VANCOUVER, BC — After a 100-day global search, the Vancouver Whitecaps have finally introduced 46-year-old Axel Schuster as their new sporting director Friday.
Schuster is from Germany and previously worked in the Bundesliga under veteran soccer executive Christian Heidel, first as a team manager at 1.FSV Mainz 05 from 1992-2016 and then as a sporting director at FC Schalke 04 from 2016-19.
The Whitecaps hired a sporting consulting company last summer to identify the right person for the job.
“We had 42 candidates and we brought the final three candidates to Vancouver and then made a decision,” Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett said about the global search.
Waiting for that decision to be announced publicly was difficult for Schuster.
“I was like a horse in the starting box,” the 46-year-old Schuster said about the last few days. “I lived like a ghost the last few weeks waiting for the announcements. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos pointed out the need for a sporting director to aid him with player acquisition during his end-of-season interview with Pro Soccer USA. Dos Santos said Friday he’s excited to add another building block with experience and a network that will help make the club better.
“Everyone felt he was the right candidate,” Dos Santos said. “Our first conversation was about how I want the club to play, and we connected very well.”
For Schuster, it will be a new frontier in Vancouver. For the first time in his career, he will work without his mentor, Heidel.
Heidel is the director of sport for Schalke, overseeing all sporting decisions for the club and managing the sporting director — previously Schuster — and the technical staff.
“Christian Heidel was the face of the club,” Schuster said. “Somebody wrote this morning that Heidel was a sporting director, he would tell you, ‘No, that isn’t true.’ He was more like a chairman.”
Pro Soccer USA spoke with at least two different Bundesliga executives who voiced their surprise in Schuster’s appointment as sporting director in Vancouver.
“Schuster lacks frontline experience and never was involved in player acquisition,” one executive told Pro Soccer USA.
Said the other: “Schuster is not a sporting director in the true sense, but worked in a supporting role to Heidel only, with no direct experience when it comes to player acquisition.”
The Whitecaps vehemently opposed those statements Friday.
”I’ve done my homework,” Mallett said, adding that he and his team looked at the players signed by Schuster’s previous employers and went through each one to determine Schuster’s role in scouting them. “That credibility gap that we had for some time, he fills that without a doubt.”
Schalke’s articles of association do state that any investment over €500,000 has to be sanctioned by the board, which means transfer decisions were ultimately made by the board, of which Heidel was a member but not Schuster.
“It was a special relationship between me and Heidel,” Schuster said. “You have to understand that Schalke is a big club with 160,000 members, and in media interest is one of the top 20 clubs in Europe. He trusted me 100%. I managed the sporting department for him and he could concentrate on the politics.”
Moving from Schalke, with its 160,000 members, to Vancouver, a club that finished last in the Western Conference last season, is only a culture shock at first glance for Schuster.
“The situation here reminds me a little bit about Mainz,” Schuster said. “At Mainz, we were a transition club — move players on and make tough decisions. That is similar to here in Vancouver.”
Mainz was a second-division Bundesliga 2 side with a limited budget when Schuster joined Heidel at the club in the early 1990s. In 2001, the club appointed Jürgen Klopp as manager, a decision that laid the foundation for an established future in the Bundesliga.
For Schuster, it will be important to hit the ground running in Vancouver. The first trade window has already come and gone and the Caps made no moves.
The Whitecaps front office has been adamant it wants to get a group of players together by mid-December.
“The process of changing the roster started the Monday after our last game,” Dos Santos said. “Now we are in the process of being able to talk to clubs. Our targets are clear and we are just waiting to pull the trigger.”
Schuster was a bit more conservative in his estimate of when fans can expect new signings.
“The European markets are not working at the moment because they are still playing,” Schuster said. “We need a little more time to make better decisions.”
Nonetheless, with the sporting director signed, the club is optimistic it will finalize deals soon. On Friday, there was even talk of another big announcement involving the signing of a big-name player in the next few weeks.