Welcome to Canada: Defending USL-1 champions have players representing 16 countries
BY IAN WALKER, VANCOUVER SUN
Ansu Toure stood shivering, his bare legs flaky and dry from the elements. Marlon James held his crossed arms tight to his chest, his gloved hands buried deep under his armpits. Steam crept through the wool fibres of Kenold Versailles's black toque as he unsuccessfully tried to untie his soccer cleats with frozen fingers.
Welcome to Canada, boys. Just be glad the snow's mostly gone. And that you're playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps and not the Impact. It was minus-15 C in Montreal on Friday — or about 17 C colder than the temperature at a foggy Ambleside Park, where the Whitecaps held their first on-field training session earlier this week.
Not that Versailles was overly comforted by the comparison. Too polite to point it out himself, it was 28 C in his native Haiti, and not much cooler in Miami, where he's made his home for the past two years.
"I've never been in such cold," said the 24-year-old midfielder, whose smile is bright enough to warm anyone's day. "It affected me a bit … with more training I'll get used to it."
But while cold fronts, jet streams and other atmospheric conditions are good conversation pieces in the elevator or around the water cooler, the multicultural makeup of the defending United Soccer Leagues First Division champions is far more interesting.
Bequia and Brighton, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Carrefour, Haiti. Monrovia, Liberia. Port Antonio, Jamaica. Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Shimizu, Japan. Italy, Iran, Ivory Coast, Iceland, Germany, Ghana, Ukraine. Ms. Curry was right. You never know when Grade 11 geography will come in handy.
The Whitecaps roster reads like the General Assembly of the United Nations this season, with no less than 16 different countries represented. It could be as many as 17 by the start of the 2009 USL-1 season, should Vancouver sign goalkeeper Diego Oliveria. The Brazilian would round out the league maximum of seven designated international players.
Now before you start thinking that doesn't add up, Americans are not considered international players. Also, many of the players in camp have citizenship in more than one country.
Like Luca Bellisomo. The second-year defender was born in South Africa before relocating to Vancouver with his family at the age of eight. He also holds an Italian passport through his father.
"Soccer's an international game and I think it's good to have so many guys with different backgrounds," said Toure, who has American and Liberian citizenships. The 27-year-old midfielder was a refugee and moved to Minnesota with his family at the age of 16. "Different nationalities bring different styles."
Caribbean and South American players are generally technically sound, attack-orientated fast and possess impressive dribbling abilities. Northern Europeans are renowned for pinpoint passing and a counterattacking style. African and Ivory Coast players are technical and powerful with a flare for the dramatic.
Americans and Canadians tend to be more physical and display a mish-mash of styles based on the diverse ethic makeup of the two countries.
The end result is the possibility of a very dynamic team.
"We had quite a few nationalities last year and we've got even more now, and it just makes us stronger," said Martin Nash, one of just 10 players on the Whitecaps' 27-man training camp roster actually born in Canada.
"Everyone has their own style — the key now is to come in and learn our system and bring what they can from their style of play to make ours even better."
The three newest Whitecaps also bring experience beyond their years. James spent the past two seasons in the Malaysia Super League, where he was named the Most Valuable Foreign Player and received the Golden Boot Award. The 6-2, 175-pound striker played with FC Tirsense of Portugal's Second Division Serie A. He's also a member of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines national team, earning 55 caps and scoring 12 goals for his country.
Versailles, 6-2, 165 pounds, comes to Vancouver after spending the past six seasons in the top flight of the Haitian League. He has earned five caps at the national level and is a past member of Haiti's national youth teams, including the FIFA U-20 World Cup in United Arab Emirates 2003.
Toure, 5-10, 160 pounds, spent time with the USL-1's Atlanta Silverbacks and Miami FC last season after breaking into the league with the Minnesota Thunder in 2006. He spent a short stint with MLS's New York Red Bulls and was a member of the Liberian under-14, U-15 and U-20 teams.
"It's not only the age which means experience — they have played USL-1, played on the international level on youth and senior level, so these are players with quality," said Whitecaps second-year head coach Teitur Thordarson, a native of Akrane, Iceland. "That's why we have picked them. We feel their style of play and experience will fit within the team."
Thordarson said what he liked most out of his three newest players was that they seemed to be truly enjoying their new surroundings, cold and all.
Toure, James and Versailles were sporting silly grins all morning.
"We could clearly see that Marlon, Kenold and Ansu — to some degree, he's used to it — were cold, but it's good for them," said Thordarson. "It's quite fresh for them, a new experience … I think they like it straight away here a lot."
Most of the Whitecaps' designated international players have yet to join the club for training. Jamaican forward Dever Orgill, Bolivian midfielder Vincente Arze, Saint Vincent defender Wesley Charles and Japan's Takashi Hirano are all expected to arrive in camp in the coming weeks.
The weather isn't a reason for any of their excused absences.
- Whitecaps Residency players Philippe Davies, Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Kyle Porter, and Adam Straith have been called up to Canada's U-20 national team training camp in Florida next week. Vancouver native Marcus Haber, who is currently on a pre-season trial with the Whitecaps, will also participate in Canada's camp.