Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A star is reborn

For a long while, Blake Wagner seemed like another cautionary tale of giving athletes too much hype too early. He was identified by the U.S. national team through their Olympic Development Program back when he was 13, was highly publicized and went on to play for the U.S. at the U-14, U-15 and U-17 levels. He then joined Generation adidas and was drafted 18th overall by FC Dallas in the 2006 MLS Superdraft. Dallas did bring him along slowly, only using him once as a substitute in a friendly that season and not starting him in MLS until 2007. He made 12 appearances with the team that year, then started 23 of 24 matches for them as a defender in 2008. He only saw limited time with them in 2009 though, and they opted not to bring him back. It looked like he had fallen off the map, but he then signed with Vancouver earlier this year, and his star appears to be back in the ascendancy.

Although this was only Wagner’s fourth match with Vancouver, he has already surpassed his career goals total with FC Dallas. He didn’t score in 40 appearances for the MLS side, and that trend held true in his first three matches with the Whitecaps, although he only played 213 minutes. He did show some promise in midfield last match, though. Tonight, the floodgates broke open and Wagner notched a hat trick to lead the Whitecaps to a 3-1 victory over FC Miami.
Those floodgates opened on a club level as well as an individual one. The Whitecaps’ struggles to score this season have been well-documented; they went 276 minutes in league play and 296 minutes in all competitions without a goal earlier this year.

Vancouver head coach Teitur Thordarson said afterwards he was impressed with Wagner's play, but he would have been happy to see that offensive output regardless of source.

"It's just a relief to have someone score three goals," he said. "We haven't had that in a long time, so we're very excited."

Wagner’s hat trick was the first by a Whitecaps’ player since Marlon James recorded one against Minnesota last year, and the first by a Vancouver midfielder since Alfredo Valente accomplished the feat in 2000.

Tonight's match was much more open than last week's 1-1 draw against AC St. Louis, but Thordarson said that wasn't thanks to differing styles.

"They weren't that much more open in the beginning, but we opened them up," he said. "We haven't really played badly, we have been creating chances, but we're getting better."

Vancouver opened the scoring in the 18th minute when Wagner played a lovely ball in for Nizar Khalfan, then followed his pass and raced towards the net. Khalfan smartly overlooked Cornelius Stewart, who was covered in front, and dropped it back for Wagner who was completely unmarked. Wagner showed a lack of finish during his time with FC Dallas in MLS, recording no goals in 40 appearances, but he was clinical tonight and made no mistake from eight yards out.
After the half, Wagner added a second goal in the 56th minute on an almost identical play, receiving a drop-back pass on the other side from Stewart this time. Funnily enough, that tied him for the team scoring lead in regular-season play, which tells you something about Vancouver’s offence.

Miami pulled one back one minute later, when Brian Shriver played a nice give-and-go with Euzebio Neto and finished from close range. Both teams went for it after that, odd considering that neither has been overly aggressive or proficient up front this year, but it produced some entertaining soccer. Vancouver still had the better opportunities, but Miami certainly had chances to tie the match, and it took the Whitecaps quite a while to seal the deal. They did so in style, however.

In stoppage time, Wagner completed his incredible night by finishing the hat trick, driving home a Randy Edwini-Bonsu cross from close range. Vancouver product Alex Elliott, making his Whitecaps debut, made a nice play to pick out Edwini-Bonsu, and Wagner completed the play with a terrific finish.

Wagner said scoring three goals was a thrill.

"It felt really good," he said. "Today was just one of these days. I'll take them more often."

His goals were set up by strong team play, but the hat trick was hardly a fluke. Wagner was responsible for six of Vancouver's 11 shots, and all of his shots were good chances. By contrast, Miami only recorded seven shots all game, and many of them were weak.

Wagner made one particularly interesting comment afterwards when I asked him if he had noticed a substantial difference between the quality of play in USSF-II and MLS.

"So far, it's been really good," he said. "I'm not going to lie, these guys on the team we have, they're quality players. I could see half of them on the FC Dallas team."

FC Dallas is in third place in the Western Conferenceat the moment, so that's a higher compliment than it often has been. It says a fair bit about the talent the Whitecaps have put together that I'd tend to agree with Wagner; obviously, USSF-2 isn't MLS, but there are a lot of guys on this roster who either could play at an MLS level now or have the potential to play at one in the future. For them, as well as Wagner, the future looks bright.

As is often with the future, though, there may be unexpected stops along the way. I'm sure Wagner never imagined playing Division II soccer in Vancouver back when he was an American prodigy, but if he can continue to put up performances like he did tonight, it might just be a great move for him. Wagner's hat trick seemed to have taken even him by surprise, though. When quizzed afterwards, he couldn’t even remember the last time he scored a hat trick at any level.

“Maybe in my dreams,” he said with a laugh. “High school, maybe middle school?”

It will likely be sweet dreams for Wagner tonight, but we'll have to wait and see if this dream will last for him.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

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