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The Jacob Lensky Saga, Part XXII: On Trial

Anoek De Groot/EuroFootball/Getty Images
Anoek De Groot/EuroFootball/Getty Images

At age twenty-three, midfielder/defender Jacob Lensky has retired twice.

Lensky got out of his contract with Feyenoord by announcing his retirement in August 2008, only to resurface five months later on trial with the USL First Division Vancouver Whitecaps. He impressed but left abruptly (pissing off Teitur Thordarson to no end), first to weigh an offer from the Seattle Sounders and then to sign with FC Utrecht back in the Netherlands. Feyenoord, who lost a top young player for no compensation, weren't happy about it but what could they do?

He played very well for Utrecht, earning a call-up from Stephen Hart to the senior Canadian men's national team in November 2009. Lensky accepted the call but left Hart and Canada in the lurch when, at the last minute, he chose to play for the Czech Republic U-21 team instead (according to rumour, he informed Hart by e-mail). Two good years passed in Utrecht, but in September of 2011 Lensky left the team, and by January of this year he had retired again.

Now Lensky is on trial with the Whitecaps again, having parleyed his retirement into a chance to find a new club as a free agent for the second time. Not exactly someone Martin Rennie should take at his word, then.

But according to his former club Lensky has had a drinking problem, which caused his departure from Utrecht. He gave an interview, in English, on how he hates playing professional soccer that has to be seen to be believed. I wrote about all this when it happened; indeed Lensky's been a minor obsession of this site for years.

Lensky turned on Canada in the most duplicitous manner, and the irony of the Whitecaps bringing him in the day after so many of us booed Teal Bunbury isn't lost on me. But Teal Bunbury is a university-educated athlete who, by all accounts, is intelligent enough. He hasn't wrestled with substance abuse problems, he hasn't bounced in and out of his profession, he hasn't given interviews where he sounded like the most miserable person in the world. Teal Bunbury is some guy who grew up in the United States and didn't care about Canada; Jacob Lensky is not well.

I don't want Lensky on my team. Even apart from the Canada thing, he just isn't reliable. He's an impossible player to cheer for, but he's also impossible to hate: his biggest money-making skill is something he's been trained for to the exclusion of all else since he could walk and is also something he's shown, repeatedly, he despises. Now he's back at it, hopefully for the right reasons (but we said that last time). His story is sad rather than infuriating.

I'm not in a position to say what's best for Jacob Lensky. Nobody reading this is, unless Jacob happens to stumble upon this article. Possibly he's spent his months out of soccer getting his head on straight and it's foreign environments and high pressure in Europe, rather than soccer itself, which drove him to the edge. Perhaps playing in his hometown for $40,000 a year is just what the doctor ordered.

But I'm allowed to be apprehensive about somebody going back to an occupation that seems to damage him so much, aren't I? I understand that, for a 23-year-old whose entire education was focused around soccer, the choices sometimes line up into "professional sports" and "flipping burgers", but better a sound mind serving French fries than an unsound one scoring goals.

And don't give me any nonsense about how Martin Rennie is just the man to restore Lensky's mental health. Rennie's a good, smart guy, and he sure talks a lot about the psychological factor in coaching, but he's still just a coach. His highest level prior to this year was coaching NASLers who need to find jobs in the winter, not ex-Eredivisie stars who were broken, rather than tempered, by the heat. He holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and management. His job is winning soccer games for the Vancouver Whitecaps. He's not a doctor in any sense. If Jacob Lensky is seriously as ill as he and his former club made him sound, he doesn't need Martin Rennie to get better. He needs a medical professional and time away from the cause of all that trouble.

Lensky's an undeniable talent. In purely on-field terms he could be a leading MLS player. He's not exceptionally quick on the field but he's shifty and he strikes the ball better than any Vancouver player. If he chose to see this trial through, chose to sign with the Whitecaps, and the Whitecaps chose to take him (three big questions) Lensky would give Vancouver a potentially excellent player who, unfortunately, counts as domestic on the roster.

Still, I don't want him on the Whitecaps. Partially, that's because he turned his back on his country. Partially, that's because he's also turned his back on every club that's ever given him a paycheque. And partially, it's because, to an outside observer, soccer just seems so damned bad for him. It's arrogant to even observe that, and as I said I cannot presume upon the wisdom to make Jacob's decisions for him. I've watched Lensky's career for years and I still don't know him. Yet here we are; when confronted with a painful story like this with no conclusion, it's natural to wish for the happiest ending we can think of.

I want Lensky to get his life together and be a success. I don't want that to be in soccer, or with the Whitecaps, and I'd say the same thing whether he was Canadian, Czech, or Congolese.