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Vancaeyezeele quickly ascends as mainstay in Hounds’ midfield

Thomas Vancaeyezeele is one of three Hounds players to play every minute this season (Riverhounds SC/Chris Cowger)

Vancaeyezeele quickly ascends as mainstay in Hounds’ midfield

Despite being named NCAA Division II National Player of the Year and leading the University of Charleston (WV) to a National Championship last fall as a senior, Thomas Vancaeyezeele, was having serious doubts if he’d get a chance to play professionally this year.

Prior to the MLS SuperDraft in early January, Vancaeyezeele was invited to the MLS combine — but wasn’t drafted or invited to a MLS preseason camp.

As February approached, the Caen, France native was contemplating his options to start looking at what he was going to do with his life after college, and potentially even return to Europe. Even his college coach, Dan Stratford, suggested that he start looking at making plans to find a job or consider other avenues.

Then as luck would have it, Vancaeyezeele caught a break.

During the week leading up to Charleston’s preseason match against the Riverhounds SC on February 23, Hounds coach Bob Lilley was texting with Stratford about what he was still looking to add to his roster, and said he was still on the lookout for a versatile two-way central midfielder.

“It’s funny how he came to Pittsburgh, it happened so quickly,” Stratford said. “Up until that point, he wasn’t getting much interest from MLS, and even USL teams. It’s hard. Not too many players make it to the pros, and I was even beginning to start to help him prepare for other options. Then Bob texted me, and I told him about Thomas.”

Stratford brought his captain from his National Championship winning team to Pittsburgh.

After sixty minutes of playing time against the Hounds, with Lilley watching on from the other bench, the veteran coach was impressed — and invited Vancaeyezeele to stay in Pittsburgh that week to join the Hounds as a player on trial.

“I think he reads situations well,” Lilley said. “For a young player, he’s pretty savvy. He’s good on both sides of the ball, so those types of players are invaluable. He’s versatile, comfortable on the ball. Strong enough to stay on the ball.”

Lilley was looking for a player that could be a part of his central midfield that was effective both in playing deep, winning balls and doing the dirty work, but also could be instrumental in the attack.

Many pro scouts may have initially overlooked Vancaeyezeele because he wasn’t dazzling or flashy, but instead a steady, solid contributor.

“It’s difficult to get noticed, and for Thomas, he’s a steady player and it would take someone with patience to watch and recognize all the things he could do,” Stratford explained.

Lilley saw what some of the MLS scouts didn’t take the time to notice in the combines — and what Stratford saw in a key player that led Charleston to a National title.

“It’s an accumulation of things. He does all the little things well,” Stratford, who played Vancaeyezeele a lot at center back in his senior year, added. “He’s a fantastic team player. Here we gave him the nickname ‘Mr. Consistency’. He never took days off. He led by example — and took it to heart our reflection of what we wanted as a program, and helped make it a possibility.”

While he was sidelined with an injury his first year at Charleston, and was having second thoughts about even staying in school, and sticking it out in a place — West Virginia — that was about as polar opposite of where he was from.

“I wasn’t sure when I first came here. Coming to America, I was thinking it would be like New York or L.A. — but I ended up in West Virginia,” Vancaeyezeele said. “It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t what I was used to and where I was from in France. I wanted to go home. I really thought about going back home after a year, but they believed in me, and let me know that I could really help myself and be a part of something very good — and convinced me to stay.”

In France, Vancaeyezeele developed his impressive playing pedigree as part of a strong youth academy system with his hometown club Stade Malherbe Caen. After playing for a bit with SM Caen’s reserve team, even making one appearance in Championnat National 2, he also had experiences with Hérouville SC in France’s Championnat National 3 and had a short stint with CD Vitoria of Spain’s Fifth Division

“Coming through France, through the Academy, he’s a kid here that sees the game well,” Lilley said. “You get guys, big guys, strong guys, but they don’t always see the spaces, don’t always have the finesse and he has a lot of quality in his game. When you get a young guy that reads things instinctively really well, it’s exciting.”

After the first week of training, Vancaeyezeele’s first game action while with the Hounds came playing for the opposition. When Jay Vidovich‘s Pitt Panthers’ squad didn’t have enough players, so he played with the Panthers.

It was clear after that scrimmage, that Lilley would have to start putting his new trialist in game situations on the Hounds side so he could start building chemistry and connecting with his Pittsburgh teammates.

Sure enough, Vancaeyezeele made a positive impression playing both in deeper central midfield and attacking roles in the preseason for Lilley and the Hounds signed him his first pro contract.

If that wasn’t enough, when the Hounds opened the season playing before more than 18,000 fans in Nashville’s Nissan Stadium, Vancaeyezeele was the only first-year player inserted into the starting eleven.

“My first pro start, it was definitely different. The first few balls, I was a little shaky, as the game went on I didn’t worry about playing in front of that many people — I just played my game. The (professional) game is lot faster. You have to be quicker and make good choices. Expectations are higher to perform,” Vancaeyezeele said. “It was like a dream come true. When you are a kid, you want to – you dream to play in that environment. I was really happy to be there.”

While he even admitted that he felt some nerves in moments early on in that first game, Vancaeyezeele’s work rate to win balls back and efficiency in his game hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coaches, and he’s been one of three players to play every minute of the Hounds first four games.

Those four games, by the way, the Hounds are unbeaten — and haven’t surrendered a goal. And the first-year pro has been a big part of this strong start.

With 73 percent passing accuracy, he ranks fifth on the team with at least 40 passes. Regaining possession also can be as important as keeping the ball, and he paces the Hounds in this department. The midfielder leads the team with eight interceptions on the season.

“We change tactics, and give him different responsibilities every game and he’s generally been rock solid. It’s good to see him grow and we want to try to keep him healthy,” Lilley said as he’s still taking a cautious approach with Vancaeyezeele and all young players.

“It’s a long season. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for him. It’s significantly longer than the college season. The demands we’re putting on him are quite high. But he’s a good enough player to handle it right now.”

Vancaeyezeele knows that he has to keep working hard and the competition within the roster –and with each opponent — like this Saturday at another hostile environment in Cincinnati will only get tougher.

“Playing for Bob, you have to compete every day — and you learn something new every day, and that’s a good thing,” Vancaeyezeele said. “He wants from us to keep growing as a player. Strength for me is that I can play many positions. Bob trusts me, and I give one hundred percent. I don’t really have one position. I just happy to be on this team — and enjoying wherever I play.”

The long grind of an unprecedented 34-game season will bring many challenges, and test the Riverhounds’ roster depth. Lilley has counted on Vancaeyezeele to provide stability and versatility to what appears to be a pretty deep midfield that includes multiple former all-USL players in Kenardo Forbes and Kevin Kerr and players with MLS experience like Ben Zemanski and Joe Holland.

And even in this group –the 23-year-old from France has ascended to become its early season mainstay and workhorse.

“There’s a lot of competition. One of the big things we’re looking for at this level is consistency. That’s one of the biggest hurdles,” Lilley added. “There’s plenty of young players that come in a this level who come in show their potential and string some games together. There’s not a lot that have a really strong season. That’s what we’re hoping for from Thomas.”

For a player that was named ‘Mr. Consistency’ in college, he’s certainly living up to that name thus far as a pro.

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets including Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, and more. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

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