He was Canada’s most prolific scorer during an era when the national team reached unprecedented heights. Now, Dale Mitchell is being asked to work his magic from the touchline as head coach. A Vancouver native who spent the majority of his playing career with clubs in the Pacific Northwest, including indoors with the Tacoma Stars, he will have plenty of well-wishers on hand May 31, when the Canucks face Brazil at Qwest Field.
You’re a Northwest native. How do you recall those early days of the Vancouver-Seattle games?
It was a great rivalry. When I got involved in the NASL (at age 19), it was really starting to take off, so I was fortunate in terms of the timing. One of the first games I was involved with against the Sounders in the ’77 playoffs. I was on the bench for that game, and it was one of the first big crowds at Empire Stadium. From then on, that rivalry seemed to grow in terms of numbers involved. When the Sounders moved into the Kingdome, they were getting excellent crowds in a monster building, and the Whitecaps continued to get very good crowds at Empire Stadium.
Your career really took off after being traded to Portland, where you got more opportunities. How did the rivalry with Seattle compare?
That rivalry was different for me, because during the time I was playing for the Timbers, within our division, Seattle and Vancouver were the two top teams. It was kind of funny how it worked out, though. It seemed Seattle normally beat Portland, Portland got results against Vancouver and Vancouver seemed to beat Seattle. We all had each other’s number. I think the height of the Sounders-Timbers rivalry had peaked before I went to (’79-82) Portland, when the Timbers had a stronger team.
Do you sense that these rivalries are ready for the next level, in MLS?
There’s no doubt that Seattle, Vancouver and Portland are excellent soccer markets with a history of supporting quality soccer, and I think all three are ready for the next level. They’ve shown they can keep it going to a degree at the USL level. Everybody in those cities is waiting and the Sounders will have first crack at it. It’s exciting for everyone in the Northwest. I know up here in Vancouver and those in Portland are interested to see how things work out for Seattle, and they’re anxious to get in there and compete against the Sounders again.
There should be a big crowd for the Brazil match. What was the most memorable setting you played in, either for a club or your country?
The best atmosphere that I had the experience of playing in was at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. I had the opportunity to play qualifying games there twice. Obviously it’s a very pro-Mexico crowd of 100,000-plus at both matches and you’re playing against very good opponent as well. Certainly back then Mexico was the top team in CONCACAF, and to play in Azteca was the most electric atmosphere, an experience I’ll always remember.
You experienced the highs of Canada soccer in the mid-‘80s. Why was that such a golden era?
Two reasons. No. 1 was the North American Soccer League. The majority of the guys who played on the national team in the ‘80s, had a good five years under their belt playing in the NASL, surrounded by good professionals, from the rest of the world and Europe especially. That helped us to grow as individual players. The second factor was that we had a clever and experienced coach (Tony Waiters) who knew the formula for Canada to have success in CONCACAF back then. He brought the group together, had us very organized, very physically fit. We were able to get the results we needed to do well in the ’84 Olympics and qualify for the ’86 World Cup.
As coach of the national team, what’s it going to take to reach that level once again?
I think that organization and physical fitness are still two key components for any coach. But certainly CONCACAF, in general, is a lot stronger. We had an advantage in those two areas back in the ‘80s. I don’t think we have that advantage any more. The game has grown and developed so much, around the world and in CONCACAF. Everybody is fit and everybody’s well organized. Then it comes down to the technical ability of players. We have better technical players now–or at least more of them–than we had years ago. But so does everybody else in CONCACAF, and that’s what makes it such challenge in this day and age.
How does coaching a national team differ from that of a club?
At international level, you don’t get the time you want with the players, to impose you own game as much as at the club level. We’re playing 10-15 games per year, so it’s difficult. You watch a lot of games on video and try to see the games you can live, and you try to make the most of the time when you get players together. That’s the process for everyone involved at the international level. We go through a process of contacting the clubs and players about availability. It’s tricky at this time of year. Some are involved in MLS, and MLS doesn’t break for international dates like everywhere else in the world. You’re going to get players at different times, like leading up to the Brazil game. Our players will start to assemble throughout the week in Seattle, and the reality is we’ll probably have a couple days with the entire group before playing against Brazil.
What kind of coach did enjoy playing for or got the most out of you?
I think Tony Waiters was the one who got the most out of the teams he coached, both looking at the North America Soccer League–he won a championship with the Whitecaps at the height the league in ‘79–and also what was accomplished in the ‘80s with the national team. He was excellent in organizing and from a man management standpoint, which is a very important part of managing today’s players. When you’re playing, you look at it a little bit differently. You’re a little bit self-absorbed and into your own career, and trying to accomplish things and, to be honest, probably trying to make a certain number, if we’re all honest. In coaching, it’s about how to get results and how do you get the most out of your players. Tony’s the one who stood out most for me.
How would you describe yourself as a coach?
I’ve been involved with the Canadian program and U-20 teams during the last six years. I’ve been to three world championships in the last six years. We played a lot games, qualifiers and matches against teams from outside CONCACAF. Your approach can sometimes change and you must adjust because of which team you’re playing against. Most coaches will tell you they want an attractive team that can impose itself on the opponent. But you always have to marry that with getting results and being results oriented. Those are the two things you’re wrestling with in your mind. You approach matches differently.
What are the goals of Canada in the near future?
The ultimate goal is to qualify for the World Cup in 2010. It will be difficult, a big, big achievement. We know there is quality within the region, and certainly we respect our first opponents, St. Vincent & Grenadine. They did reasonably well the last time around. If you can afford to look past that, we will most likely have Mexico, Honduras and Jamaica in our group in the next round, with two teams advancing. For sure, our work is cut out for us, but we’re all in this for the same reason and that’s to ultimately get to South Africa.