What's behind Erik Hurtado's sudden and dramatic turnaround? Why is he all of a sudden scoring highlight reel goals and game winners?
According to Whitecaps Coach Carl Robinson there is no difference. He's the same player he always was, only now his efforts are being rewarded.
The rookie manager has made a habit of heaping praise on others when things are going well, and accepting criticism when they aren't. But in the case of Hurtado, it's what the coach is NOT saying that may be the secret to a superb run of form.
Last year, you could almost see the Santa Clara grad thinking while he played. "Should I go here?" "Who's my man?" "Do I shoot or do I cross?" The amount of times a promising attack would fizzle out at his feet was frustrating for not just the fans, but his former manager as well. When your coach loses faith, it's tough to believe in yourself.
So the mantra this year for Hurtado and many of the other young studs in the Whitecaps' stable is stop thinking. Just go play. For the most part, it's working. Hurtado has been employed as both a lone striker, and a right sided weapon. He's looked equally dangerous in both roles. One can only imagine what might happen when his freedom of thought becomes routine and instinctual.
Compare the Real Salt Lake game a month ago, when in the late stages, last year's fifth overall pick burst down the right flank and instead of unleashing one of his palm stinging drives, he squared it up for a team-mate, with coach Robinson pleading for a shot. From virtually the same spot in last Saturday's game against Seattle Sounders Hurtado blasted home off the cross bar, and the Whitecaps were back on level terms only minutes after cruelly falling behind. There was no thought. There was no passing of responsibility. It was the same explosive drive the 23-year-old has unleashed hundreds of times in training, and throughout his formative years.
The ball doesn't seem to run away from "E-Money" anymore either. His touch is tidier, the runs are becoming less predictable, and the end product is inherently powerful. You'd be hard pressed to find a similarly statured player with the kinds of tools Hurtado possesses. He's been told more than once that a running back in the other type of football might have suited his skill set more. Thankfully his dad wasn't having it.
Now the one time Beaverton Oregon boy gets to return to the state of his youth, as a bona fide starter, and a legitimate threat. Surely the family and friends in attendance will motivate him further, rather than distract.
Carl Robinson could also have the luxury of Darren Mattocks at his disposal for the June 1st tilt at Providence Park. Mattocks will be racking up the air miles on Jamaican duty, but will still be available to face his old Akron Zips coach Caleb Porter, and best pal Darlington Nagbe.
Might we see Hurtado, Mattocks and Manneh all on the park at once as some supporters had fantasized already last pre-season?
Hopefully the manager can keep them all from thinking about it too much.