By Marc Weber
VANCOUVER — The only number that’s ever truly mattered to Martin Nash is 11.
Eleven players working as one, fighting for each other and a common goal.
“Every year I’ve been on a championship team,we’ve had enough players that wanted that,” the Vancouver Whitecaps’ captain said Thursday. “That was the key to being successful.”
Nash might not care about the other numbers in his career, but as the Whitecaps prepare for the first leg of the United Soccer Leagues First Division final against the Montreal Impact on Saturday, the numbers are hard to ignore.
The Victoria-raised central midfielder is going for his fifth title in 10 years. His four tie him for the league record with former teammate and current Impact forward Eduardo Sebrango.
He’s earned all-league honours five times in his career — the first was in 1996 as a 20-year-old; the last was two weeks ago.
The 14 seasons in between have taken Nash to England, New York and Montreal, to a Gold Cup victory for Canada, and back to Vancouver.
Now 33, Nash is approaching a pair of career milestones with the Whitecaps. If he plays 66 minutes on Saturday, he’ll pass the 20,000-minute mark — the sixth player in club history to do so. And the return leg in Montreal on Oct. 17 will be his 250th game for the club.
Nash didn’t know about those targets, but that’s not surprising. He’s a guy who doesn’t remember his first goal, but remembers his first assist.
“It was a left-footed cross,” he recalled of his rookie campaign, when he started up front before quickly moving to the left side of midfield.
This season has the potential to be sweeter than any other for Nash, who won championships with the Rochester Rhinos in 2000 and ’01, and then with the Whitecaps in ’06 and ’08.
This time he’s the captain. This time he’s guiding a young group, a mishmash of cultures and languages and ambitions. And there have been plenty of leadership tests — none bigger than July 21.
When veteran central defenders Wesley Charles and Jeff Parke confronted each other in training that day — an incident that resulted in Charles’s release — the Whitecaps were 5-7-3. They had two wins in nine games and were clinging to the final playoff spot.
Head coach Teitur Thordarson said he never stopped believing in this team. But Nash said he had doubts back then if the playoffs were possible, never mind repeating as champions.
He thinks Parke’s departure to Europe days after the incident helped the group dynamics. And he credits the coaching staff with staying focused and positive.
“Teitur, Todd (Wawrousek) and Mike (Salmon) kept drilling it into us — play together, play as a team, play to the system,” Nash said.
Teammates say Nash’s leadership during that time was invaluable. Over the next few days, he pulled guys aside individually, and he addressed the team as one.
“It was like, ’You guys aren’t going anywhere if we don’t get better,’ said goalkeeper Jay Nolly. “It was bringing everyone together to understand the severity of what was going on. It’s what we needed. If we had let it go, it would have got worse.”
Almost 20,000 minutes after his Whitecaps' debut, Nash isn't skinning defenders down the flanks, isn't the same athlete who could reverse dunk a basketball. But he might have the best soccer brain in the league, and he's smart enough to know what a winner looks like.
"Everyone put their own issues aside and are playing for the team," he says. "We didn't play the smartest of games [Sunday's 3-3 tie] in Portland, but we stuck together. The game wasn't going our way and we were able to turn it.
"We've persevered as a group and it does give that extra satisfaction to get to the final."
No matter what happens now, they've already turned this season's story around.
MORE ON THE WEB
Former Whitecap and current Impact striker Eduardo Sebrango talks about a season of trials and triumph that's included the death of his father. Read more online at theprovince.com/blogs on Back of the Net. And stay logged on for the latest news from today's 2 p.m. championship press conference.
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