VANCOUVER — Defender Brett Levis made his Major League Soccer debut for the Vancouver Whitecaps when he came on in the 84th minute of a game against the Portland Timbers on Oct. 23, 2016.
In his brief appearance, the Saskatoon native suffered an ACL tear in his right knee. It would be 551 days before Levis would appear in another MLS match for Vancouver.
Many things changed in the world during Levis’ rehab period. Donald Trump became president of the United States. The #MeToo movement took hold. Toronto FC lost and won an MLS Cup final.
The one thing that never wavered was Levis’ desire to play soccer.
"It means everything to me," the Whitecaps’ left back said after a training session this week as Vancouver prepared for Friday night’s match against the Houston Dynamo at BC Place Stadium.
"It’s something I have worked toward for a very long time, as long as I can remember."
Saskatchewan has produced a lot of NHL players. Other athletes have gone on to play football, even baseball. Soccer, not so much.
The Whitecaps say Levis is just the second Saskatchewan-born player to start an MLS match. Rob Friend, a native of Rosetown, Sask., who grew up in Kelowna, B.C., played for the L.A. Galaxy in 2014.
"I was one of those kids who was athletic," said Levis, who started his soccer career with the Saskatoon Youth Soccer Club and played for the University of Saskatchewan. "I played a number of different sports. Soccer is just the one that stuck. It’s something I rolled with.
"It’s something I always played that I loved the most. The end goal was to make it as far as I possibly could. MLS, being from Saskatchewan, it was a little bit of a stretch. It was something I always wanted to do. It’s a cliche but it’s a dream come true."
The Whitecaps were playing their regular-season finale against the Timbers when Levis substituted into the game. He remembers the play he was injured.
"It was a weird tackle," said the 25-year-old. "I actually played the last two minutes of the game, I think it was the adrenaline.
"I went and saw the team docs. They were both pretty certain it was my ACL."
Levis then began the long road to recovery. The journey was made a little easier because of his connection with former Whitecap and friend David Edgar, who was also recovering from a knee injury suffered in a car accident.
"He helped me through some tough times," said Levis. "I like to think I helped him through some tough times. With people around you, it’s a lot easier."
It wasn’t the first time Levis’ dedication and mental strength had been tested. He was 15 years old when his mother died of cancer.
"When you go through a tough time like that, you’re challenged in a number of ways," he said. "Soccer was kind of my get-away, where I could free my mind. It was where I was able to play, and it was something that was very intertwined with my mom. She was a coach when I was growing up.
"It was easy for me to drive myself knowing that this was something that would make her happy."
Prior to the start of this season, Levis suffered a left quad strain. He didn’t appear in Vancouver’s first eight games but then started the April 27 match against Real Salt Lake. He played 62 minutes in the Whitecaps’ 2-0 victory in that game, then was on the field for the entire 90 minutes of Vancouver’s 1-0 loss to Minnesota last weekend.
A mistake by Levis helped lead to Minnesota’s goal. Still, Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson likes the potential he shows.
"He knows he belongs here," said Robinson. "He’s not looking out of place and I still feel there is more to come from him.
"He’s still young in terms of experience. That’s why it’s important you don’t vilify him when he makes a mistake. You support him and get behind him."
Heading into the weekend, the Whitecaps (4-5-1) are third in the Western Conference with 13 points. Houston (3-3-2) sits in the sixth and final playoff spot with 11 points. Only three points separate the ninth and third spot in the tight conference.
Vancouver is 2-1-1 playing at home while the Dynamo are 0-1-2 on the road.
After a promising start to the season the Whitecaps are 1-4 in their last five games and have been outscored 11-3 during that stretch. The Whitecaps have scored 10 goals in the 10 games they’ve played and have been shut out four times.
"I don’t think we’ve created as many chances as we’d like," said Robinson. "We have to continue to keep working on it, trying to create those chances, then try to finish those chances off."