Faces of First Kick: Jay DeMerit
VANCOUVER, B.C. – It was a quiet moment some nine months ago when everything became clear to Jay DeMerit. He wasn’t out celebrating the US’ thrilling run in the 2010 World Cup. He wasn’t walking onto the field of some big European club amid roars of supporters. He wasn’t even hobnobbing with celebrities or driving a fast car on the autobahn.
DeMerit was back where it all started – in London, living not far from the first flat he rented in trendy Camden Town. He was playing pickup soccer with kids 10 years younger than he was who didn’t even recognize the Premier League veteran. And most bizarrely, he was without a pro contract, wondering where his next paycheck would come from.
It was almost like DeMerit climbed into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and stepped back into his life of eight years ago when he barnstormed his way through Europe, just trying to land a job at any club he could find.
“I was right back to where I was,” he mused. “Everything had come full circle. It was such a humbling experience, and that put my mind set in the right place. All this has happened to me and I’m still here, playing with kids who have no idea who I am.”
DeMerit didn’t dwell on the fact that things hadn’t transpired exactly how he expected following his dizzying summer. He simplified, saw the bigger picture and knew he didn’t have to rush things, that the right opportunity would present itself. And that may have been the moment that ended up delivering one of the hardest-working men in the business to Vancouver.
[inline_node:331242]If you’re a fan of US soccer, DeMerit’s real-life Rocky tale is a familiar one. Fresh out of college, the Green Bay, Wisc., native got on a plane with less than $2,000 to his name and showed up at training grounds all across Europe in the hopes that he’d land a trial with a pro club. All that putting himself on the line came to define him as he went from Sunday pub leagues all the way to captaining a Premiership side.
But somewhere along the road, the feel-good stories stopped making sense to DeMerit. His time with Watford FC – the team he led into the EPL in ‘06 and sank back down with a year later – was coming to an end. Knowing he wasn’t going to return to Vicarage Road, and with no new contract in place, he rolled the dice again: figuring he’d leverage his performance in the World Cup, good or bad, into his next deal.
It was another gutsy move by the notorious risk-taker, and one that somehow backfired on him. His time in South Africa with the US team couldn’t have gone better, posting a heroic performance against England and making several miracle defensive stops against Slovenia and Algeria.
And somehow, none of that translated post-Cup. The offers were attractive monetarily, but role-wise, they didn’t add up. He was being asked to be a role player yet again at lower-rung EPL teams like Blackpool, and mid- to lower-table Bundesliga teams (along with offers from French and Turkish teams). And that was something that didn’t interest him.
“I wasn’t given any guarantees I’d play,” he recalled. “I had already experienced what it was like to be relegated. Why would I want to do that again? I knew I wouldn’t be happy. Everything that came up just wasn’t good enough.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind, DeMerit admits, he knew he wanted to come play in MLS – even though no MLS team took a flier on him out of college. But as he entered his 30s, he regretted the fact that his friends and family never got to see him play – and he’d never played professionally on this side of the Atlantic.
Back in Vancouver, Whitecaps brass were considering their options on how to build their first MLS roster, but they had a number of priorities in mind. First, they wanted to make sure they had a solid spine, embodied by a player who carried the banner of hard work and had leadership qualities that would be essential during an expansion season. They also wanted to make a splash to create some buzz ahead of 2011.
And they also knew they were sitting on the top allocation spot for any returning US national-teamer. As director of soccer operations Tom Soehn considered his options, it soon became clear that DeMerit was a possibility, albeit a long shot.
[inline_node:331243]“It was back in August when it first came up,” Soehn said of his early conversations with DeMerit’s agent, Lyle Yorks. “It was kind of a mutual thing that we were looking, they were looking. Eventually we started to take it very seriously.”
After months of talks with Yorks in what Soehn calls “a long, tedious process,” DeMerit began to like what he heard more and more about Vancouver.
“They came in early and were adamant about getting me,” he said. “I kept that on the back burner.”
In the meantime, he began enjoying his time off again. He traveled to Asia. He flew to New York to see his beloved Green Bay Packers face the Jets. He kept training with Watford, just on the off chance another offer would come along. But again, nothing was good enough.
By mid-autumn, he began to consider more and more that Vancouver might be the right fit. After months of negotiations, he finally got on a plane with Yorks and traveled to British Columbia for the first time in his life.
When he arrived in November, the pieces began to fall into place. Team president Bob Lenarduzzi made his sales pitch of what kinds of resources would be devoted to the squad in its first few seasons. Head coach Teitur Thordarson explained the character he wanted, and the leadership qualities he required out of the back line – perhaps even a captain’s role to lead a young team.
They toured him around Vancouver, where the city’s stunning setting and cosmopolitan feel sells itself. They showed him the team’s temporary home of Empire Field. They showed him BC Place, which will open in October as the ‘Caps’ permanent home. They explained that they already had close to 16,000 season tickets sold.
In the end, it was a conversation DeMerit had with Whitecaps CEO Paul Barber that tipped the scales. Barber, a former executive with Tottenham Hotspur, put all the pieces together and gave a comprehensive vision for what the Whitecaps were trying to become.
“In all, I explained that our approach would be the European model he was so familiar with,” Barber said. “I think for him, that bridged the gap between European soccer and North American soccer. It would be familiar to him from Day One.”
On November 18, 2010, Jay DeMerit became the first signing for the MLS version of Vancouver Whitecaps FC. It was the end of a long saga of tense negotiations, but a move that made perfect sense to the veteran defender.
“Anyone who knows my story knows that it’s been me fighting my whole life,” he said. “Fighting to make it, fighting to be a pro, fighting to get a career, fighting to make the national team, fighting to get in a starting lineup on the national team, and doing all that on my own. To finally have a team fight for you and go, ‘We want you’ – that was the ultimate decision that came true for me.”
[inline_node:331244]So far, it’s a match made in heaven. DeMerit wears more hats in Vancouver than he ever has in his pro career, and is happy to play all the parts. The wisecracking Yank. The go-to media man. The promoter at official public appearances. The working-man fans’ hero and liaison. The rookie mentor.
His most important role, of course, is on the field, wearing the armband. His teammates admire his immediate leadership abilities and the credibility he gives them.
“It’s good looking over your soldier and seeing essentially a World Cup star behind you, helping you, directing you,” said Terry Dunfield, one of 11 holdovers from Vancouver’s D2 team in 2010. “He helps the young players become better players both on and off the field.”
DeMerit has been a road warrior his entire career and has been to the highest levels of the game. His latest challenge is one that he’ll take on with the same ferociousness with which he has approached the others in his life – all of them bested.
“To be [here] from the beginning is such an interesting concept to me,” he said. “To join a new MLS franchise, to be an influence on how they build it, to be an influential player while they build it is amazing. You don’t often get that opportunity in pro sports.”