Ryan Gauld is in the midst of what’s probably the best season of his decade-long professional career. Currently on 10 goals and eight assists in MLS play, he’s produced more goal contributions than anyone in the league since the end of May and also tabbed 1g/4a across three cup competitions.
The versatile creator’s excellence has already helped Vancouver Whitecaps FC win the Canadian Championship and Cascadia Cup, and climb into the upper echelon of the Western Conference standings heading into this month’s FIFA window.
Form like that tends to earn international call-ups. Gauld, however, did not jet off to his homeland to join up with Scotland last week as they continued their undefeated march towards Euro 2024 qualification.
You’re more likely to find him exploring British Columbia with his partner Kat Hutchison and their two dogs, perhaps hiking around Whistler or Squamish, or riding waves off Tofino, a breathtaking surfing village on the west coast of Vancouver Island where they got engaged last summer.
“A few years ago when I was doing well in Portugal, I really thought I would get a chance, and that I maybe deserved a chance,” Gauld told MLSsoccer.com in an extended conversation this week ahead of VWFC’s cross-Canada clash with Toronto FC on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | Apple TV - Free).
“But since then, I understand the thinking that a lot of people back home have towards MLS. They’re used to seeing it as a retirement league, and they don't really open their minds to accept that it's moving on, it's becoming one of the better leagues in the world.
“So at the moment, it's not something that I'm looking at. I'm not sitting on my phone waiting for a squad list to come out and stuff. Instead, I’m looking at the days off and looking to get over for a surf trip.”
Riding the wave
In the minds of some pundits back home, a place like Tofino, perched on the wild northwestern edge of a vast, distant continent, might as well be the North Pole. Gauld, once hailed as the best Scottish prospect of his generation, says he’s quite alright with that.
He and Kat have a life to live, one that swerved off the beaten path long ago, when he shrugged off interest from the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United in favor of a transfer from Dundee United to Sporting Clube de Portugal at age 18. Despite growing up in an ancient, celebrated footballing culture where most players never have to leave their home country to advance their career, Gauld sought something different.
“I've definitely got no regrets about any of the choices I've made in my career, that's for sure. I said from a very young age that I wanted to experience living abroad and playing abroad, learning a new language, culture, food, everything that comes with it,” he explained. “I was 18 at the time when the opportunity came up and I just thought, if I don't go now, who's to say I'll get another chance?
“It’s been an interesting ride I’ve been on for the last, how long’s it been, nine, 10 years? And hopefully there's a good couple of journeys left in me.”
As intentional as he was about selecting a club known for incubating wunderkinds like Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo into superstars, Gauld didn’t quite launch like he had hoped at Sporting CP, making just two first-team appearances after signing a six-year contract. That lack of playing time prompted a string of loan moves which, combined with an untimely injury or two, had a destabilizing, demoralizing effect.
“It was tough moving around, starting every preseason in June or July and not knowing where I'm going to be in two weeks’ time,” he recalled. “I was at that age, I just wanted to play and I just wanted to show what I can do in Portugal, and try and make a name for myself, make a career for myself.”
He eventually found a home at SC Farense, a second-division club in the sunny Algarve region on the country’s southern tip. Initially arriving on loan, Gauld powered a promotion campaign in his first permanent season and was recognized as the second division’s MVP. And it so happened that one of the more devoted supporters of Leões de Faro introduced him to a whole different sort of pursuit.
“There was a guy who was a big fan of the club that I played at, and he had his own surf school,” said Gauld. “So he took us out a couple of times on his boat, and just from there, we got into it.
“We're not very good. We don't get to go and do it an awful lot. But it's the kind of thing that, it's kind of fun to fail at it, without it being frustrating.”
It’s not hard to imagine how surfing’s meditative aspects could charm a thoughtful personality burdened by massive expectations from adolescence. Back when he was breaking through in Dundee, Gauld’s left-footedness and slight frame, combined with his superb technique and decision-making, drew him the complimentary but ultimately quite burdensome tag of ‘The Scottish Messi,’ a label that still makes him cringe today.
“You know, every country has its own Messi. The problem with this comparison is that everyone pales against Messi! So that's the thing,” Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini told MLSsoccer.com. “So it can be too heavy, to be honest.”
His difficulties at Sporting CP led some back home to turn the sobriquet into a form of mockery, or a ‘where are they now’-type curiosity item. Yet those who recruited him to Vancouver saw Gauld’s winding journey as a vital component of the player they wanted.
“He had some hard learnings there,” said VWFC CEO and sporting director Axel Schuster. “[At Farense] he was the best midfielder in the league outside of the top three clubs, and he was within the top three on goal contributions in that league. He was speaking perfect Portuguese, he was doing interviews live in Portuguese, and he had changed a lot.
“Because at some point he has learned that he cannot wait that the league will change for him, or a club or a coach will change for him. It has to be him to adapt and to learn, and to do what is necessary. That was something that was really clear in our scouting report and that he has spoken very clearly about, and that made us feel very confident that he will be able to adjust to our league, whatever it needs.”
The ‘Caps have helped Gauld keep those language skills sharp by pairing him with Portuguese roommates on road trips, first with Bruno Gaspar and more recently with Luis Martins. That’s the sort of understated influence that suits the soft-spoken Scot more than, in Sartini’s words, “being the guy who rallies the troops and says, ‘Hey, I’m the captain, let's go,’” in more stereotypical fashion.
“Those are things that really, I would say, hardened him, in a way that he's ready to go everywhere and do his best, even in situations where they are not easy,” said Sartini of Gauld’s past challenges. “They probably thought he was going to break in at Sporting Lisbon and become one of the leading players in Europe. It made him realize that, ‘OK, there's a lot of hardship in this game and I need to be as good as I can in every context as I can.’
“That experience humbled him a lot, and so he knows that you have to put a million percent of intensity in everything that he does. Because I think that if he reduces his work rate, his quality drops dramatically. Of course he has a lot of talent, but he is a player that needs to be working a lot. He needs to be thinking like a lower-division No. 6 in terms of working rate, in order to be a very good No. 10.”
This line of analysis has led Sartini to dub Gauld a “working-class DP.” That’s a stark contrast to the traditional MLS norm under which most Designated Players are attacking specialists a cut above their colleagues in profile and salary, often given indulgences when it comes to the hard graft of defensive duties.
“When you come into this league and you have the DP title, sometimes you get bad apples in the locker room that have that brand, I guess. But he's one of the hardest-working guys, one of the most down-to-earth guys,” said Gauld’s strike partner Brian White.
“I mean, you can see from the games how much dirty running he does for the team, how much work he does off the ball. At times you don't see that a lot from DP players; sometimes they just want to get the ball, go play offense, whatever it may be. But from him you get both sides of the ball, 110%, every game, all game.”
It’s safe to say Gauld much, much prefers Sartini’s nickname to the one he got stuck with as a teenager.
“Just because we're labeled as these ‘DPs,’ it doesn't really mean anything. You don't get special treatment or anything else. You’re one of 11 on the pitch, one of 20-however-many in the squad,” he said. “Here, we all get asked for the same. There's no special treatment … I feel like that's what we've got going well for us at the moment here.
“It's a ridiculous kind of thing to compare anyone to [Messi]. Because he's way out on a level of his own,” said Gauld, recalling how many jokes his friends used to squeeze out of the label. “It was frustrating, obviously, when I was coming through, because it put all this extra pressure on me, but now I'm able to just laugh at the fact that it happened.”
Notably, Sartini has deployed Gauld in four distinct positional roles this year due to a range of factors from game-planning to injuries elsewhere in the roster. Both player and coach say it’s fueling, rather than constraining his productivity. Nor has it disrupted his connectivity with White, with whom Gauld enjoys an intuitive understanding.
They’ve become one of the most productive attacking duos in MLS without sacrificing work rate against the ball, a central cog in a game model encapsulated by Sartini’s “Andiamo!” tagline, which has grown ubiquitous enough to now feature on t-shirts and hoodies around BC Place.
“That is one of the reasons why he is not that publicized in the league,” declared Sartini. “You have those great, very great attacking players, classic No. 10s like [Hany] Mukhtar, like [Luciano] Acosta, like [Lucas] Zelarayán was before going away, that basically they do very little, or they don't do any, defensive work, to be honest. But they are so good when they have the ball that the team needs to basically work for them.
“[Gauld] is a DP that works in the other way around,” Sartini continued. “He works for the team, and I think this is the way for him to shine.”
Something similar could be said about Gauld’s credentials for inclusion in the Landon Donovan MLS MVP race. The lefty’s 18 goal contributions in 2023 trail only Thiago Almada, Acosta and reigning holder Mukhtar, yet there appears to be relatively little buzz by comparison. With characteristic pragmatism, Gauld himself doesn’t rate his chances.
“I don't see myself in the conversation, to be honest,” he said. “Maybe if I had the first four months of the season like I've had the last few months.
“We don't get as much attention out here, and we don't get as many people looking at us, but I guess that helps us fly under the radar a little bit,” Gauld said of his team’s wider profile. “The thing is, it's OK for us to be saying that, but if we have success and create success here in the club, then they're going to have to talk about us. So that's the way that we're thinking of it. They might not want to talk about us, but if we go and do well, if we go and win, it's going to make it happen.”
For all the good work they’ve done lately, Vancouver’s season still rides a knife’s edge. They’re now in the midst of a club-record seven-match away stretch, a span that adds up to 27,000 km (16,777 mi) in air travel while their home stadium is occupied by the BC Lions CFL team, tour visits by Ed Sheeran, Coldplay and Beyonce and other events.
Those on the inside maintain it’s a squad that actually likes spending that kind of time together.
“When I was in New York, we had a lot of New York, New Jersey guys. So when we had off days, whatever, they go with their friends and families because they live in the area,” said White, a former Red Bull. “Here we have a lot of guys that aren't from Vancouver. So even when we have days off, everyone's like, want to hang out, want to do something? So we have a very tight group.”
Undoubtedly some of that time will be spent on a fantasy football league (the gridiron sort) that a dozen of the players compete in – and Gauld is the commissioner. A longtime NFL watcher, the Scot has only delved further into the North American sports scene since settling in Vancouver.
“We were matched up actually in week one and my team got absolutely destroyed,” revealed White ruefully.
Taking seven points from nine in the seven-game swing’s first phase was hugely encouraging for a ‘Caps side that had won just two league away games before it began, and their Scottish engine has been key.
Gauld bagged a brace with White scoring 2g/1a in a 3-2 rivalry thriller in Portland, textbook examples of the incisiveness in transition that’s so valuable in Sartini’s system. Then he assisted on a White winner in a 1-0 defeat of Chicago before drawing and converting a penalty kick vs. New York City FC to take a 1-1 draw out of Yankee Stadium.
“The past, maybe, five or six games we’ve been as good as we've been since I've since I've signed,” said Gauld. “You look at the league table, the West’s so close from second down to, I don’t know, eighth – there's not a lot of points separating us.
“So the league’s that tight, and we feel like we're right there in that group, and it's just going take more consistency and more belief in ourselves that we're capable of achieving something. Hopefully it can push us to the top end of that group of six or seven teams.”
A bright future
Looming trips to Toronto, Houston, Salt Lake and Colorado now stand to reveal a great deal about the Whitecaps’ postseason credentials – which neither the ‘Caps themselves nor their long-suffering fans take for granted. Stay on course, and a home-heavy autumn awaits, with their only October away day being a short hop across the border to Seattle.
“We have four games in a row away and then we're in a good position. And we're still in that limbo thing that if everything goes well, it's the best season in the history of the club. But we still have time to f--k up,” wisecracked Sartini with a dose of gallows humor that probably resonates among VWFC’s more hard-bitten supporters.
As proud and long as their overarching history is, Vancouver have won just one Audi MLS Cup Playoff match in their existence. Belief will be vital, and Gauld’s quality and quiet leadership fuels it – now and hopefully for the foreseeable future, in Schuster’s eyes. With one year remaining on his current contract, Vancouver hope to extend Gauld’s Whitecaps tenure sooner than later.
“Obviously, we will do everything to do this,” said Schuster. “Luckily we have another year left to get to a good solution. We actually feel that we have very important pieces in place to make this club more successful than it has been in the past. But then it's also important to have those pieces for a while.
“Ryan Gauld looks very hungry, Andrés Cubas looks very hungry and we have actually extended on Andrés Cubas’ contract already in this year, very early, because we want to keep our key pieces together and build everything around them. And with the latest signings, the Canadian national team players [Richie Laryea, Sam Adekugbe and Junior Hoilett], we have more pieces now.”
Perhaps someone at the Scottish FA will eventually take notice. Gauld’s excellence has been such that the prospect of him becoming a naturalized Canadian and availing himself to his adopted land’s national team has been a recurring topic in Vancouver. Sartini is philosophical about the future of his team’s crown jewel.
“I would love to see him on the international stage, because I think that that would be also another recognition from European football to see how good he is,” said the emotive Italian. “I'm very happy that he's here and I hope that he's going to stay here forever – but I don't think he would be a fish out of water playing in Serie A or playing in Ligue 1, playing in LaLiga.
“I think that now he has a status that maybe we can have a young guy that can become a ‘Canadian Gauld’ or something.”