02 March 2012

Larger-than-life Hassli a happy camper in 2012

Wherever he goes, Eric Hassli stands out. With his size, his tattoos, and his almost-shaved head, he can be seriously intimidating. A minute later, however, his face creased into a smile, he exudes a youthful exuberance that is a magnet for those around him. Standing a head taller than many of his teammates after a Whitecaps training session Friday morning, Hassli was one of the chief jokesters as Jay DeMerit tried to organize the group for a video to be played inside BC Place. Hassli yelled louder than everybody else (often out of turn) and yelled, “Again, again,” when the group broke up after the second take, just to see how many teammates would take the bait and stick around. MLS Insider Shawn Francis caught some additional hijinks on camera.

Almost exactly one year after signing with the Whitecaps as their first designated player, Hassli is a happy camper in his first full preseason with Vancouver. New head coach Martin Rennie has the Whitecaps – and Hassli – set for a 180-degree reversal heading into the new year, with an impressive array of talent, a more cohesive work ethic, and a 3-0 mark with a 7-0 goal differential in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic.

“This year, instead of 11 or 18 or 25 players doing his own thing and working by himself, we work together,” Hassli said. “Everybody knows what to do, and then the coach gives us the freedom in the last 30 metres to do whatever we want to do.”

The last 30 metres is where Hassli usually shows up as one of the league’s best entertainers and most exciting players. His combination of size and skill is virtually unprecedented in MLS, and you can’t imagine MLS defenders look forward to an afternoon facing his bulk. He scored 10 times in MLS play last year, including what perhaps should have won Goal of the Year, but all of his tallies came in the first 16 games. Down the stretch, Hassli was among the players most visibly frustrated with the atmosphere, calling the final two months the “worst of my career, maybe.”

He appears on the way to some of his best months, and he netted three goals in four games last year against Saturday’s opponent, Toronto FC – four goals if you count his tally in the second leg of the Canadian Championship final, a game abandoned and restarted due to weather. No matter who is playing on Saturday – Toronto sent most of its squad back to Canada to prepare for its Champions League quarterfinal and Vancouver will split its squad for a Sunday friendly against Carolina – Hassli dismissed a suggestion that it is just another preseason game.

“It’s always special, because Toronto is a rival,” Hassli said. “Preseason has been great for confidence, and the first step is tomorrow. Everybody cares about this game.”

Interest is high enough that the ESPN3 broadcast of the game, in which I will take part, will be extended to TSN.ca, and the game has been picked up by TSN2 on tape delay. Canada will be watching, no matter who’s on the field, and if he’s out there, expect Hassli to make happy campers out of Whitecaps fans everywhere.

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