Pejic defence's pacemaker - The Province

He may not be flashy, but he's solid and gets job done

By Marc Weber

If central defence is the heart of a soccer team, the Vancouver Whitecaps were headed for a massive coronary mid-season.

Shaun Pejic has been the pacemaker.

As they head into tonight's USL-1 semifinal first leg against the Portland Timbers, the suddenly-synchronized Whitecaps have lost just once in their last 12 games (5-1-6). It's a stretch that coincides precisely with Pejic joining the mix from fifth-tier English side York City.

There are more reasons, of course. Chris Pozniak, the other recent arrival at centreback, is no slouch. And the team in general has shown a greater pride in preventing goals. "But it has a lot to do with him," goalkeeper Jay Nolly said of Pejic.

You'd be excused for not noticing. Six-foot-two Pejic -- raised in Chester, England, but a former Welsh U21 -- doesn't have the intimidating presence that released Wesley Charles had. He doesn't have the smoothness or long-range passing ability of Jeff Parke, who left for Europe.

"He is not the one you see, but that's because he just takes care of his business and that's it," said head coach Teitur Thordarson. "He is not a spectacular player, but he's a very solid player and he's been a huge positive for the group." Central defence was a spectacular mess in Vancouver, and the permutations of that position have been this season's storyline.

Due to injury, other ambitions and bad behaviour, nine different players saw time there during the regular season. The Caps were hemorrhaging goals. They had allowed 27 and posted only five shutouts in 20 league games when Pejic showed up.

Vancouver has nine goals against and four shutouts in the 12 games since Pejic arrived to regulate their collective heartbeat.

"I really didn't know what to expect, but I'm fitting in really well with the guys, and I've been pretty pleased with the results" said the 26-year-old. "I just want to give my experience, keep the shape and make us hard to break down. "Nil-nil in Carolina [last Sunday to advance to the semifinals], I'm over the moon about that. That's job done and hopefully what we'll keep doing against Portland." The job gets tougher against the first-place Timbers, who led USL-1 with 45 goals. Attacking midfielder Ryan Pore (10 goals) and league points leader Mandjou Keita (11 goals, 7 assists) are a handful.

But if recent late-season surgery at centreback is any indication, the Caps can feel good about their chances.

In 2006, American central defender Ryan Suarez was added to roster in August, and with him starting, the Caps went 9-0-2 the rest of the way, winning the title.

Last season, Charles jumped to the Caps from Ireland in late July. Vancouver was 10-4-2 with him starting and again won a championship.

Injured veteran defender Geordie Lyall recalled that Suarez added some much-needed arrogance to the mix. Charles brought a key physical and vocal dimension. Pejic's workmanlike approach has played well with a young team that struggled to reconcile the polar-opposite personalities of Parke and Charles -- their practice tussle resulting in Charles's release.

"He brings that calm level to everyone around him," Nolly said of Pejic. "He lifts us defensively." mweber@theprovince.com
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