Healthy midfielder Ghazal still battling for a spot in Whitecaps' lineup

Vancouver Whitecaps' Aly Ghazal heads the ball during the second half of an MLS soccer game against Real Salt Lake in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday September 9, 2017. Getting healthy again was only part of the challenge for Aly Ghazal to get back on the field with the Vancouver Whitecaps. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER - Getting healthy again was only part of the challenge for Aly Ghazal to get back on the field with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The hard-nosed midfielder hurt his hamstring in the week prior to the opening of the Major League Soccer season. That injury healed, but then the 26-year-old from Cairo had to battle his own teammates for a spot in the lineup.

"It's difficult when you have a good squad," Ghazal said after a Vancouver training session this week. "It's difficult for everyone because everyone needs to fight for your position.

"That's why it took a bit longer when I came off the injury. The guys are playing and doing well."

Ghazal is expected to see action when Los Angeles Football Club (2-2-0) plays their first game against the Whitecaps (3-2-1) Friday at BC Place Stadium.

At six-foot-two and 192 pounds, Ghazal is noted for his ability to win balls and isn't afraid to stick his nose in opponent's faces. These attributes bring praise from Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson.

"He's strong, he's athletic, he's quick," said Robinson. "He's a very simple player. He's a nuts and bolts player.

"When you put him in the team you add a little bit of strength and power."

Ghazal substituted in for 16 minutes in the Whitecaps' win at Columbus two weeks ago. He was dressed but didn't play in last week's loss on the road against Real Salt Lake.

The depth on the Whitecaps' roster means players must compete all week for a chance to play on game day.

"I like to carry two players in each spot for competition for places," said Robinson. "Competition brings out the best in players."

Ghazal doesn't argue with Robinson's logic.

"It is very good for a team when you have a group of players," he said. "It's very good for the team and it's very good for even the players because everyone will need to improve more (and must) work on the parts he doesn't have."

The Whitecaps, who are second in the MLS Western Conference with 10 points, have played four of their six games on the road this season. Vancouver hasn't lost at home since Aug. 19, 2017.

LAFC has a star-studded ownership group which includes actor Will Ferrell; Mia Hamm, former star of the U.S. women's soccer team; her husband Nomar Garciaparra, a former Major League Baseball star; and basketball legend Magic Johnson.

LAFC opened the season with a pair of wins but comes to Vancouver licking its wounds after a 4-3 loss to cross-town rival L.A. Galaxy and a 5-0 drubbing by Atlanta. Los Angeles has been outscored 8-0 over its last 143 minutes of play.

Head coach Bob Bradley said it's all part of building a new team, especially one that plays its first six games on the road.

"In four games, I think we've seen enough good things to know we're going in an excellent direction," Bradley told the LAFC website. "I think we've seen enough things that still need work.

"Four games, all away, six points. Not totally satisfied by any means. But as a start, enough there that reinforces what we do every day."

L.A. has a high-octane attack. Forwards Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi have three goals each.

"They have key players," said Whitecaps captain Kendall Waston. "If we take them out of the game we can have a lot of success.

"We want to stop their key players. When we are in their half we have to create danger."

The game also marks Jordan Harvey's return to Vancouver. The left back made 179 appearances for the Whitecaps over seven years and leads the franchise in minutes played and games started.

Harvey lost his starting job last year to Marcel de Jong and with his contract up, signed as a free agent with LAFC.

Midfielder Russell Teibert, who has been with the Whitecaps since the team's inaugural MLS season in 2011, said playing against Harvey will be "a fun experience."

"We know what he's about," said Teibert. "I trained against him for a bunch of different years.

"He's definitely a quality player and he means business on the field."

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