Looking Back at Jay Nolly

FOXBORO, MA - MAY 14: Jay Nolly #18 of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC makes a save against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium May 14, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Gail Oskin/Getty Images)

The rumour has come true. The Vancouver Whitecaps have traded goalkeeper Jay Nolly to the Chicago Fire for a 2013 first-round pick in the Supplemental Draft; what amounts to a third-round draft pick.

On Friday, when Nolly was removed from the list of players eligible for the MLS Re-Entry Draft, I discussed the probabilities and mentioned a rumour going around that, since Jay and his wife Alicia had been following/followed by Chicago Fire-related Twitter accounts in the last couple days, he might be off to Chicago. I actually think it's sort of funny that turned out to be true.

This trade is less funny. I've already been over the reasons I'd have preferred Nolly to remain in Vancouver so I won't re-hash those points. The return of Joe Cannon (also announced this morning) means that any impact by this trade on Vancouver's goalkeeping should be minimal.

Nolly provided league-average goalkeeping at a fair price. To fans of the seventeen other MLS teams this trade should be less than a footnote. To Whitecaps fans it should mean much more, as Nolly was a leading figure in this city's soccer scene for many years and the longest-tenured of the remaining Vancouver Whitecaps. He was our last playing connection to this team's most recent championship in 2008. One of the classiest, most involved, and most dedicated Whitecaps of recent years, Nolly will be missed off the field much more than he'll he missed on it.

Jay Nolly joined the Vancouver Whitecaps for the 2008 USL First Division season after an uninteresting stint at DC United under first-year head coach Tom Soehn. The 2007 Whitecaps had boasted a fantastic rogue's gallery of goalkeepers: former Trinidad and Tobago international Richard Goddard, one-time Charlton Athletic goalkeeper and current Carlisle player/coach Tony Caig, and even Lutz Pfannenstiel, soccer's ultimate journeyman. There was some talent there but, on a stiflingly dull team coached by veteran American boss Bob Lilley, there was no consistency, nobody who could grab the reins.

Nolly put an end to that.

Beginning the season as Srdjan Djekanovic's backup, Nolly took the starting role after eight games and didn't let go for three years. The 2008 Whitecaps were a bloody good team, led by veteran Eduardo Sebrango (who was enjoying one last run of championship form and would surely be riding off into the sunset any day now), but the defense was packed with talented but erratic players like Jeff Clarke and Fightin' Wes Charles. Would-have-been captain Adrian Cann bolted to Europe early in the season, followed not long after by quality utility man Chris Pozniak. It was a difficult situation for any goalkeeper, particularly one who had little professional experience and was new to USL-1 entirely.

What did Nolly do? Ho, hum, he just backstopped the Whitecaps to a brilliant championship, winning Whitecaps Defensive Player of the Year honours. He was shut out of the USL-1 goalkeeping honours by legends Bill Gaudette and Matt Jordan but had to settle for owning both of them in the playoffs as the Whitecaps beat Jordan's Montreal Impact in the semi-final and then Gaudette's Puerto Rico Islanders in the final to give Vancouver their second USL-1 title in three years.

On the way, Nolly made Whitecaps history when he gave the team their first victory over MLS opposition as the Whitecaps beat Toronto FC 1-0 at BMO Field on Canada Day 2008 thanks in no small part to Nolly's heroics. In his first full season as a professional starter the previously-unknown goalkeeper had made himself a fan favourite.

It wasn't just his play that made Nolly so popular. He took the time to get involved in the community and always had a moment for a fan. He and his wife Alicia became regular fixtures at big supporters events and he always made a point of applauding the fans when he came out, home or away. He wasn't flashy and he never did much to draw attention to himself, but he was polite and welcoming and never, ever aired dirty laundry in public.

Nolly played every minute of every game in 2009 and was arguably even better in the clutch: his goalkeeping was a main reason the Whitecaps would have won the Voyageurs Cup if not for the infamous Montreal screwjob, and in the playoffs Nolly robbed the higher-seeded Carolina Railhawks of a deserving win, including a spectacular save on a Daniel Paladini penalty. Unfortunately in 2009 the rest of the team couldn't go quite as far and they bowed out in an ugly final to those damned Impact. The loss certainly wasn't on Nolly, though, who was again shut out of league-wide goalkeeper honours but was voted team MVP, Southsiders MVP, and respected as one of the finest goalkeepers in the division.

By 2010, Nolly was so ensconced as Vancouver's goalkeeper of choice that when backup Simon Thomas played a few minutes of relief in garbage time of a thoroughly won road game it was cause for shock among the Whitecaps fanbase. He was the anchor of the best defensive team in the second division, USSF D2 Goalkeeper of the Year, team MVP once again, and he had to do all that while knowing his team was so poor offensively that only a great defensive effort could bring victory.

I'd argue that Nolly was never the best goalkeeper in the second division, not even in 2010. He certainly wasn't the greatest goalkeeper in MLS and few fans were arguing that Joe Cannon should lose the starting job. He was, however, a thoroughly excellent individual and the sort of sneakily good goalkeeper who could surprise opposing teams, like he surprised Toronto in 2008. In the clutch, you knew Nolly would give his best and, just occasionally, steal a game the Whitecaps had no right winning.

Nolly was a good goalkeeper and an even better person. I wish the Whitecaps could have kept him but, if they had to let him go, it's nice to see him immediately landing on his feet with another MLS team. Let's hope Chicago Fire fans grow to support him as much as we did in Vancouver.

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