VANCOUVER — While Marcel de Jong has Canadian roots, his experience with hockey involved grass and a ball.
The Vancouver Whitecaps’ left back was born in Newmarket, Ont., but at the age of four his family returned to their native Netherlands.
“In Holland we grew up with soccer and field hockey,” de Jong said after a Whitecaps’ practice this week. “That (field hockey) is a big sport in Holland.”
De Jong’s focus will be on soccer this weekend when the Whitecaps (4-5-4) look to end a four-game winless stretch as they play host to the New England Revolution (5-4-2) Saturday in a Major League Soccer match at BC Place Stadium.
The Whitecaps have just one win in their past eight games (1-4-3) and have needed second-half goals in their last three matches to salvage 2-2 draws. Last week against FC Dallas striker Kei Kamara scored the equalizer in the 100th minute, tying an MLS record for the latest goal in a match.
A pessimist would argue the Whitecaps are trending in the wrong direction. De Jong prefers the optimist’s view as Vancouver continues to collect points.
“We should have won at least two of those games,” said the 31-year-old who has started nine of Vancouver’s 13 games this year. “We showed we can come back from behind and work hard until the last minute.
“We’re a team that never gives up. I think it shows character.”
The New England game will also be the last match for Whitecaps’ captain Kendall Waston before he joins the Costa Rican national team for the FIFA World Cup. Waston will miss at least three MLS games.
De Jong began playing soccer in Holland when he was 5 and signed his first professional contract with Helmond Sport in 2004. He re-established his connection with the Maple Leaf when his mother contacted the Canadian Soccer Association to tell them her Canadian-born son was playing for the Dutch Club PSV Eindhoven’s youth academy. The CSA scouted him and asked the 16-year-old de Jong to join the Canadian U-17 team in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“I didn’t speak a word of English,” said de Jong. “I flew all by myself the first time.
“It was a weird experience. I never regretted it.”
Since then de Jong has earned more than 40 senior international caps for Canada. He’s also made over 250 appearances for club teams in Germany and the Netherlands, plus played 13 games with Sporting Kansas City of MLS before joining the Whitecaps in July 2016.
Last year, de Jong made 13 appearances and by the end of the season he had worked his way into the starting 11. The departure of veteran Jordan Harvey to join Los Angeles Football Club solidified de Jong’s place on the back line.
Harvey had played seven years in Vancouver. He was a fan favourite and leads the franchise in minutes played and games started. Still, de Jong doesn’t feel any pressure in replacing Harvey.
“He’s gone and I’m here now,” de Jong shrugged. “I’m not worried about filling up his shoes. I’m just doing my thing like I’ve always played.
“I’ve played a lot of years and I have enough experience to play my own game and not worry about somebody else.”
Head coach Carl Robinson is pleased with de Jong’s performance but believes the defender still has more to give.
“He’s excellent on the ball,” said Robinson. “He has great quality. Tactically he understands the game … whether he plays central areas or wide areas.
“What I need him to do a little bit more is believe in himself. I still want that 5 percent from him which makes him a top left back in this league.”
The move to Vancouver has worked for de Jong professionally and personally. His wife and daughter love the city. His parents have also moved to the West Coast.
“What’s not to like about here,” he said.
Despite their struggles the Whitecaps remain fifth in the MLS’s tight Western Conference with 16 points. Only four points separate the third-place Portland Timbers from the ninth place Real Salt Lake.
New England holds the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 17 points. The Revolution lost 1-0 to Columbus last week but haven’t lost back-to-back games all season.
The Revolution also begin a stretch of playing six games in 19 days between Saturday and June 13.
Forward Teal Bunbury said one of the Whitecaps’ strengths is getting the ball to Kamara, who leads the team with four goals.
“He is a big-time player,” Bunbury told the New England website. “He’s a big body. He’s got speed and in the box he is lethal. When they are whipping the ball into him he’s as good as just about anybody there is.
“We are going to have to keep an eye on him. We know he is able to change a game at any moment.”
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