National News

Koffie-Laba partnership a coup for Whitecaps

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - The biggest knock against Gershon Koffie with the Vancouver Whitecaps has been his consistency.

An imposing presence in midfield, the Ghanaian would be the best player on the pitch one game and virtually invisible the next.

After starting the 2014 campaign on the bench, Koffie has finally begun to live up to expectations on a daily basis, and both he and the Whitecaps have one of the team's new acquisitions at least partly to thank.

Toronto FC dealt Matias Laba to Vancouver right before the start of the season and the Argentine midfielder has slotted seamlessly into the centre of rookie head coach Carl Robinson's formation.

The workhorse not only cleans up danger in front of the Whitecaps' defence, he also allows Vancouver's attacking players to push forward — with Koffie being one of the main beneficiaries thus far.

The 22-year-old scored from 40 yards out after pouncing on a goalkeeping error in last weekend's 2-2 draw with the Seattle Sounders, and had three other clear-cut chances, including a shot that rattled the crossbar in the game's opening minutes.

"Gersh has got incredible attributes. He's got the physical strength. When he makes a tackle and he means it, no one's going to beat him. He's really that powerful," Whitecaps assistant coach Martyn Pert said Thursday. "The consistency part of the game is still something that he's got to really work hard at, and he's getting there, that's four or five games on the spin now he's been very good.

"He's got to keep it going, keep the foot on the pedal and keep driving."

Robinson favoured Nigel Reo-Coker in the centre of midfield at the start of the season, but after the Englishman was injured in an off-field incident the Whitecaps turned to Koffie.

"I don't think I was disappointed to be on the bench, but that motivated me," said Koffie, whose goal against Seattle was his first of the season. "I have to embrace it because my fellow mates were doing well and it was a coach's decision."

Koffie — who has already played 93 games in his Major League Soccer career — said Robinson has asked him to go forward more in his attack-minded system, and credits Laba with allowing him that freedom to roam.

"Playing with Matias Laba gives me the license to go forward and get some chances," said Koffie. "I know he's there to work the defensive part and delay (opponents) before we can get back in (formation)."

Laba's tenacity has also rubbed off on his midfield counterpart, who tracked back on more than one occasion against Seattle to help out Vancouver's back line.

"(Laba's) a guy who sets the tone," said Koffie. "If you play next to him, he goes in for tackles (and) you have to do the same. If he goes in chasing the ball, you have to do the same, because you can't let him do the job (alone)."

Also just 22, Laba was a casualty of Toronto FC's winter spending spree, with the club unable to retain the designated player it acquired last season.

"I didn't expect it, but I think it's for the best," Laba said through an interpreter. "I'm very happy in Vancouver with a great coach and teammates."

Although he often takes care of the less-glamorous tasks on the field, the Whitecaps have come to appreciate his tireless work.

"Mati gives us a great dimension to build off of at the back," said Vancouver captain Jay DeMerit. "He lets the guys that are creative express themselves a little bit more, just by giving you a little bit more of a lockdown defensively."

Added the selfless Laba: "I've always played that way — win balls, win tackles — and quickly disperse (passes) so my teammates have more time on the ball."

Pert has been in awe at how quickly Laba has adapted to his new surroundings.

"Mati's been incredible since he's come in and the fact he came in two weeks before the start of the season and every game he just never lets you down," said Pert. "He's absolutely a top, top player. I couldn't speak highly enough of Mati.

"He makes incredible tackles, he gets his foot on the ball, he plays it simple."

Because of their youth, Laba and Koffie could be patrolling Vancouver's midfield for some time, and the pair are expected to start alongside each other once again when the Whitecaps (4-2-5) visit the Portland Timbers (3-3-7) on Sunday.

"(Koffie's) a great player and I think we work really well together," said Laba. "I can win balls and that opens space up for him to go forward and attack more. We compliment each other quite well."

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