Wes Knight Retires, Aged 28

By Benjamin Massey

July 31st, 2015 · No comments

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association

So farewell then, Wes Knight. Enjoying what seemed to be a renaissance with his hometown Carolina Railhawks, Knight has announced he will be hanging up his boots[1], aged only 28, and moving into coaching. In hindsight, this isn’t a total surprise: Knight’s struggled with injury for several years and already kicked off his coaching career, earning his USSF “A” license in May. But 2015 had been a long-overdue success for Knight, who had played every minute with the Railhawks and been an important part of a veteran back four. The fans’ loss is Carolina soccer’s gain: Knight is joining the Colorado Rapids program to coach at their Carolina youth academy.

Knight’s best years were his first, when was with the Vancouver Whitecaps from 2009 until 2011. There he was a one-time USL First Division finalist, passed over for league honours by narrow margins, and one of the great cult favourites. Born, raised, and educated in South Carolina, Knight appeared at the USL Men’s Player Showcase at the end of 2008 and caught the eye of the Whitecaps staff, but passed through the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. So the southern man made the long trek north, signing with Teitur Thordarson and the Whitecaps on February 11[2]. It was the same day future Canadian international Marcus Haber joined the team; Haber would have an fine 2009 season, be purchased by West Bromwich Albion, and become a semi-regular on the senior Canadian national team, but in strictly local terms you have to say Knight was the better signing.

The odds were against Knight from the start. The 2008 Whitecaps had won the USL championship, and while several core players departed during the offseason a strong defensive crew remained. Steve Kindel, the popular local leftback, was gone, but ageless wonder Takashi Hirano was more than a replacement. In the middle was St. Vincentian colossus Wesley Charles, teaming up with talented American androstatriendione user Jeff Parke. Right back, where Knight would be expected to make his mark, could be occupied by Parke as well as incumbent Lyle Martin, a Whitecap since 2007 when he was team Newcomer of the Year, and a tough boulder to push aside.

In the event Charles and Parke were much less of a team than you’d like: they fought in training, Charles was released, and Parke left anyway to explore European options. The depth was called upon again and again, from veteran Marco Reda to youngster Luca Bellisomo in the second season of his underrated professional career. Most importantly, in preseason training Martin broke his foot. The door had opened a crack, and Knight barged through.

Knight made his professional debut in the Whitecaps’ second game of 2009. With Vancouver down 2-1 in Puerto Rico he came on for midfielder Vincente Arze and did well. The next week, Knight made his first professional start in Austin against the Aztex, set up a goal by Reda from a throw-in, and received an ovation from the knowledgeable crowd when he came off in a 1-1 tie[3]. In the Voyageurs Cup opener May 6 at BMO Field Knight checked in early to replace an injured Reda and earned rave reviews marking Dwayne De Rosario. From then until 2011, he was omnipresent either in defense or midfield. Knight’s howitzer-like throw-ins could not have found better targets than big men Haber, Charles Gbeke, and Marlon James, and eight assists tied him for the USL-1 lead with future teammate Ricardo Sanchez. At year’s end Knight was nominated for USL-1 Rookie of the Year, with Haber and future Thunder Bay Chill star Sullivan Silva[4]; Haber won, but there was no doubt Knight had impressed.

More than that, he had inspired off-field devotion. In the pre-MLS era, when 5,000 was a great attendance and the players were ordinary guys playing for love, it was easier for a supporter to develop a connection with a player. Knight was born for that atmosphere; to put it simply, he was just supremely nice. He always had time for a fan, from a star-struck youngster to a jaded old man there to shoot the breeze, from a wave as he tossed away his pre-game water bottle to a long chat when his work should have been over. No other Whitecap of that era appears in so many personal photos, his arm slung around a stranger’s shoulders, and even after sweating out 90 brutal minutes grinning like it was his privilege for us to care so much. If a player was wanted for a community appearance, or to sign some merchandise for charity, or just to show how much the Whitecaps cared for the city, Wes Knight was the man. Even when his family came to watch him play they made an impression with their class and courtesy.

The Whitecaps have been blessed with many first-class personalities, but Knight was rare. He went above and beyond. It would be trite to say that he found bonding with the fans to be part of his job, because to all appearances he found it a joy. The fans returned that loyalty, in spades, which is why four years after the end of a Whitecaps career most current supporters missed the best part of, his retirement still provokes an outpouring of affection.

Vancouver lost a playoff heartbreaker in 2009, though it wasn’t Knight’s fault, and in 2010 expectations were high. The team was preparing for Major League Soccer and reputable players, from Ricardo Sanchez to Jonny Steele, had arrived. The defense had been remade with the signings of Mouloud Akloul, Greg Janicki, and 2009 USL team of the year member Nelson Akwari, but Knight was safe and sound at right back. Martin had departed to try his luck in China and there were no other serious contenders for the job.

It was a good situation but his luck was out. His defensive partners Janicki, Akloul, and Zourab Tsiskardize (until the latter was supplanted by über-scrub Willis Forko in one of those odd Tom Soehn decisions) were first-rate, but there was hardly a scorer in sight. Haber returned on loan but left his shooting boots at the airport, Gbeke was gone, James was hurt, Sanchez and Steele were busts, and while management chopped and changed all year quality didn’t arrive. They made the playoffs in the easier division, but in the first game against Portland Knight fractured his shoulder. Ethan Gage, who had endured a difficult season, deputized admirably, but Knight’s steadiness and offensive pep were missed. The Whitecaps struggled to an aggregate victory in the second leg, failed to mount much of a threat in the first leg of the second round in Puerto Rico, and the difference between the Whitecaps with Wes Knight and the Whitecaps without was there for all to see. The width wasn’t there anymore, there was no longer quite the same confidence when defense turned into attack, and the 2010 Whitecaps had precious little offense to spare.

Unbelievably, despite being preposterously unhealed, Knight played the second leg of the second round, going 90 minutes of 120 as a midfielder in one of the gutsiest performances Swangard Stadium had ever seen. It wasn’t enough. The game was tied 0-0 when Knight was substituted for Phil Davies, and ex-Whitecap Nicholas Addlery scored twice in extra time to win it for Puerto Rico. Knight wound up needing surgery to his right shoulder, and the long throw of song which created so many goals was gone forever.

There was no reason to be downhearted, not yet. Knight, with Davies and Jay Nolly, was one of the earliest Whitecaps MLS signings in November 2011[5]. Major League Soccer brought many new faces and much higher expectations, but from the start Knight was in a position to win minutes, getting into the eighteen for the MLS opener on March 19, 2011 and coming off the bench to a rapturous reception from the long-time supporters who’d grown to cheer on Knight as much for his own sake as the club’s.

That afternoon, we saw the quintessential Wes Knight moment, one play that showed why he was held in such high regard both on the field and off. For all his offense Knight had never scored a first-team goal in professional soccer and it would have been a fine time to break the drought before an enormous, and enormously energetic, crowd ringing in a new era for Vancouver soccer. As we all remember the Whitecaps beat the hell out of Toronto for ninety lovely minutes, and in the seventy-second, with Vancouver already up 3-1, Atiba Harris played a picture-perfect pass to a streaking Knight and sent him in alone. The crowd held its breath as Knight ran onto a perfect goalscoring opportunity and… just watch.

Sadly, Knight never did score as a Whitecap and that game was the highlight of his MLS career. He played semi-regularly under Thordarson but the much-loved manager was sacked May 30. Successor Tom Soehn preferred MLS journeymen or SuperDraft scrubs in the Bilal Duckett mold. Knight was by no means the only player victimized by Soehn but he might have been the most popular, and so a Whitecap who had done everything to earn the club’s loyalty ingloriously faded away. On August 31 he was waived[6]. A trial with the Seattle Sounders that fall amounted to nothing, and at the beginning of 2012 he got an extended look (alongside former Whitecaps teammates Cody Arnoux and Jonny Steele) in Real Salt Lake’s preseason[7]. Arnoux and Steele stuck around, Knight did not.

Kimberley Jennings/San Antonio Scorpions

Kimberley Jennings/San Antonio Scorpions

Knight’s next stop was in San Antonio, where the Scorpions were entering the North American Soccer League with major ambitions and a high payroll. There he reunited with Blake Wagner and Greg Janicki from the 2010 Whitecaps and had a pretty good season. His throw had been his best weapon and with Walter Ramirez in midfield there wasn’t much call for Knight to make plays, but he was a defensively efficient fullback who could give coach Tim Hankinson 90 reliable minutes against any wide threat the NASL could offer. The Scorpions won the Woosnam Cup, given to the NASL regular season champion, and their league-best goals against was in no small part due to Knight.

His bad luck with the playoffs wasn’t through. The Scorpions were heavy favourites against a Minnesota Stars team that appeared to be on the verge of folding. A 0-0 draw in Blaine, Minnesota raised the Scorpions’ hopes, but after taking an early lead before an excellent home crowd San Antonio goalscorer Pablo Campos was sent off and the Scorpions suffered a horrifying 2-1 loss at home, conceding a brutal Blake Wagner own goal he hardly could have known anything about. For the second time a Wes Knight team that had gone into the playoffs thinking “championship” had fallen short, through no fault of his.

The Scorpions were still looking good for 2013, moving into a fine new stadium and ready to build on their first season, but as it turned out Knight wasn’t done with Canada. 2012 reminded everybody that Knight, even without the long throw, was a valuable asset, and for the new year he signed with his old assistant coach Colin Miller in Edmonton. The Eddies were the perfect chance for Knight to show his stuff; he’d be used more in midfield than in the Scorpions system and, with Shaun Saiko, Michael Cox, and new man Daryl Fordyce as offensive options, there should have been plenty of opportunities to do some damage. During the Eddies preseason training camp in Vancouver he not only played well but made a point of chatting happily with Whitecaps fans, and Wes Knight devotees, who’d shown up just to cheer him on. I attended one game in Coquitlam and saw a young fan in a #8 Knight San Antonio Scorpions kit; when you’re so far from San Antonio that’s a sure sign that a player’s made his own mark on the fans’ hearts.

If he never won over the fans in Edmonton as he did in Vancouver, it wasn’t his fault. On his debut in Fort Lauderdale Knight finally scored that oh-so-long-awaited professional goal, heading in a Saiko cross in the first half. But after starting each of his first three games injuries put an end to what should have been one of the most natural fits between player and team in the NASL. A broken foot ruled Knight out until September, and only three games into his comeback he tore his ACL on a seemingly-insignificant tackle against Carolina. The tear required surgery and Knight’s Eddies career was over after only 330 minutes, part of two home games, and one solitary goal.

San Antonio was willing to have Knight back, but instead Knight spent 2014 back in Vancouver, rehabbing, playing midfield in the Vancouver Metro Soccer League with CCBRT United, and coaching at West Van. As a coach Knight drew rave reviews but he wasn’t washed-up on the field; by all accounts he had a fine VMSL campaign on a team replete with ex-Whitecaps Residency standouts. It earned him an invite to trial with the Colorado Rapids in January[8]. Like all of Knight’s post-Tom Soehn MLS opportunities this one didn’t work out, but he obviously impressed Pablo Mastroeni somehow, since it wasn’t long before the Rapids were adding him to the coaching staff.

Trevor Ruskowski/Indy Eleven

Trevor Ruskowski/Indy Eleven

Before turning the page on his career with Colorado, though, Knight had a few games left to play. He returned to the second division for his fourth stint, returning home to Carolina with the Railhawks under veteran head coach Colin Clarke. It was a new team with some very old faces, representing every phase of his career: Knight went to college with goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap, played with midfielder Neil Hlavaty on the 2013 Eddies, and knew Blake Wagner on both the Whitecaps and the Scorpions. More than one of his new teammates, especially captain Kupono Low and new defender Futty Danso, were old adversaries. It couldn’t have been a more perfect opportunity for Knight to regain his footing in his professional soccer career.

For once, that opportunity actually worked out. Knight was literally omnipresent on Colin Clarke’s teamsheet, heralding back to his salad days under Teitur Thordarson. The Railhawks managed a decent spring season, thanks largely to the league’s fourth-best defense, and are off to a respectable start in the fall. Knight had neither scored nor mustered an assist but was once again a useful, contributing part of a veteran-laden back four. No Team of the Week nods, no highlight reel appearances, and no long throws for a few years now, but solid, workmanlike soccer on a decent team that’s going to have a hard time without him. Railhawks fans are already missing Knight and he hasn’t even gone yet.

That’s Wes Knight in a nutshell. Would it be selfish for Vancouver fans to feel a certain proprietary pride in Knight’s achievements and the tributes he’s meriting as he hangs up his boots? We had him first, and longest, and enjoyed his game at its best before the injuries piled up. When Knight’s retirement was announced social media was bombarded with well-wishes from Vancouver fans who hadn’t seen him kick a ball in years. The pre-MLS days in Vancouver when Knight really made his mark feel like another lifetime, but some things you always remember. I don’t mean dazzling touches on the field, but little moments of class, accumulating here and there until there’s a whole forest of them, and you can point a youngster to an athlete and say “he should be your role model” and really, honestly mean it. Professional sports don’t often give fans a chance to really get to know an athlete’s character and to like what they see. Wes Knight would have been a gift to Vancouver soccer fans even as a lousy player, and he was never that.

[1] — “Railhawks defender Knight to retire.” CarolinaRailhawks.com, July 30, 2015. Accessed July 30, 2015. http://www.carolinarailhawks.com/news/2015/07/30/railhawks-defender-wes-knight-to-retire.

[2] — Vancouver Whitecaps. “Whitecaps sign Haber, Knight.” USLSoccer.com via the Internet Archive, February 11, 2009. Accessed July 31, 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20131022153857/http://usl1.uslsoccer.com/transactions/306075.html.

[3] — Fudge, Simon. “Players and staff look back at 2009.” WhitecapsFC.com, November 19, 2009. Accessed July 31, 2015. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/post/2009/11/19/players-and-staff-look-back-2009.

[4] — Vancouver Whitecaps. “USL-1 Rookie of the Year finalists.” WhitecapsFC.com, October 7, 2009. Accessed July 31, 2015. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/post/2009/10/07/usl-1-rookie-year-finalists.

[5] — Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “Whitecaps FC sign three including club’s first homegrown player.” WhitecapsFC.com, November 26, 2010. Accessed July 31, 2015. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/post/2010/11/26/whitecaps-fc-sign-three-including-clubs-first-homegrown-player.

[6] — Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “Whitecaps FC waive defender Wes Knight.” WhitecapsFC.com, August 31, 2011. Accessed July 31, 2015. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/post/2011/08/31/whitecaps-fc-waive-defender-wes-knight.

[7] — denz. “Real Salt Lake announces their pre-season roster.” RSL Soapbox, January 26, 2012. Accessed July 31, 2015. http://www.rslsoapbox.com/2012/1/26/2735154/real-salt-lake-announces-their-pre-season-roster.

[8] — Boniface, Daniel. “Rapids bring in two trialists at right fullback.” The Denver Post, January 27, 2015. Accessed July 31, 2015. http://blogs.denverpost.com/rapids/2015/01/27/rapids-bring-two-trialists-right-fullback/26606/#more-26606.

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