Hello, people of Berkshire! Doubtless you have by now learned that Reading F.C. has signed former Vancouver Whitecaps defender/midfielder Ethan Gage. This is big news in Canada; the second-biggest transfer story of the day behind Massih Wassey finally catching on with a new club in Germany (sorry, Fernando Torres). Very few of my Canadian readers will need an introduction to Gage. Whitecaps fans are of course familiar with him, Montreal Impact fans have clashed swords in anger with Gage in more than a few key fixtures, and Toronto FC fans are too oblivious to care.
But right now, a bunch of Reading fans are scouring the Googles trying to figure out who the hell this Ethan Gage guy is. "Canadian U-20 player of the year? I didn't even know Canada played soccer!" If what I've heard is true there aren't that many Vancouver Whitecaps experts among fans of English second division clubs. Luckily for you, this is actually a pretty slow news day in Major League Soccer. So, after the jump, one man's impression of Ethan Gage, his signing, how much Vancouver will miss him, and how much good he might do for Reading.
When news of Gage's trial in Reading came out, I was pessimistic about Gage's chances. I seriously did not believe Gage would catch on with Reading, even as I was hopeful he would. This wasn't a condemnation of his skill so much as the fact that his stock has never been lower than it was yesterday. Gage has twice failed in trials in Germany, and say what you will about Reading's fortunes in England but they're definitely a strong, competitive team.
Gage has a lot of strengths as a footballer. He's just shy of six feet tall but solid as a rock. For a player as young as he is, Gage has good playing instincts and is very rarely caught out of position. He's a very intelligent young man and it shows up on the field, plus he's easily the best soccer player in the history of Cochrane, Alberta. He tackles well and plays sound, no-nonsense soccer. If you're looking for the next Leo Messi, you'll be disappointed as Gage's game is extremely simple and technically unambitious. The bright side of this is that he makes very few mistakes and is athletic enough that still does plenty of damage on the defensive side of the ball. He's also extremely versatile, having played professionally (and played well) primarily as a ball-winning defensive midfielder but also at right full back and centre half.
Now for his weaknesses. Ethan doesn't jump very well and is only mediocre in the air, which has burned him at centre back before. He also hasn't got tremendous offensive ability. Though Gage has a decent enough right foot, he's neither a tremendous passer nor a powerful shot. He recognizes this limitation well enough and doesn't do anything he isn't capable of, but be aware of it. Though it looked like Gage was going to be a regular in the Whitecaps lineup when he was eighteen years old, part of the reason he's been relegated to bench duty is that he simply wasn't as good all-round as his competition: he lost out to the likes of Martin Nash, Terry Dunfield, Blake Wagner, and Philippe Davies in midfield and at right back Wes Knight had a firm hold on the position until he was injured.
Injury was Gage's other problem. He's had his share of injury troubles in the past season. Some of it was just bad luck: his nose was broken in a reserve match early in the year. Late in the season he tweaked his hamstring, and throughout the season he seemed to generally be on the edge of match fitness. He wound up playing in only a handful of matches last year in the USSF Second Division, mostly as a substitute.
Not that Gage didn't contribute. In a playoff game against the Portland Timbers, right back Wes Knight dislocated his shoulder and Gage was called upon to replace him. Gage played marvelous soccer in Portland and Puerto Rico, so good that when Knight was ready to return to the lineup, Gage actually stayed in at right back (playing 120 minutes in a losing cause) and Knight was displaced to right midfield. When healthy, he was obviously able to compete with the best of them. It was just the "when healthy" part.
There's nothing to suggest that Gage is particularly injury-prone; he just had some bad luck last season. All the same, he was struggling to break into Vancouver's first team even when healthy and the Canadian second division isn't quite as good as the English one. Of course this is a long-term signing for Reading, who presumably won't expect Gage to make any impact on the first team for at least a year or two. Certainly, Gage can't help but benefit from a higher standard of training and competition and I could not possibly be happier for him. He's a good player and a good prospect, but I'd be lying if I said he was perfect.