When Eric Hassli joined the Vancouver Whitecaps last season, he’d call Gershon Koffie “Michael”, as in Michael Essien, Chelsea’s Ghanaian midfielder.
Koffie, at 20, despite his modest size, was already a tough tackler and a ball-winner, hence the comparison to his acclaimed countryman.
But that is only half the game, or thereabouts, for a central midfielder. And it’s the other half that White-caps’ coach Martin Rennie wants to see blossom.
Rennie liked what he saw last Saturday in the Caps’ 2-1 win over San Jose at B.C. Place.
Koffie kept possession, passed with conviction and creativity, and he scored his first goal of the season to the tie the game just before half-time.
“One of the things missing in his game is the goal scoring,” Rennie said.
“Everyone remembers the goal scorers, and for him to develop to the level we believe he can, I think he needs to contribute more goals and continue doing what he’s doing.”
Koffie was an attacking midfielder growing up in Accra, Ghana’s largest city, but his role since joining the Whitecaps for the 2010 division two season has been more defensive.
The shackles are certainly off now.
With Jun Marques Davidson playing his holding midfield role to near-perfection, Koffie is freer to venture up field and take risks.
“I’m not scared of going forward because I know Jun is there to cover me,” said Koffie. “It’s a very good feeling [to score].”
It was Koffie’s pass over the top that sent Hassli in on a partial breakaway in injury time Saturday.
And if Hassli had passed to a streaking John Thor-rington, instead of shooting wide, it might have been Koffie’s pass, rather than Davide Chiumiento’s, that people were talking about after the winning goal.
Regardless, it was the type of play that Koffie’s coaches and teammates want to see more of.
“Central midfielders have to be our playmakers and they have to keep the ball for us and I think he’s doing that much better this year,” said captain Jay DeMerit.
“People don’t know how young he is, and a lot of times young talents show a little inconsistency. You can tell he’s matured and now he’s finishing goals so these are all great attributes.”
Koffie also needs to hit the target more when he shoots; at times his attempts have resembled field goal practice. There was evidence of improvement there, too, against San Jose what might have been Koffie’s best overall game for the club.
He stepped confidently into a shot from 20 yards out and forced Jon Busch into a good low save.
It’s a small sample size, but through six starts Koffie has put four shots on target. He had nine shots on target in 28 starts last season.
“We’ve been working on his shooting, working on him hitting first-time shots with his laces, keeping it low, taking pride in that,” said Rennie.
“He can definitely do it. We want to see that more because he needs to not be OK with shooting balls that go miles away. That’s not acceptable.”
Koffie is also capable of contributing on set pieces; he’s strong and he jumps well and Saturday’s header off Camilo’s free kick was a perfect example.
“I think I was there at the right time,” Koffie said.
The timeline is unclear on when Koffie will fully arrive as a player, but seemingly each week there are more signs of just how big a talent he could turn out to be.
Saturday at New England, Koffie is expected to start again.
Rennie has stuck with the workmanlike midfield trio of Davidson, Koffie and Matt Watson in the last three MLS wins.
“It’s no secret he’s a fantastic talent,” said Thorrington.
“He’s got all the physical qualities you need and, as he’s maturing, hes developed these other parts of his game.
“One of the things I like about him is that, maybe he’ll hit one bad pass, but it doesn’t affect him the next time he gets the ball.
“The game against Portland away last year [Koffie's turnover led to a Portland goal 75 seconds in] would have shaken up quite a few guys. And the next week, he had his best game of the season.”