The Vancouver Whitecaps roster, already dangerously small, may be getting a little smaller this week.
First came the news over the weekend that Robbie Savage would not be signing a contract with the Whitecaps after all. This being the twenty-first century and Savage being a social media-loving guy, the first indications of this came over Twitter and it has since been confirmed by the BBC and seemingly every other news organization under the sun. I made my skepticism of the value of a Savage signing quite clear when the rumour first came around and have not had cause to change my opinion one iota since then. This is a dodged bullet. But it does leave us a bit thinner in midfield than we otherwise would have been.
I was a bit surprised by Savage's decision to stay home, but not nearly as surprised as I was this afternoon when Marc Weber reported that Ethan Gage is on trial with npower Championship side Reading F.C. 19-year-old Gage is the defending Canadian U-20 player of the year but was by no means considered a key part of the Whitecaps squad last season: the idea that he's being coveted by European clubs after a relatively disappointing 2010 season is a real shock.
Gage was probably more-or-less a lock to make the team in some role next season, even if it was just a reservist with spot duty on the first team. Presumably he would be eligible for a home-grown player slot, and a lot of Whitecaps fans were looking forward to seeing him develop. That might just be in jeopardy now.
I can't even tell you how flabbergasted I am by this Ethan Gage trial. Marc Weber knows a thing or two about a thing or two, but he seems to have scooped the world on this one: there's no trace of Gage on the Reading website, on any of the fan forums... either Reading is keeping this very quiet and nobody over there is particularly excited, or Ethan hasn't even gotten on the plane yet. Possibly he's still packing.
Or possibly Reading really isn't all that worked-up over Gage. Has he won this trial off of pure reputation? He is the reigning Canadian U-20 player of the year and has turned in some good performances for the Canadian youth national team. Perhaps that alone was enough for Reading to give Gage a whirl: it's not like a trial is that expensive and he is a pretty young player who's solid athletically. The catch is that Gage, while he struggled with injury, was also only a bit player with the USSF D2 Whitecaps last season: he played a total of 247 minutes in the regular season last season. That's a third as many as Chris Williams, and where the hell is he these days?
In short, don't burn your Ethan Gage Whitecaps jersey quite yet: they're rolling the dice on potential. The real million-dollar question, or at least the $100,000 question, is whether Reading would be obliged to pay the Whitecaps a transfer fee if they did sign him. I mean, in an international football legalistic sense, what's his contract status? He's on trial with the MLS Whitecaps, but he would have been under contract to the NASL Whitecaps if they still existed, and the Whitecaps have Gage's exclusive rights at least in North America. I really don't know how that works: I guess that Reading would have to pay for Gage's rights but I don't know that. Being a crappy reporter, I tried to ask some people but I'm writing this up kinda quickly and haven't gotten an answer yet.
It's all hypothetical, since while I hope for his sake and Canada's that Gage is a success in Reading, I don't expect him to stick. This isn't Gage's first trial in Europe: he took runs with both Eintracht Frankfurt and VfL Wolfsburg in 2009 during the Residency reign of Thomas Neindorf and (obviously) did not catch on. A chance for Gage in the Championship would be a terrific opportunity, but I fully expect to see him in Vancouver colours come kickoff in 2011.
Finally, I must comment on the non-arrival of Robbie Savage. There's really not much more to say about him: his merits and demerits have been dissected into oblivion ever since he expressed interest in joining the Whitecaps. In the end, despite his initial public enthusiasm, Savage decided it was too huge a move for his family. Fair enough; he's got a wife and two kids, and at his age most men aren't eager to start jaunting across oceans. But let me allow the cynic in me to come out for an instant.
Savage was only too eager to go blabbing about Vancouver's interest to the press. This isn't simple naivete on Savage's part, either: he's probably the most media-savvy player in England today and is actually a fairly prominent member of their soccer media. If he was leaking the Whitecaps' interest, he was doing that for a reason. Possibly to improve his bargaining position at home, possibly just to tell the soccer world "hey, people want to sign me", or partially out of sheer enthusiasm.
If it was a negotiating ploy and Savage never meant to sign here, then it was cynical as hell. But I really don't mind: it's not like it cost the Whitecaps anything and it got us in the international news for a bit as an ambitious, enthusiastic expansion team. On the other hand, isn't it possible that the Whitecaps were displeased with Savage spilling the beans? They've made no secret that they're trying to sign a number of prominent international players; they've just made the identities secret. Were the Whitecaps irritated with Savage's blabbing his guts out, never all that certain they wanted him, and chastened by the mixed public reaction to his potential signing, and quietly told Savage "never mind"? He is out of contract at the end of the season, of course, and Derby is hardly likely to keep him. The Whitecaps opportunity might have been the best Savage was going to get, and yet here we are.
If that happened, it only made sense that Savage would say "oh, it's for my family" to try and cover his own scat. The Whitecaps would have no reason to gainsay him. This is absolute speculation, of course, but it fits with what we know about the Whitecaps' ambition but also their insularity.