Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson’s facial expression suggested he knew immediately Matias Laba’s injury was serious.
Robinson’s post-match comments did nothing to the dispel any worry, and the club’s fears were confirmed publicly with the announcement Laba will miss somewhere in the neighbourhood of nine months after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during Saturday’s 1-0 road loss to the New England Revolution.
“Gutted. Gutted for the boy,” Robinson said after Tuesday’s practice back in Vancouver. “He’s been brilliant for the club and for me since I brought him here.
“We will look after the boy. We’ll help him rehab. He’s a massive part of this football club.”
Laba crumpled to the turf in Foxborough, Mass., for a second time in the first half against the Revolution, signalling to the bench he needed assistance before being subbed off for Andrew Jacobson in the 29th minute.
“He’s been in what, 10,000 tackles in the time he’s been with the Whitecaps?” said goalkeeper David Ousted, who was on the bench in New England. “That, I’ve never seen from him. You knew it was bad.”
The 25-year designated player is expected to undergo surgery within the next two weeks.
“Football kicks you in the teeth when you least expect it,” said Robinson, who spoke with Laba’s wife beside the training pitch before meeting with reporters. “It usually kicks people — good people — in the teeth, and that was my concern.
“When he stays down there’s usually a reason.”
A fearless pit bull in the middle of the park whose main job is to protect the Whitecaps’ backline, Laba joined Vancouver in a trade with Toronto FC before the 2014 campaign.
He started 23 games in all competitions in 2017, and ranks fourth all-time for the club with 113 regular-season appearances in Major League Soccer.
Laba doubled his career MLS goal total to four when he scored twice against the Los Angeles Galaxy back in April, but his value is measured elsewhere on the pitch thanks to a relentless motor.
“It’s not fair, football sometimes,” said Robinson. “It treats people who are not good people very well, and it shouldn’t. And it treats people who are good, badly sometimes. We’ll support Mati all the way through.”
According to the MLS Players Union, Laba is on the books for US$885,500 this season — second highest on the team behind striker Fredy Montero.
There were reports out of his native Argentina that Laba might be a target of Racing Club before that country’s transfer window closes next month, but talk has no doubt been shelved with news of the injury.
“He’s a key player for us,” Robinson said when asked if there was any thought of keeping Laba out of the lineup against the Revolution. “He’s been arguably our best player over the three-plus years he’s been here. Rumours are good rumours because that means my players are playing well.”
In terms of immediate replacements in defensive midfield, Robinson’s options include Jacobson, Canadian international Russell Teibert, and the newly acquired duo of Aly Ghazal and Aaron Maund.
The Whitecaps host the Houston Dynamo on Saturday to begin a stretch of three games in eight days. Vancouver currently sits a point out of the final playoff spot in a congested Western Conference that has Houston among three teams tied for first with 37 points, six up on the Whitecaps.
“We’ve had a shocker this year with injuries — we miss (attacking midfielder) Yordy Reyna for the first five months of the season and now we’re going to miss Matias Laba for the last five months of the season,” said Robinson. “I don’t know if someone’s run over a black cat somewhere, but it is what it is.
“We’ll get together as a group and we’ll give it our best.”