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On Yao, Iverson and the Vancouver Whitecaps

The 6-foot-3, 187-pound Karifa Yao started 53 of his 56 appearances for the cavalry and led all of her fielders in minutes, blocks, tackles and clearances last season.

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We will not talk about the practice. We’re going to talk about the games.

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Vancouver Whitecaps centerback Tristan Blackmon is looking forward to the Caps taking on MLS rivals in the second leg of pre-season and traveling to Palm Springs for the Coachella Invitational.

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“It’s a good test to go there; You’re playing against guys you’re going to be playing in the league all the time, see what they’re all about. Games show what people are made of,” said the Caps defender. “I think it was Allen Iverson who said, ‘Practice? Are we talking about practice?

“Practice is definitely important, but I think you can definitely see the fruits of the labor in the games. So I’m curious to see how certain guys perform playing against MLS teams.”

He wasn’t specifically referring to his new confederate on the defensive line, Karifa Yao, but if the size 12 studs fit…

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The Montreal-born centre-back has spent the last two seasons on loan from Club De Foot at CPL’s Cavalry FC, where the 22-year-old gained valuable experience and playing time.

Lots of game time.

The 6-foot-3, 187-pound Yao started 53 of his 56 appearances for the cavalry and led all of her fielders in minutes, blocks, tackles and clearances last season.

His production and performance put him on the fast track to returning to MLS with his hometown team – and the same team that developed him through his academy – but he made a detour into the MLS re-entry draft where the Whitecaps claimed him in August.

“I was a bit surprised, but this is football,” Yao said. “There are things that you cannot control. But I’m really happy to be here in Vancouver now, working with these players and this team… I’m really looking forward to this year.

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“I’ve gained a lot of experience,” he added of his time in the CPL. I learned a lot because I played against men. I made some mistakes. I’ve learned a lot – on and off the field. So yeah, those two years of growing up.

Yao’s acquisition gives the Caps even more depth at centre-back, with Ranko Veselinovic, newcomer Mathías Laborda, Blackmon and academy product Matteo Campagna. But none have the physical stature and presence that Yao brings. Since the days of Doneil Henry and Kendall Waston, the Caps haven’t had a center back who emits that kind of threat just by being present.

The coaching of Vanni Sartini and newly minted assistant Flo Jungwirth in training this week consisted mainly of moving Karifa a few yards, making only minor changes to his position on the field in open play and set pieces. The young Canadian defender says he’s already comfortable with both the system and his new team-mates.

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“I know I have a good physique. And that’s my strength. Play with my power, be loud and dominant like always,” he said. “(Sartini) isn’t really asking too much (of me). It is not that hard. I still have to adjust and work on some details but it was really good and it was really easy to understand the tactics.

“Being solid defensively, winning my tackles, solid leadership when talking to the players in front of me, playing easy, not taking any risks and throwing in some good balls. I think that’s what I can bring to the team.

“MLS is a bit different (than CPL). Positioning You always have to be in the right place. For example, you can make a mistake and you will regret it, someone will score. So you know, just limit the mistakes.”

It was the bugs that killed the Caps last year. Whether it was players going out of position, not chasing runners behind their backs, or being dissected by opponent passes, the list of complaints was long and long.

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Vancouver gave up the fourth-most goals in MLS last season (57) and had the most passes and progressive distance per game due to lowest possession (41.9).

But the (defensive) tide turned late in the season when Sartini switched to a back four/3.5 and Blackmon, Veselinovic and the late Jake Nerwinski established themselves as defensive starters.

“We have a good set of games with the same backline. That definitely helped,” Blackmon said. “Towards the end of the year, knowing what was at stake, knowing we were in a place where we could make that push to get into the playoffs, I think put things into perspective, that we really could push for it.

“Obviously you want that all year long, but I think that helped a lot. Being constantly in training and games with the same guys for a month or so really helped.

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“And I think when you come into this year, hope to have the same chemistry. I think building that up with the new players will really help us go into the season.

And he’s already a Yao fan.

“First and foremost, he’s a great guy. Really articulate, humble guy, works his ass off, wants to win it all. I think he will be a really good addition to this group,” he said. “Just a willingness to do the dirty work and put up a good tackle; You really want that in a defender on your team.”

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January 30th: Depart for Palm Springs, California for the Coachella Invitational Tournament.

February 1st: Preseason game vs. DC United – Empire Polo Club at 1:00 p.m. PT.

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February 4: Preseason game vs. Charlotte FC – Empire Polo Club at 11:00 a.m. PT.

February 8: Preseason game vs. Toronto FC – Empire Polo Club at 1:00 p.m. PT.

February 12th: Preseason game vs. St. Louis CITY SC – Empire Polo Club at 12:30 p.m. PT.

February 18: Preseason game vs. Minnesota United FC – Empire Polo Club at 10:00 am PT, return to Vancouver.

February 25: MLS regular season opener vs. Real Salt Lake – BC Place at 7:30 p.m. PT

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