Alain Rochat might just be one of the three best Canadian defenders in the world. Unfortunately, he's really Swiss. Born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec in February 1983, Rochat was in Canada for just two years before his two Swiss-born parents packed him off to Switzerland. Coming up through the relatively minor youth system of Yverdon-Sport FC, it took a few years before Rochat found his sea legs in soccer. When he arrived, however, he did so with a vengeance. Rochat briefly captained the Swiss national youth team, was the youngest Swiss player at the 2002 European U-21 championship, and played over 100 games with Young Boys over three seasons starting at age 21 while securing a high-profile transfer to Rennes in Ligue 1. In 2005, the 22-year-old Rochat made his first (and so far only) appearance with the full Swiss national team, starting a World Cup qualifier against the Faroe Islands.
Rochat's development had already peaked, though. His time with Rennes was a failure and Rochat was obliged to return to Switzerland. Signing with FC Zürich in 2006, Rochat earned a reputation as one of the best players in the Swiss league, regardless of position. But Rochat was competing against the likes of Stephan Lichtsteiner, Reto Ziegler, Mario Eggimann, Steve von Bergen, Philippe Senderos, and Johan Djourou for a spot on the Swiss national defense: he simply wasn't at that level, though he was rumoured as a potential call-up from time to time. Instead, he settled for being a star of the Swiss domestic scene without ever getting a glimpse internationally.
Rochat was at Zürich for five years, but last August Rochat officially announced that he would sign with the Vancouver Whitecaps. It was a peculiar sort of contract: Rochat remained in Switzerland on loan to Zürich. The premature signing was simply to ensure that the Whitecaps could get Rochat without risking Major League Soccer's Byzantine allocation process. It worked: the 28-year-old Rochat is almost certain to be Vancouver's starting left back in the 2011 season.
What will be the biggest adjustment Alain Rochat will have to make?
Rochat will need to get used to the physicality of Major League Soccer. He's not a small player and he's historically been in great condition, but he's also a skilled sort who's mostly played in relatively cultured, refined European leagues. The first few times he sees the likes of O'Brian White thundering down on him trying to elbow him out of the way might be a bit of a shock. Rochat has the luxury of training with big, rough-and-ready forwards like Atiba Harris and Omar Salgado, but nothing can prepare you for the blood and guts of an actual league game.
What kind of impact can Alain Rochat have on his team?
Anybody who's started matches in the UEFA Champions League can play this game at an MLS level. Rochat is a reasonably tall, quick player with tremendous ball skills and was one of the best players for years in a league currently ranked just below Scotland in UEFA. He's capable of scoring the occasional goal himself but at his best making slick plays and sending his team thundering downfield on the counter attack. Unlike some MLS-level counter-attacking fullbacks, though, Rochat combines this with a formidable presence defensively. His weaknesses (aerial ability, anything right-footed) are few and unlikely to sink him.
What's a reasonable expectation in terms of production and playing time?
Barring the completely unforeseen, Rochat is a guaranteed starter for the Whitecaps when healthy. Though a native left back, he can play some centre back (and, when the Whitecaps had higher hopes for Willis Forko, was originally expected to start there) which will help keep him in the lineup. Teitur Thordarson is fond of giving his best defenders all the minutes they can handle and even in the five-substitution USSF D2 only substituted core defenders when injured or seriously tired. With no real competition at left back, Rochat could conceivably play every minute for the Whitecaps in 2011 if he adjusts well and stays healthy. Offensively, every goal from your fullbacks is a bonus and Rochat may provide two or three.
What's the ceiling on Alain Rochat?
The best left back in Major League Soccer. Not to sound like too much of a homer, but there's no reason he can't do it. Obviously it will take some time for him to adjust to the league's style. He may never be able to; he wouldn't be the first. But physically, mentally, and technically, there's nothing stopping Rochat from being one of Major League Soccer's best just as he was in Switzerland.
- Report by Benjamin Massey of 86 Forever (Vancouver Whitecaps blog)