VANCOUVER -- Vancouver Whitecaps forward Erik Hurtado was known more for his wild hair style than his ability on the pitch prior to Saturday's match against the Columbus Crew.
That bleach blonde Mohawk still stands out, but not as much as his first goal in Major League Soccer -- a wonder strike in the first half that helped propel Vancouver to a 1-0 victory in Ohio.
The fifth overall pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, Hurtado has had to bide his time with the Whitecaps and he took full advantage of his first league start of the season.
The 23-year-old controlled a long free kick in front of a Columbus defender on the right before cutting into the middle and unleashing a vicious left-footed shot from outside the 18-yard box that curled into the top corner.
"You know how when you hit it on the sweet spot and you just know it's going in? That's what happened," Hurtado said after Monday's training session. "As soon as it left my foot, I was like 'Oh my God yes. Thank you God."'
The Fredericksburg, Va., native has played 22 MLS games since joining Vancouver last season, including five starts. But with the club parting ways with veteran striker Kenny Miller earlier this month, and with Darren Mattocks on the shelf with a hamstring injury, Hurtado is finally getting an opportunity under Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson.
"I'm maturing as a player. I matured over my rookie season last year a lot," he said. "(Robinson) having faith in me has been great. He's going to give players opportunities if they deserve it.
"I've been working really hard on the field and I got my chance and took it."
Hurtado stands out because of his raw talent, but also for a hairstyle that has earned him an array of nicknames from teammates, including Rufio from the movie "Hook" and Sonic the Hedgehog, in honour of the video game character.
"I don't know if it's like a Brazilian blowout mixed with a mohawk and some bleach -- got in a fight with a bottle of bleach or something like that," Whitecaps defender Jordan Harvey said with a chuckle. "That's his style and how he wants to express it and more power to him."
Hurtado is fine with the jabs.
"I don't know if I'm trying to achieve anything," he said. "I'm just trying to stay fresh."
In his first season at the Whitecaps' helm, Robinson couldn't care less what Hurtado's hair looks like as long as he continues to develop and stays committed to his craft.
"He's an example to all the young players that things don't go your way sometimes," said Robinson. "It's important you put the work in and you'll get your reward. It might not come in the next week or two weeks. It might come in the next two or three months, and that's what happened with Erik."
Hurtado's raw talent was evident to his teammates as soon as he arrived in Vancouver, but it was clear his game needed to be honed.
"It was kind of like corralling a wild stallion, if you know what I mean," said Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit. "He's one of those guys (where) you can see his athletic ability. You can see his pace, his power, and it's about corralling that and making sure that turns into good football. You can see it really start to take shape now, you can see him gaining in a little bit of confidence."
Speaking of confidence, Hurtado and his teammates have loads of it heading into Wednesday's second leg of the Amway Canadian Championship semifinal against Toronto FC. Robinson fielded a "younger than young" squad in last week's 2-1 away defeat in the first leg, but that result means that a 1-0 victory for Vancouver at B.C. Place Stadium would see the Whitecaps advance to the final on the away goals rule.
DeMerit and many of Vancouver's other veterans watched from the sidelines as the baby-faced Whitecaps, including Hurtado, battled hard against Toronto's star-studded roster.
"Guys are contributing when asked upon. Guys are staying on the same page and as a collective we're continuing to work on our brand of soccer," said DeMerit, who looks likely to sit out against Toronto again this week after playing Saturday in Columbus. "That needs to continue. That mentality needs to continue to shift and even get better."
Apart from Hurtado's recent success, former No. 1 pick Omar Salgado has impressed since rejoining the Whitecaps from the second-tier Charleston Battery last week. A big target who has been plagued by injuries in his young career, Salgado seems fitter and had a great chance late against Columbus that just bounced wide in the game's dying minutes.
"I'm still a little disappointed I missed that but every striker in the world misses chances," said Salgado, the top choice in 2011. "It's something you've just got to get over and score against Toronto."
Robinson said saying goodbye to Miller was difficult because of their personal friendship, but added that it was a move that had to be made with youngsters like Hurtado, Salgado and Kekuta Manneh clamouring for minutes.
"It was the right decision for the club and me moving forward with this group of players that I've got," said Robinson. "It will give the young players more opportunities to play and I've said from Day 1 that I will give them more opportunities and I think you will see that more now."