BRITISH COLUMBIA

Vancouver Whitecaps begin pre-season training with some new faces, high hopes

01/26/2015 07:37 EST | Updated 03/28/2015 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - Pa-Modou Kah speaks an impressive eight languages.

By the end of his first season with the Vancouver Whitecaps he could know a ninth.

The veteran central defender signed with the Major League Soccer club last week and was on the field for his first training session Monday as the players went through fitness testing.

Kah, whose career included stops in Europe and Asia before he joined the Portland Timbers last season, speaks English, French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, Dutch and Wolof.

One language he has yet to master is Spanish, which just happens to be the native tongue of Vancouver's extensive Latin American contingent — including captain Pedro Morales and fellow midfielders Matias Laba and Mauro Rosales.

"Football is a universal language," said the 34-year-old Kah. "For me it's just about understanding and helping each other on the pitch."

Born in Gambia before moving to Norway with his family at the age of eight, Kah has more than 300 professional games under his belt, including 47 with Portland last season. The former Norwegian international comes to a squad looking for some added leadership on and off the field after the Whitecaps parted ways with veteran defender Andy O'Brien in the off-season.

"I wanted to bring in an experienced MLS guy," said Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson. "I know Kah's character. I know what he's about."

Vancouver will have a much different look in the centre of defence this season after also saying goodbye to Johnny Leveron and Carlyle Mitchell. Kendall Waston is back after he was acquired last summer in time to help the Whitecaps' push for a playoff spot, while the team added 24-year-old Uruguayan Diego Rodriguez on loan with a transfer option earlier this month. Vancouver has also used first-round draft picks on central defenders Christian Dean (2014) and Tim Parker (2015) the last two years.

"I want good characters here. I've stressed that all along," said Robinson. "The new players coming in, I think you can see what they bring to the table just in one day. They're character guys and we need that as a club moving forward. It's not going to be easy. I know it's going to be a lot harder than it was last year, and it was hard last year.

"But if you want an easy life you're in the wrong sport. We know the challenge ahead of us."

For his part, Robinson said Rodriguez is a perfect example of the type of player the Whitecaps are looking for in terms of age, playing style and ability.

"Footwork fundamentals that you need as a defender, Diego's got," said Robinson. "He wants to defend. He enjoys defending. He enjoys putting his body on the line."

Rodriguez said that he's looking forward to getting to know his new teammates and fight for that open spot alongside the 27-year-old Waston.

"I've seen videos of him and he's an important player," said Rodriguez. "I can learn a lot from Kendall's game. I hope I get an opportunity to play with him."

Kah was by far the most vocal player on the pitch Monday and added that he still feels he has plenty to contribute and is ready to fight for a spot in the starting 11.

"If I didn't see myself as a starter then I wouldn't play soccer," said Kah. "A football player who's content to be on the bench — that's not me."

Apart from the remodelled defence, the Whitecaps also acquired another Uruguayan in 23-year-old striker Octavio Rivero as a young designated player in December as Vancouver looks to improve on last season's performance that ended with a first-round playoff loss to FC Dallas.

"The guys that have come in have already shown they're easy to get into the team and they're good guys. Hopefully we'll see the same tight-knit group as last year," said goalkeeper David Ousted. "I saw the people we brought in and it looks exciting. I can't wait to play with them and see what kind of players they are and get to know them. It's important to get to know the guys and get them in the team and get that chemistry."

Kah, Waston and Rodriguez are all aggressive central defenders and Robinson said part of the reason for having five capable bodies in the fold is the inevitable suspensions that will come during the course of the season because of yellow card accumulation.

"At some stage, whether it's a wrong decision by a player, a wrong decision by an official, it does happen," said Robinson. "It's important I have the cover. I'm not worried about that because I don't want to take their strengths out of their game. One of their main strengths is the aggression, the physicality.

"You look at the successful teams in this league, they've got physical centre backs and I think it's the first time we can say we have as well."

The Whitecaps — who will practice in Vancouver all week before heading to Arizona to continue pre-season training — had an up-and-down 2014 campaign, but Robinson is confident the moves for Kah, Rodriguez and Rivero have the team in a good position ahead of the opener on March 7 against Toronto FC.

"It's important to be a forward-moving club that the players you bring in have to be better than the players that are leaving," said Robinson. "Bringing in starters or players you think can start will give you more headaches because you have to disappoint a few more players. But unfortunately that's the life we're in."

Notes: The Whitecaps announced on Monday that 21-year-old midfielder Ben McKendry has graduated from the club's residency program and signed an MLS contract. The Vancouver native joined the Whitecaps' youth system at the age of 14 back in 2007.

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