I don’t know what it is about Vancouver Whitecaps and centre back injuries. They’ve plagued the team since they’ve joined MLS. Injuries to the likes of Jay DeMerit and Andy O’Brien hurt the team badly. David Edgar went out to a season-ending knee injury in a hit and run accident in the offseason. There’s been a lot of others these past seven seasons we could list as well.
Christian Dean’s suffered more than most. His two injuries last year completely wiped out his 2016 season. It was a tough year for him all round, but he bounced back, got some MLS minutes under his belt this season, and was back in the first team mix again. It was all looking good but then injury struck him again at training last week, on the same left foot that his previous two were on.
“There’s a slight crack in there,” ‘Caps coach Carl Robinson confirmed about Dean’s latest injury at training on Tuesday. “It’s not as bad as a crack, but it’s something we need to look at. It’ll be a couple of weeks which is unfortunate for him and unfortunate for us.”
We’d initially heard it was a broken bone in the same previously injured foot. At least this isn’t as bad as first feared, or at least there’s no indications yet that it is. But it’s a worry. Can Dean stay healthy or is this a potential regularly occurring injury that could see an end to his pro football career? We certainly hope not and send nothing but good wishes to the very likeable defender.
On top of all that, Cole Seiler has also picked up an injury at training, meaning he missed last Saturday’s WFC2 game against Sacramento and he won’t be travelling to Swope Park for Friday night’s game.
Dean and Seiler’s injuries leave the ‘Caps threadbare in the centre back department, with just two healthy options available to them – Kendall Waston and Tim Parker. The positive is that the pair are playing some great game together right now but that means no squad rotation or rest for these guys on the current four game road stretch. And if one of them were to go down injured then the ‘Caps will be in a right pickle.
With the transfer window closing May 8th, and not reopening until July 10th, does this bring some urgency to Robinson to try and remedy the situation? Even if Seiler gets healthy soon and Dean isn’t too much after that, it’s not realistic to be relying on these central defenders heading into the summer where Waston, at least, will be away with his country on World Cup and Gold Cup duty.
Bringing in a short term solution is not necessarily ideal either. Reports had linked the club with Celtic’s Nigerian centre back Efe Ambrose, who was deemed surplus to requirements at Parkhead after a spate of poor performances and eventually sent out on loan to Championship side Hibernian, where he did at least excel. That would add an experienced head but at a price probably not worth paying in terms of salary. It would be a bizarre addition and is hopefully just UK tabloid talk.
The other option is to promote from within and there are two players pushing hard for MLS contracts with WFC2 – Sem de Wit, last year’s Whitecaps USL Player of the Year, and Francis de Vries, a second round pick in this year’s MLS SuperDraft. Both have looked good playing with WFC2 so far this season, and Robinson has said on many occasions he doesn’t want to block pathways, so might a contract be in the offing to one of the pair before the season is out?
“Yeah, possibly,” Robinson mused. “We might have to look at doing that. We are down to the bare bones in the centre back position at the moment. It’s not ideal. We know AJ can play there, which is helpful as well. Worst case, Jordan Harvey can slot in there and we can put Marcel [de Jong] at left back.
“We have got options, but the two boys, Sem and Francis, who have done very well for the USL team, we’ll have a good hard look at them over the next couple of weeks as well.”
De Wit impressed last season, and has continued to do so this campaign. He cuts an assured and commanding figure on the pitch, prone to some poor decision making on a few occasions that you can only expect from a 22-year-old, but he has some of the best ball at feet play of any defender within the club. His recovery play and aerial strength are another two assets in his arsenal.
De Wit was training with the first team on Tuesday and didn’t look out of place. At WFC2 training on Wednesday he cut a relaxed figure, taking part in finishing drills with aplomb and showing a touch not seen with many centrebacks.
There’s no doubting that the Dutchman has the skills and technique to play at the higher level. We’ve heard he’s on the radar of a number of the top standalone USL sides if the Whitecaps don’t take up their MLS option on him this season. But it’s that lure of a MLS deal with the ‘Caps that driving de Wit this year and he’s keen to make the most of the opportunities to impress that are provided to him.
“You always have to,” de Wit told AFTN in March. “You’re in the second team man. Look at last year with Kyle Greig, Brett [Levis], Alphonso [Davies]. They go halfway through to the first team. It’s always in the back of your head.
“I went to Wales and had a tough preseason injury. I wasted that opportunity. Now I’m looking forward for a new one and I will grab that one with both hands. I’m just going to work hard. That’s all I can do. The rest is up to them.”
He’s certainly in Robinson’s plans, but he has competition this year in the form of New Zealand SuperDraft pick de Vries.
The 22-year-old has also impressed at the start of the USL season. He’s a very vocal leader of the team, and has shone in the few appearances he’s made so far this year. His positioning play is excellent at times, and he’s been working hard on what he sees as some of his weaker areas, both mentally and physically.
De Vries has formed a good partnership with de Wit, even if the three in the back formation has meant they haven’t always been playing alongside each other, with de Wit playing the lone holding role in a 3-1-4-2 set up. When they do play side by side the ‘Double De’ tandem should be a force to be reckoned with for USL attackers.
The Kiwi doesn’t see things as a battle between himself and de Wit for a MLS deal though. More a chance for both of them to help each other advance their games and take them both up to the next level.
“I guess from the outside looking in, it looks like that,” de Vries told AFTN. “But when you’re in the same team you don’t really think of these kind of things. For us, we’re more focused on going out and doing the job and making the USL team as good as possible.
“Then in training it’s up to me and him to just develop ourselves as much as we can. I’m not looking at it as a direct competition. You do the process and the outcome will take care of itself. If you’re good enough then someone might make the decision for you. If not, all you can focus on is that you keep coming every day and working your best and seeing what you can get better in.”
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that de Vries is also currently injured after picking up a knock. That’s just par for the course with the position throughout the club it seems. As de Wit noted above, he had one himself in the preseason.
WFC2 coach Rich Fagan has liked what he’s seen from the pair so far, however, and is confident that a bright future lies ahead for both of them.
“[Sem] and Francis, they complement each other really well,” Fagan told AFTN. “Obviously there’s the balance of having the right and the left, but they have a very good understanding of one another’s tendencies already, which is fantastic.
“I expect not only Sem to have a good season, but Fran, and at the end of the day the cream will rise and whether it’s one or both, who knows, but I expect them both to have good seasons.”
So far they are and opportunity most certainly knocks for one of them to land a MLS deal in the very near future. I wouldn’t be surprised to see both on the ‘Caps MLS roster next season.
For now, all everyone can hope for is that the ‘Caps centre back injury curse doesn’t claim any more victims.