Nearly 10 years on from his professional debut, and more than 4,000 miles from home, the man once labeled the “Scottish Messi” and who drew interest as a teen from the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Liverpool has at last, in Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps, found a home at which he can deliver on his vast potential.
Now 26, Ryan Gauld has come a long way in his career – both in terms of distance covered and experiences logged – as he gets ready for the start of the new MLS season, which starts on Saturday. He was once the 17-year-old star of a vibrant young Dundee United side, before a seven-year stint in Portugal brought mixed fortunes.
He left Portugal as a free agent last summer and received no shortage of offers, with big hitters from Scotland and England showing interest after a reputation-rescuing final two years in Portuguese football.
“I’ve never been one to make my decisions based on money,” Gauld told the assembled media of his move to Canada. “There is more to a career and more to life than money. The Whitecaps were the first club to reach out to me and make it known how much I was wanted, what they thought I could bring to the club.”
Gauld may be overplaying the poverty of a career in MLS a little – his deal last season was worth around $2m. But his decision to eschew proposals from closer to home in favor of North America has been vindicated on the field. With four goals – the last of which came as Vancouver clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season – and five assists to his name last term, he was one of the league’s best performers after his arrival.
And it comes as a little surprise to those who’ve worked with Gauld that he has once again proven willing to trot the globe. After all he’s been traveling in search of challenges in his whole career.
Gauld was around 10 when he was first spotted by Dundee United scout Alex Robertson. The midfielder – who has since grown to the not-so-heady height of 5ft 6in – had traveled from his home in Laurencekirk, Aberdeenshire, to play a seven-a-side tournament in Dundee with his grassroots team, Brechin City Boys Club.
“Wee Ryan was beating everybody,” Robertson remembers. “He was all left foot, but he was skinning people, taking them on and beating them all. A lot of times when you see people with a lot of ability, they tend to be lazy. They lose the ball, they stop and they don’t do anything about it. If Ryan lost the ball, he would spring up like a yoyo and chase the person to get it back again. You’d have to be blind not to see that he was different. I’ve spent the next 15 years looking and not found anybody as good.”
He was swiftly signed by United – along with teammates Harry and John Souttar, now of Stoke City and Hearts, respectively, and whose dad ran the team. So began a three-times-a-week 70-mile round trip to Dundee.
The boys enrolled in the Cathro Clinic, former Tottenham coach Ian Cathro’s skills school. Sessions would run from 4.30-6pm on the astroturf pitch at Gussie Park, in the shadow of Tannadice, United’s home stadium. Then, from 6-7.30pm, they’d train with the professional club’s youth set-up. Gauld quickly progressed into the elite group within the Cathro Clinic and made an indelible impression on his coaches.
“I looked over and the ball has come in the air,” Steven Leahy, who coached Gauld, remembers of a particularly spectacular moment the young midfielder produced. “You’re thinking, ‘Take a touch, wee man.’ And he doesn’t. He swiveled his body around and did an overhead kick, which was just ridiculous.
“I remember Ian stopped the session and made everyone – we had maybe 50 or 60 kids – give him a round of applause.”
At 17, Gauld was the focal point of a dynamic Dundee United side that also featured future Liverpool full-back Andrew Robertson and Southampton midfielder Stuart Armstrong.
“You could always see that he was a special talent,” says Jackie McNamara, the manager under whom Gauld established himself as a first-team star at Tannadice. “He had a great little football brain.
“There were times in training you’d just sit back and laugh. I remember a game against Celtic, a semi-final. He set up the equalizer for Gary Mackay-Steven. Just his decision making and his weigh of pass, that was the biggest thing about him as a kid. He was a little genius when I worked with him. I loved watching him play.”
Interest from some of England’s biggest clubs soon grew, but Gauld had his mind set on a move to the continent.
“I think he was always different,” McNamara says. “He saw himself more European [in style] than the hustle and bustle of England.”
Of all the European clubs chasing Gauld after his stellar 2013-14 campaign – in which Dundee United finished fourth in the Scottish Premiership and reached the final of the Scottish Cup – Sporting were the most insistent.
“They’d done their due diligence on him,” says McNamara. “It was the owner that wanted Ryan. Word came back to me that he loved him, had watched all his clips from his time at Dundee United.”
Aged just 18, Gauld signed for Sporting in a £3m deal. As a sign of the youngster’s potential, a €60m release clause was inserted into his contract. He made just five first-team appearances in as many years with the Lisbon giants, though all of which came in his first season in Portugal. A succession of loans – including a spell back in Scotland with Hibernian in 2018-19 – bore little fruit and his once-promising career began to stagnate.
Yet he had embraced life in Portugal. He became fluent in Portuguese and still speaks the language with Cathro, his multilingual mentor. Upon leaving Sporting in 2019, Gauld elected to stay in Portugal, dropping down a tier to join Farense.
In his first season with the Algarve club, he scored a career high nine league goals to fire them back up to the Primeira Division. And last season, despite Farense’s relegation, he scored another nine times and registered seven assists, making him one of only three Primeira Liga players to rank in the top 10 in both categories.
Farense initially contested Gauld’s free-agent status last summer. They believed they had a contractual right to extend his deal by a further year, but he countered that the club’s relegation had nullified that clause. Eventually free to join the club of his choosing, Gauld went with the one who’d wanted him most, with Vancouver having chased him since the previous January.
The Whitecaps had won just three of their 16 fixtures in the 2021 season before Gauld’s arrival. After his debut they became one of MLS’s form teams. Gauld’s performances proved a catalyst for their playoff hopes, although he couldn’t prevent an eventual first-round exit at the hands of Sporting Kansas City.
He has taken the long road to get here – literally and metaphorically – but Gauld is finally thriving. And there’s more to come – whether it’s further MLS stardom, an eventual return to Europe or a related Scotland debut.
“It has taken him a bit longer than I’d have thought to shine,” McNamara says. “But he is still young. He’ll have learned a lot over the last number of years. His football was never in question.”