How The ‘Scottish Messi’ Has Taken Major League Soccer By Storm

Once dubbed as the ‘Scottish Messi’, Ryan Gauld’s career has been the ultimate blend of headline-grabbing transfers, glimpses of magic, and unfulfilled potential. Since breaking into Peter Houston’s Dundee United side at the age of 16, Gauld has always been one player Scottish football fans have kept their eyes out for. 

And, after the better part of half a decade in the wilderness, it looks like the Scottish Messi has finally found a home in the MLS with Vancouver Whitecaps. 

Generating the hype

For years, both English and Scottish football had a reputation for not being the best at having their homegrown players travel abroad and ply their trade in foreign leagues. The likes of Jadon Sancho, Jude Bellingham, Reiss Nelson, and Oliver Burke have all helped make this a more common sight, however, it was Ryan Gauld’s highly talked about switch from Dundee to Lisbon in 2014 that really set the ball rolling. 

Talked about as being Scottish football’s next big thing after two stellar campaigns with Dundee United, what made Gauld such a hype point with both the fans and media was just how different he looked to what Scottish football was known for producing. 

The comparisons to the likes of Messi grew out of Gauld’s instantly recognisable skill with the ball at his feet. At 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m), one inch smaller than the GOAT from Argentina, Gauld has a remarkably low centre of gravity which he uses to flex his creative and technical skill, rather than the more physical and aggressive style of play that Scottish football has built its reputation off of. 

On the back of his performances in 2013/14, where he was nominated for the Scottish PFA Young Player of the Year award (only losing out to Andrew Robertson) and was scouted by the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Liverpool, Gauld switched Scotland for Portugal, moving to Sporting Lisbon for £3 million with a £60 million buy-out clause attached for good measure. 

Gauld cited the lack of media attention, emphasis on technical ability rather than physicality in the Portuguese league, and Sporting’s track record of developing talents like Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, and current MLS legend Nani as his reasons for his move 

Losing his way 

Despite the fact the Scot was rewarded with a place in Marco Silva’s first Champions League squad with Sporting Lisbon, the majority of Gauld’s time with the ‘Verde e brancos’ was spent in the club’s B team, only making five senior appearances in three years in the Primeira Liga.

Going from a club like Dundee United to one with the level of pedigree and prestige as Sporting Lisbon was always going to be a significant jump up, and the weight of being hailed as the Scottish Messi hardly helped with expectations, and Gauld’s first three seasons in Portugal really set the tone for the attacking midfielder’s spell in the wilderness over the next few campaigns. 

Throughout his five-year tenure with Sporting, Gauld would be loaned out four times to Vitória de Setúbal, Aves, Farense, and Hibernian, but would only make 51 appearances, scoring just three times. It was clear Gauld was having trouble finding a place he could be settled in, and he quickly became known as just another flop that failed to live up to the hype of his earlier days. 

However, a two-season campaign return to Farense from 2019-2021 brought with it 58 appearances and 18 goals, which managed to convince the Vancouver Whitecaps to take a punt on the Scottish playmaker, signing Gauld in July on a three-and-a-half-year deal. 

Barely a month later, he had scored his first goal (an 89th-minute winner against LAFC), and it soon became clear that the one-time Scottish Messi was ready to start showing the MLS exactly what he could do. 

MLS revival 

Gauld joined a Whitecaps side that had begun the 2021 MLS season in quite uninspiring form. Despite being reasonable favourites for a playoff finish in most MLS betting odds, the Whitecaps only won five of their first twenty games of the campaign, losing seven, and decided to part ways with manager Marc Dos Santos.

Gauld made his debut on August 9th against LA Galaxy and bagged two goals and two assists in his first five appearances, including a goal and an assist from the left-wing in a 4-1 demolition of Real Salt Lake.

In the team’s recent win over Dallas, the Scot registered 52 touches, a 77% pass completion percentage, completed 6/9 crosses, won 3 fouls, and bagged a whopping 8 key passes, showcasing just why so many MLS fans have begun to tip him as a potential MLS great in the making. 

The best players are the ones who make their teammates around them look better, and that has been so apparent with Gauld and Vancouver since the Scot’s arrival. He is now regularly being touted for a return to the national team and, for the first time since his breakthrough days, he looks to have found a settled home where his undeniable talent can be nurtured and enjoyed by football fans both in Scotland and North America. The MLS is one of football’s most exciting leagues, and the continued development of figures like Gauld is one of the biggest reasons why its stock has grown so much.