VANCOUVER – After going head-to-head with one of the best players in the world, centre back Carlyle Mitchell believes he’s ready to step into the Vancouver Whitecaps lineup.
Mitchell faced Lionel Messi when he played for his native Trinidad and Tobago in a recent international friendly against Argentina. He helped keep the four-time FIFA world player of the year from scoring in a 3-0 Argentina win and even earned a yellow card for a hand to Messi’s face.
Mitchell is expected to replace injured Whitecap captain Jay DeMerit when Vancouver faces the Montreal Impact in a Major League Soccer match Wednesday at BC Place Stadium.
“Coming into this game is a big opportunity,” said Mitchell, who spent time at practice this week paired with veteran centre back Andy O’Brien.
“It’s unfortunate that Jay gets injured but I get my chance. I have to go and grasp my opportunity with both hands.”
This is Mitchell’s fourth season with the Whitecaps but he has seen limited action this year, appearing in just a pair of Canadian Championship games against Toronto. Last year he played in 15 games, starting 13, at right-side centre back when O’Brien was hurt.
Coach Carl Robinson said Mitchell’s time with his national time has sharpened his game.
“I think he’s let everyone know in Vancouver he’s played against Lionel Messi, which is a great experience for him,” chuckled Robinson.
“He’s come back in a refreshed frame of mind. He wants to challenge for a starting spot. If he gets that chance it’s up to him to see if he can take it. He’s probably deserving a chance.”
Mitchell said holding his own against Messi was a confidence boost.
“It was a good experience,” said the speedy and athletic defender from Arima in north-central Trinidad. “You learn a lot from that game.
“He is one of the best players in the world. We got a few tips.”
O’Brien said he’s seen the 26-year-old Mitchell mature both on and off the field.
“I have seen a big development,” said O’Brien. “I think he’s matured not only in age but in terms of how he is in the dressing room.
“I think he’s a good defender. I think he’s got the attributes to continue to be a good defender. We’re not talking about somebody who hasn’t played before or who is a rookie.”
DeMerit is out at least six weeks with a torn tendon in his left ankle suffered in Vancouver’s 3-3 tie in Philadelphia June 7.
O’Brien doesn’t expect any problems adapting to a new partner.
“First and foremost you have to concentrate on your own job,” he said. “More often than not the rest takes care of itself.”
Another option for Robinson is Christian Dean, the 21-year-old rookie who the Whitecaps selected third overall in this year’s MLS SuperDraft. Dean played his college soccer with the California Golden Bears but said he’s really been schooled since joining the Whitecaps.
“Being here I have learned more than I have probably learned in my entire life playing soccer,” he said. “Having players like Jay and Andy ahead of me . . . I’ve learned an insane amount.”
Robinson wants his young players to go on the field relaxed and not be looking over their shoulder should they make a mistake.
“I don’t want them to think there is only one chance they get,” he said. “Then they get uptight and lose focus on what they are good at and what they should do within the team role.”
Vancouver sits fifth in the Western Conference with 21 points from a 5-2-6 record. The Whitecaps are unbeaten in seven league matches, a franchise record.
Montreal, who qualified for the playoffs last year, is last in the Eastern Conference with a 2-7-4 record. They did win this year’s Canadian Championship.
Impact centre back Matteo Ferrari said the recent World Cup break has helped the team refocus.
“The standings aren’t nice but it’s not impossible to be with the teams that are fighting to be in the playoffs,” he said. “We still believe in that.
“It’s a new start.”
Midfielder Patrice Bernier said Montreal must improve defensively. The Impact have allowed 26 goals this season, third most in the East.
“We gifted away too many chances, too many goals, where I don’t think (opponents) worked that hard to beat us and win games,” he said. “It’s time to turn the page.
“We learned some lessons. There are 21 games left. The season is long.”
The Whitecaps aren’t taking Montreal lightly.
“They are a very good team,” said Robinson. “They have very good individual players. The results don’t tell the whole story.
“We have to make sure we do our job on the defensive side but then also put our attack on them. They have got weaknesses on their team that maybe we can try to exploit.”
The Whitecaps also need to be tighter in their own end. Vancouver has allowed eight goals in their last three games.
“I know we have conceded too many goals this year,” said Robinson. “We are working on it on a daily basis, but trying not to work on it too much so that we take the focus away form our attacking play.
“We still want to score goals.”