Thomas Gardner has grown up with the Whitecaps.
After first coming to the ‘Caps in 2007, Gardner spent four years in the Prospects program from the age of nine, moving into and then through the Residency program before signing his first professional contract with WFC2 last August.
“I’ve been here since I was nine, it’s crazy,” Gardner told AFTN at WFC2 training this week. “The club has been everything to me for the past eight years. I really don’t know what it’s like to be without it because I’ve been playing with them for so long.”
That personal attachment makes WFC2’s current playoff run feel all the more special for Gardner, as he stands one win away from his second Championship game in the space of three months.
Now 18, Gardner has a wealth of playoff experience under his belt with the U16, U18s and now the USL side.
The North Vancouver native was part of the Whitecaps U18 team that lost a heartbreaker of a USSDA Championship game in July. The young ‘Caps were leading FC Dallas 1-0 late in the match before giving up the equaliser and then going down to a goal in extra time.
It hurt, especially as the ‘Caps had chances to put the game to bed, but the biggest positive Gardner took from it all was that it’s an experience he doesn’t want to repeat with the USL team in this playoff run.
“You never want to feel that again,” Gardner said of the disappointment he felt after that loss to Dallas. “So you just have to leave everything out there. You just have to go in and have no regrets. With that 18 final, I do have that little bit of regret and it’s probably going to bug me for the rest of my life. So you just go to go in and give it your all.”
Gardner was one of a trio of Residency talent that signed pro forms with WFC2 on August 26th last year, along with Kadin Chung and Terran Campbell. He made his professional debut 11 days later, one of two appearances he made for the ‘Caps last season.
This year he’s split his time between the Residency and the USL team, making 16 appearances for WFC2 during the regular season, including seven starts. While others may falter at this time of the season, Gardner seems to just be hitting his stride, and is playing some of his best football of the year.
That’s seen him start four of the ‘Caps last five games, including both of their playoff wins against Colorado Springs Switchbacks and OKC Energy. It’s a situation he’d have hoped to be in when he turned pro, but one year on, did he think he’d be a starter for the ‘Caps in a deep postseason run?
“If I’m being honest, not really, no,” laughed Gardner. “I’ve just been going out there and doing what I can and I guess it’s worked out.”
Both Gardner and WFC2 head coach Alan Koch admit it’s been a mixed season for the young midfielder, but after a little bit of a shaky start, Koch is delighted in the development he’s seen from Gardner these past few months.
“I think Tommy’s a great example of what our USL team can do for some of the young players coming through this club,” Koch said. “They do very, very well in the youth, and that’s great to do well at that level, but now you’ve got to break into the professional game.
“Tommy’s come in, and he knows this, he started and he certainly had his ups and downs at the start of the season. There were games where he came in and played well and other games where he didn’t play that well. But his progression this year has been nothing but outstanding.
“He’s stuck at it, through the good times and the bad times, and now he’s put himself in a fantastic place. He’s started two playoff games and he’s been very, very impressive in both games.”
Gardner comes across as his own harshest critic, and doesn’t see his game and development coming on at the pace others around him see it.
“I guess I’m here every day so I can’t really see the changes,” Gardner mused. “It’s like seeing someone over a few years, if you see them every day you can’t really see the changes, but if you don’t see them for a while, you can immediately tell. It’s something like that.
“I don’t really see myself changing that fast, but if I do think back of my first day in training with the USL team and the first game, I feel about a hundred times more comfortable with these guys and feel that I fit in.”
It’s natural for young players moving up to question their development with strong self-critique. That will go away as confidence in their new environment grows and you’re already seeing that with Gardner.
Getting his first professional goal will also help. He’s come close on a couple of occasions and it can’t be too long before it comes.
“Obviously I want to get it but I honestly don’t almost think about it,” Gardner said. “It’s more about a team game for me. If someone else scores and I created the chance or something, I get the assist and that’s just as satisfying for me. Obviously they want me to score, and that’s a goal of mine to be able get more goals, but they’ll come soon and hopefully they keep on coming.”
Gardner has two assists on the year, including an amazing spin to set up Thomas Sanner in the 3-1 win over Arizona United in August. Assist of the year?
He came close to grabbing that first pro goal in Saturday’s win over OKC, but was denied on a couple of occasions. Gardner had an impressive match all round and is still buzzing over the team’s performance in that semi-final win over the Energy.
“It went really well from a team perspective,” Gardner told us. “Where I played was on the wing, and I think that’s first time I’ve played there in about three years. So that was kind of interesting, but I got a lot of help from the coaches and especially Brett [Levis] at left back. He’s always talking to me so I didn’t have to completely think for myself, which was pretty nice.
“I thought it went pretty well. Got a couple of chances to put the ball in the back of the net, but yeah. I had a couple of chances that have really been bugging me the past couple of days. But in the end we came out with a win. Probably a little bit closer and too close to the end for my liking, but we won.”
The focus now is fully on Swope Park Rangers in Saturday’s Western Conference final.
The ‘Caps head into the game in confident mood on the back of two wins against Swope during the regular season. The Rangers are also without their two starting full backs, both of whom are suspended for the match after being sent off last weekend.
But Gardner, like all the ‘Caps squad right now, are cautious about just how much of an advantage that will actually give them for the game.
“If those guys haven’t been playing much, they’re going to want to prove something,” Gardner noted. “They’re probably going to come in flying and working as hard as they can. It doesn’t matter if the starting full backs are gone, you’ve just got to go in and play like we usually do.”
As nice as it would have been to host a home Conference final, Gardner feels that in a lot of ways being on the road, where the ‘Caps have proved more than capable of getting the job done this season, may actually benefit Alan Koch’s young squad, removing that pressure of playing in front of an expectant home crowd.
“It’s funny that way, but yeah, I think so,” admits Gardner. “It’s super nice playing at home with all your friends and stuff. You get a lot of confidence there, but you feel a little more freedom [on the road] if you make mistakes and take chances.”
This has been Gardner’s fourth straight season of knockout playoff matches. The win or go home set up is a scenario he thrives on and his approach to Saturday’s match is simple.
“You’ve just got to go in knowing that you can be knocked out but you can’t really think too much about that,” Gardner said. “You focus on the game. You can’t really focus on what’s going to happen after. Focus on performance and the biggest thing is just hard work.”
The Whitecaps will be hoping all their hard work pays off in full this Saturday. A USL Championship game awaits.