Photo by ISIphotos.com
SALT LAKE CITY – As the final whistle blew Tuesday night in Sandy, United’s players and coaches poured on to the field, mobbing their teammates in the penalty area. Ben Olsen got the Gatorade bath; owners, staff members and players alike danced, sang and celebrated together.
At the center of it all was Ethan White, a homegrown product who’s seen his share of adversity during his three years with the black and red. Sporting a smile as wide as the Wasatch range itself, it was easy to see that the victory meant something special to him.
“I’m in disbelief,” White told SBI during raucous locker room celebration. “We worked really hard for this. It’s been a bad season for us – but we stuck together as a group and never turned on each other.”
For White, the Open Cup title is a particularly bright moment in his young career. He featured heavily for the black and red in his rookie year, but was sidelined in 2012 after having relatively minor knee surgery early in the campaign. United’s depth chart changed during his recovery, and White struggled to fight his way back into the starting lineup.
Even after recovering fully, White didn’t see one minute of playing time that season.
But things have changed in 2013. United’s normally reliable center back pairing of Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald faltered, the latter shipped away to Real Salt Lake in July. Daniel Woolard then proved to be a bit too error-prone, Conor Shanosky a bit too green.
Ben Olsen didn’t have to look very far to find an ideal solution, though. In stepped the dependable White, and he’s proved to be a rare bit of light during United’s otherwise moribund campaign.
White has rounded into form nicely this year. He’s had had his rough spots – he was benched after a particularly awful loss at Chicago earlier in the summer – but fought mightily to win back his spot. After a string of strong matches – including an absolutely stellar performance on Tuesday in the 1-0 win vs. RSL – he seems to have finally reclaimed his starting spot for good.
“The last three or four games, Ethan has shown that he’s an MLS centerback,” Olsen said after the cup final, sounding more like a proud parent than a head coach. “We haven’t given Ethan the proper amount of time on the field to grow. We’ve given him a couple of games here and there, and it’s nice to see that he’s had a couple games in a row and that he’s growing. His concentration level is higher, his feet are better, he’s making better decisions.”
White shut RSL down throughout both halves, making short work of Joao Plata and Olmes Garcia. An affable, good-natured kid off the field, the Maryland product used his size to fight both players off the ball, displaying an intimidating edge that seemed to get under RSL’s skin.
“Physically,” Olsen said, smiling, “he’s the real deal. I think this game will boost his confidence for sure.”
Though White’s journey hasn’t been an easy one, he doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it. I asked him whether he felt redeemed by his recent form and the USOC victory.
“I wouldn’t call it redemption at all,” he replied. “I don’t typically disagree with what the coach says. Of course it mattered to me that I didn’t play, but I know that it’s part of the business. For my career – this is my first trophy so far – so right now this just feels amazing.”
He won’t have much time to soak that feeling in. United will face a string of playoff contenders to round out the year, and much of the talk in the locker room on Tuesday evening related to moving forward, salvaging some pride and some points from their remaining matches. United hardly want to be written into the MLS annals of futility, and can likely avoid doing so if they manage to scrape together some positive results in October.
“We’re heading into Champions League now,” White commented. “We’ve got to turn it up heading into pre-season. For the remainder of the season, whether we’re out of MLS Cup or not, we’ve got to still bring it. We’ve got a lot to prove. Pre-season’s going to be tough.”
“Everything’s going to be tough,” White exclaimed.
That was the end of the interview, as the smiling centerback was pulled back into the locker room by teammate Chris Pontius, who promptly dumped a can of beer on White’s head.