VANCOUVER, B.C. – It may not appear so, but the Vancouver Whitecaps’ game Sunday against the Colorado Rapids (8 pm ET; MLS Live) is of the utmost importance – for two players especially.
The Whitecaps' two starting fullbacks will mark very special milestones at B.C. Place, even if Vancouver’s shot at the MLS playoffs has been lost.
Eighteen-year-old left back Sam Adekugbe will make his professional debut, starting for the suspended Jordan Harvey. On the other side of defense, 36-year-old Lee Young-Pyo will play the last match of his storied professional career.
Lee, the South Korean veteran of a handful of top-flight leagues, including the Bundesliga and English Premier League before joining MLS with Vancouver in 2012, was emotional when discussing his final match.
“Individually,” said Lee, before pausing. “It’s the most memorable game in my life. I’m a happy guy because I learned so many things. Much more than I expected when I was young, and it’s a great time to finish with a great team and great people.
“I deeply appreciated our fans and teammates, all of the staff in the club. I’m sure the Vancouver Whitecaps will remain in my mind as my team forever.”
For Adekugbe, the Whitecaps FC Residency product spent extra time working on long distance passing on his weaker right foot during training this week after he learned he’d get the nod. The attack-minded defender has the natural skills to link up with the offense but acknowledged there's still work to do at rounding out his main duties – stopping opponents.
“I like to go both ways, defending and attacking,” Adekugbe told reporters this week after a training session at the University of British Columbia. “Hopefully [fans] can see the bit of defending I've been working on because that's something I've been having to improve on.”
Following the explosive offensive outburst from fellow 18-year-old Kekuta Manneh in recent weeks, head coach Martin Rennie is hoping Adekugbe can make his own impact and give the club another young starter down the road.
“Sam's one of the exciting players coming through our youth system that we're really, really proud of,” Rennie said. “I think Sam can contribute. I think he can be a starter in the MLS. I think an offseason of getting a little bit stronger, working in the gym – he's just about there, and hopefully we'll get a chance to see that.”
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For Rennie, whether dealing with a rising star or one heading off into the sunset, it's business as usual.
“I was speaking to both Sam and Y. P.,” Rennie said. “And I was saying, Y. P., this is your last game, so the most important thing is that you defend right. And for Sam, this is your first game, so the most important thing is that you defend right.”
Martin MacMahon covers the Vancouver Whitecaps for MLSsoccer.com.