Injuries end the center back's remarkable journey from soccer obscurity to playing in a World Cup.VANCOUVER — It was overcast on Thursday at B.C. Place, and the weather seemed fitting, as the media gathered at the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame for Jay DeMerit's retirement announcement.
News that the former United States international was hanging up his boots first broke Wednesday night, and while there was a sense that such an announcement was expected in the near future, the sudden nature of the news caught many off-guard.
Credit to Vancouver Whitecaps FC, who on short notice, gave their departing captain a fitting tribute. This included a short video and words of praise from president Bob Lenarduzzi and head coach Carl Robinson.
Then, an emotional DeMerit gave thanks to all who helped him fulfill his dreams of playing professional soccer. "I thank my coaches, my teammates, and the fans. I'm looking forward to the future," he said at Thursday's press conference.
Late July was not what DeMerit had planned in terms of the timing of his decision to retire, but like so many in the game before him, injury forced his hand. After fighting back from an Achilles tendon rupture last season, a routine aerial challenge with Philadelphia Union striker Conor Casey resulted in the final playing moments of the 34-year-old's career at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, on June 7. This time, an ankle tendon problem proved too much to overcome.MORE: Beautiful fans in Brazil | Barcelona's new bright kits | Juve's jerseys
Though DeMerit's playing career is now at an end, one hopes the native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, remembers the high points of one of the most unlikely professional careers that 'The Beautiful Game' has ever seen.
Inspiring, if not improbable, DeMerit's story is one of defying the odds and overcoming near impossible obstacles to reach the highest levels of the game. A story that was fittingly chronicled in a 2011 documentary called 'Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story'.
After being overlooked by MLS clubs following a four-year career at the University of Illinois at Chicago, DeMerit embarked on an unprecedented journey to Europe to become a professional player.
"Eleven years ago, I can remember feeling excited about what might be next," DeMerit said in an open letter on Thursday. "I sat at O’Hare Airport in Chicago with about $1200, a full backpack that my parents had just bought me as a present for graduating from college, and a plane ticket to London."
Once in the United Kingdom, DeMerit toiled in the lowest reaches of non-league English soccer, struggling at times to make ends meet. Then in July 2004, one of the most significant turning points in his career occurred. Playing as a trialist with non-league outfit Northwood FC, DeMerit put in a performance that impressed his opponents in English League Championship side Watford FC.
Led at the time by current England assistant manager and former Whitecaps FC midfielder Ray Lewington, DeMerit had a successful two-week trial with The Hornets before signing a one-year deal.
During his six seasons at Vicarage Road, DeMerit served as Watford captain and was a popular player at the club. While the spell included two domestic cup semifinal appearances, the highlight was helping Watford secure promotion to the English Premier League in his second season. In the League Championship playoff final on May 21, 2006, DeMerit headed home the winning goal in a 3-0 victory over Leeds United.
His commitment and leadership as a Watford player led to an international career when he made his United States debut in March 2007. Under then head coach Bob Bradley, the center back reached soccer's pinnacle by appearing in every minute of his country's memorable 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa.
It could be said that if DeMerit's career ended then, the milestones he reached were incredible enough, considering the obscurity he came from. Yet, there remained another career, if not life, changing moment for the kid from Green Bay.
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As Whitecaps FC's first MLS signing on November 18, 2010, DeMerit not only took on the responsibility of being Vancouver's first captain in the MLS era, he presented himself as the face of the franchise in its fledgling years, working tirelessly to promote the club and soccer whenever called upon. It was in Vancouver that he also met and married an Olympic gold medalist in retired Canadian freestyle skier Ashleigh McIvor.
There has been debate over DeMerit's time as a Whitecaps player. Injuries restricted him to 71 appearances in three-and-a-half seasons, with the center back overseeing plenty of turbulence and change with the Blue & White in that time.
Yet, what Whitecaps fans will remember is DeMerit's influence on the pitch. When fit, his drive and leadership set the tone for a Vancouver side trying to make its mark in North America's top flight.
Though it was a brief spell, the outpouring of respect and gratitude shown to DeMerit underlines just how important of a signing he proved to be for Vancouver when it entered MLS in 2011.
Fully settled on Canada's west coast, DeMerit will remain part of the Whitecaps as a club ambassador. As to who Robinson will try and find to replace him remains unclear. Vancouver has $100,000 of salary cap space to work with following DeMerit's retirement, plus another two weeks of the summer transfer window to find new squad additions.
Those discussions are for another day. On this Thursday, the story was about a beloved captain who inspired Whitecaps fans and led an MLS expansion club with tireless commitment and dedication in its early days.
For that, the club and all who follow the Whitecaps will miss Jay DeMerit.