VANCOUVER — The raking cross dipped in and out of the tricky late-afternoon shadows at B.C. Place Stadium as it steamed towards Christian Bolanos.
Instead of trying to control the ball for himself when it arrived, the veteran Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder gently chested a one-touch pass to Cristian Techera, who in turn got all of his volley for last weekend’s highlight-reel opener.
Bolanos then stepped up to take a free kick later in the match against Sporting Kansas City, dropping a perfect set piece onto the head of Tim Parker to assist the defender’s first-ever Major League Soccer goal in what would turn into a comfortable 2-0 victory over the Western Conference leaders.
“Right now I’m in good shape,” said Bolanos, who turned 33 last week. ”I feel very comfortable, very close to my peak.”
And that’s been great news for both Bolanos and the Whitecaps following an uneasy start to the 2017 campaign.
The Costa Rican international showed up in January with tendinitis in his right knee and missed all of the pre-season after what head coach Carl Robinson described as Bolanos taking too much time off over the winter.
But he worked his way back into form by the middle of March, initially patrolling the centre of the pitch as an attacking No. 10 before a formation change pushed him out wide with a licence to roam inside when needed.
“I like to play free, to move free,” said Bolanos.
No matter where he’s been positioned, the crafty player has been an offensive catalyst and workhorse at both ends of the field for the Whitecaps (5-5-1), who continue their homestand against D.C. United (3-6-2) on Saturday.
“I’d been chasing him for two years,” said Robinson, who signed Bolanos in January 2016. ”When he’s on, he’s as good as anyone in the league to watch. He has a massive impact on the game.
“He sets the standard that we want to try and do in attacking areas. He’s been refreshing.”
Bolanos had five goals and set up eight others in 27 games with Vancouver last season. He has yet to find the back of the net in 2017, but has assisted teammates four times, including three in the last two games.
“His service is great. He has that calmness we need,” said Parker. ”He knows when to slow the game down and when to speed it up. He can control the tempo.”
Robinson, whose team has been hit by a number of injuries to attacking options already this season, said the decision to cut ties with captain Pedro Morales after a disappointing 2016 campaign was made easier knowing he had one possible replacement already in the fold.
“That was in my mind,” said the coach. “I knew what Bola could do. I saw it on a daily basis.”
Prior to finding his way to MLS, Bolanos’ soccer passport included stops in his homeland, as well as stints with teams in Norway, Denmark and far-flung Qatar.
His professional highlight up to now came in 2005 when Costa Rica’s Deportiva Saprissa finished a surprising third at the FIFA Club World Cup, with Bolanos earning the Bronze Ball as the tournament’s third-best player.
He also represented his country at the World Cup in both 2006 and 2014, and remains a part of the Costa Rican setup ahead of some crucial qualifiers for the 2018 event next month.
“I am very proud to represent my country, especially right now,” said Bolanos. ”I’m 33 and this is my last cycle.”
Bolanos and the Whitecaps have two MLS matches — as well as the second leg of their Canadian Championship semifinal — before he returns to the national team.
Saturday’s opponent sits last in the Eastern Conference, and has been outscored 6-0 during its current three-game losing streak, but the Whitecaps are wary of what should be a desperate United squad.
“These kinds of games are the most difficult,” said Bolanos. ”Everybody can see they’re in the last position, but in football what’s on paper is different when you go play.
“You have to fight for the points. We have to respect every team.”
Notes: Whitecaps midfielder Matias Laba is suspended this weekend because of yellow card accumulation, meaning Vancouver will dress a different starting 11 for the first time in six MLS games. The absence of Laba, who has been positioned as a buffer in front of the back four, means Robinson might alter the 4-1-4-1 formation he’s preferred the last six weeks. … Vancouver beat Montreal 2-1 at home in the first leg of the Canadian Championship earlier this week with a lineup of mostly youngsters and fringe players. The return leg goes Tuesday.