Defender back with a bite - The Province

Spell in England created more physical player

Marc Weber

The name is the same but his game has changed.

Justin Thompson is returning to his hometown Whitecaps after four seasons split between England's sixth-tier and the USL First Division, the last two with the Portland Timbers.

The 27-year-old central defender from North Vancouver, who played for Tony Fonseca's Whitecaps in 2004, signed a one-year deal plus a club option with the reigning champions on Wednesday.

He said spending 2006 and '07 with English side Worcester City, then part of Conference North, forged the physical, vocal fullback fans can expect to see next season. Gone is the nice guy cut by Bob Lilley when Lilley took over from Fonseca in November 2004.

"I realized [Conference North] was a good spot for me because it was extremely physical," Thompson, 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, said by phone from Ireland where he is visiting family. "And I learned a lot about the mental side of the game -- I played 100 games in two years and sometimes we'd drive eight hours to the border of Scotland and play in sub-zero temperatures on a muddy pitch and it took a lot to get up for those games.

"The other aspect was how to communicate properly, how to organize a back line. I played next to [former Premiership defender] Des Lyttle and these guys just barked for 90 minutes, keeping guys mentally switched on.

"In North America, we like to pat each other on the back and say 'Good job', when sometimes you need to grab guys by the scruff of their neck and pull them through."

It's a role Thompson played to perfection in Portland in 2007, when the Timbers finished second in the standings and allowed a league-low 18 goals against in 28 games. They knocked off the Whitecaps in the first round of the playoffs that year.

And it's a role that will be welcomed by current Whitecaps' coach Teitur Thordarson, who also announced Wednesday the resigning of pleasant surprise Mason Trafford, essentially a walk-on defender from North Vancouver.

"The main thing about [Thompson] is that he's a hard-working player," said Thordarson. "He has a good mentality, good attitude and he's as hard as nails, a very competitive player."

Thompson appeared in 24 games for last-place Portland last season, scoring twice. He said it was an easy decision to return to Vancouver and that he'd expressed his interest to club officials several weeks ago. The Whitecaps released towering centre back Omar Jarun on Nov. 5.

"I'm a local guy, I loved my time here and it's always been a goal of mine to get back to Vancouver," said Thompson, who had Whitecaps veteran Geordie Lyall in his wedding party.

"Bob Lilley came in and brought his own guys and that's football and I accepted it. Of course I was hurt but it motivated me and I'm just elated to have another opportunity to show what I can do."

mweber@theprovince.com
© The Vancouver Province 2008