VANCOUVER — Thomas Hasal doesn't believe in curses, even if it seemed that there must have been a jinx on the Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeepers last season.
The club saw four different 'keepers occupy the starting spot as injuries and absences complicated a season that was already unlike any other.
"It was a crazy year," Hasal said. "It got to us off field, on field with the injuries. … But it was just a wild ride for all of us."
Hasal was an unexpected bright spot for the club in the 2020 campaign.
The 21-year-old 'keeper from Saskatoon was forced into action at the MLS is Back tournament in July after Maxime Crepeau fractured his thumb and backup Bryan Meredith left the Orlando bubble suddenly following the death of his mother.
Hasal performed admirably and stole the starter's spot. He went on to see action in nine games and post a 4-4-0 record with one clean sheet before he was brought down by a concussion and stress fracture in his left tibia in late September.
The Whitecaps finished out the season with former Montreal Impact netminder Evan Bush and Meredith in net. Vancouver ended the campaign with a 9-14-0 record, three points out of a playoff spot.
“I would’ve kept playing as long as I could have," Hasal said. "I was just gutted, honestly, at that point in time to not be playing. But it’s what I had to do to get right, be able to be ready for this season.”
For months, he's been doing daily physio therapy and working with strength trainers and medical staff to get his body back to top shape. He's also been visiting vision and vestibular specialists to ensure there aren't any lasting symptoms from his concussion.
“I’m feeling good. I’m so happy to be back with the team, to be back training," Hasal said. "Honestly, after being out for the last few months, there’s no better feeling and it’s something I won’t take for granted ever again.”
Crepeau has also been working his way back to peak condition.
After a suffering a nasty fracture at the base of his thumb in Orlando, the 26-year-old from Greenfield, Que., underwent a four-hour-long surgery to remove the shattered pieces and insert wires to hold the bones together.
He had to stay away from training entirely for months, but opted to stay with the Whitecaps when border closures forced the club to relocate to Portland, Ore.
Now, after months of preparation, Crepeau is back on the field and looking to improve upon a 2019 campaign that saw him make 114 saves and register five clean sheets in 26 MLS appearances.
“I feel really, really good physically and mentally," he said.
Having both Hasal and Crepeau healthy creates stiff competition for who'll be in net when the 'Caps kick off the season at their temporary home in Sandy, Utah, on April 18.
Vancouver also added veteran 'keeper Evan Newton to the roster in January. The 32-year-old from Virginia Beach, Va., comes to the 'Caps from Indy Eleven in the Unite Soccer League.
“It’s a battle every day in training. We all want to push each other, we all want to be the No. 1," Hasal said. "And that makes ourselves better, that makes the guy next to us better. And it’ll make sure we’re all ready to play when they make the decision about who is playing.”
A plethora of talented goalkeepers is a good problem to have, especially as Crepeau is expected to miss a chunk of training camp when he joins the Canadian national team for World Cup qualifiers at the end of the month, said Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster.
Crepeau may also need some time off for family duties — his wife, Christina Dagenais, is expecting their first child, a girl, in early June.
MLS has yet to release its full schedule for the 2021 season, but a pandemic-condensed calendar could require the services of multiple netminders.
It's important that both Hasal and Crepeau see action this year, Schuster added, as they have more room to grow.
If — as expected — Crepeau takes the starter's spot, the club may look to loan Hasal to another team, either in North America or Europe, the sporting director said.
“If he is the same Thomas Hasal he was before the injury, he should not sit on the bench for a year," he said.
“We want him to be our No. 1 goalkeeper at some point.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press