Velez riding rookie roller-coaster

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:48 AM ET

Marco Velez is four games into his Major League Soccer career and so far it has been everything he hoped it would be and feared it might be.

The Toronto FC rookie defender has tasted agony but downed it with a chaser of satisfaction. Two wins. Two losses.

Pushed into a starting role, perhaps unexpectedly before his time with the injury to No. 1 draft pick Julius James, Velez has faced a sharp learning curve. Saturday, in what coach John Carver called his best performance, Velez helped the Reds to a 1-0 home-opener win.

The previous week, judging by the Internet chatterboxes, you'd think Velez had committed an assault of indecent proportion.

"I knew myself there would be times like that coming in," Velez said yesterday of the reaction to his performance -- or lack thereof -- after a 4-1 loss to D.C. United and a shaky effort against the L.A. Galaxy. He knew there would be days when he would second-guess himself; days with too many rookie mistakes.

"It's a top league. You just have to be ready to listen, learn and work hard and I'm willing to do that," he said.

While some suggest that Velez is in over his head after being picked up from the Puerto Rico Islanders of the United Soccer League, Carver is not one of them.

"D.C. was a disaster -- but it was for everybody, not just Marco. I get this impression that there's a bit of a witch hunt after Marco because every time I go to a press conference I get asked about Marco Velez. We have to be patient. Give him time to adjust," the coach said yesterday.

While others see mistakes, Carver sees "a strong boy" who is comfortable with the ball, has pace and all the physical skills needed to succeed in the MLS. "It's a matter of making the right decisions. When you have older players they make quicker decisions, not because they're quick but because they're quite clever in the head.

"All he has to do is adjust to the pace and the standard of football."

Against L.A., Landon Donovan juked around him for a goal. Then, a Velez hand ball resulted in a goal.

"I had two unlucky moments. But that happens to everybody. It doesn't put me down but ... there are a lot of little things I need to work on."

When Velez dressed for FC's opener he became the first Puerto Rican born and raised player to make it to the MLS. It came after five seasons in the United League.

"He has come to a higher standard of football," Carver said. "He has come into a bigger club, different environment, playing on a different surface, new players, new coach. A lot of things are against him. But, since the DC game he has knuckled down. He's improving. He had a problem: He didn't know when to step up or when to hold, something we've worked on. As long as he's prepared to listen and learn then he'll make progress."

In the USL, Velez had a comfort zone bred of familiarity, that he knew would not be there this season.

"It's a big jump. Also I've never faced any of the players here. In the other league, I'd faced a lot of those guys for years so I know every player and what they do. Here, I don't know any of the (opposing players) strengths or tendencies. People can tell you but once the game starts, it's not the same as knowing yourself."

So Donovan steps around him like he's fitted with Jimmy Hoffa loafers. "When you know players as a defender you can anticipate what they're going to do," Carver said.

Velez, named captain of his national team in January, played 123 games in the USL and last year led the Islanders to the semi-finals. But the MSL game is a fraction quicker with an extra dash of skill.

"It's not a day and night difference," Velez said. "The players here realize and recognize little spaces that some of the guys over there don't see as quickly. Sometimes you can get away with things in the other league that you can't get away with here."


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