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A Tribute to Martin Nash

No need to look so downhearted, Martin. You're a legend in your own time. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
No need to look so downhearted, Martin. You're a legend in your own time. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

So farewell then, Martin Nash. The Vancouver Whitecaps central midfielder, captain, league All-Star, and Most Valuable Player candidate is hanging up the boots at age thirty-four. The story was broken by the Vancouver Province's esteemed Whitecaps story-breaker, Marc Weber, late last night via Twitter, where it promptly sent the Whitecaps-loving world into a tizzy. Martin Nash? Retiring? Now? Mere months before the team is schedule to move into Major League Soccer and weeks after Nash's continued excellence was confirmed by his selection to the USSF D2 All-Star midfield?

The consensus among those who watched Nash every day was that he could play in Major League Soccer, if not at a level he was accustomed to. As the leading Whitecap outfield player in minutes played, I'm sure fitness wasn't an issue for the famously dedicated Nash. Some who follow Major League Soccer say that Nash wasn't athletic enough to cut it in the higher league but, then, they say that about every second division player. Nash could have played in MLS. If a 36-year-old Cuauhtémoc Blanco could star in Major League Soccer despite being so slow they pushed him around on a dolly, Martin Nash could have made it. Come off the bench, run his heart out for fifteen minutes, and play the ball as well as anybody in the league. So why leave now?

Did the Whitecaps not want him? Teitur Thordarson has always appreciated speed and fitness: maybe Teitur thought Martin wouldn't fit in his MLS club and had the decency to tell him so. Maybe Martin knew he wouldn't start, would fade away rather than burn out, and decided to leave on his own terms; his press conference hinted at that explanation. Maybe it was a decision he made only after the season, when his age and his diminishing role were staring him in the face, or maybe he had decided on this long ago and delayed the announcement to avoid being a distraction during the playoffs. That would be typical Martin Nash, sacrificing a raucous sendoff at Swangard Stadium for the sake of his teammates. It would be his career in a nutshell: the team first. Martin Nash is a great person, was a great leader, will make a great coach. But he was also a sublime player, and he deserves to be remembered for his on-pitch talents every bit as much as his off-field influence.

My first memories of Martin Nash don't come from his time with the Whitecaps, or even his successful runs with the Canadian national team. No, of all things I first remember Martin Nash from his time with the Edmonton Drillers. A time I bet even Martin is quite willing to forget: playing with what was optimistically called the National Professional Soccer League that was actually international, only semi-professional, played indoor soccer, and was seldom organized enough to deserve the moniker of a "league". I didn't go to many Drillers games, and when I did go I never, ever paid for a ticket. Then again, nobody did. Affection for the Drillers was always limited to their remarkable pool of talented Canadian players, and Martin was one of the most remarkable of all. In the cramped confines of an indoor soccer field his remarkable long balls and cunning distribution were far less effective, yet it was so obvious that he could see the game better than those around him. Even I, twelve years old and almost unversed in the wider world of soccer, could pick him out as a special one: he was so much more talented than some of the defenders he was up against it was hysterical. I wouldn't have known the significance of this local indoor player having spent time in the Football League's First Division with Stockport County, but if you had explained it to me I would not have been surprised.

During his playing career, Martin Nash was an archetypal soccer nomad. As a youngster, he trialled unsuccessfully with Tottenham Hotspur. He played professionally in Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, three stops in England, and two stops in the United States. He played in the English First, Second, and Third Divisions, the National Professional Soccer League, the North American A-League, the Major Indoor Soccer League, and the USL First Division, none of which exist anymore. He played for the Vancouver 86ers and the Rochester Raging Rhinos, who have rebranded and changed leagues. He played for the Edmonton Drillers and the Dallas Sidekicks, who have folded. And he played for the Canadian national team, which is a master's course in nomadry all in itself.

Nash's contributions to the national team don't get their due. He capped thirty-eight times and scored twice, beginning in 1997 against El Salvador when the 21-year-old Nash was a bright, up-and-coming midfielder in Stockport County. It must be said that Nash was not a great scorer at the international level: both his goals came in the same 2000 friendly against Bermuda. It hardly matters. In his day, Nash was probably the best crosser of the ball Canada has boasted since 1986, apart from Mike Klukowski. His contributions in the 2000 Gold Cup are less remembered than those of Craig Forrest and Richard Hastings, but they were an immense part of our winning that competition. Before age started to rob him of his speed Nash was Canada's best option up and down the wings. He could cross like a dream, he could take corners, he could take free kicks, and he could outplay CONCACAF defenders in a way that few members of our average midfield corps could boast. A new generation of promising midfielders such as Atiba Hutchinson, Julian de Guzman, Dwayne De Rosario, and of course Frank Yallop's personal prodigy Jaime Peters started to take away Nash's national opportunities in later years, and his last cap came in a 2008 friendly. But when the Canadian soccer brass, never known for being farsighted or managing its players well, gave Nash a chance, he always delivered. That's not something you can say about any of the men Frank Yallop and Dale Mitchell ran out trying to replace him.

He played all over Canada, and he played for Canada, but ultimately Martin belonged to Vancouver. Growing up in Victoria, Nash got his start in professional football with the old Vancouver 86ers of the A-League, playing 41 games over two years under head coach Carl Valentine and making the league semi-finals his first year. His first professional kicks came at only twenty years old but Nash proved himself an integral part of the 86ers almost immediately, scoring seven goals, making the all-A-League team at midfield, and hopping across the Atlantic for a two-season tour in England. After the demise of the Drillers in 1999 Nash rejoined the 86ers rather than remain in indoor soccer with the NPSL's Detroit Rockers, who had selected him in the Drillers' dispersal draft. When that season ended Nash again turned to England, and after a single season with Chester City bounced between Rochester, Macclesfield Town, the Montreal Impact, and yet more indoor soccer in quick succession.

It was only from 2004 on that Nash really made him synonymous with the Whitecaps. Re-signing with Vancouver, Nash at first inked only a one year deal and at first struggled to get playing time. It didn't last. Nash soon planted himself in the starting lineup and, barring injury and the very occasional rest day, spent the rest of his career there. By the championship final of 2006, Nash held the club iron man record for consecutive games.

Nash was coached first by Tony Fonseca, then by Bob Lilley, then finally by Teitur Thordarson, and all found the veteran midfielder invaluable. Nash walked away with two league titles, a fistful of personal accolades including a team MVP award, and following the release of Jeff Clarke in 2008 he walked away with the captain's armband as well. League championships, personal honours... very little eluded Martin Nash in his career. Even if he never played in a first division, he can take some consolation in the impact he could always make on the second.

So here's to Martin Nash, one of the greatest players in the storied history of the Vancouver 86ers and Whitecaps. A leader in every sense, both with his play and with his attitude. At the press conference, his coaching job seemed almost amorphous, like something intended to keep a club legend and brother of the new co-owner busy. It's a difficult sort of position in which to establish yourself. Then again, Martin Nash knows a thing or two about establishing himself in difficult positions. I don't think the end of his playing career will mean the end for Martin Nash as one of Vancouver's greatest soccer icons.