During the 2019 Vancouver Whitecaps MLS season, there were not a lot of bright spots. One player that stood out, however, was youngster Theo Bair, who quickly established himself as a key piece in the ‘Caps puzzle. In a recent interview with BTS, he shared his journey to where he is now, his goals, the importance of using his platform and more. So without further ado, here is our feature on the emerging ‘Caps forward, who is aiming for big things in 2020 and beyond.
In what was a long and tough 2019 Vancouver Whitecaps season, there were not a lot of bright spots.
For a club that finished 2nd last in all of MLS, it was not an ideal start to life under new head coach Marc Dos Santos, who had undergone a rebuild of which the scale has rarely ever been seen in the history of the league.
There were a few shining lights, however, one of which being young Canadian forward Theo Bair, who jumped into the spotlight during the summer, quickly becoming one of Dos Santos’s most trusted players.
After a rocky start to the year, one that saw Bair spend significant time with the ‘Caps U23 development squad despite a first-team contract, his growth over the course of the year was immeasurable, as he quickly proved that he can play at the MLS level.
Now, it seems like the sky is the limit for Bair, who certainly has the potential to become the next Whitecaps homegrown signing to move abroad, joining the likes of Alphonso Davies and Chituru Odunze, who have been the two most recent Vancouver homegrown players to make such a move to Europe.
At the very least, you wouldn’t put it past Bair, who has found a way to stand out at every level he’s played at so far.
From his academy days, to now with the ‘Caps in MLS and even with the Canadian National Team, each level has given him an opportunity to prove himself, which he’s done so each time without hesitation.
Before Bair can start preparing to move abroad, however, there’s plenty of business to take care of in Vancouver. From trying to compete in MLS, to chasing Canadian Championship and even CONCACAF Champions League glory, there’s a lot that this young club has yet to accomplish.
The first step, however, is competing at the MLS is Back tournament, which officially got underway back on July 8th. Due to the global pandemic that saw sports of all levels shut down for several months, MLS was one of many circuits that saw its schedule significantly hampered, creating the need for this special tournament down in Orlando.
While this World Cup-style competition isn’t your typical MLS-sanctioned event, it was created as an opportunity to get MLS back on its feet despite the US’s struggle to contain COVID-19, which has certainly left its toll on America.
The roster’s at this tournament might be far from complete, with several players opting to sit out for health and precautionary reasons, and it may be missing two of its teams, due to outbreaks that saw FC Dallas’s and Nashville SC’s forced to depart after their squads got hit hard by the virus, but it’s so far been an entertaining competition, at least if the first handful of games are any indication.
So for Bair, who is expected to get significant minutes down in Orlando, due to the absences of key forwards, Lucas Cavallini, Tosaint Ricketts and Fredy Montero for health and personal reasons, it’s another good opportunity to showcase himself, of which he’s excited to do.
“I’m excited personally for some of the young guys here, including myself,” Bair shared with BTS during an exclusive interview this past Friday. “It’s a big opportunity, playing time is obviously what we all want, so everyone’s looking forward to that. We want to make a difference when we get on the pitch, and that’s about it. We work hard every day, and we’re looking forward to playing with the boys.”
After engaging in a gradual return-to-training plan, one that saw teams ease back into the flow of training after nearly 2 months away from the pitch, jumping back into the flow of games has been a resumption of some sort of normal, even though it’s not maybe the normal we’re typically used to.
In the midst of what has been a pretty whirlwind first half of 2020, it’s been nice for the players to get back to doing what they love, of which Bair admits he’s certainly been happy to do, as well.
“It’s been good,” Bair said of the return. “And we’ve been doing it for a while now, so I think everyone’s kind of back into it, we’re almost fully back into it (now), so we’re used to it. But the transition was good, there were no real hiccups. Everyone was ready to go and was committed. So it was good to see everyone again.”
This return-to-play is not without challenges, however, as teams down in Orlando have quickly learned. Due to the intense humidity and weird kick-off times, finding a rhythm isn’t going to be easy for players, especially for those who aren’t used to these sorts of conditions.
For the ‘Caps, who are lucky to have one of the best overall playing climates in all of MLS, intense rain aside, it’s meant that they have had to adjust their usual routines, as they prepare to take the field this Wednesday, July 15th.
“Yeah, it’s a little different, for sure,” Bair admitted of the ‘Caps first week in Orlando. “We’ve been training pretty late, which is good. We’re getting used to the time change, for sure. But the heat, on the other hand,is a whole different story. I’ve never sweated so much in my life. I’ve been to Florida a couple of times, but this time around, like I’m sweating, a lot. And yeah, I think that that it doesn’t take too long to adjust, but it’s gonna be a factor in how we play for sure.”
As they chase the potential of some silverware and a CONCACAF Champions League spot, it’s the kind of challenges that they’re going to have to get used to for the next couple of weeks, especially as they look to avenge their rough 2019 campaign.
And with the ‘Caps forced to bring a younger roster down to Orlando, it’s going to mean an increased role for Bair, who looks excited to try his hands at fulfilling it.
“It’s a big opportunity, playing time is obviously what we all want, so everyone’s looking forward to that. We want to make a difference when we get on the pitch, and that’s about it. We work hard every day, and we’re looking forward to playing with the boys.”Bair, when asked about his goals for this Orlando tournament
For Bair, getting a chance to show off his talents at this tournament is certainly going to feel like a blessing, especially when you consider where he was at this time 2 years ago.
He had just recently signed his first-team deal with the ‘Caps, making him the 15th homegrown signing in the club’s MLS’s history.
But despite that, he didn’t see the field at all during 2018 season, as he didn’t find a way to push his way into Carl Robinson’s plans, in what would prove to be the Welshman’s last year as Vancouver’s head coach.
Bair didn’t despair, however, as he instead decided to just keep his head down and keep plugging away at things, while also continuing to get used to his new life as a professional soccer player.
“Yeah, I was really excited. I had been training in and out with the first team for quite a bit of time, so once I finally signed a contract, put pen to paper, it felt really good,” Bair said. “But yeah, I was just excited to play. I was hoping that maybe something happened in 2018 and I would be able to play, obviously, it didn’t, but I was just really excited to get on the pitch, feel the ambience and be able to say that I’m a professional soccer player.”
And that hard work eventually paid off. Towards the end of the 2018 season, Robinson was sent packing, and in came Marc Dos Santos, the intense Canadian who is known for giving a chance to young Canucks at his various stints in the USL and NASL with Montreal, San Francisco and Swope Park.
So for the likes of Bair, it was expected to be a huge opportunity, as Dos Santos was never one to be shy about giving Canadians a chance to play, provided that they met his standards.
Unfortunately for Bair, that playing time didn’t come right away, as he didn’t quite work his way into Dos Santos’s good books off of the hop. As a result, the development squad often beckoned for him, much to the chagrin of fans, who wanted to see the young forward get a chance as the ‘Caps struggled for goals early on in 2019.
But as Bair has often done in his young career, he kept plugging away. Somewhere after an April development squad trip to England, where Bair found himself among the standout young ‘Caps, he clawed back into the ‘Caps first team, first as a bench player.
As a result, he had a chance to make his first-team debut late in May against Dallas, where he came on as a second-half substitute. In a short flurry of action, he pressed all over the pitch, nearly scored a wonderful backheel, and overall just showed that he deserved to get more minutes at the MLS level.
With the ‘Caps eventually winning that game 2-1, in one of their more memorable games of 2019, it also led to one of the more memorable photos of the year, as Bair was snapped grabbing a warm embrace from his sister after the game, as they both revelled in the young Canadian’s hard work culminating at that moment.
“Yeah, that was (great), my heart has never beat so fast,” Bair said of his debut. “First of all, that was one of the most exciting times in my life, but um, it was nerve-racking, it was a bunch of emotions altogether, but it was mostly exciting. It was is the realization of a dream. So it felt really great.”
He added, when asked about the photo: “It was emotional, for sure. Because I wasn’t used to having family there, because I had been 4 years without anybody in Vancouver, and my sister had just moved there. So having her there to watch me make my debut, and being able to go see her at the end of the game was emotional. It was a big moment for me.”
“It was nerve-racking, it was a bunch of emotions altogether, but it was mostly exciting. It was is the realization of a dream. So it felt really great.”Bair, on his MLS debut
But while that moment certainly stands out as one of the most exciting days in Bair’s young life, there’s no doubt about what the crown jewel of his 2019 season was.
As the spring turned to summer, Bair started to snatch more and more minutes, as he became a regular squad member after a June Development squad trip to South Korea, after which he pretty much left behind the U23 team for good.
Be it as a starter, or off of the bench, Bair had quickly become an important attacking piece for Dos Santos to lean on, as the ‘Caps continued with their offensive woes. Due to his size, speed and attacking smarts, he was a three-pronged threat that defenders struggled to contain both in the middle and out wide, where Bair usually lines up.
Despite his regular minutes, however, there was one thing missing for Bair, who through the first 8 games of his young career, had yet to find the back of the net. That’s no big deal for any youngster, especially considering the ‘Caps overall offensive woes, but seeing that Bair had already hit several posts and forced some pretty big saves from opposition keepers, you did have to wonder when and how he’d break the deadlock.
So when he was named as a starter in the 9th game of his MLS career, on August 11th, 2019, away to the Portland Timbers, the 5th time in 6 games that he had done so, you could only feel that a goal was soon coming for the young forward.
And boy did it ever come. In the middle of the first half, after an innocuous-looking corner from Fredy Montero was nodded out towards the edge of the box by a Portland defender, Bair ran towards that loose ball with a mix of determination and desperation, as he looked to latch onto the ball before it hit the ground and fizzled away.
From there, he created magic. Despite having his back to goal, he caught the ball cleanly, sending it towards the back post with power, catching the Timber’s keeper by surprise, as the ball nestled into the side-netting.
Before anyone could really process the wonder of the goal, he had already zoomed off to celebrate with the ‘Caps bench, as he launched into a passionate celebration that was certainly befitting of such a strike.
While the ‘Caps would eventually succumb to their rivals in enemy territory, already putting a big dent in their all-but-dead playoff hopes, all of the post-game chatter was about Bair, who had made waves across MLS with his goal.
It led to what he described as one of the most whirlwind days of his life, as he saw his goal quickly reposted to MLS’s social media and Instagram accounts such as 433 over the next 24 hours.
“Yeah, it was a little bit surreal,” Bair reminisced of the goal. “My phone was blowing up after the game, but yeah, it was an unbelievable moment. I’d (even) say the best moment of my life. I couldn’t even believe it after the game. I’ve probably rewatched the goal way too many times. But yeah, it was amazing. Unbelievable.”
Bair would find the net once more before the end of the season, as he scored a crucial goal away to the LA Galaxy on the second-last game of the season, a game in which the ‘Caps screwed over the Galaxy’s potential at home-field advantage in the playoffs, marking a memorable end to a forgettable season as a team.
But because his goals both came on the road, Bair has never had the chance to score at BC Place, something that he hopes to do when MLS does return to home markets. With his memorable celebrations in Portland and later in LA, fans are excited to see him tickle twine at his home stadium, which will surely be another memorable moment for Bair to reflect on.
Just don’t expect him to have a planned out celebration for it.
“I get that question a lot, ‘what’s your celebration going to be when you score at BC Place?’ I’m sorry, I don’t have an answer for you guys yet,” Bair said with a laugh. “You guys will have to wait and see, because honestly it just happens in the moment, you know what I mean?”
“When I scored against Portland and LA, I had no clue what I was doing, I just scored and I didn’t know exactly what was happening, it was the heat of the moment. So you guys are gonna have to wait and see.”
He added: “Yeah, I’m really excited to score at BC place, I really hope that it comes soon, because our fan base is amazing, and I want to be able and score for them.”
Having had a taste of the BC Place atmosphere last year, without mentioning the electric home opener this season, where the ‘Caps crowd was buzzing despite a tough 3-2 loss to Sporting Kansas City, Bair is excited at the prospect of donning the blue and white in front of fans once again, whenever that may be.
“I mean I’d never seen BC Place like that, it was unbelievable,” he said of the 2020 opening day crowd. “I’ve never been greeted like that either, obviously that was the first time (they had that), but it was a really cool experience. I was the first one to step out of the bus too, and there were a bunch of people screaming and horns going off and stuff, and it was just a really cool atmosphere.”
He added: “I mean, for that game, the crowd did very well. And BC Place is a big stadium, so it’s a little hard to project volume in there. But I think they did very well in that game. I’ve seen some crazy crowds, and that was a good one, for sure.”
And as mentioned, that was just a taste. Around 20 000 fans came for that one, which is far from the 27 or so thousand that can typically fill it up on an MLS matchday, and a far cry from the 55000 the stadium can hold.
Speaking of which, is he looking forward to maybe one day playing in front of that 55 000?
“Yeah, of course,” Bair said honestly. “That would be, again, a really cool thing to have happen in Vancouver, because I don’t think that we’ve had enough yet, like it’d be very interesting to see them fill BC Place, maybe open the top and everything, that’d be really exciting for sure.”
“My phone was blowing up after the game, but yeah, it was an unbelievable moment. I’d (even) say the best moment of my life. I couldn’t even believe it after the game. I’ve probably rewatched the goal way too many times. But yeah, it was amazing. Unbelievable.”Bair, on his first career goal
But who knows, maybe he’ll get to do that soon enough in the red and white of Canada, who were the last team to really test the full capacity that BC Place has to offer.
Back in 2016, BC Place was nearly filled to the brim with screaming Canadian and Mexican fans for Canada’s World Cup qualifier against Mexico, as they enjoyed an entertaining clash between the two sides, one that saw El Tri leave with a 3-0 victory.
Bair was only 16 at the time, but now, having made his debut for Canada’s Senior National Team this past year, it’s not a stretch to imagine him being in the squad next time Canada fills out BC Place.
Having scored on his debut down in California against Barbados in January, it was yet another example of Bair stepping up and delivering despite new surroundings, giving him another memorable moment to cherish with his family.
“Yeah, it was very exciting,” Bair said of his Canada debut. “That’s something that my family was really looking forward to, that I was obviously looking forward to, and once I got their call, I was actually with my whole family, and they all got very emotional.”
“It was another emotional moment for my family, because getting called up to your national team is no small thing, it was big for me. So then going there, and being able to score on my debut was, again, surreal. It’s something I live for and dream for, so it was an amazing moment for me.”
That wasn’t his first taste of the National Team, however, as he has gotten caps in the youth setup before, at events such as the U20 World Cup qualifiers and the Toulon tournament in 2018.
And it was at that Toulon tournament where Bair had another exciting moment in the red and white, as he scored a huge goal in the 3rd game of that 2018 competition against Japan, which helped Canada snatch a 1-1 draw, giving them hope at possibly advancing to the knockout stages.
While the results that Canada needed in order for that to happen didn’t occur, it was another example of his ability to rise to the occasion, as his cool and slotted finish was not what you’d typically see from an 18-year-old striker.
So having scored those big goals for Canada, was there one that stuck out for him in particular?
“I’d say that they’re both equally special (to me),” he said honestly. “But that goal against Japan was, I don’t know how to explain, it was exhilarating, because I didn’t get that many minutes in the first two games, and then I got the start against Japan.”
“And once I scored, that game could have pushed us through to the next round. Unfortunately, the other team didn’t get a result, so we didn’t go through, but scoring that goal, we knew it was crucial, and it felt so good, so that goal was a big one, and I’ll remember it forever, probably.”
And given his impressive and solid track record for Les Rouges, you figure those are only going to be the first of many memorable strikes for the National Team.
Thanks to that Toulon tournament, along with his January ‘Camp Poutine’ exploits earlier this year, he’s built up a good rapport with head coach John Herdman, who has spoken highly of Bair in the past.
“Yeah, obviously the Toulon tournament was the first ever tournament that he (Herdman) was with Canada (MNT) for, so I got to be with him early, so me and him have a good relationship,” Bair said of Herdman. “We got to talk a lot during that tournament and kept in touch obviously after, but it’s a different system, for sure. But I think that it works well. Obviously, the results are coming, the culture of Canada soccer has completely changed, and I’d say that other countries in the world are looking at us now, and that really matters.”
As part of Canada’s shifting culture, players like Bair can continue to dream of big things, things that were previously not thought as possible for this country when it comes to this sport.
“Yeah, I mean again, it’s amazing,” Bair continued. “I spoke about it when I signed my first professional contract, as that was when a lot of Canadian boys were just starting to get into pro soccer and it’s exciting because the generations to come are very good and very competitive. So that (2026) squad, even the 2022 World Cup (squad), I think it’s going to be competitive going through, and that’s really good for the country.”
But now, before he can dream of World Cup’s, as the qualifiers for 2022 have yet to start, due to COVID-19-related postponements, he does have an Olympic dream to chase.
Having been named to Canada’s 50 man shortlist ahead of the proper announcements of their squad for Olympic qualifiers, Bair is among the favourites to be selected to help Canada’s Men’s team to push towards the Olympics for the first time in over 36 years.
With it being a U23 tournament for qualifiers, players like Bair, who are young but have professional experience, are going to be huge for Canada, who thanks to the creation of the Canadian Premier League, will have one of their best qualifying rosters in recent years.
So if Bair is indeed selected to help Canada’s quest to get to Tokyo, and then be apart of the squad that went there, he would certainly relish it, adding it to his growing collection of memorable footballing moments.
“Yeah, I’m part Jamaican, so I was raised watching Track and Field at Olympics or the Diamond race and all that kind of stuff,” Bair said. “So that would be unbelievable, that’s another dream of mine, especially in Tokyo, it’s such a cool place to be, so I think that that’s really exciting and something to look forward to and work towards.”
“It was another emotional moment for my family, because getting called up to your national team is no small thing, it was big for me. So then going there, and being able to score on my debut was, again, surreal. It’s something I live for and dream for, so it was an amazing moment for me.”Bair, on scoring his first senior National Team goal
And to hear Bair talk about his favourite moments in his career, what stands out is how much he enjoys sharing them with his family. He’s very much a family man, one that holds a good relationship with those around him, such as his parents and siblings.
So it’s no surprise that he’s also taken a lot from the more experienced heads in the ‘Caps dressing room, who have been almost like uncles for Bair, teaching him what he needs to know as a young striker on and off the field.
From Kei Kamara, to Fredy Montero, Tosaint Ricketts and Lucas Cavallini, Bair has been happy to learn from some quality veteran strikers the ‘Caps have had, who have taken the young forward under their wings over the years.
Along with midfielder Andy Rose, he credits them for being huge influences for him so far in his career, and he’s happy to have had the chance to learn from them as he continues to grow as a professional.
“I mean, I’ve learned a lot from all of them,” Bair said. “Kei (Kamara) was the first one, he showed me a lot, he taught me a lot. Fredy continues to teach me a lot, Tos has taught me a lot, I was at the (Canada) camp with him as well, he’s always in my ear, telling me (stuff) and helping me out with things.”
“And another person that I want to give a special shout out to, he’s not particularly a forward, but Andy Rose has stayed in my ear for as long as he’s been here, and as long as I’ve been a pro, and he’s helped me a lot with the journey of keeping my head on as a young player, so yeah, I appreciate what he’s done for me.”
As well as his relationship with Alphonso Davies, who has turned heads in Europe with Bayern Munich since leaving the ‘Caps at the end of 2018, you can tell that Bair is well-liked in the dressing room, making him a potential future leader.
When asked about Davies, that young leadership comes to the fore, as he speaks glowingly of his former teammates and friend.
“I’m unbelievably excited for him, because he’s exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Bair said of Davies. “We all had high expectations for him, obviously, but he’s exceeded them and now some could say, I will personally say, he’s the best left back in the world. And yeah, I’m proud of him. He took it on himself to basically put Canada on the map and it’s amazing. He’s doing great things and I hope he continues and never stops.”
And when you look at his life outside of the pitch, you can see the calm head that everyone loves to praise.
Wise beyond his years, he loves spending his time reading, seeing family and watching Arsenal, a surprising change of pace from the boisterousness one would expect at a young age.
“I mean, not that much at the moment, I won’t lie, but I have a big interest in reading, I like to learn things,” Bair said of his hobbies. “Also, this is a little bit of a side one, my dad won’t be too happy that I talk about this, but I’m very interested in sneakers, I always have been, so that’s another thing that I like paying attention to.”
He added when asked about his love of Arsenal: “I mean, it’s very interesting, I’ve watched them since I was very young, because my dad is also an Arsenal fan. Thierry Henry obviously is my idol, I followed him for a very long time, as well. It’s a little tough to be an Arsenal fan right now. I won’t lie. Everyone knows that. But I stick with my boys. I think (Mikel) Arteta is good for them, and some big changes are coming.”
Speaking of which, if he does get a chance see his hero, Henry, who is now the coach of the Montreal Impact, after a game, what would he do?
“I’ve seen him a couple of times in the hallway and, and it’s again, another thing that’s almost surreal to me, because I’ve followed him since I can remember,” Bair laughed, when speaking of Henry, “And yeah, I hope to play maybe against Montreal eventually and get to talk to him after the game and see what he’s all about.”
Another thing that showcases Bair’s burgeoning leadership skills is the awareness that he shows on difficult issues, as he isn’t one to shy away from the tough issues that we face in this world right now.
As someone who is Black, in light of the recent surge of support for Black Lives Matter after George Floyd became the latest innocent Black man murdered by the Police just over a month ago, Bair has been outspoken on the issues that face Black people around the world.
In the fight to amplify Black voices, he’s been at the forefront of the ‘Caps efforts, along with Tosaint Ricketts, Derek Cornelius, Cristian Dajome, Janio Bikel, Leonard Owusu and Janio Bikel, who all participated in a league-wide protest organized by the Black Players colation of MLS ahead of the kick-off MLS is Back tournament on July 8th.
With the platform that is available to him as an athlete, he understands the importance of speaking out, as he looks to play his part in fighting towards correcting the many wrongs of the past.
“Yeah, I think it’s extremely important,” Bair said reflectively. “And as an athlete, and just as a normal person, I think that doing your part is important right now, and it always will be important. It’s something much bigger, and it’s something that will exceed my lifetime.”
“It’s something that I’ll be fighting for the rest of my life, and every Black man will be fighting for the rest of their lives as well. But whatever we can affect now and whatever we can pass on to the next generation to make sure that they fight as well, is important.”
So don’t expect Bair to shy away from using his voice anytime soon.
“Yeah, it’s extremely important,” Bair continued. “There’s a lot of people that that almost didn’t understand what was happening in the world, and didn’t have any insight into it. And now that all of this awareness is coming out finally, and people are starting to listen, and come together, and understand things, so I think that it’s very important that it continues.”
“It can’t stop now, because obviously everyone’s noticed that on social media, it’s slowed down, but it’s still going on. Not enough is fixed yet, so we have to keep going and keep hammering at it, because it’s beyond important.”
And with the ‘Caps kicking off this week against the San Jose Earthquakes, do the ‘Caps have anything planned in terms of a protest, giving them a chance to use their platform as a team?
“We have a couple of special things planned,” Bair said, speaking of the ‘Caps. “I guess you’ll see once game-time comes though. The one thing that I know everyone knows about, I have this right beside me, so I might as well show you, we got Adidas to do this for us. And we have the Black Lives Matter on our boots now, which is amazing, they did a really good job, but yeah, you’ll see at the game that we have we have something set up as well.”
“I think that doing your part is important right now, and it always will be important. It’s something much bigger, and it’s something that will exceed my lifetime.”Bair, speaking on using his platform for Black Lives Matter
So keep an eye on Bair this week, as the ‘Caps get underway down in Orlando on Wednesday. From the protest before and during the game, to a chance to get significant minutes with the ‘Caps current roster situation, Bair is expected to be a prominent figure in that match, for a multitude of positive reasons, as he gets his 2020 campaign underway.
After a strong 2019 season, he’ll be expected to step up his game this year, as he continues to push towards potentially making a move abroad in the next few years. His name is getting out there, and if he keeps up this rise, it’s only a matter of time before his club and National Team career really takes off.
As a well-spoken young man, he’s got the potential to make a difference, both on and off the pitch, as he continues to grow into a real leader on this young ‘Caps side.
Still only 20, there’s a lot of road still yet ahead of him, and he’s happy to continue and pave the way himself, much as he’s done so far.
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