Long Tan ball
Bob Frid

Whitecaps FC hope Year of the Dragon comes early

Officially, the Year of the Dragon isn't until 2012, according to the Chinese zodiac. Vancouver Whitecaps FC are looking to celebrate a little early.

On Friday, the club announced the signing of 22-year-old striker Long Tan, who becomes the first Chinese-born player in MLS history. Among his teammates, however, Tan is known simply as "Dragon."

“[A] dragon in Mandarin symbolizes something like strength and power,” explained Whitecaps FC cultural expert Wes Knight. “And the kid is very athletic.”

Tan’s tall hairstyle may indeed be more Jersey Shore than mythical beast, but count head coach Teitur Thordarson among those who believe in the power of Dragon.

“For not being a very big and strong guy, he’s very physical,” vouched Thordarson. “It hurts for those who play against him.”

Physicality is one thing, but to truly be a dragon, don’t you need to fly?

“What people might not know is that his first four or five strides, he can really get a step on the defender,” said Knight of Tan’s skills. “He’s very dynamic, he can use both feet very well and he’s extremely explosive.”

The 6-foot-1 forward was acquired midway through last year’s USSF-D2 Pro League campaign, but remained with FC Tampa Bay until the completion of their season. He then joined the ‘Caps for training in November.

“He’s gotten a leg up having been here at the end of last year and I think he’s gotten used to the routine,” Knight said.

His English still needs some work, but he comes to practice every day with a smile on his face and his teammates have loved having him around.

“He’s very quiet since he’s not too secure with his English yet,” said Knight. “But if you jab at him a bit, which we do – I mean, he’s already garnered the nickname 'Dragon' – he gives it back to you the best he can. He’s a great guy.”

'Caps co-captain Terry Dunfield believes that if Tan can find the fire in his belly, he’ll really be able to spread his wings.

“He’s getting better every day, and he’s definitely athletic, so he should suit the league,” said Dunfield. “If he can believe in his own ability, he can do really well for us. ... It’s up to Dragon how far he wants to go. He’s going to be given the opportunity at some point and it’s up to him to take it.”