Carl Robinson has long made it clear that he wants to carry five centre backs on his MLS squad. This weekend is a good demonstration as to why.
With Pa Modou Kah injured and Diego Rodriguez playing with WFC2 in USL action on Friday night, as he’s not up to full match fitness after his own recent injury, the ‘Caps are down to three options to marshal the centre of their defence for tonight’s game with Sporting Kansas City.
It would have been even worse had Kendall Waston received the call up to the Costa Rican Gold Cup squad that many, including Robinson, had expected.
Thankfully, for the Whitecaps, he didn’t and will lead the defence at BC Place. His partner looks most likely to be rookie Tim Parker, who has impressed many this season, but second year centre back Christian Dean is also in the frame for getting his first MLS minutes of the season.
Dean may miss out tonight, but the 22-year-old is knocking at the door of the first team after a string of strong performances in USL and his chance to impress in MLS action is set to come very soon.
Patience has been the key for Dean during his time in Vancouver. We’ve written about it before, but after being drafted third overall by the ‘Caps in last year’s SuperDraft, it was a tough first year for the California Golden Bears alumni, but not an unexpected one.
With 123 MLS minutes logged in his rookie MLS season, Dean only made one start and four overall appearances for the Whitecaps last year. For most rookies, that’s actually not the worst return, but when your college defensive partner, Steve Birnbaum, gets drafted just one spot before you and goes on to make 21 appearances for DC United in his rookie season, you would understandably wonder what might have been had another club taken you instead of the ‘Caps.
But Dean found himself surrounded by a number of top centre backs in Vancouver last year and he took the opportunity to learn from the likes of Andy O’Brien and Jay DeMerit, put his head down, worked hard and improved his game with the hope of fighting for a spot this past preseason.
When O’Brien and Johnny Leveron left, his hopes must have been high but the additions of three new centre backs in Pa Modou Kah, Diego Rodriguez and draft pick Parker has actually seen Dean fall down the pecking order and the depth charts.
Again, a tough blow to take, but Dean knew there was no point pouting over it and the only way to improve his lot was to show Robinson and the rest of the coaching staff that he deserved to be in the frame for MLS minutes by continually producing and impressing in training and in USL action with WFC2. And he’s done just that.
Dean’s played in eight WFC2 matches this season and has continued to show improvement and development week upon week. And it’s not gone unnoticed by Robinson.
“I think especially in the last two or three weeks, he’s grown,” Robinson told AFTN at training on Friday. “He’s matured. He’s looking at being a better player. The little things, he’s doing a lot better now. Never underestimate the small details in defenders. We’re lucky we’ve got five fantastic centre backs in the squad. They’ll come through or they’ll have their confident spurts at different times.
“Christian seems to have found his rhythm at the moment playing in USL and in training. He’s trained very, very well the last few games. His chance will be around the corner, without a doubt. Whether it’s this Sunday or whether it’s next week, he’ll get his opportunity because he’s not far from being ready now.”
All of Dean’s hard work culminated in his first professional goal this past weekend against Seattle Sounders 2, a moment he described as “awesome” and building upon his first international goal for the US U23 team against Mexico earlier in the year. It’s nice to get those rewards when you put the work and effort in. Building on it all is now the key.
Dean’s attitude has been first class. As disheartening as the additions to the ‘Caps MLS squad must have been over the offseason, he again put his head down and worked to battle for a spot. And there may be some battle between Parker and Dean for their minutes on the pitch, the pair have become good friends off it, supporting and challenging each other.
“Tim’s probably honestly one of my best friends on the team,” Dean told AFTN back in April. “We’re both American, we’re both coming out of college, we’re both fighting for that spot.
“But once one of us gets it, I think we’re both going to be happy for each other that we got the opportunity and once we see the other person got it, we’re going to know we can get it. So it’s just going to be a fight until that times comes.”
It’s been Parker who got that opportunity first. The rookie has made four appearances with the first team so far this season. Three of them starts and most of them coming in the right back role.
Parker got his first MLS start as centre back two games ago in the win at New England. Dean was delighted for his friend and seeing Robinson be true to his word and give the younger players their chance has been a shot in the arm for him.
“It makes me excited,” Dean admitted to us. “Tim deserves his chance. He’s been playing fantastic during training sessions and scrimmages. The guy’s a professional. I’m trying to learn, even from him right now.
“It’s an exciting time for us young players, with Sam [Adekugbe] getting time at the beginning and Deybi [Flores] getting time and Kianz [Froese] getting time. All the young players are coming in and showing what we can do. It’s an exciting time for our team.”
Dean is a versatile player. He’s been playing two positions with the USL side this season, both centre back and left back. He’s partnered Parker well when they’ve played together and I wouldn’t have too many fears about both of them playing alongside each other in a MLS match.
Of course, he’s in the team to hone his skills and playing two different positions perhaps makes that a little bit harder, but he’s enjoying the opportunity to work on both roles.
“I’m playing two positions here, at centre back and at left back, so I’m learning each position,” Dean says. “I feel that when I do get the opportunity to play with the first team I’m going to take it, whether it’s left back or centre half.”
He’s been looking particularly sharp in the left back role once he found his feet and got used to playing regularly there.
It was from that position that he grabbed his first professional goal against Seattle last Sunday and he’s been getting up and down the wing well.
Does he have any actual preference between the two positions?
“I like both right now,” Dean says. “Left back’s a lot of running, it’s fun, keeps my fitness up. I wouldn’t mind playing either.”
Dean looks comfortable at left back and for a player that stands 6-foot-3, he’s pretty good with the ball at his feet for a big man.
“I used to play striker,” Dean laughs. “Then as I got older I started moving back and back and further back, and thinking I just need to keep my footwork up.”
His continue improvement has been noted by both Robinson and USL head coach Alan Koch. It needs to continue and it needs to be more consistent. Once that all clicks into place, Dean’s not going to be too far away from seeing the pitch once again in Major League Soccer action.
“Christian was very, very good [against Seattle],” Koch told us. “Getting up and down the flanks. When you have somebody like him who can play two positions, it hard for him to get into a role of being comfortable. But he played very, very well against Portland two weeks ago. I had a chat with him, I didn’t think he as good, particularly in the first 20 minutes, against Orange County. He was a lot better again [on Sunday].
“Just like all the other young guys in our team, he has to find consistent performances and that’s hopefully going to improve his chances of getting playing time in the first team.”
That time should be coming soon from what Robinson has indicated. When it does, it’s then up to Dean to seize that moment.
With the Whitecaps having a crazy August, playing eight games in three different tournaments, Dean will undoubtedly see some first team minutes during that spell. But he’s not even thinking that far ahead and is targeting July for his first MLS minutes of the season.
“Yeah, not even August,” Dean told us. “I’m aiming to try and get into games this month if I can. Just showing what I’ve got in training sessions and everything. As a player, you always want to play and when you get the opportunity you just have to take it.”