had 2 solid seasons before a dip last year.

While he was eventually let go, as a new executive came in and swept many people such as Schuster from the front office out, Schalke has bounced back massively this year, doing so with many of the players brought on by Schuster and the previous staff.

In Vancouver, he faces a unique challenge, as he must help rebuild a club that has fallen off the path since their expansion year in MLS. Expected to regularly contend for playoff spots, they missed out on the dance in both 2018 and 2019, with 2019 being one of the worst ever for the club. 

“The biggest challenges are to make the right decisions, to make the first step, and I said to the owners, I am only the right person if they are okay with that,” Schuster said to gathered media on Friday, as he was officially presented in his new role. “I don’t want to change something in principle, but I want to make step by step development on an existing basis here. We want to push everybody hard in this club, to make now the right decisions to reach the first target, to make the first step.”

“Of course, we are already in the middle of a transfer period, even if the window opens in January, but Mark and his team have been travelling around a lot. We are not comfortable with time, so we have to start immediately and find the right decisions.” 

On the surface, it seems that the biggest influence he will bring will be on the youth development side, as Mainz found themselves in a similar situation in the Bundesliga as the Whitecaps do in MLS. Fighting against the richest clubs, they had to rely on good youth development, along with a shrewd transfer policy, to flirt with the European spots, as they did a couple of seasons. 

The Whitecaps have an esteemed academy around MLS, boosted by the successes of Alphonso Davies and Theo Bair these recent years, but have yet to transition as many players as originally hoped to the 1st team. Given that Schuster is going to have control over all aspects on that side of the club, it’s hoped that the Caps start pumping more consistent talent out of their youth ranks, which will aid the club in both the long and short term. 

In the short term, they still need some talent for their squad, especially on the top end, as they pick over what was a tumultuous campaign for the team. While they did technically fill all 3 DP roles, it too often felt like the Caps lacked the presence of a true game-breaker, someone that can twist matches completely on their head. 

While Ali Adnan and Hwang In Beom showed glimpses that indicated that they had the potential to maybe be one of those players, they mostly looked like pieces that would compliment that bigger fish, as they were unable to turn around the bus on their own. To remedy that, head coach Marc Dos Santos has promised some aggressive spending this window, and the Caps already have been linked with some World Cup winners, but until names are brought in, people will be understandably skeptical. 

“We have to make the right transfers right now. In and out,” Schuster said. “Out doesn’t always mean that the player is not a good player, but maybe he does not fit the philosophy. We have to find the exact right profiles to come in, to be short on time and a little bit under pressure is not always the best, but yeah I’m optimistic that we can do a good job, that is the biggest challenge right now.”

The Whitecaps have some good pieces, like Hwang In Beom, but they will need a lot more to be able to compete in MLS (Keveren Guillou)

A lot of similarities have been brought up about Schuster’s time at Mainz, and understandably so, given how they and the Whitecaps line up in terms of club profile relative to their respective leagues. When he arrived at Mainz, there wasn’t much in terms of scouting infrastructure and front office staff, much like the Whitecaps, so he has an experience of building those things up from the ground-up. 

“The whole situation here, and everything we want to do within the next few years, reminds me a little bit of the situation of Mainz,” Schuster said. “It was not a good moment when I was there at the beginning like I’m (doing now) at this club, this club is some steps ahead, but of course, we are in another competition here now, but it was the same (idea). We were a very small club. There have been some others who spend more money, who seems to be bigger, more attractive with everything.”

He added: “We thought about how we can be successful in this league, how we can improve and we found good ways to do that. First thing was to define ourselves as a developing club for clubs to make transitions for players, to be a step on the ladder in the development of players, and then to find the right profiles, who are ready to come to Mainz to make the next step to lead to bigger clubs.”

“And then, we used that to regenerate money to invest again in the team. We have been very straight with our decisions, and we have been very successful. I think sometimes we had to make hard decisions, and not everybody likes the decisions, but we always trusted that it was (done) the right way.”

It’s an interesting move for someone who has worked for a long time in a good league, with the Bundesliga being reputed as one of the best in the world. Moving stateside to MLS, a relative unknown for a lot of Europeans, is a big move for someone of his stature to make. Especially after concluding a stint recently with Schalke, a team that did some damage in the Champions League during his tenure, accepting a challenge like the one in Vancouver is a bold move. 

But for Schuster, who did law in his hometown of Mainz before latching on with the local club, he’s always been fascinated by the complexity of a job like this. Having a lot of rules allows teams to have more level ground in terms of starting points, and while we’ve seen a decrease of parity in recent years, teams can still catch up to the big dogs if they invest smartly. 

“Yes, I studied law. I don’t know if everyone knows that. I was at university at Mainz and studied law, and I have been always interested in rules and guidelines of leagues,” Schuster said. “And for that reason I’ve been always interested in the MLS, because it’s really different to everything we have in Europe, they’re big differences to Europe, so I know the rules in general. I know what’s TAM and GAM and DPs and everything like that.”

“But of course, I’m really happy to have (VP of Footballing Operations) Greg Anderson on my side, who is an expert on that, because I think nobody can expect that I’m an expert on the first day, I know the rules really good and I will go with Greg through everything and develop progress.”

Now, he’s going to have a busy couple of months, as he and his new staff play catchup in the offseason. While he did say that he has started contributing to decision-making for a while now, it’s time to officially get things underway, starting with the re-opening of a trade window next week. After being relatively silent in the last trade window, despite having many assets that people see as valuable around MLS, it’s expected the Caps pounce on a couple of moves within the league. 

After that, it’ll be onto the opening of the global transfer window in January. It’s expected that Vancouver makes some aggressive moves in that window, as they have at least 1 DP spot open, with the possibility of another opening up depending on changes in the salary cap. With that kind of freedom, and someone with Schuster’s network now on board, it gives he and Dos Santos a chance to start chasing some big fish. 

As said by Dos Santos on Friday, that process is already ongoing, as they have already started to compile a solid list of targets. While it’s unsure how many of them will be successful purchases, if they can hit on most of them, Dos Santos promises that it would have been a good offseason. 

“Our targets are very clear right now, if you want a lot of answers, you could steal my computer,” Dos Santos joked Friday. “But yeah, our targets are clear, what we want to do is clear, now it’s a question of pulling the trigger and trying to get the deals done. So, yes, there was a moment of waiting in some of the key players, to also have the approval of our sporting director, making sure that everybody was on the same page, some decisions like taking options of players had to be done before.”

“But today it’s very clear what we need, very clear what we want. Are we going to be able to get all the targets that we want? It’s not going to be easy, but if we do, it’s going to be very successful offseason, so we hope it’s going to happen.”

For Schuster, in between transfer dealings, jumping into improving infrastructure and taking a look at youth development, it’s going to be a busy period to start things off. It won’t be easy, as the Whitecaps have some big steps to take, but he seemed confident in the process Friday. After a season like that, it’ll be interesting now to see what decision he and the team now take, starting with moves in the immediate future. 

No matter that direction, expect a full effort from Schuster, who seems invigorated by this job opportunity. For the first time, he works without the highly-esteemed Christian Heidel, who was seen as a big part of the jobs done at Mainz and later at Schalke. With Schuster now on his own for the first time, people will be keeping a close eye on how he does, as that lack of frontman experience was seen as the main criticism of him despite his pedigree.

Based on the glowing review he gave on Friday, he already believes that Vancouver has the structure to help him do that. After years of disappointment in the club, now it’s to see if he’ll be able to succeed in his mission, as the road towards MLS relevance continues. 

So far, it seems like positive marks for Schuster, who definitely has the ability to do that. 

“I want to make step-by-step development with sustainability. That is always something we did at Mainz, we don’t want to overpay so we don’t want to reach two or three steps in one with the danger to fall back again,” Schuster said. “So we had to build up everything there. And we have not been a big group, and we have been only good people with good energy, and this is also something, I found here as well. A lot of people with this passion and energy for this job and for this club. All of them want to make it happen, all of them gives a little bit more than a normal employee, (even) after a year such as last year.” 

“Now it’s up to us to find the right strategy, to find the right pathway to bring all the energy together, we have to make some decisions and move on step-by-step.”

With this long-needed announcement out of the way, that long pathway has officially begun.

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