Teen Gage earns his jersey - The Province

17-year-old midfielder a triumph of will over skill

Marc Weber

Ethan Gage went nameless for his first six weeks with the Whitecaps.

The 17-year-old midfielder was decked out in a no-name No. 20 jersey, his rise from the residency ranks apparently too speedy for the stitcher.

It was fitting for a kid who loves the challenge of making a name for himself.

Fitting, too, that his namebar arrived in time for the playoffs -- his 90-minute shutdown performance so noticeable in Sunday's 2-0 semifinal win over the Montreal Impact at Swangard Stadium.

"It took a while [to get the namebar], didn't it?" said veteran midfielder Martin Nash, who can't take Gage into a bar but can teach him plenty on the pitch.

"Maybe he had to earn it, and I guess he has now.

"I've been very impressed with him. He works so hard, non-stop, and he's got a good feel for the game. He's come a long way with his passing and his confidence has grown."

Gage has grabbed at every opportunity. His rapid rise from Calgary's Elbow Valley Villains and Team Alberta to the residency team and on to the big club has been impressive.

His USL First Division debut was Aug. 3 in Charleston and he's appeared in three of the Whitecaps' four playoff games.

And based on Gage's last performance -- when he helped render David Testo and Sandro Grande relatively invisible in midfield and again showed his willingness to play a gritty, defensively sound game -- it's easy to see him starting in Sunday's USL-1 championship final against the Puerto Rico Islanders (4 p.m., Swangard Stadium).

Gage says that his progression has been more about will than skill.

"With the residency team, I was no way near the best player, maybe in the middle or closer to the bottom, but I worked really hard," he said. "Every training session I always work my hardest.

"I love the challenge of being at the bottom and working my way up."

He might have already worked his way out of Vancouver. If last Sunday was Gage's coming-out party, then this Sunday could be his crowning Whitecaps moment and farewell bash rolled into one.

Three residency players are currently with Energie Cottbus' under-19 Bundesliga team, and Gage is a strong candidate for a European adventure next year.

"If a 17- or 18-year-old can play up with the men's team and not look out of place, we said that would be a great indicator that he would be ready for a professional career in Europe," said residency director Thomas Neindorf.

"I think he has the potential to reach out for it. He's not afraid out there. He's smart and he's disciplined."

Neindorf played a big role in Owen Hargreaves' move to Bayern Munich, and Hargreaves -- the Calgarian now starring in Manchester United's midfield -- is Gage's idol.

"He's done what I want to do," said Gage.

Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said that a big reason for the hiring of Teitur Thordarson this year was the Icelandic coach's willingness to play younger kids.

"[Gage] is a reminder to me of what should happen and doesn't happen because we all tend to get a little cautious -- you worry about results," said Lenarduzzi.

"But if you're good enough, you're old enough and that's something we need to apply."

mweber@theprovince.com
© The Vancouver Province 2008