(21:00 Editor’s note: The Battery have been routinely circumspect when it comes to information that involves the Whitecaps, which meant that last week’s announcement of the five players on loan never mentioned two Whitecaps players who were already here in Charleston — midfielders Michael Kafari and Adam Mena — who were drafted by Vancouver but never signed to contracts. This evening comes word from Vancouver’s communications department that Kafari and Mena are “on trial” with Charleston. No response yet to our request for some clarification to that status. –dc)
With the pubic parameters of the Battery’s new affiliation with Vancouver Whitecaps still on the squishy side in late February, the first two players to arrive from British Columbia probably raised more questions than they answered.
Jackson Farmer is an 18-year-old Residency prospect. Marlon Ramirez was a Whitecaps PDL signing from Honduras who went to Canada last spring and then didn’t generate much media attention in British Columbia. Neither had been on the list of players that Whitecaps-watchers considered to be the most likely loans to their club’s new USL PRO partner.
Which meant that for the next week or so, the question I fielded the most was, “Is Vancouver going to send us, you know, actual MLS players?”
The first part of that answer arrived in the form of Mamdou Diouf, the Whitecaps’ second-round pick in the 2014 MLS Superdraft, who sat unannounced in the West Stands in a red hoodie on the final night of the Carolina Challenge Cup. Diouf entered his senior year at the University of Connecticut as an elite-level prospect, but lost his final season to injury, and was considered one of the steals of the draft.
Four days later, the Battery revealed that unsigned Whitecaps midfielders Michael Kafari and Adam Mena — both well-regarded players — were on their way to town.
That brought the Vancouver contingent to three MLS draft choices with plenty of potential but no MLS experience, plus two players (Jackson and Ramirez) trying to work their way into the first-team discussion.
But it took two big midfield signings at B.C. Place — the generous trade of 2013 Toronto F.C. designated player Matias Laba, and the club’s newest Designated Player, La Liga’s Pedro Morales — to bring the final loan roster into focus.
With those two coming in, two had to drop off — and the players on the move wound up being 2013 signing Aminu Abdallah, a central midfielder, and Andre Lewis, an attacking midfielder who was the No. 7 pick in the MLS Superdraft.
All seven players have now appeared in preseason matches for the Battery, with the last three — Mena, Abdallah and Lewis — getting their baptism on Tuesday against Wilmington. I got a chance to speak with each Whitecap except Ramirez (who speaks no English) and Mena on Tuesday at the club’s meet-and-greet.
Kafari spoke about his experience in New Mexico over the past four years and the caution the Battery are taking in evaluating a previous injury.
Abdallah talked about his friendship with 2013 Battery loanee Emmanuel Adjetey, who moved with him from Ghana to Vancouver last year.
Farmer chatted about the few places he’s been able to visit since arriving (including, appropriately, the actual Charleston Battery at White Point Gardens), and how different the weather is from his native Alberta.
But I was able to chat on the record with Lewis and Diouf, two players with offensive skills that Coach Mike Anhaeuser hasn’t always had at his disposal. These conversations took place just a couple hours after the pair — who roomed together in Canada, but are still staying in a hotel as the Battery work to get them settled — combined for a game-winning goal against Wilmington.
At 5-9 and 145 pounds, Lewis has a bright and animated face and speaks with a distinctive Jamaican accent. A product of Portmore United F.C. in the Jamaican Premier League, he’s been a fixture in the Reggae Boyz youth program, and will likely have an international future if his career progression continues.
He subbed on at the half against Wilmington on the right side of the Battery’s 4-4-2, swapping over to the left side as the half wore on. Lewis showed vision and ball skills in his 45 minutes, but sometimes held on to the ball too long while working for the perfect opportunity.
His only request when I pulled out my recorder was this: “Nothing about the Cosmos!”
Like they say, he’s a smart kid. And fair enough.
CHS: Do you think you would be if Vancouver hadn’t just signed Matius Laba and Morales right before the start of the MLS regular season? Because just a few weeks ago it looked like you were on your way to a spot with the first team, and then these two late signings popped up. And suddenly we started hearing your name as a possibility.
AL: Obviously, I think I was doing well. The coach saw something different, but I think the coach made a decision, and his decision was what was best for the team. He sent me down here to improve. He wants me to play games. He knows that I’m a good player.
So … if I perform here, hopefully I’ll go back there. I just have to do my best here to go back there.
CHS: Have you had a chance to look at some of the MLS players who went on loan to USL PRO last year and then went back to MLS?
CHS: Do you know about Dom Dwyer‘s experience last year?
CHS: Dom Dwyer is a starting forward for Sporting Kansas City, but last year he started the season on loan to Orlando City Lions, where he set the league record for goals in a season before returning to Sporting K.C. and winning a regular spot in the starting lineup. He wound up starting in both the USL PRO Championship and MLS Cup, and his teams won both. So I’m wondering if you’ve had any thoughts about what your time in USL PRO could mean for your MLS career not just years down the road, but pretty quickly.
AL: I think it means a lot for me. I’m young enough, so I need games. To get better as a young player, you need games. Because I remember when Carl (Robinson, the new Vancouver Whitecaps head coach) called me into a meeting saying I’m going on loan, he reminded me of Zusi, the guy at Kansas City. He (was a reserve) for two years of his MLS career, when he was just coming up, and now look at him. He’s one of the best in the league.
I just have to use that as a motivation and come here and do my best, like as you say (Dwyer), hope I could be the most valuable player, hopefully, when the competition finishes.
So I just want to take this opportunity and take this to motivate me, knowing that. I’m happy to be here. I just do my best, and improve.
CHS: Did you talk to Bryce Alderson about playing in Charleston?
AL: Yeah, we spoke a lot (about) coming here. Quite a few times he was telling me that I will enjoy it. Even the guy, Ben Fisk, we spoke and he told me that I was going to enjoy myself here, that it’s a pretty good team, it’s a pretty good setup. The coaches are good, everyone agreed. And they would welcome you.
And today I played my first game, and everyone was great. It’s like they’re happy we are here. It’s not that we are coming from a better league than USL, but we still have to adjust and put ourselves to the competition.
We are young. It’s my first playing outside of Jamaica, and my first going to a professional league, so I’m not better than anyone. So as we were talking, me, Bryce and Ben, they told me that I’m going to improve a lot in my areas. It’s just that it might be rougher, because players are more (physical).
CHS: You scored a goal in one of your three preseason appearances for Vancouver, and today you had an assist on the game-winner to Mamadou Diouf. Walk me through that.
AL: Well, I like to play with Mamadou, and he came to me after and said “Thanks, man.”
But like my dad always taught me about soccer, you always want to be involved. You always want the coach to be talking about you. And if you want everyone to talk about you, it’s either that you score or that you get the assist. And sometimes the assist, no one cares about he assist. It’s the goal-scorer. And my job sometimes — all the time — is either that I score or I assist. I always want to win, but I have accept win, lose or draw. But I always want to assist or score.
CHS: You’re described as an attacking midfielder, but are you more comfortable inside or outside?
AL: More comfortable inside. But it doesn’t matter.
In 2013, Charleston had a smallish, pacey forward who could run down long passes and keep going straight at goal (Dane Kelly). It had a tall striker with a booming shot who could play with his back to goal, but wasn’t much of a threat in the air and couldn’t run too hard for too long (Heviel Cordoves). It had a hybrid attacking mid/winger/second striker (2012 Rookie of the Year Jose Cuevas, who spent much of the season trying to get healthy), and it had an aggressive rookie out of Clemson still making his way back from a college injury (Austin Savage).
What Anhaeuser didn’t have was one player who combined several classic forward features in one package. And while its too early to see what Diouf’s role will be in 2014, it’s not too hard to imagine Charleston working on ways to make use of his talents — particularly if the team makes use of more two-forward sets. Because while Cordoves at times flashed classic No. 9 potential last season, and Kelly’s hold-up play improved dramatically, the 6-1, 170-pound Diouf’s skill-set combines get up, hold-up, lay-off and finishing abilities.
Plus, with all those 2013 players (except Cuevas) back stronger than before, and with Diouf and the pesky Ramirez added to the roster, forward has gone from a position of concern to a potential position of strength in just a couple of weeks.
Diouf is from Senegal (there’s much more about him here).
CHS: So tell me about that goal today.
MD: I had the ball in the midfield and I played wide to Andre, because he was asking for it, and you know, he’s a smart player. No one was in the box, so I played to him and I ran, because I am a forward. I should be in the box. So I just ran, and he just made a good play by waiting until I got set up.
And he crossed it, and when he whipped it I saw the ball carry. And the two defenders, one was in front of me, and one was back of me, so I just read the play and over-jumped the player who was in front of me and put it in the back post.
CHS: Here’s the thing, though. That was a header from the run of play by someone who was marked by two guys by the edge of the six-yard box. And that’s not a play that you see an awful lot.
MD: Yeah, that’s true.
CHS: That’s a situation where usually a player isn’t going to think “I’m going to put it up high for a guy who is covered and more than six yards from goal.”
MD: Yeah, but Andre knows me. We’ve been in Vancouver. We play intrasquad games. We play a lot. And we were roommates in Vancouver for like two weeks. So he knows how I play, and he trusts me. He knows that if he puts it there, I can get it, because even in practice, that happens.
CHS: You came out of the University of Connecticut with a reputation as someone with special aerial skills. Is that hype? How much of your game is based on what you can do in the air?
MD: Yeah, that’s what they think. But I think I score just 10 or 15 percent of my goals in the air. Most of my goals came from my feet.
But why they say that is, at UConn I used to play lone striker, so I needed to hold the ball. And when the guys play long, I need to hold it and wait for my teammates to come up, and play them back so I can get in the box. So that’s why they usually say that.
I like that it’s tough for a forward to do that, because always you have two guys marking you and stuff. You need to be stable. But the fact that I’ve been doing that for a long time, so it’s kind of easy for me to hold the ball for my teammates and just lay off and get back in the box and try to get something from it.
CHS: Of all the people that were in the MLS Superdraft this year, you were the one that probably would have done better if you’d come out the year before.
MD: That’s true.
CHS: Do you actively regret that?
MD: No. To be honest, no. Because I have a degree.
To be honest, I could have left school since my sophomore year. I had offers to leave. I didn’t go for it. Last year, same thing, like you said. And this year, what hurt me the most was my injury. I got hit in the offseason and I got injured. I didn’t play the whole season, I came back in the post season, and I was not fit, because you can’t get fit in the season. It’s too short.
So I was just trying to be a teammate player, to help my team win games. By looking at what they needed, and then just trying to do that. I tried to help the other guy so they can get it done. And I think I’m really happy about it, because I love UConn. You know. That’s my life. They’ve done a lot for me, and it’s time to just give back. Like I always say, when people do something for you, you need to do something for them.
So I don’t regret anything about it. It’s life.
Maybe what’s in front of me, between two years and now, it will be better. You know, every single person in life has a way. This is my way, and I’m fine with that.
CHS: There were a lot of forwards in Vancouver from the first day of camp. Did you feel you had a good chance of making the first team?
MD: Yeah. Because it’s more about confidence about yourself. I have confidence in myself. I never think, like, going somewhere and saying “You know what? I can’t do it.” I’m not one of those people. And I know what I can do.
But I have to be better. Because you need every area to improve. In practice. And to be a better player all around. And I think Vancouver’s coaches, they were helping me about it. And I talked to the coach and he told me a lot of positive things. A lot.
He told me that coming here to play, it’s a good deal. It’s a big thing. And I’m happy coming here. It’s professional level, and I need to learn. I’m still young. I need to learn a lot of things about the game, and Coach will help me. To be a better player. In like six months, or however long I’m going to be here.
I’m happy. I don’t put it in my head that I should be there. Because those guys who are (in Vancouver), they deserve it too. You know, they deserve it as a group, so I don’t worry about it. I just need to do a good job here, help this team to go far, and I will do my best.
CHS: Do you know much about Charleston?
MD: To be honest, I know like Clemson University. I know (College of Charleston). Even though I never played them in college. Yeah, but I know about them.
CHS: Do you know much about this club?
MD: No, I didn’t know about it until I came, to be honest. I don’t know a lot about it. But the fact that I came here, this couple of weeks, I’m really happy. I see that they are nice people here. They welcome you well. And I just need to work hard and try to do something here.
CHS: I think this is a good situation for you. Could be a really good fit.
MD: Yeah, that’s what coach said to me. Carl (Robinson) told me that. “I think it’s really good for you to experience as a young player.” And that’s true.
I just want to get better. I always say, I don’t ask for anything. I just want to do what I have to do, and the rest I put it in God’s hands. Because everything happens for a reason. If I’m here, it’s for a reason.
TOP IMAGE: Dan Conover photos and graphic.