VANCOUVER, B.C. – Darren Mattocks didn't steal the headlines in the Vancouver Whitecaps' 4-1 win over the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
But the 23-year-old made the starting lineup, picked up an assist and put in a workmanlike performance as the lone striker in Vancouver's 4-2-3-1 formation. In a word, he was relevant.
Relevant, perhaps, for the first time since former 'Caps boss Martin Rennie dropped him for the fifth match of 2013 after a largely wasteful time in front of goal to start that campaign – a key point in what would become a forgettable season for the Jamaican international.
He would score just three goals that season after projecting 20, and beyond his production, was a peripheral figure, never starting consecutive matches beyond those initial four games at the beginning of the season.
So to come back into the starting lineup for new head coach Carl Robinson's first game in charge meant a lot to Mattocks – a sign of trust, and an opportunity to prove to his doubters that his explosive first season was no fluke.
“It was always there, even last season,” Mattocks told MLSsoccer.com when asked if he's rediscovered an enthusiasm for the game, which seemed to lack at times in 2013. “But I think this season, the different style – I've adjusted to it really well.
“At the end of the day, I'm just going to try and put my best foot forward each and every time.”
But beyond the intangibles – Mattocks is smiling once again, seems hungrier off the ball and pressed opponents to great effect on Saturday – there is a greater diversity to his game.
Over the weekend, he no longer simply looked to get in behind the Red Bulls backline – an understandable yet predictable tactic given his explosive pace – but switched things up by showing for the ball and playing with his back to goal in a way he hasn't done regularly since signing in 2011.
“As a center forward, it's really important to get my teammates involved in the game,” Mattocks said after a training session at the University of British Columbia on Tuesday. “Holding up the ball to get my teammates to join in, that's really huge.”
The varied approach kept his opponents guessing, and indeed his most effective moment in the match came through demonstrating that ability to link up with his teammates when he played a part in Sebastian Fernandez's goal to bring the score to 2-0.
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“If he's going to play in that role, it's important that he does hold the ball up,” Robinson said on Tuesday. “The second goal came from him holding the ball up, being a platform to build with his movement, Kenny Miller's vision and then Darren running into space and then playing a simple pass to Seba, who obviously used his magic to create a good finish.
“Seba gets all the headlines, but it was Darren's hold-up play and movement that created the chance.”
While Robinson stresses he will judge Mattocks on his overall performance, and that goals don't tell the whole story about a center forward's value and contribution, the player himself knows he had two quality chances in the first half he could have done better with and insists that finish will return.
“I'm not worried about scoring goals because I know what I'm capable of doing,” Mattocks said. “As soon as the first one goes, hopefully things start to open up for me. But at the end of the day, we've got a lot of guys here who can put the ball in the back of the net.”
Martin MacMahon covers the Vancouver Whitecaps for MLSsoccer.com.