Last season was both an enjoyable and a challenging one for Nicolas Mezquida.
The Uruguayan midfielder had to fight hard for MLS minutes, managing to get just 421 of them for the Whitecaps by the end of the year.
It had certainly looked like a different story was set to be played out during last year’s preseason camp.
Mezquida had joined Vancouver at the start of February from Uruguayan side Boston River, along with teammate Sebastian Fernandez. The pair knew each other’s game inside and out, so it was no real surprise when their play continued to click in a Whitecaps jersey during the preseason games.
Fernandez was playing out wide, Mezquida in the number 10 role. Both look great when linking up together and both looked set to be starters come the start of the season, but then the Whitecaps signed Pedro Morales and everything changed.
Mezquida was viewed to be primarily best suited to the playmaker’s role but with the form and influence of Morales being crucial to the ‘Caps success, opportunities to play became limited and Nico managed to play in only 14 games during the regular season, with only four starts in amongst them.
After moving to a new country, struggling to secure regular first team minutes and then seeing your best friend at the club not return, you would be forgiven for thinking that Mezquida might be questioning his decision to come to Vancouver, but nothing could be further from the truth. The midfielder couldn’t wait to be back for the new season, hungry to compete and show just what he can mean to the Whitecaps.
If you’ve been sitting at home feeling it’s simply been too long of an offseason, then you’re in good company. Nicolas Mezquida felt the same and couldn’t wait to get back to Vancouver, back in a Whitecaps shirt and playing football again.
“It was a long vacation but I was missing the training,” Mezquida was quick to admit. “I missed that, I missed the dressing room, I missed my teammates, so I’m happy for the start of preseason and this season, for me, I think will be the best.”
With the first week of training camp in the bag, Mezquida headed down to Arizona last week with the rest of the squad, playing 150 minutes over the three games in Tucson against New England, San Jose and Houston. How did it feel to be actually playing football again?
“Nice!,” Mezquida told AFTN with a smile when we spoke to him after training on Friday. “We want to play. We’ve been training hard and everybody wants to play again. Personally, I feel good. I feel good with the ball the first game, although after the second game, we feel tired!”
Mezquida has come back into the Whitecaps camp hungry, determined and fit. During day one of the on-field training, the 23-year-old surprised many of those watching by outlasting all of the senior players in the dreaded yo-yo test. He finished a narrow second overall behind Residency alumni Mitch Piraux.
Those fitness levels can sometimes be the difference to a player getting more minutes than their competition as the season goes on, but Mezquida has always stood out at training. He was consistently one of the most impressive performers at training last season, but then failed to grab and secure a starting spot when he was given the chance on the pitch during MLS games.
But he’s already been standing out in the preseason matches played so far and in particular, he has linked up very well with new DP striker, and fellow Uruguayan, Octavio Rivero. Mezquida grabbed the assist in Rivero’s second goal against New England in the first match in Tucson.
The pair have shown an impressive understanding so early in their time playing together, although it isn’t the first time they’ve been teammates. Both men played on Uruguay’s under 17 national team back in 2009 and they know each other, and each other’s game, very well.
“I feel a connection because I’ve played with him before,” Mezquida told us of his link up play with Rivero. “Playing with him is easy because he has good moves, so any player that plays with him, it’s easy. I know him and I know how he moves, so it’s easy for me to play with him and I feel happy to play with him because he understands me and I understand him.”
Rivero is still something of an unknown quantity. We’ve all seen the video footage of his goals, but can he do it on a cold, rainy night in MLS?! Mezquida has no doubts about the qualities that his countryman will bring to the Whitecaps.
“Octavio the last year is fantastic. He scored in Uruguay, he scored in Chile. he can help our team a lot.”
Part of how quick an impact Rivero might have for the ‘Caps will be shaped off the pitch and how quickly he can settle into his new surroundings. The striker’s English is near non-existent, but he’s already working on that. He’s coming into a dressing room where Spanish is the second language though and the atmosphere is first class, so that all helps. As does having a known face to take you under their wing.
Mezquida has taken on that role with Rivero and the pair were almost inseparable down in Tucson, with a clear bond between the pair off the pitch as well as on it.
“It’s important,” Mezquida tells us. “Anyone who comes to a new country and doesn’t know the language, if someone knows him it helps for on the pitch and outside. It’s just important for him to get comfortable with everyone and else and I’ll help with that and everything on the field and off the field.”
Carl Robinson has liked what he’s seen from the pair, and the understanding shown could very well be Mezquida’s ticket to more first team minutes this season, and possibly starts.
As frustrating as it must have been for Mezquida to sit out on so much of the MLS action last season, he is happy to be patient and bide his time, knowing that if he continues to put in the work, his time will come.
“I need to keep the hard work,” Mezquida mused when we asked him what he needs to do to get into the regular first team reckoning. “I am waiting for my opportunity. I keep calm. I know that Pedro won’t play every game so when I have that opportunity I try to give everything for me to help the team.”
He’s not going to dislodge Pedro Morales any time soon, but Robinson has experimented with playing the Chilean deeper in the middle and the left wing option is still up for grabs and Mezquida could be the guy to take it.
Although he’s been categorised into the playmaker role, the Uruguayan says he feels comfortable anywhere across the attacking part of the midfield.
“Last season I showed I can play. I need more games. I can play number 10 and in the midfield on the left and the right. So I try to give in training every day. I show Robbo, I show the coach, I want to play. I hope I can keep giving my everything in the moment I can play.”
If the MLS minutes still aren’t immediately forthcoming for Mezquida, it is widely expected that he will have a key role to play in the Whitecaps’ upcoming debut CONCACAF Champions League campaign in the summer, and having a chance to play in that competition is an exciting prospect for him.
“I am excited because it’s an international group,” Mezquida told us. “It’s very important for me, for us. It’s very important for every player to play there.”
Mezquida and his fellow South Americans seem made for such matches.
So much has been made about the Latino influence on the Whitecaps dressing room, and even with the departure of some of the South Americans, and the player that they all adored, Andy O’Brien, Vancouver’s new additions seem to have the locker room ticking over as business as usual.
“The dressing room keeps the same, with the energy and everyone happy,” Mezquida confirmed. “Andy and Johnny leave and other ones have come in but the dressing room’s kept the same.”
The other big departure of course was the man Mezquida came to Vancouver with – Sebastian Fernandez. Mezquida describes his friendship with Fernandez as “special” and although it was hard for him to find out he wasn’t coming back, he knows that’s football.
Does he get the chance to speak to him much?
“Almost every day,” he answers with a laugh. “He wanted to come back again but there was another thing. He’s missed here.
“I miss him because we had a good relationship. He was a good friend and a good person. We miss Sebastian. Right now, two more players from Uruguay have come in. But I’m used to here. I know everybody and I’m happy here.”
Mezquida will be even happier if he is playing more this season, and you have to feel he will be. The midfielder is one of the hardest workers on the team at training and seldom seen without a smile on his face. After a season of finding his feet in his new surroundings, 2015 might just be the break out season for the Uruguayan, which would be a fitting reward for his hard work and patience.