Having just desperately cleared the ball off his goal line to help preserve the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2-1 victory over the Seattle Sounders last week, Kendall Waston was pumped.
So much so that the bruising defender and teammate Tim Parker, anchors at the back key in withstanding the late push, got physical at the final whistle.
One friendly slap led to another and then another, each more forceful than the last.
“It was kind of like a college roommate, happy celebration thing,” said a smiling Parker. “One little smack happened and it turned into a harder smack and a harder smack.
“It was kind of funny, but it did hurt.”
Coming off a lost campaign where they leaked goals at an alarming rate, defending has been one area that hasn’t hurt the Whitecaps so far in 2017.
After conceding 52 times in 2016, up from a stingy 36 the previous year, Vancouver has allowed 11 goals through six Major League Soccer games this season. That number might not seem impressive, but digging a little deeper shows that five of those goals against were scored after the Whitecaps had a player sent off, while three more came during a defeat to Real Salt Lake that was played in a blizzard.
And while teams defend as a unit, Waston and Parker have been key to the revival at the back for Vancouver (2-3-1), which visits the high-flying Portland Timbers (4-2-1) on Saturday.
“Kendall’s big-time. He’s a great guy to play next to,” said Parker. “He makes things easy for me at times, but we pair well together.”
Added Waston: “Timmy’s a great player. He’s very strong. When I see the way he plays, it makes me work harder.”
Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson gave both of his first-choice central defenders increased responsibility this season. Waston, 29, has been named captain in place of the departed Pedro Morales, while Parker, 24, got a turn leading the squad during the exhibition schedule.
“It’s an honour to wear the arm band,” said Waston. “Being the captain of this team is very important. I don’t want to disappoint.”
But that’s exactly what happened too often last season. After finishing second in voting for defender of the year during his first full MLS campaign in 2015, the six-foot-five Costa Rican international led the undisciplined Whitecaps with a league-high three red cards to go along with eight yellows.
While some of the infractions were probably due to his size and strength, others were simply avoidable.
“Last year was a tough season for Kendall,” said Robinson. “He got sent off too many times … for nonsense, for silly little things. When you’re the captain of the team it’s important you play with a calm mind and you have a control about you.”
Waston averaged nearly 1.7 fouls per game in 64 career regular-season MLS outings coming into this year â€” including four red cards and 24 yellows. But he’s cut that down to just five fouls and no cards through five matches in 2017.
Vancouver committed the second-most fouls in the league last season at a rate of more than 14 per game. While still early, the Whitecaps have reduced that number to an average of 12 so far this year.
“I’m doing the same job,” said Waston. “Maybe I’m being a little bit smarter in different (situations) and not getting involved in stupid things. I’m just trying to help and work hard and trying to defend the proper way.”
Waston, Parker and the Whitecaps face a tough test this weekend against Portland, which is tops in the overall standings with an MLS-leading 16 goals.
“They have quality,” said Parker. “They’re one of the best teams on paper in the league, and I think on the field as well.”
Vancouver will get a break with Timbers striker Fanendo Adi â€” tied for second in league scoring with five goals â€” suspended for Saturday. But the hosts still pose a threat going forward with midfielder Diego Valeri, who also has found the back of the net five times, always lurking as the Whitecaps begin a stretch of four straight road games.
“They’ve been the best team in the early part of the season,” said Robinson. “We’ll build on our performance (against Seattle) and go there full of confidence.”
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press