No doubting Thomas deserves spot - The Province

Hard-working backup to Jay Nolly says he's ready if the time comes

By Marc Weber

Goalkeeper Jay Nolly has played every minute of every game for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season, so the backup battle can seem as relevant as a celebrity's take on world affairs.

But the No. 2 man is not insignificant, and you don't have to go far back for a reminder.

In last year's USL-1 semifinal against Montreal, Nolly was red-carded midway through the first leg for an alleged punch, and Tyler Baldock, who'd anonymously been plying his trade with the Premier Development League's Abbotsford Mariners, was thrust into the spotlight for a game-and-a-half.

Baldock was an emergency solution down the stretch as Vancouver struggled to find a replacement for Srdjan Djekanovic, whom they released earlier in the season.

With that in mind, it's worth noting that the Whitecaps backup is now 19-year-old residency keeper Simon Thomas, and not 23-year-old Brazilian Diego, who'd been on the bench all season until last week.

Head coach Teitur Thordarson has added Nigerian central defender Michael Ndubuisi Onwatuegwu to the senior squad and sacrificed Diego down to the club's PDL roster to meet the league limit of seven internationals.

Players can move back and forth only until the USL-1 roster freeze at month's end.

"It gives us an opportunity to use one more foreigner out, Michael or Nadir [Haroub, a Tanzanian defender], some of those who have been just around the corner," said Thordarson. "It gives me better cover in better places."

Essentially, the coach thinks the benefits of having an extra central defender in the mix outweighs any downgrade in talent from Diego to Thomas and the likelihood of ever having to call on a backup keeper this season.

He did admit, though, that given no restrictions, Diego would still be the backup.

"There is still a difference between them on several things -- Diego is bigger [6-foot-5, compared to 6-2], most probably better on the crosses and so on, but Simon has developed greatly, and if Simon weren't so close, I wouldn't do that switch," the coach said.

"Simon is a very brave goalkeeper, he's tough, and that's needed when you take the first steps into a league like this, which is very physical."

Thomas dressed as a backup for a handful of games last season after Djekanovic's release, but Thordarson didn't have the confidence in him then to take him into the playoffs. After a season under the watchful eye of goalkeeper coach Mike Salmon, that's changed, though Thomas won't likely see regular-season action with the Whitecaps in such a tight playoff race.

"I feel privileged that they would put me on the bench considering my age, and some would say my inexperience," said Thomas, who was with the senior team on its preseason trip to Tanzania and has trained with the main group about two-thirds of the year.

"But, obviously, they've got confidence in me. I just prepare the same way every session, so when you do have to step in, nothing's new."

Thomas, who recently committed to UBC, credits his progress fully to Salmon -- the longtime Charlton Athletic player and Arsenal goalkeeping coach -- and the praise was reciprocated. Salmon said the biggest improvement for Thomas is his anticipation.

"When I first came along, he didn't really see situations," said Salmon. "Now he reads the game very well for a kid his age.

"He's got a top-class attitude, he's a pleasure to work with and I know what I'm going to get out of him every day. He deserves to be where he is."

For now, that's on the bench, as opposed to in the stands. But, as last year proved, a sudden call to action is never far away.

mweber@theprovince.com

2009 PDL goalie stats

GP GAA W-L-T SO SV

Julien Latendresse-Levesque
7 1.57 2-4-1 1 22

Diego
4 1.43 2-2-0 2 15

Simon Thomas
6 1.09 2-1-2 1 17

© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service