Marc Dos Santos arranged his shorthanded Vancouver Whitecaps FC side in a rugged defensive posture that kept favored Sporting Kansas City scoreless over 90-plus minutes on Sunday night, hanging tough in their MLS is Back Tournament Round of 16 clash despite conceding a whopping 36 shots before their upset bid fell painfully short in a penalty-kick shootout.
His next tactical challenge: Keep Thomas Hasal off Twitter, Instagram and possibly a few other such platforms favored by your typical North American 21-year-old these days.
“Thomas needs to stay focused. Thomas needs to stay away from the blah-blah-blah of social media and guys that get too excited fast and too low fast,” cautioned the Whitecaps’ head coach after his young Homegrown goalkeeper made eight saves to stymie one of the Western Conference’s more potent attacks in just his third-ever MLS appearance, all of them at this tournament.
“Thomas needs to stay in his bubble, focus, keep working. And it's the only way he’s gonna become better and better. But he showed great signs in the last 180 minutes.”
Hasal's highlights vs. Sporting
That might require a managerial masterclass of a higher order. FOX’s commentary crew on the United States broadcast of Sunday’s match were comprehensively charmed by Vancouver’s endearing shot-stopper, who traveled to Florida as his team’s third-string ‘keeper but found himself starting their final two matches due to a broken thumb for Maxime Crepeau and backup Bryan Meredith’s departure due to his mother’s sudden death.
And Soccer Twitter’s adoration ramped up at comparable levels as he stepped up again and again to keep his mostly overmatched side neck-and-neck with Sporting until the very end. And Dos Santos will no doubt be pleased to see that Hasal dodged his opportunity to bask in the spotlight when asked about his meteoric rise.
“Of course it's been a quick, special first few days,” said the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan product, who also posted a clean sheet against Chicago Fire FC in Vancouver’s final (and pivotal) group-stage match. “But I think tonight is all about being proud of our team performance, especially the feeling now. We're obviously disappointed to be out of the tournament, but it's a feeling of pride for everyone out on the field that gave their all today. These guys in front of me didn't stop running.”
That’s all well and good, though Hasal was the clear man of the match, producing a memorable performance that even featured a splash of unrehearsed youthful charisma when Hasal collided with a camera mounted in the back of his net as he shepherded a ball past the goalpost, his surprise caught by the aforementioned lens and meme-ified in real time.
“I'm definitely not used to a camera being there, so it took me by surprise in the first half,” Hasal later admitted to a curious reporter, “but I'm OK, thank you.”
Relying on a fresh-faced kid in goal to weather a game-long storm of pressure is surely not Dos Santos’ first choice. Still, all involved showed admirable resourcefulness considering how many of his team’s key players were injured or left at home in British Columbia. And while the ‘Caps would clearly prefer to bring him along slowly, Hasal’s confidence and quality under trying circumstances may well be cause to ramp up his developmental schedule – and further proof of concept for the Whitecaps’ ambitious and unique trans-Canadian academy system, the same one that helped groom Alphonso Davies.
“Thomas knows how much I appreciate him and what I think about him,” said Dos Santos. “But Thomas needs to stay in the process. It's games like that that are going to make him grow and become better. Remember, he's Canadian, he was brought up in our academy, so everybody in our academy staff – [goalkeepers coach] Raegyn Hall, our technical director Craig [Dalrymple], everybody has to be proud of the work they've done to bring the kid to us.”
MLS Today: Sporting win but Hasal steals the show
And that cheeky smile that kept creeping across Hasal’s face before and during the shootout suggest that this one might just be a gamer.
“Oh, I was excited. Shootouts for goalkeepers are definitely a chance to be a hero,” he said. “Penalties are something I enjoy and I felt I was ready for it. The team gave me some good advice and they gave some good information. And of course we worked so hard to get to that point, it felt like this was our moment, this was our time. But unfortunately, it wasn't.”