VANCOUVER — Maybe the highest compliment you can pay Thomas Gardner is to say that, whether your soccer eye is completely untrained or of connoisseur class, you simply have to watch him play to love his game.
That such wide-ranging appeal has been so firmly established before his rookie season with the UBC Thunderbirds is even over speaks to a level of presence that goes deeper than mere talent.
And so with all of that in mind, what better stage could there possibly be than a U Sports men’s national soccer championship tournament, hosted by UBC and set to begin a four-day run at Thunderbird Stadium, at which to watch a kid from North Vancouver so uniquely gifted that he recently re-defined the standards for a dynamic debut in the nation’s most celebrated soccer conference.
In that regard, becoming the first men’s soccer player in Canada West history to be named its Top Rookie and its Player of the Year in the same season has meant that he’s ticked every box in the seasoned eyes of conference’s coaches.
“I think it’s full credit to the coaches in our conference who do the voting that they realized all of the subtleties that this player has,” UBC head coach Mike Mosher explained Tuesday of Gardner, a 5-foot-9, 150-pound midfielder who scored six times in 12 Canada West league games this season.
“He didn’t have the stats that some of the other top attacking guys did, but the coaches still saw all of his intangibles like his work rate off the ball and how well he defends for being a quality attacking player,” said Mosher, whose ‘Birds close out Day 1 of the championship’s four quarterfinal matches with a 6:30 p.m. clash against Ottawa’s Carleton Ravens. “He does all of the dirty work that you might not expect. He’s pretty complete and he’s a special talent. I am thankful that all the other coaches recognized that.”
Of course there’s also the fun parts of Gardner’s game, the stuff better watched with a bag of popcorn.
Of his six goals he scored this season, five of them came off free kicks, including a streak of one in each of four straight UBC home victories.
Even more impressive, two of those four free-kick goals were game winners.
And if you think it’s just scratching the surface talking about Gardner’s niche for the free kick, you’re right, but only to an extent.
And that’s because when you listen to the best description of that singular skill, about how he makes a soccer ball travel in some pretty unconventional ways, you start to think about his own soccer journey and how it, too, has followed a road less traveled.
“He’s got an uncanny ability to hit a ball that doesn’t necessarily fly how you think it should fly,” says Mosher, who could just as well be speaking about his rookie’s fateful migration off the direct path to the professional ranks to life as a student-athlete at UBC.
ALREADY A NEXT-LEVEL TALENT
Thomas Gardner is the first to admit timing has played a huge role in his road to life as a student-athlete.
He was one of B.C.’s best youth talents from about the time he joined the Whitecaps residency program back in 2007 as a nine-year-old.
Stints with the Canadian U-15 and U-17 sides followed, as did a transformative three seasons with the United Soccer League’s Whitecaps’ FC2 team.
It was over his USL career with Whitecaps that Gardner immersed himself in the world of professional soccer, even getting moments to train with the club’s first team.
“It was a professional environment,” said Gardner, 20, who played in 52 matches over that span.”When you’re playing with the best players at that level, competing against like-minded players, you’re going to get better. No one was trying to stay in the USL. They all wanted better things and that helped me a lot.”
Yet in 2017, the USL franchise relocated to Fresno, Cal., and at that point, Gardner elected to re-trench and pursue his pro soccer aspirations from a different base: As that of a student-athlete.
“It was about timing,” says Gardner. “I was planning on pursuing a pro career, but after they moved, I decided it was time to head back to school.
“My parents have been such a big influence on me, and they support me with whatever I want to do whether that was going to be an education or soccer,” he continued. “I had to get an education at some point but I have still not given up (on a pro career.) I am still going to pursue it. With the CPL (Canadian Premier League) and its deal with (U Sports), I think that is a great deal for me to continue pursing a career in soccer.”
The CPL announced in mid-October that its partnership with U Sports will give top-rated players the opportunity to be signed to CPL/U Sports developmental contracts, play for their new teams in the spring and summer, before being allowed to return to their university sides in the fall.
The first draft, in fact, will take place this Monday, one day after the completion of the U Sports national championships.
EMBRACING A NEW EXPERIENCE
Whether through trained or untrained eyes, those who have watched Thomas Gardner on the pitch have had plenty to smile about.
Yet there is a whole other level of appreciation that takes place off the field, and to hear Mosher address it, at the university level, it’s just as important as being a skilled player
“He’s a next-level player and we knew that coming in,” he says. “But I think we have to give full credit to Thomas because he’s embraced being a student-athlete. He’s here to get a degree and he knows what he wants to do. And he’s fit in very well because he is very humble, and that is not always the case when a guy comes from the levels he has.”
With a chance to get an education, to play the game at a high level in a more collegial atmosphere, and to keep that professional dream alive, Gardner is enjoying a new chapter in his soccer life.
“Not one of the guys here has a big ego,” said Gardner of his UBC teammates. “We’re all a big group of friends, all playing together and fighting for each other.”
Of course you can expect the crowds at Thunderbird Stadium to wait with anticipation for the chance to witness a Gardner free kick over the course of these championships.
“That part of his game was something that we were not particularly aware of,” admits Mosher. “But it took on a real life of its own this season, especially with social media. They were all highlight reels.”
Gardner, however, freely admits that the flair he displayed this season on free kicks, generating balls that arrived with an unpredictable, knuckle-ball like fashion, were actually much better when he was a younger player.
“When I played in the USL I didn’t take the free kicks, that was more for the older guys,” said Gardner. “That knuckle technique, I was way better at it four years ago. But when I came back here, I tried it again, and it’s been working really well.”
As have a lot of other things.
(Canada West runners-up Trinity Western open championship play Thursday against York at 11 a.m. Montreal faces UNB at 1:30 p.m., followed by Cape Breton vs. UQAM at 4 p.m. UBC finishes 6:30 p.m. against Carleton. Championship semifinals are slated for 4 and 6:30 p.m. starts Friday, while play wraps up Sunday with the bronze medal final at 11 a.m. and the gold medal final at 2 p.m.)
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