Yesterday, the Canadian Soccer Association announced its annual slate of nominees for the various Canadian Player of the Year honours. Media members and Canadian coaches vote for the men's and women's player of the year, while coaches alone vote for the U-20 and U-17 players of the year for both genders.
Normally, these nominations are little more than a nice piece of news to liven up a pretty slow time of year for North American soccer. This year, however, they're a little more significant for Vancouver Whitecaps fan. Former Vancouver Whitecap and Residency prospect Adam Straith is up for men's player of the year, although he has only an outside shot at winning. Three Whitecaps are nominated for women's player of the year: Kaylyn Kyle, Sophie Schmidt, and Melissa Tancredi, although all are simply keeping the trophy warm for Christine Sinclair.
Of course, these players are all long-shots for their respective awards. The truly interesting nominations come further down the line, where the Whitecaps have a legitimate chance of winning. Vancouver fans have always boasted that they have one of the finest youth academies in North America, and judging by the number of Whitecaps up for major youth awards, it would seem the Canadian Soccer Association shares that sentiment.
Defender Ethan Gage and midfielder Russell Teibert, as well as would-be Whitecaps goalkeeper on loan to 2.Bundesliga side Energie Cottbus Julien Latendresse-Lévesque, are among the six players nominated for Canadian U-20 men's player of the year. The Whitecaps also boast midfielder/forward Bryce Alderson and Matteo Pasquotti as nominees for the U-17 player of the year, and three women's players up for youth honours. All of these players should be proud of their achievements, but we should focus our attention on Gage and Teibert. They both have a strong chance at taking the award. They're both tremendous players who have already drawn the eyes of the Canadian soccer world. They are major future parts of not only the Vancouver Whitecaps, but the entire Canadian soccer program.
Whitecaps fans are naturally excited about the MLS SuperDraft. But Vancouver may have its two best prospects in the system right here.
Fortunately for those of us writing articles on such matters, it would be hard to find two more different players than Ethan Gage and Russell Teibert. One is a flashy, undersized attacking midfielder with tricks to spare, who's defied the old Canadian youth soccer ethos of "athleticism over skill" by shooting through the Canadian youth ranks despite being neither all that strong nor actually all that quick. The other is a solid, no-nonsense defender, who in spite of his lack of experience plays a remarkably cerebral style but backs it up with quick feet and a powerful right foot. They are thunder and lightning, two sides of the same coin.
Gage is by far the more established of the two prospects. The 19-year-old is already the greatest soccer player ever to come out of Cochrane, Alberta (believe me, I've been to Cochrane, Alberta). He's played thirty games with the senior Whitecaps team over the last three seasons, including a pivotal role in the successful 2008 USL-1 final against the Puerto Rico Islanders. He's both a defensive midfielder and a centre back, although in recent years he's been used more often in the back four. Don't be fooled by his age: Gage has played more professional minutes, and more important professional minutes, than any other Canadian in his age group. He's won a championship and been part of another playoff run.
Nor did he look out of place, even when dealing with the best offenses the USL First Division had to throw at him. The great thing about Ethan Gage is that he is aware of his own weaknesses. As a result, he knows to play off of highly skilled strikers who could show him one trick too many. He is a master of positioning and forcing attacking players to go where he wants them to go. It's an unusual skillset for a 19-year-old. His key weakness is his offensive awareness; he is very much a defender who can just defend. That said, Gage has a powerful enough right foot that if he ever learned his way around the attacking half of the pitch, he could cause real trouble. His passes also aren't terribly accurate and he is prone to the occasional rash challenge, but all of these mistakes are being ironed out of his game. Gage has also been hobbled by a series of minor but worrying injuries: a broken nose earlier this season being the most serious. He's also been victimized by the Whitecaps loading up for Major League Soccer rather than developing young players: Gage got in thirteen Residency games last season but only seven regular season matches with the first team, playing a total of 247 minutes.
Having said that, Gage is no failed prospect. When the Whitecaps needed him to replace the injured Wes Knight in the 2010 playoffs against Portland and Puerto Rico, Gage drew rave reviews for his solid, no-nonsense play in an unfamiliar position. He actually played well enough that, when Knight recovered enough for a limited run out, Teitur Thordarson actually played Knight at right midfield and left Gage in at right back. He also made a widely-praised 90 minute appearance for the Canadian U-20s against Japan in May, and played a key role in the team's unofficial matches when available throughout the year.
It is a mark of Teibert's ability that he is nominated for Canada's U-20 player of the year despite being only seventeen years old (he turns eighteen on December 22). Teibert is also the two-time defending Canadian U-17 Player of the Year, an honour that this year figures to go to his Residency teammate Bryce Alderson. He is one of the finest young Canadian soccer phenomena in many years, and a good way to get under the skin of a Toronto FC fan is to point out that the marvelous young Teibert was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario and was, very briefly, a member of the Toronto FC Academy.
Unlike Gage, or even Toronto FC nominee Nicholas Lindsay, Teibert lacks professional experience. He's played a total of 45 minutes for the Whitecaps' first team, those coming in a game last year against the Carolina Railhawks when Russell came in for the second half and went through the eventual league runners-up in a way that made us all say "oh, right, that's why he's two-time U-17 player of the year" without actually generating any tremendous scoring chances. Teibert has had to fight through nagging injuries last season that robbed him of some Residency games and a chance to make more of an impact on the first team. He has, of course, played extensively with the Residency and starting this year was a 90-minute man with the Canadian U-20 team. Teibert was the second-youngest member of the regular U-20 lineup, behind only Toronto FC Academy defender Doneil Henry. Although not extensively experienced, for his age he's doing just fine.
I've had the chance to watch Teibert a few times with the Residency team and on each occasion I've come away impressed. In the past I've compared him to Dwayne De Rosario, another undersized but flashy and talented attacking midfielder, but I think that's less and less accurate as time goes by. Teibert is much more of a playmaker than De Rosario ever was. While he's active in calling for the ball and certainly is happy to keep it, Teibert also concentrates on setting his teammates up. He's a better crosser than a kid his age has any right to be and if he plays himself into trouble a bit too often, he's at least got the talent and the ball-moving instincts to get himself out of it. He's not yet mature enough to be a full-time professional, but he is probably the best prospect in the country.
The key for Teibert in the coming seasons will be getting professional experience. Even I, as big a Russell Teibert fan as there is outside of the Teibert family, don't see him getting twenty games in Major League Soccer next year. The Residency team is a step below where he should be playing at this point in his career, and the MLS Reserves play too infrequently against too erratic a quality of competition for a young player like Teibert to really improve. This is where a good loan arrangement with a North American Soccer League team could pay dividends. Send Teibert off to FC Edmonton, let him compete for a starting job, get him plenty of experience against veteran professionals. When he comes back to the Whitecaps for the start of the 2012 MLS season, he'll be a 19-year-old seasoned pro ready to step into a first division role. He's definitely good enough.
Does that mean he should be Canada's U-20 player of the year? I don't think so. He may be the best player in the future, but he is not our best player today. I would vote for Gage ahead of him, if I had a vote. Actually, my nod would go to the aforementioned Lindsay of Toronto FC. In four games with Toronto, admittedly in the garbage time of their season, he looked right at home. Only a few months younger than Teibert, Lindsay plays a simpler game with less conspicuous skill but was still very effective in his limited action. He's also been highly praised for his play at TFC Academy and has turned in some sterling performances for the Canadian U-20 team. My hypothetical ballot would go Lindsay, then Gage, then Teibert, then Janeil Hoilett of Mainz in Germany.
But in five years time? I fully expect the Whitecaps prospect to be on the top of that pile.