VANCOUVER, BC – When Vancouver Whitecaps FC head coach Martin Rennie fills out his team sheet every week, Russell Teibert’s name is almost always one of the first on the list.
The gifted Canadian international has been a staple at right wing for the ‘Caps as of late. Since his two-goal performance May 11 against Los Angeles Galaxy, Teibert has made a career-high 11 straight starts – not taking into account the three matches he missed as a result of a call-up to Canada at last month's Gold Cup.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Teibert, who is among the league leaders in assists, is only 20 years old. There was a time not long ago when he couldn’t even crack the first team's 18-man gameday roster – let alone the starting lineup.
Teibert runs into Ritchie's arms after scoring first career goal
At one point or another, so many young professional soccer players find themselves in a similar position. It’s not easy making the jump to Major League Soccer, according to Whitecaps FC assistant coach Paul Ritchie, and Teibert’s story is just one example of that.
“It does take time,” Ritchie told whitecapsfc.com. “The college kids are a little bit closer to the professional environment, but even then they take some time to adapt to it. We’ll give these kids as much time as they need to be part of the first team squad.”
As seen with Teibert’s case, it doesn’t happen overnight.
All part of the process
After making his way through the Whitecaps FC Residency program, it took Teibert over two years to earn a regular spot in the ‘Caps lineup. Last year, he made just four MLS appearances and played a total of 117 minutes.
Camilo, 25, has also gone through some struggles of his own – though not to the same extent. It took the crafty Brazilian striker over a month to solidify his place in Rennie’s starting lineup earlier this season. He’s now tied for the league-lead in goals.
For many of these players, being forced to watch from the sidelines – rather than taking part in the action – can be a novelty. Take rookie striker Kekuta Manneh, for example. The 18-year-old Gambian said he played every single minute of every game before arriving in Vancouver. At first, Manneh said “it was definitely frustrating,” but he knows it’s all part of the process.
“I’ve seen that anywhere,” Manneh told whitecapsfc.com. “It’s not just here. It takes some people time to adapt to the system and get their game going. It’s a part of being a pro and growing as a person, going through all those struggles.”
Although it’s impossible to ignore the contributions of seasoned veterans Kenny Miller, Nigel Reo-Coker and Andy O’Brien, Vancouver’s young nucleus has been instrumental to the team’s success this season.
And that’s no coincidence.
No stone unturned
The emergence of Teibert, Camilo and 21-year-old midfielder Gershon Koffie has involved a lot of hard work behind the scenes – from the players and the club.
“This club gives you every opportunity and every possibility to achieve success as a player,” Teibert told whitecapsfc.com. “Whatever you want … we have every resource to better ourselves.”
There’s world-renowned physiotherapist Rick Celebrini, for example, who heads up the club’s sports medicine and science team. Along with Bryce Alderson, Caleb Clarke and Ben Fisk, Teibert worked closely with Celebrini last off-season on a tailored strength and speed regimen.
At the end of the MLS Reserve League season last October, Rennie outlined a number of changes he wanted to see in Teibert’s game. From there, Celebrini spearheaded a plan and then put it into motion.
“We put a lot of work in and I feel like we did achieve a lot of things Martin wanted me to do,” Teibert said. “That’s what has helped me achieve success with the first team this year.”
In addition to the sports medicine and science team, there’s club nutritionist Dana Lis who keeps in regular contact with all the players. Manneh would know. The young Gambian said she emailed him “every single day” when he was fasting during the month of Ramadan.
“She’s been helping me a lot,” Manneh said.
So has team psychologist David Cox, who holds sessions with the team about twice a month. Before joining the ‘Caps, Manneh said he had no exposure whatsoever to anything related to sports psychology.
“It’s kind of weird transformation to go through that, but I feel like it helped especially me a lot,” he said. “I never used to think of visualization or things I’m going to do before I get the ball. He and the coach believe in the psychology part of the game so that’s been helping us a lot.”
Like Manneh, Teibert said his view on the mental side of the game has “definitely changed” working with Cox over the past few seasons.
“Whenever I get the chance, even if he’s not talking about soccer, I just like hearing about stories he has to share and experiences he had,” Teibert said. “You can really learn from a guy like that. He’s in touch with his emotions, he knows how to control his emotions. That’s huge in our sport. Like I said, if you’re not confident, if you don’t have belief in yourself … that’s more than half the battle. If you can wrap your mind around that, I think you’re at a real advantage.”
Home away from home
For Teibert, the transition to MLS has been mostly mental, technical and physical. It didn’t include much of a cultural element. The Niagara Falls, Ont. native grew up in Canada and spent three years in Whitecaps FC’s Residency system before signing his first professional contract.
Short doc: Manneh's journey from Gambia to Vancouver
The same can’t be said for international players like Camilo (Brazil), Koffie (Ghana) and Manneh (Gambia), who at 18 years old is the youngest player on the first team.
“It was definitely an adjustment for me,” said Manneh, who has two goals and an assist in 13 appearances this season. “Obviously leaving your friends and family behind, I didn’t come here with any of my family members. I was basically alone … but I wasn’t alone. People were taking care of me and that was very helpful.”
One of those people was Rennie, who welcomed Manneh into his home before he settled into the city and found his own apartment.
For these reasons and more, Manneh said he believes Whitecaps FC is “one of the best clubs in North America” with all the support they offer.
Ritchie took that statement a step further, comparing Vancouver to Premiership teams in England in terms of all the resources they have at their disposal.
“Here in Vancouver, we have got a support staff to give these kids every opportunity,” said Ritchie, who along with fellow assistant coach Carl Robinson works closely with the squad’s younger players at the end of most training sessions. “We’ve got everything that these kids need to develop, but we can only help them and point them in the right direction. It’s up to them if they want to do the hard work.”
That’s exactly what Teibert did. He’s one of the club’s biggest success stories, and it didn’t happen by accident.
“Russell is one of the best professionals I’ve ever had the pleasure to coach and play with,” Ritchie said. “For such a young lad, he wants to learn, he knows that he’s got a lot to learn, but he’s not afraid to learn. He’s not afraid to stay behind and do extra work. He’s done that for the 18 months that we’ve been here and now he’s reaping the rewards.”