When you have been yellow-carded for a hand to the face of the great Lionel Messi — in front of 40,000 screaming Argentine fans in Buenos Aires, no less — just about anything else in soccer should be a breeze, right?
Certainly even filling in for an injured captain in a Major League Soccer regular season game shouldn’t be nearly as scary as having Messi, an incomparable ball wizard, challenge you one on one.
That was the situation Vancouver Whitecaps centre back Carlyle Mitchell, the young Trinidad and Tobago international, faced in a friendly against Messi and Argentina last month. Mitchell was carded after bringing up his hand as Messi tried to get around him after slipping a ball through his legs.
Mitchell did, however, help keep Messi from scoring a goal in a 3-0 win for Argentina.
“It was a good experience for me … you learn a lot from that game,” he said. “(Messi) is one of the best players in the world to play against. We got a few tips.”
Now it looks like Mitchell will be given an opportunity to replace the injured Jay DeMerit on Wednesday at BC Place Stadium against Montreal as the Caps try to tighten some loose defending that saw them concede eight goals in three games before the World Cup break.
“I’m very excited to play this game because I haven’t played a game for a while,” Mitchell, 26, said Monday. “It’s a big opportunity for me. I’ve got to go out there and do my best.”
Mitchell, athletic and aggressive in the air, played 15 games — starting 13 as a right-side centre back — for the Caps last season when injuries knocked Andy O’Brien out of the lineup. But except for a pair of Canadian Championship games against Toronto, he’s been a spectator this season as coach Carl Robinson went mostly with the veteran pairing of O’Brien and DeMerit in MLS action.
DeMerit is out at least six weeks after tearing a tendon in his left ankle in the Caps’ last game, a 3-3 tie at Philadelphia on June 7.
Johnny Leverón started twice for a rested DeMerit earlier this season. And the natural left-footer seemed to be the likely choice to replace the captain.
But after experimenting in practice last week with Leverón, O’Brien, Mitchell and rookie Christian Dean in various pairings, it was O’Brien and Mitchell who lined up with the rest of the starters in practice on Monday.
O’Brien and Mitchell are both right-footed and did not play together in a game last season. But Robinson said he’s not overly concerned about that.
“If you play two right-footed centre backs, not many people say anything about it. If you play two left-footed centre backs, people say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. It’s unbalanced.’ Which is crazy and ridiculous.
“Not many teams in Major League Soccer have got a right-footed centre back and a left-footed centre back.”
O’Brien, 34, and Mitchell switched sides at different points in practice Monday.
O’Brien said he’s played some games in his career as a left-sided centre back, but “it’s not my ideal side.”
“When you get used to turning one way for 18 years, it can get very difficult turning the other way,” he said with a smile.
Mitchell said he’s OK with playing on the left.
“It’s all about defending, not being a playmaker,” he said. “You defend first.”
With eight games over the next six weeks, including Wednesday (Montreal) and Saturday (in Colorado), Robinson said it’s likely all his centre backs will get some playing time.