In this edition of Second ‘Caps thoughts, our column about all things Whitecaps and MLS, we take a look at the busy week that was in ‘Caps land, as we break down the departure of Mark Pannes and the Orlando tournament’s draw.
Despite a productive middle period, how it ended was quite similar to how it started.
Out of the blue this past Tuesday, it was announced that Vancouver Whitecaps CEO, Mark Pannes, had parted ways with the club, bringing his short but memorable 6 month period in the position to an abrupt end.
Much like his arrival, which caught everyone by complete surprise in early January, it marked a surprising end to his tenure in Vancouver, which by all accounts was a positive one.
After a tough 2019 campaign, one marked with scandals, inefficiency and poor performance on and off the pitch, it was hoped that both he and Axel Schuster, who was hired as a Sporting Director back in November, could be the two heads of stability that brought the ‘Caps back into calm waters.
Instead, after what had appeared to be a smooth grace period, the club finds itself in new and uncharted waters once again, as Schuster is now expected to take the reigns as the clubs new CEO and as a Sporting Director, giving him a dual-role rarely ever seen in an MLS front office.
For Schuster, it’s surely going to be an exciting but overwhelming period, as he will definitely get the chance to fight the criticism that he has never been “the guy” at a football club, as he will now get to be “the guy” in terms of re-building the organization both on and off the pitch.
As for the Whitecaps, however, it’s a puzzling move, one that doesn’t quite make sense, especially in light of their comments at the beginning of the year about moving forward as a big club, one that can fight for eyeballs globally.
Heading into what is sure to be an interesting Orlando tournament in less than a month (more on that later in the column), it’s pushed the club back into some choppy waters, of which they’ll need several paddles in order to navigate.
The departure of Mark Pannes: The straw that broke the camel’s back?
In a sense, the departure of Pannes has been less about the actual nuts and bolts of the move itself, and more about the timing and subsequent justification for such a decision.
For example, had the ‘Caps really wanted to “streamline” their front-office operations, in the words of co-owner Jeff Mallett, why didn’t they just hire Axel Schuster as their main guy back in November? When the former Schalke and Mainz man was announced in his role, it was after a long-publicized search for a sporting director, one that stretched out over several months, culminating with the hiring of Schuster in mid-November.
When Pannes was hired, however, it came as a shock to nearly everyone, as the ‘Caps had not announced any sort of search for a CEO, making the appointment of the American quite surprising.
But then when people had a chance to look at his CV, they were certainly intrigued. Time spent at the New York Knicks, AS Roma and HSBC? That certainly raised a few eyebrows, and not in a bad way.
And then when he held court with reporters on his first day, his ambition was palpable.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of upside here,” he told reporters back in January, on the day he was hired.
From ambitious plans to sell out the stadium, to talk of making the ‘Caps a global brand, he just pushed all of the right buttons on that first day, as he oozed that big-club mentality, of which the club said they were happy to have.
For all the goodwill he made on Day 1, however, it was nothing compared to what he did in the days that followed, as he soon made his biggest impact, which was just to sit down and listen to people.
By creating his now-famed @WhitecapsCEO account on Twitter, he quickly built up something that many fans had lost with their favourite club: trust. He was everywhere online, responding to fan inquiries, making media appearances, and just overall doing a great job at engaging with the community whenever possible, making him what many called ‘the best signing of this off-season’.
So when we fast forward to now, when this decision came down, you can see why many felt so blind-sided. Even despite a pandemic, he had done a great job at keeping engagement high with fans, helping jumpstart some local fundraising campaigns for the Vancouver Aquarium and local Food Bank that had amassed totals said to be in the millions.
But for whatever reason, despite all of that positivity on the outside, something had soured on the inside, prompting this surprise decision.
“This is a decision to be the most effective club,” Mallett told reporters on Tuesday, in the aftermath of the decision.
He added: “We’ve really been on the same song sheet internally. There hasn’t been friction,” said Caps minority owner Jeff Mallett. “It’s about … who has the best skills and the best experience base and makeup to own that for the next few years.”
Now, it leaves the ‘Caps in a precarious situation with fans, who predictably have been not the biggest supporters of this move, prompting intense reaction online. After having had a taste of the engagement and ambition that Pannes brought to the table, having it taken away from them hasn’t gone over well, especially in light of the press conference that was supposed to explain it all.
Since we don’t know yet why this departure happened, there is no need to speculate, but for the club to announce their plans to “streamline” operations and be models of “efficiency”, it seems strange that Pannes, who had built up a good relationship with Schuster, is the one to fall.
Considering that Schuster will now take on two big roles, making him do work that 2 or 3 qualified people would struggle to do on their own, it certainly doesn’t seem very efficient. Yes, the structure may be less cluttered now, but by having two big pieces in each role in Schuster and Pannes, who liked working together a lot, the ‘Caps had found two pillars of operation, on and off the pitch.
Instead, the waters have just murkied, bringing the ‘Caps back to some sort of square 1, seemingly for now reason.
And for those wondering, this wasn’t economically motivated, either, as cutting someone less than 15% of the way through a contract is usually never cheap, so there’s certainly something more going on there.
What’s clear is that for whatever reason, Pannes and ownership stopped singing the same song, and as a result, change came about, leading to this. It’s interesting to note that in his classy statement released after the move, Pannes thanked everyone but ownership, so for whatever reason, that bridge burned sometime recently.
Nuts and bolts aside, however, the biggest downfall from this may not even end up being Pannes, who certainly has big shoes that need to be filled, but it may be the erosion of a fanbase, which this move has certainly shown signs of doing.
Especially in light of the news that came out on TSN earlier this week, as it was revealed that Pannes was let go while in Boston to mourn the recent passing of his father, doesn’t reflect well on the ‘Caps as an organization. Already, cutting someone in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic wasn’t going to be a popular move, but combined with that other news, along with Pannes’ strong reputation, it really sparked a firestorm amongst supporters.
With supporter trust already hanging thin, the last thing the ‘Caps needed was another P.R. blow, yet that’s exactly what has transpired, leaving them in a tough spot. As a result, this move may have proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, possibly breaking a relationship that for many, had proven to be beyond repair, at least not for a good while.
If the replies to this tweet are any indication, people aren’t happy.
Now, it leaves the club in a tough position, one that they’ve become all-too-familiar with. How to win back fans, fans who’ve already taken hit-after-hit, especially with so many other options out there? That’ll be the biggest question they face as they embark on this new era, led by Schuster at the helm.
Who knows, maybe this move could prove to be a stroke of genius, pushing the ‘Caps forward into a period of excellence.
While it’s hard to imagine how removing Pannes could help that, for whatever reason, the ‘Caps believe it does, so we cannot judge them on that move until we see the long-term effects of it.
What we can judge them on, however, was the optics of the move, which weren’t too great, for a multitude of reasons. At some clubs, people could get away with it, but with so many already on edge, goodwill and trust are not going to be built up very easily again in Vancouver, at least not for a long while.
There’s no doubt that this club has the potential to be a big MLS franchise, as they have the sporting infrastructure and football culture to succeed, much like their rivals, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, but they just need to clear out their ship and point in the right direction.
But if they’re to do so, there’s a long road ahead, one that might feel extra lonely without the presence of their most loyal fans. After a rocky MLS tenure so far, things look as rocky as ever, and now it’ll be interesting to see how they navigate these latest choppy waters, especially considering they just threw away one of their best paddles.
The Orlando draw is probably “rigged”, and the league should embrace that
In light of all the recent news, this does seem insignificant, but the ‘Caps are still preparing to play in a tournament come July, so it is worth noting that they do have a group now since we last wrote about the tournament around a week ago..
Thanks to a draw held late last week, Vancouver now knows that any route to victory will first go through the Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas and San Jose Earthquakes, the 3 other teams that will join the ‘Caps in group F.
All-in-all, it’s a solid and balanced group, one that should be entertaining to watch down in Orlando.
The ire, however, wasn’t so much with the groups itself, but through the fact that the league held a ‘random’ draw in order to decide this, yet nearly all of the league’s biggest rivals ended up together, sparking conspiracy theories.
Especially considering that the balls were picked by executives of the 6 seeded sides, you could tell something was up, leading to these unbalanced groups.
And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. These rivalry games will spark interest, and certainly help make things interesting for the neutral fan, of which the MLS is trying to bring in during this kind of tournament.
The problem, however, is that they pretend like it’s not rigged, which shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Just admit that you made the groups, CONCACAF Gold Cup style, and reap the rewards of juicy group stage games.
The MLS sometimes does a poor job at embracing its quirkiness, and in this case, this was another prime example.
(We’ll have more in-depth previews about the tournament itself leading into it, just had to say this in light of last weeks draw).
Either way, this is an interesting time to be a ‘Caps fan, mostly for the wrong reasons. After feeling a bit of excitement from folk about the return of MLS, most of that joy feels gone, especially in light of the tumultuous past couple of days that of occurred.
People aren’t happy, and understandably so. In light of this pandemic, which has certainly changed many’s perspectives on life, supporting a club that has beaten down on them so often is not going to be an attractive choice for many, for good reason.
It just feels like a step backward after a time where the club had taken some good ones forward, which has become an all too familiar feeling, which is why so many are frustrated by this.
With this Orlando tournament still likely to happen, it’ll be interesting to see how the team performs in light of all of this, but either way, it’s going to be a rocky couple of weeks, which after a wave of optimism in the spring, feels like a return to an all-too-familiar normal.