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Vancaeyezeele excelling early in rookie campaign

By Anthony Picardi, 04/14/18, 4:30PM EDT

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A rocket blasted off the right foot of Thomas Vancaeyezeele.

As the ball soared about 40 yards downfield, Neco Brett outran the Toronto FC II backline, collected the ball in the 18-yard box and sent it into the back of the net for Pittsburgh’s first goal of the season.

Riverhounds SC (1-0-2) later added a few more tallies to defeat Toronto, 4-0, for its first win of the 2018 campaign. As he did last time out, Vancaeyezeele will once again look to serve as a catalyst for the Hounds when they battle Ottawa Fury FC (0-2-0) at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Highmark Stadium.

The assist that Vancaeyezeele recorded last week was the first point in his professional career. In addition to showcasing an accurate long ball on the play, the midfielder exemplified instincts not typical for those only into the third game of their professional careers.

“In the first half, I saw Neco running a lot in behind,” Vancaeyezeele said. “I sensed the opportunity that time, and it worked out well.”

During the first two games, the rookie played a holding role in the midfield. Due to an injury that kept forward Romeo Parkes out of the lineup against Toronto, head coach Bob Lilley bumped Vancaeyezeele up to an attacking role in the midfield to use his taller 5-foot-11-inch frame to complement a 5-foot-8-inch Brett. This decision paid off, as the two showed great chemistry on the attack while Brett recorded the fourth hat trick in club history during the current USL era (since 2011).

“I think he reads situations well,” Lilley said. “For a young player, he’s pretty savvy. He’s good on both sides of the ball, so those types of players are invaluable.”

He demonstrated his offensive talent last time out, but Vancaeyezeele starred at the University of Charleston as a defender in 2017. In 24 games played for the Golden Eagles, he was named NCAA Division II Player of the Year en route to leading the team to its first men’s soccer title in school history.

As the calendar flipped to 2018, the Charleston product originally joined Riverhounds SC as a trialist during its preseason. While immersing himself with the team and the style of play in the USL, he soaked in as much as he could from the coaching staff and veteran players like Kenardo Forbes.

“[Forbes] told me that when I see a play, I don’t need to force the ball,” Vancaeyezeele said. “I need to try to keep the ball. That’s the best advice I think he could give me because in my game sometimes I lose a lot of balls and he wants me to play easy balls and keep possession. I think that’s key.”

The first-year starter has done well with maintaining possession, and his 73 percent passing accuracy ranks fifth on the team of players with at least 40 passes. Regaining possession also can be as important as keeping the ball, and he paces the Hounds in this department. The midfielder leads the team with eight interceptions on the season.

Vancaeyezeele said possession has been a focal point for the team in its training sessions while it prepares for its match against Ottawa.

As the team works to excel in holding the ball, what isn’t known is where the versatile Vancaeyezeele will line up come kickoff. Despite having the potential to be shuffled around to different positions each week, the rookie has confidence he can contribute wherever he may end up.

“I feel like I know the game pretty well,” Vancaeyezeele said. “I know what the coach expects from me, so I just give my all at any position that he puts me in. Just give my all, give 100 percent.”