Byline: BY REAGEN SULEWSKI
When Ethan Gage left Cochrane to join the Vancouver Whitecaps development team, he had no idea just how fast he'd pressed into service.
Called up to the first division men's team in September because of injuries on the main squad, not only did the talented 17-year-old start for the Whitecaps, but started in their 2-1 victory over the Puerto Rico Islanders to win the United Soccer League championship on Oct. 12.
It's been a whirlwind season for Gage, his second in the Whitecaps's system, and one that he still can't believe.
"Just the fact of being on the men's team, being the youngest player on that team, having all the players accept me and just getting to start the semi-finals and a finals game," said Gage, who joined the Whitecaps in September of 2007.
"I'd enjoy watching and wishing I could play on those teams. I had no clue I'd be starting, especially in the finals. No clue whatsoever that'd be happening."
Gage plays center-mid alongside Martin Nash, brother of Steve Nash of the NBA's Phoenix Suns.
That experience has been a tremendous learning experience, he said.
"He's better at tacking, so I kind of defend more and get the ball to him and he does the playmaking part," said Gage.
"Playing with him I can learn a lot. He tells me when I've messed up and what to do."
Gage believes he's stuck with the men's squad because the coaches recognized his work ethic.
"I had always worked really hard in practice -- I think one of the reasons the men's coach had wanted to keep me up is my tenacity. The whole game I just don't stop running," said Gage.
Although the idea of playing in a top league soccer final at such a young age might be a little unnerving, Gage said that eventually the soccer instincts take over -- even when you're asked to defend against Jonathan Steele, the USL's MVP.
"It's scary at first but once you start playing you get into it. When you're playing you don't realize anything, you just play," he said.
"You can't do a heck of a lot to prepare yourself for playing such a great player, you just have to do your best."
His position isn't one with a lot of glamour, offering few scoring chances, and few opportunities for dramatic defensive stops. While that might make it difficult to really tell how well he's doing, there's plenty of feedback available, and he measures his results from comments of his teammates.
"That's just it right there. It feels really good when they tell me I have a great game.
We don't get to score many goals - we don't get to make a sliding tackle to save a goal," said Gage. "Just us keeping the ball, because if you control the midfield you control the game. You have to go through the midfield to get to the other side."
Even at that, he's had some close misses on goals, just sending balls past the outside of posts.
"It's actually really encouraging. I'm disappointed obviously that I missed, and I think I should have scored, but it's also encouraging because I just started playing in men's. Just to get this far in and already having opportunites to score, it's encouraging, because if I keep playing this way, I'll get more chances," said Gage.