VANCOUVER—The night before an important moment in his soccer career, Spencer Richey didn’t sleep at all.
It wasn’t that Richey was nervous about a game the next day. Rather, the young goalkeeper couldn’t fall asleep, he later explained, because he was anxious to learn whether he would get his chance.
The 24-year-old, one of two backup ’keepers for the Vancouver Whitecaps, had yet to make an appearance in a Major League Soccer match. But there was an opportunity up for grabs: The ’Caps were set to host Toronto FC at home on Saturday, and because of a red card earned in the team’s last MLS match, No. 1 goalkeeper David Ousted was suspended.
A day before the game, Robinson told Richey and fellow backup Paolo Tornaghi the news. Richey, who signed his first-team contract in December, would make the start.
“I actually slept OK last night,” the Seattle native said after his MLS debut at BC Place on Saturday. “I was nervous for the decision more so than the actual match itself.”
While the game itself was an ugly one for Vancouver—the team crumbled after midfielder Brek Shea was sent off in the 70th minute, conceding two goals for a 2–0 loss—Richey’s performance was a bright spot for the home side.
The University of Washington alumnus, selected 61st overall by Vancouver in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, faced just three shots on goal, but it was his poise throughout the contest that showed his promise for the future.
“I felt confident, and I felt like I belonged out there,” he said.
Richey, who picked up wins in two CONCACAF Champions League starts last year and made 14 regular-season starts for Vancouver’s USL team, Whitecaps FC 2, caught a cross early in Saturday’s game, which he said helped him settle in to the match.
“It’s always nice to kind of get your first touch early on,” he explained.
But it wasn’t until the 66th minute that Richey was tested, as Toronto defender Justin Morrow launched a shot from the edge of the box. The goalkeeper knocked the ball out of play with confidence, earning a round of cheers from the home crowd.
“It’s kind of one of those funny games, because I didn’t have a lot to do except, you know, one save, and then pull the ball out of my net twice,” Richey said, smiling.
While he didn’t face a barrage of shots, the ’keeper said the relative lack of action can sometimes be more challenging.
“The games when you’re getting lots of strikes on net are actually the easiest ones,” he said.
Tornaghi is now in his fourth season with the team and has made two MLS appearances for Vancouver, the most recent having come when he entered in the 25th minute versus San Jose after Ousted’s expulsion
“He’s a good goalkeeper, and he needs to be given a chance,” said Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson, explaining why he’d chosen Richey over Tornaghi.
Robinson praised Richey, who had a group of family and friends on hand for his debut, for looking “composed and assured,” noting that the young goalkeeper ought to be proud.
“The three goalkeepers that we have, they are great professionals and they have our support,” said Whitecaps central defender Kendall Waston when asked about Richey’s performance, sounding a little like a parent unwilling to single out one child in particular. The soft-spoken defender noted that Richey had communicated well with Vancouver’s back line, and the only negative he had to offer—going down to 10 men—had nothing to do with the goalkeeper.
“Spencer, this time, we were sad for him because we want to give him a win,” Waston said before adding, “But, well, it’s part of it,” as if to acknowledge that losing is a natural part of life in the big leagues.
The Whitecaps have been losing more than they’ve been winning lately, which means their MLS season is off to a rather sour note. The team earned a scoreless draw in their season opener, and have now lost two in a row.
It’s early days, of course, but it’s not a promising start.
“It’s very early on,” said Richey when asked for his guess as to what the team needs to do to start winning games. “We’ve had, what, two sending offs? I guess finish the game with 11 guys would be a good start.”
As for Richey himself, it’s impossible to know how long he’ll have to wait until his next MLS appearance. The life of a backup goalkeeper can be an odd one—opportunities come along so rarely for most, though players must be ready to be called on at any moment.
Saturday’s game, at least, was a good starting point for Richey.
“It’s a confidence-builder,” he said. “I’ll put it in my locker and I’ll use it to move forward, and whenever I get my next opportunity, I’ll use this to build off of.”