The Riverhounds SC and its fan base are more than happy to have at least one product of France’s rich soccer talent pool that just delivered a World Cup victory on Sunday.
The Hounds head coach Bob Lilley has always been a pretty astute judge of finding diamonds in the rough — often overlooked talented players who fit into his system. When he was still looking to fill spots on his roster in the preseason, he found a French charm in Thomas Vancaeyezeele.
As featured here on Pittsburgh Soccer Report in April, Vancaeyezeele essentially came out of nowhere to ascend into a key player in the Riverhounds SC line-up from the get-go this season.
The Hounds have a roster laden with veteran and seasoned USL players — and brought in seven players who have played under Lilley before, yet it’s Vancaeyezeele has been the only player to have started each and every one of the Hounds 17 league matches this season.
Despite earning NCAA Division II Player of the Year honors in leading to University of Charleston (WV) to a National Championship last Fall, and having a fairly strong MLS combine in January, Vancaeyezeele still flew under the radar of many of the top pro coaches in the United States.
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
Vancaeyezeele is a product of a country that has developed talent at an impressive rate.
This video (thanks Mike Sparks for sharing!) pretty much captures why France is the current World Cup champions — and why multiple immigration waves along with the development of the first Academy system has paid significant dividends both in its first World Cup win 20 years ago — and again on Sunday.
Mike, Kev and Josh will be talking more about this in the next Mon Goals episode (to be posted on Monday night).
Lilley identified Vancaeyezeele’s (who also holds a French Guiana passport), special qualities within moments after he stepped foot on the Highmark Stadium pitch to play for Charleston in a preseason scrimmage against the Hounds.
After a short stint on trial under Lilley — Vancaeyezeele signed his first pro contract.
“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.”
The versatile Vancaeyezeele has been a regular in the Hounds line-up because of his ability to play multiple positions while still reading and understanding the game at a very high level.
He started the season as a holding midfielder, then when center back Joe Greenspan was injured, Lilley fully trusted the first-year pro in the center of the team’s back line.
As a result, the Hounds continued to produce a strong defensive unit in the back, posting more clean sheets (12) than any other team in USL this season, surrendering only seven goals in 17 games (a whopping 0.41 goals against average).
Vancaeyezeele has fit well into Lilley’s system — and the Hounds are the only team in the league with one loss.
“Tommy is a great player,” defender Jordan Dover said. “One of our most versatile players. I think he’s played almost everywhere in the midfield, everywhere at the back. It’s great to have a player like that because it gives our whole team a lot more flexibility and it helps with our depth as well.”