Chinese striker Long Tan became something of a minor cult figure during his short time in Vancouver with the Whitecaps.
He had chants and he had a fanbase, albeit a small one, itching to see him get more MLS minutes.
As the first Chinese born player ever to play in Major League Soccer, the cynical business mind would also say that the marketing potential for Tan was huge for the Whitecaps, in a city with such a large Chinese community. He was never likely to get anywhere close to the level of YP Lee’s worship with the Korean community, but there was certainly potential to make him a poster boy in the city.
You saw that for this past Sunday’s USL game when the ‘Caps bizarrely marketed it in part as “The return of Long Tan”. I’m not quite sure just who the target audience was with that one (apart from a certain ‘Old Fan’ on the Southsiders forum and he couldn’t even make the game!).
Having all that potential was all well and good, but the problem was that Tan didn’t actually cut it on the pitch with the ‘Caps in Major League Soccer.
Now, some would argue that that was because he didn’t get the opportunity. Tan decried that fact himself on Twitter. But, to us, the fact was that he just wasn’t MLS quality.
DC United thought otherwise, and Tan played briefly with them towards the end of the 2012 season. A Championship winning stint in Orlando followed, before Tan returned to China for a year before returning to the US.
But after all the travelling, and what felt at the time as a not so amicable parting of the ways between the two parties, Tan was back in Vancouver on Sunday when his Arizona United side headed to Thunderbird Stadium in USL action.
It wasn’t a happy homecoming for Tan as his side was on the end of a 2-0 loss, but he was still delighted to return to familiar surroundings.
“It felt good,” Tan told AFTN after the match. “It’s been a long time not coming back. I feel like this is my home, so I was very excited.
“I feel happy, but we lost, so I feel sad, but I still feel good that I come back home here.”
Tan came to Vancouver in late 2010. Having moved to the US from China in 2008, the striker first cut his teeth in the North American game with PDL side Atlanta Blackhawks, scoring seven goals in 12 appearances. Staying in the USL ranks, he moved up to D2 level with FC Tampa Bay for the 2010 season, before being part of a bizarre trade at the time that saw Tan head to Vancouver and Jonny Steele (later of New York Red Bulls “fame”) and Ricardo Sanchez. Tan stayed with Tampa till the end of the season.
After officially signing a MLS contract with the Caps in March 2011 after being on trial for a couple of months. He made his MLS debut a couple of weeks later and went on to play 13 games, and 437 minutes, for the Whitecaps during their inaugural season.
As to what his favourite memory is of his time in Vancouver, that’s an easy one.
“I think it’s my first goal, my first MLS goal,” Tan was quick to reply. “I’m happy because I scored my first MLS goal with the Whitecaps here.”
Tan got that sole MLS goal against DC United on October 12th 2011. It was the match winner in a 2-1 victory and he became the first Chinese born player to score a goal in Major League Soccer.
Tan made just four starts that inaugural MLS season, contributing two assists as well as his lone goal. He made more starts for the Caps PDL side, banging in five goals in six games.
And therein lay one of the problems. Tan was too good for PDL level, but not quite at the MLS grade. A USL club back four years ago could have been the different breaker for him.
It’s something he’s thought about and he’s delighted to see MLS clubs in USL this season and the chance it gives the fringe guys to show their talent.
“It’s good for the USL and the league,” Tan said. “It’s good for pushing players to make the first team. It’s very good for the young players.”
Despite shining at PDL level, grabbing that first MLS goal and with a managerial change for the ‘Caps, it wasn’t enough to convince new boss Martin Rennie that he was MLS calibre for his rebuilt side, and he only played 28 minutes and made four appearances in the first few months of the 2012 season.
Tan was upset at the lack of opportunities, and after scoring three goals in two PDL matches, he sent out this tweet:
When a player isn’t getting playing time, he’s going to get frustrated. That’s what you want. You want that desire to get back into the team and the reckoning. It’s how you express that of course that dictates how you’re then viewed.
The tweet earned Tan a suspension and at that point it was probably time for both parties to have a fresh start. And they did. DC United came in for Tan in return for a third round draft pick and the striker was traded 20 days after his tweet.
Tan featured in six of DC’s next nine games, making three starts and grabbing a goal in the 4-2 win at Chicago. But then the minutes dried up, he was loaned out to USL side Richmond Kickers and didn’t feature in DC’s last eight matches.
He was released at the end of the season but went back to USL to join Orlando City, making 25 appearances and scoring 5 goals in their Championship winning season.
“It was good, we won the Championship!” Tan told us. “They have good fans and we had a good coach and a good team. I really enjoyed there.
“After they moved to MLS I had to go back to China because of my family. But now I come back to play in America again. I tried to come back to play in MLS.”
Tan spent the first part of 2014 with Chinese Super League side Harbin Yiteng before heading back to the US and joining Arizona United, which brings us bang up to date.
He made 12 appearances for Arizona last season, banging in five goals and earning a multi-year contract with the club. After all his trials and tribulations, he’s very happy in Scottsdale. Well, fairly happy!
“I enjoy it there, but the weather is too hot,” Tan laughed. “It’s nice weather, it’s better than over here! [in Vancouver]”
Tan has continued his fine form with Arizona this season. He may have been blanked by the Whitecaps on Sunday, but he leads the team with four goals and an assist from their 10 games so far and he still harbors hopes of impressing at USL level with an eye to a step back up to Major League Soccer.
“I hope to play MLS,” Tan told us. “I hope I come back by doing good here [in Arizona]. I want to play in MLS [again].”
Tan has shown he can score at the lower levels of the North American game. Can he do it at MLS level on a regular basis and earn another shot? Stranger things have happened and we wish him nothing but the best to try and get there.