Whitecaps re-up with CEO Axel Schuster for four more years


Schuster has been with the club since November 2019 and has guided the Caps through a tumultuous period

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The Vancouver Whitecaps are carrying on with their newest face at the top, while maintaining relationships with a pair of executives who had been placed on leave after sexual misconduct emerged against a former coach.

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The MLS team announced Tuesday that chief executive officer and sporting director Axel Schuster has signed a four-year contract extension.

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Schuster has been with the club since November 2019 and has guided the Caps through a tumultuous period that saw the team relocate three times due to the COVID-19 pandemic — they’ve played home games in Florida, Utah and Oregon — and deal with allegations of sexual misconduct against two former coaches.

Schuster opted to fire head coach Marc Dos Santos in August 2021 and replace him with Vanni Sartini, who previously served as the club’s director of methodology.

After Sartini took over, the Caps lost just twice in 14 games and made the playoffs for the first time in four years. Sartini signed a two-year contract extension last November.

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But this season has been more of a struggle, with the Caps going 12-14-7, though with one game left in the regular season they still have a chance to make the playoffs. They did win the 2022 Canadian Championship this past summer, which qualified the Caps for next year’s edition of the CONCACAF Champions League.

They’re on the road at Minnesota United this weekend; a win over the Loons will put them in the MLS Cup playoffs for the second year in a row.

Vancouver Whitecaps CEO Axel Schuster watches from the stands during the first half of an MLS soccer match against Toronto FC, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.
Vancouver Whitecaps CEO Axel Schuster watches from the stands during the first half of an MLS soccer match against Toronto FC, Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack AP Photo/Ph /AP

Schuster, who hails from Cologne, Germany, told Postmedia that he strongly feels he made the right choice moving to a new country and soccer culture three years ago, even if the COVID-19 pandemic quickly put everything upside down and despite the off-field allegations that emerged.

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“Of course at the time I was making the choice I was not expecting all those things to happen. It wasn’t always easy,” he said Tuesday. Pandemic travel restrictions meant that he didn’t see much of his family in 2020 and 2021.

“But I’m at the right place. I’m super happy,” he said. And signing on for four years is both a statement about how pleased he is with where he’s at in the soccer world, in many ways building a professional soccer team anew, but also about the opportunity to build more broadly ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will see games played at B.C. Place Stadium, home of the Whitecaps.

“It’s a very important time for soccer,” he said. “It was in my mind, when I first spoke with ownership in 2019, about what 2026 would mean for Soccer in Canada,” he explained. “It was right after Canada had beaten the U.S. for the first time in a long time. It was a very exciting time.”

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Canada midfielder Lucas Cavallini (9) and defender Richie Laryea (22) dance in front of team mates as they celebrate a win over Jamaica at BMO Field to clinch qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Canada midfielder Lucas Cavallini (9) and defender Richie Laryea (22) dance in front of team mates as they celebrate a win over Jamaica at BMO Field to clinch qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Photo by Dan Hamilton /USA TODAY Sports

The world cup is a huge opportunity for developing soccer in Canada.

“I have seen what World Cup has meant for other countries. Look at South Korea,” he said.

South Korea hosted the 2002 World Cup alongside Japan. South Korea was a small soccer nation going into the tournament, but won the hearts of fans around the world, earning an almost miracle sequence of wins before losing in the semi finals.

“Today South Korea is a highly respected and a big soccer nation in the world,” he said.

Soccer can be Canada’s No. 2 sport, he believes.

“It’s a time to work together,” he said. “We all will benefit if we get this right.”

“I’m not crazy. I know that hockey is the number one, but if we can really get to that (No. 2) everyone will benefit.”

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He also didn’t shy away from acknowledging the roles of Bob Lenarduzzi and Dan Lenarduzzi going forward.

The team never officially confirmed they were on leave — Schuster again wouldn’t confirm that they had been, along with Rachel Lewis and Greg Anderson, on leave — but the team also never disputed that all four were put on leave late last year after sexual misconduct allegations directed at former Whitecaps women’s team coach Hubert Busby, Jr. emerged.

The allegations against Busby came two years after allegations were made against one of Busby’s predecessors, Bob Birarda. Birarda had been dismissed as Whitecaps women’s coach and Canada U20 women’s coach in 2008 following a pair of complaints about inappropriate conduct made against him by female Whitecaps players.

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Former Whitecaps women’s coach Bob Birarda arrives at North Vancouver courthouse for a sentencing hearing on June 8, 2022.
Former Whitecaps women’s coach Bob Birarda arrives at North Vancouver courthouse for a sentencing hearing on June 8, 2022. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

A report initiated by Major League Soccer after the Busby reports arose last year was delivered earlier this year. The report investigated how the team handled the allegations against Busby in 2011 — former player Malloree Enoch said she reported the inappropriate behaviour by Busby to Dan Lenarduzzi in August 2011 — as well as the allegations of sexual misconduct against Birarda.

The report cleared the Whitecaps’ executives of wrongdoing earlier this year, though it was also heavily critical of the investigator hired by the team in 2008.

Canada Soccer also hired an outside investigator to look into how the national sporting body had handled the allegations against Birarda, who was also coaching in the national women’s program. The Canada Soccer report was heavily critical of how the organization handled allegations brought to their attention in 2008.

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Lewis left the club earlier this year and the team confirmed Tuesday that Anderson now also departed.

Schuster said he wanted to take a moment to thank Anderson for his 18 years of service to the Whitecaps.

“We had several conversations. And at the end of those conversations he said it was time for him to leave,” Schuster said. “When I arrived three years ago, he has been a teacher for me. I don’t think there are a lot of people who have been working on that level that he has in MLS.

“I wish him the very best.”

Bob Lenarduzzi will resume a role as club liaison, while Dan will have an advisory role with the club’s academy centres.

“I always like to discuss things with the group, I have to make the ultimate decision and take the ultimate responsibility,” Schuster began, when asked to comment on the continued presence of the Lenarduzzis.

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Former Vancouver Whitecaps (left to right) Carl Valentine, mascot Spike, Gerry Heaney, and the Lenarduzzi brothers; Dan, Sam and Bob at the 2nd annual Sports Alumni Day at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver on July 29, 2018.
Former Vancouver Whitecaps (left to right) Carl Valentine, mascot Spike, Gerry Heaney, and the Lenarduzzi brothers; Dan, Sam and Bob at the 2nd annual Sports Alumni Day at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver on July 29, 2018. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

He noted that he’s leading a new leadership group, very different from the group that was in charge when the Busby and Birarda incidents took place. He said he and his leadership team is focused on supporting and empowering a new generation of leaders.

“In making something new,” he said.

“I want to encourage young talent and leaders,” he went on. “In a crisis you see the character, if i’ve learned one thing it’s how good some of the young leaders are.”

That said, he said he still saw value in what the Lenarduzzis bring to the table. The Whitecaps’ network of academy centres that stretch across the country were built on Dan Lenarduzzi’s watch. Running such a vast network isn’t easy and he has insights into this, Schuster said.

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But he also suggested that the system is transitioning towards new leadership, that new hires were set to be made, to guide their academy programs into the future.

And Bob Lenarduzzi’s stature in local soccer remains big, Schuster said.

“I can tell you the person that has the best contacts is Bob Lenarduzzi,” he said. “Bob said: ‘look Axel, I don’t need an office, you need to tell me when you need me. … That’s his role. His role is like a service provider.”

“It’s also not right to cut off everything that had value for the club before,” he said. “We want to use, and keep those connections, and knowledge, also this reputation, in the club. because we needed to connect, to open doors. I’ve connected with so many stakeholders … and yes there are some who have a little bit of concern on how we can transition as a club but I would also say the majority have acknowledged what they’ve done for this club.

“I have heard concerns and not everyone is positive but if you work for a club for a long time, there was a big mix of reasons,” he said.

“I know and I have done my research. I know who is responsible for what and how things were handled and in what kind of way.”

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