Carlyle Mitchell was supposed to spend the soccer season in Edmonton.
A Vancouver Whitecaps player award? Forget it. Heck, so much as seeing the pitch during the 2013 Major League Soccer season seemed beyond the realm of possibility several months ago.
Yet on Wednesday morning, Mitchell, the 26-year-old centre back, was on makeshift stage at the Bank of Montreal main branch in Downtown Vancouver, accepting the Whitecaps’ Jock MacDonald Unsung Hero Award.
Behind Andy O’Brien, Jay DeMerit, Johnny Leveron and Brad Rusin on the depth chart to begin the season, Mitchell wasn’t going to see much, if any, playing time with the first club in Vancouver.
That paved the way for his loan to FC Edmonton in the NASL.
But injuries on the back line, beginning with DeMerit and then eventually claiming O’Brien and Rusin on more than one occasion, meant Mitchell was not only recalled back to the big club indefinitely in June but inserted into the lineup out of pure necessity.
Initially, that might not have been the ideal situation for the Whitecaps. But Mitchell’s play, particularly through the month of August, was enough to gain the trust of head coach Martin Rennie to the point where the defender became a regular in the lineup.
“In soccer, many things happen,” said Mitchell on Wednesday.
“Guys have injuries, you know, so when you’re called you’ve got to be ready. I just went to Edmonton to have playing time and I had some good games over there so…I came back to Vancouver with a lot of experience.
“From last year to this year is a huge step…and you know, as games go along you get more confidence and more comfortable in the team.”
Mitchell, who joined the Whitecaps in September of 2011, didn’t pout when he was first assigned to Edmonton.
“You got to take it as a learning experience,” he said.
Mitchell has started the last seven games for the Whitecaps, playing the full 90 minutes in each of those matches. He’s been paired alongside DeMerit, the club’s captain who suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in March and didn’t return to action until Sept. 14, in the last five games.
The two formed a decent makeshift partnership, which was again spurred by a rash on injuries and an international call-up for Leveron.
“It’s pretty easy because the first time I came to Vancouver, I played with Jay DeMerit,” said Mitchell.
“We have a pretty good understanding because Jay speaks a lot and I listen a lot, so it’s good.”
Blessed with raw athletic talent, Mitchell’s game was not free of mistakes, which were magnified in large part because the Whitecaps, as an entire club, struggled to defend, particularly at times during the stretch drive.
The club’s inability to defend at times has been sourced as one of the reasons why the Whitecaps have since been eliminated from playoff contention, with one game remaining in the regular season.
But, on a grand scale, the Whitecaps were able to tap into some of Mitchell’s potential. His unsung hero recognition isn’t just for what he did on the pitch over the course of half a season or so.
It’s acknowledging the contributions of a player who was asked to shoulder so much more than was expected of him when the season began.
And it again goes back to his loan to Edmonton, which those in the club believe was crucial for his development and allowed him to step in right away when the Whitecaps’ injury situation at the back end reached dire levels.
“The loan to Edmonton, from our perspective, it achieved exactly what we wanted it to,” said president Bob Lenarduzzi.
“It was to be a season-long loan to get him games and obviously with the centre back curse that we had, he came back to us. But I think the injuries to DeMerit and O’Brien have actually provided a great opportunity for a player like Carlyle to do what he’s done.”
“As far as Carlyle is concerned, a just reward that he’s received.”