VANCOUVER — Michael Baldisimo is the kind of midfielder who shows no fear as he strips opponents of the ball. The young Vancouver Whitecaps player looks composed as he threads passes across a congested field and confident when he blasts shots from the top of the penalty box.
Away from soccer, however, there's one word that friends and family consistently use to describe the 20-year-old from Burnaby, B.C.: shy.
"I think Baldi is a man of few words. He listens to everything, he knows a lot. But he's not going to say much, not even what's necessary if he doesn't have to," said teammate Theo Bair.
"But on the field he gets to express the full extent of his personality. And once he's comfortable — and I think he's most comfortable on the field — Baldi's a completely different person."
Even with his introverted persona, Baldisimo is standing out with the Whitecaps, putting up a goal and three assists in his first five Major League Soccer games.
He was named "man of the match" for the team's come-from-behind victory over Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
It's been a season full of unexpected challenges for Vancouver. There was the months-long COVID-19 hiatus, followed by team stalwarts opting out of the MLS is Back tournament in Florida. Injuries and the departure of players left holes in the club's roster.
The silver lining has been an opportunity for young players to make their mark, said coach Marc Dos Santos.
"It's just good that a player like (Baldisimo) that was not really in the plans for the beginning of the season now put himself in a position to be a player for this club," Dos Santos said recently. "Competition is going to be big. These players will not play all the time, but at least we know that when we need them, we can 100 per cent count on them."
Growing up in suburban Vancouver with four brothers, soccer wasn't really a choice for Baldisimo. His dad signed the boys up because it made sense economically.
“Soccer is very cheap. I couldn’t afford to put them into hockey or something," Sam Baldisimo said. "And it’s what they like, so I followed what they want.”
Michael Baldisimo started playing at age five, but his love for the game wasn't instantaneous.
"I didn't like soccer when I was a kid. My dad would have to drag me to the field and I would be crying because I didn't want to play," he said.
Growing up, the Baldisimo boys spent many nights at a field near their house, competing to see who could kick the ball furthest or hit a target. Money or chores were often on the line.
“What the other brothers are doing, you’re going to want to copy them, right? And that’s how we all just started playing with each other," said Matthew Baldisimo, 22.
When he was seven or eight, Michael Baldisimo realized he had a knack for the sport. By the age of 11, he'd joined his older brothers Matthew and Mark in the Whitecaps' academy program where he often played against opponents three or four years older.
Baldisimo always held his own, said Matthew, now a midfielder for Pacific FC in the Canadian Premier League.
"We always knew this guy was going to be the best one out of all of us. And he's just proving that right now," he said.
The younger Baldisimo signed his first MLS contract in July 2018, but his rise wasn't meteoric.
Last season, his training was hampered by a mid-foot sprain and he dealt with recurring cramps.
"At times, I felt frustrated that I was not getting to play and not being healthy," Baldisimo said. "I just worked as hard as I could to get back on the field. … The challenging part was the coaches had not seen me play yet, so I just wanted to come back even stronger that I was before."
A spot in the 'Caps midfield came open this summer after the club sold South Korean Inbeom Hwang to FC Rubin Kazan in the Russian Premier League.
Baldisimo made his MLS debut in Montreal on Aug. 25. The 'Caps dropped a 2-0 decision to the Impact, but the homegrown midfielder's aggressive play caught attention.
In Charlottetown, where Pacific FC played in the CPL's Island Games, Matthew Baldisimo and several of his teammates gathered around a TV to watch the moment unfold. Many on them had grown up with the younger Baldisimo in the Whitecaps academy system.
"Honestly, everyone was just watching my brother play. They weren't really concerned with anyone else on the field," Matthew Baldisimo said.
"I just felt really proud, seeing him out there, finally getting the minutes that he deserved."
Two weeks later, Michael Baldisimo played his first home game for the 'Caps, albeit in a stadium devoid of fans.
His big moment came midway through the second half when teammate Ali Adnan had a free kick blocked. The ball bounced back to Baldisimo, who fired a rocket from the top of the penalty box, beating the Toronto FC 'keeper to the bottom-right corner of the net for his first MLS goal.
Baldisimo celebrated with a backflip before he was mobbed by his teammates.
Celebrations erupted at his parents' home in Burnaby, too.
"We were screaming, we were yelling. All the brothers and the whole family, they're very happy," Sam Baldisimo said.
The joyful parents posted a clip of the goal on Facebook and had calls for several days from family around the world, including Germany and the Philippines.
"I'm very proud of him," said Baldisimo's mom, Mely Otucan. "Since he was young, we knew already he would do what he wants."
The young midfielder knows there's still work to be done, though.
Baldisimo wants to play quicker and become more consistent. He knows he has to be better at handling pressure from an opponent.
"It’s been exciting but I can’t let my head get too big," he said. "And I think I’ve dealt with that well so far. … I could be a little too hard on myself. I’d rather be that than one who lets his head get too big."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2020.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press