Seated on a golf cart in a hallway outside the Vancouver Whitecapsâ€™ lockerroom at UBC, Gershon Koffie tugs constantly at his T-shirt, pulling at the neck, sometimes lifting it up over his mouth.
Itâ€™s like a nervous tick, an indication that the soft-spoken Ghanian still doesnâ€™t feel totally at ease talking to the media.
Yet Koffie, still just 22 despite being in his fourth season as a Whitecap, looks to be as comfortable as heâ€™s ever been in the pitch.
After starting 28 games in each of his first two seasons and tantalizing coaches with his promise, his game stagnated last season and he got just 21 starts. He began this season on the bench, not playing at all in the first two games.
But inserted into the starting lineup when Nigel Reo-Coker sustained a concussion, Koffie began to re-assert himself. Heâ€™s started eight consecutive games, playing the full 90 minutes in the last six and forming a very effective partnership with tireless holding midfielder Matias Laba.
He says much of his resurgence can be attributed to head coach Carl Robinson.
â€œHeâ€™s created an environment where we are free to talk to him if something bugs us,â€ said Koffie, who will start again Sunday in Portland when the Caps go searching for their first ever win over the Timbers. â€œAnd he makes the players confident off and on the field.â€
Koffie had perhaps his best game as a Whitecap last Saturday in the 2-2 draw with Seattle. He scored his first goal of the season, had a career-high eight shots, including an early blast off the crossbar and was winning one-on-one battles all over the field.
â€œGersh has incredible attributes,â€ says assistant coach Martyn Pert. â€œHeâ€™s got physical strength. When he makes a tackle and he means it, no oneâ€™s going to beat him. Heâ€™s really that powerful.
â€œThe consistency part of the game is still something heâ€™s got to really work hard at. And heâ€™s getting there. Four or five games on the spin now heâ€™s been very good. Heâ€™s got to keep his foot on the pedal and keep driving.â€
With Laba, an Argentinian who is also just 22, patrolling the defensive midfield with relentless tenacity and an engine that wonâ€™t quit, itâ€™s allowing Koffie to push forward into holes created by the Capsâ€™ speed demons up front. And while Koffie has always been a tough tackler, he says watching Laba get stuck in has motivated him to be even harder to play against.
â€œHeâ€™s a guy who sets the tone. When you play next to him, if he goes into tackles, you have to do the same. If he goes chasing the ball, you have to do the same. He makes you do whatever he is doing.â€
With his heavy shot, Robinson is encouraging Koffie to get into scoring positions more often.
â€œI would like to score as much as I could if I have the chance,,â€ said Koffie, who scored three goals in each of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. â€œIâ€™ll keep shooting, keep practicing my shooting and see what happens.â€
Centre back Jay DeMerit, who has a great view of how Koffie and Laba complement each other, says itâ€™s encouraging to see Koffie put a string of good games together.
â€œOne of the biggest criticisms of Gersh over the years is that heâ€™s the best player on the field and then heâ€™s nowhere to be found for a few games. Against (Seattleâ€™s Osvaldo) Alonso last week, he showed he can get on top of him and really control the game from our midfield.â€