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Whitecaps Finally Seal the Deal: Jay DeMerit Joins the 2011 Squad

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Jay DeMerit, American international and the newest member of the Vancouver Whitecaps, poses at his introductory press conference. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Jay DeMerit, American international and the newest member of the Vancouver Whitecaps, poses at his introductory press conference. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

I'm proud to say that I had the pleasure of attending the press conference at which the Vancouver Whitecaps announced their first ever signing to their 2011 Major League Soccer roster. I found myself with a few dozen other media types in a meeting room at the new Vancouver Conference Centre, wearing my best pyjamas and my only underwear without a hole in it, waiting for the historic moment.

It was a stereotypical sort of player to begin building with, but a good choice. A tough, hard-as-nails veteran defender with experience playing in Europe and as an international player, but also one with North American roots. Yes, the Whitecaps definitely made the right call by signing former FC Zurich man and one-time Swiss international Alain Rochat. The addition of Rochat gives the Whitecaps a solid base from which to begin...

Wait, this press conference was for Jay DeMerit? But that's old news! I wrote about him back in September!

Was it a bit funny to see the Whitecaps and the assembled media trumpet this as "Vancouver's first MLS signing" when we already had, at the very least, Rochat, Davide Chiumiento, and at one point Cody Arnoux brought in to fill Major League Soccer spots? It definitely was. Less funny was the long overdue arrival of DeMerit. The Whitecaps have been signing defensive players a-plenty, and DeMerit has all the pedigree and attitude to suggest he can succeed in Major League Soccer. He won't be a dominant defender, and I don't think any of us expect him to be. But he'll be strong, reliable, and hard to fool. Although salary terms were not disclosed, we also know that, while he can't be cheap, contrary to earlier rumours DeMerit is not a designated player. DeMerit isn't the most ambitious possible signing, but he might just be one of the wisest.

I've already written what I think DeMerit can bring this team on a tactical level, so I won't rehash too much old ground there. DeMerit is a tough but not terribly fast centre back, the very vision of a prototypical MLS player at the position. He won't give an inch and proved agile enough to handle strikers in the English Premier League: just because he's not quick doesn't mean he isn't smart, and the likes of Jeff Cunningham shouldn't give him too much trouble. There's also a lot to be said for his physical play, which has been a weakness of the USSF D2 Whitecaps in the past. Between the toughness of DeMerit, Rochat, and Terry Dunfield, as well as taking the strong Willis Forko at left back over the quick, ball-handling Zurab Tsiskaridze, Tom Soehn is building a very specific type of defensive club. Dunfield, in particular, put the fear of God into his opponents last season when he went in for a tackle. If Jay DeMerit can provide that same level of grit, combined with English Championship-level shutdown defensive play, he can't help but succeed in a league which demands exactly that.

Given that the Whitecaps have been chasing DeMerit for at least two months, one would expect the Whitecaps had lots of time to get to know DeMerit from the top of the organization to the bottom. Of course these signings take time: DeMerit still hasn't got his international transfer certificate and he hinted obliquely at troublesome negotiations between the team and the league. But it also took DeMerit some time to make up his mind. He emphasized that, ultimately, the Whitecaps had done a good job selling him on the merits of the organization: he used the phrase "total package" so many times I could have turned it into a drinking game. Bob Lenarduzzi mentioned that DeMerit was also attracting interest from teams in Europe, although when I asked DeMerit if any other MLS teams had been after him he went straight into generalities without either saying "yes" or "no".

In spite of having all that time, the Whitecaps organization "top to bottom" hasn't spent a lot of time with DeMerit. In his introductory preamble Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi spoke of how the front office aimed at every turn to reach consensus regarding on-field matters, but head coach Teitur Thordarson hadn't even spoken to DeMerit until the two had lunch yesterday in Vancouver. DeMerit said that he hadn't talked to any of the current Whitecaps (well, the USSF D2 players training with Vancouver in our shirts right now; you know what I mean!), although he was understandably concerned about speaking out of turn before he had officially signed.

When he said that he hasn't said a word to DeMerit before the signing, Thordarson was careful to emphasize how strongly he endorsed it: he said that he watched DeMerit in the World Cup knowing that DeMerit's contract was expiring and was impressed by DeMerit's athleticism and aggression. Both Thordarson and Tom Soehn also placed a great deal of emphasis on DeMerit's character: in particular, the way he worked his way from the bench at Southall F.C. to the captaincy of Watford. Thordarson also liked the way DeMerit provides "a good training attitude", making a great deal of his plans to have the team work its butt off in training. Those who followed Thordarson's training regimes since 2009 know that's no joke.

The team was unequivocal was when excited local reporters asked if DeMerit would be Whitecaps captain material. It's a fair enough question: the position is vacant, and captaining Watford is probably decent preparation for captaining the Whitecaps. But from top to bottom, the Whitecaps staff insisted that decision was Teitur Thordarson's to make, and Thordarson had not made it. Bob Lenarduzzi seemed open to DeMerit as a captain someday, but Thordarson had told Lenarduzzi he preferred to appoint a captain when he'd seen him on the field as well as off.

DeMerit himself made all the right noises. He's clearly used to dealing with the tough English soccer media and had no problems telling a wet-behind-the-ears pissant blogger what he wanted to hear. Though he said this was his first time in Vancouver, he praised the city and said that family and friends who'd been to the area had told him nothing but good things. He made specific mention of the role good fan support had in luring DeMerit and players like him to the club. While working the point into the context of a larger discussion about how strong the Whitecaps were all-round as an organization, he mentioned that strong support from the crowd could, in fact, be a motivating factor in bringing top talent to a club. It's one thing to hear that when an organization is addressing a supporters' group, but quite another when a newly-signed player is talking to a room full of jaded media types plus me. I pretty much liked DeMerit immediately after that.

The likes of Jay DeMerit aren't going to send the Whitecaps to the MLS Cup on their own. The team still has no scoring whatsoever, and you can count its number of decent, MLS-quality transition players on one finger. Their greatest weakness is in skill players of all sorts, and that's where you're going to have the hardest time improving from the rest of the league's castoffs in the expansion draft. We are, in short, not nearly there yet.

But, as Teitur said, the team is building from the spine on out. And this is a pretty good start to that spine.