MVP midfielder bounces back from severe injury to focus on his impending Whitecaps debut
BY BRUCE CONSTANTINEAU
VANCOUVER — Jonny Steele had mixed feelings this week after completing his first full training session with the Vancouver Whitecaps in more than two months.
The Caps' new Northern Irish midfielder was thrilled to be almost fully recovered from a lateral collateral ligament injury suffered during pre-season training in February -- the most serious physical setback of his career.
But he was frustrated with the prospect of falling behind teammates fighting to secure a spot on a club heading for Major League Soccer next year.
"It's very frustrating to join a new team and want to make an impact on your new coach and fans and then get injured," Steele said after his first post-injury practice session Thursday.
"It's tough to set yourself back like that and watch other players take your position, knowing that I'm going to have to fight to get my spot now."
The Whitecaps will clearly find a spot for the 24-year-old native of Larne, Northern Ireland, if he shows the kind of form that made him the USL-1 Most Valuable Player in 2008 and a second-team all-star last year when he played for the Puerto Rico Islanders.
Steele isn't sure when he will debut with the Whitecaps but hopes to see some game action as early as next week when the Caps play the Portland Timbers.
Head coach Teitur Thordarson calls him a talented two-way midfielder with the ability to defend strongly and then attack with well-timed offensive runs.
"I thought he would fit in very well with our way of playing because his running capacity is high and he can really make trouble for teams he plays against," he said.
The sharp-tongued, acerbic-witted Steele said he likes to exploit holes in opponents' defence and create scoring chances for strikers and wingers, noting he had about 25 assists in his past two seasons in USL-1 and CONCACAF Champions League play.
He played against Vancouver in league finals in 2006, when he played for Rochester, and 2008, when he was with Puerto Rico, so he knows the Whitecaps have a strong organization. The Vancouver MLS opportunity was also a draw but he could actually be playing in that league now if he had accepted an offer to join Real Salt Lake this season.
"I decided Vancouver, if they take me to MLS, is a better opportunity for me," Steele said. "It's going to be a big thing here and I want to be part of it."
He also talked to expansion MLS side Philadelphia Union about playing there this season but those discussions didn't work out. Philadelphia might have been a good fit because Steele's three-year-old son, Jaydan, lives in the city so he spends a lot of time there during the off-season.
Steele is quick to quip among his teammates, employing words and phrases that often evoke laughter. Thordarson sees that as a positive quality.
"Yes, if he doesn't talk s---all the time then that's a good thing," he said. "He's a very good guy to have in the group."
Steele said he has curbed a fiery temper that used to get him into trouble on and off the field, noting he received just four yellow cards last year -about a third of his normal total in previous seasons.
He grew up hearing all about legendary Northern Ireland footballer George Best and remains a huge fan of retired Irish midfielder Roy Keane.
"He's a fiery guy, too, and a hard worker who demands the best of players and the best of himself," Steele said.
Since Northern Ireland did not qualify for this year's World Cup, he plans to cheer for England -- an admission that will undoubtedly draw the ire of some teammates.
"I love Wayne Rooney's intensity and fire," Steele said. "He's another player with a little temper streak that's learned to curb it."
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun