Jay DeMerit, a 31-year-old World Cup veteran, will provide leadership as captain of the Vancouver Whitecaps.

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VANCOUVER, B.C. — The story of Jay DeMerit’s road to stardom reads like a Hollywood screenplay.

College star at Illinois-Chicago, ignored by Major League Soccer. Bartender who went to England on a whim to revive his career. Finally, a lower-league defender who caught a break and helped captain a team to the English Premier League. Oh yeah, and he started four games in last summer’s World Cup.

That worthy-of-the-big-screen journey started in Green Bay, Wis.

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After stops in Chicago, Watford (England) and South Africa it continues in Vancouver. And in 2011, the sturdy 31-year-old boldly leads Whitecaps FC into MLS as its team captain, a protagonist role he officially earned Wednesday but had seemed a formality since signing in November.

“It’s a great challenge to lead the club from the start,” DeMerit said in a news release. “That’s what I was brought to Vancouver to do and that’s what I plan to do, so I’m really excited about the opportunity and I look forward to being a big part of this organization.”

Big part is right. An indispensable part is probably more accurate.

For a Whitecaps FC team struggling to fill out its roster — there’s only one eligible forward under contract — the defensive back line is expected to absorb a lot of pressure. DeMerit, a regular centerback on the U.S. men’s national team and World Cup veteran, is the ideal candidate to shoulder the burden.

“We’re going to rely on his experience to help our younger guys get through difficult moments in the season,” said assistant coach Denis Hamlett.

Added coach Teitur Thordarson in the release: “We are lucky to have Jay as our captain.”

Standing 6 feet 1, with a strong jaw and scruffy blonde hair, DeMerit looks every bit like a leader. As a former captain at Watford, currently in England’s second division, it’s a familiar duty.

But direction and guidance, he says, is more than a one-man job.

“A lot has been said about captaincy and things like that, but the more captains you have on the field the better,” DeMerit said. “We have a lot of good influences on this team right now. A lot of guys are stepping forward and showing their character every day, together as a group that’s most important for how we start the season.”

DeMerit’s physical style of play should fit perfectly with Vancouver’s team identity, which Hamlett describes as wanting to be “a hard team to play against, a team that makes things hard for opponents.”

Asked a couple weeks ago if the bruising reputation of MLS suits him at all, DeMerit cracked a grin.

“Oh yeah,” he said, a hint of excitement in his voice. “I like to get in the mixer and mix it up with the big boys. I’m looking forward to that.”

As are DeMerit’s teammates, who will follow him into the Whitecaps FC’s challenge of Year 1.

“When you have a young guy playing in an MLS game and he looks over and sees Jay there — Jay’s out there fighting alongside him — that helps and generates some confidence,” said midfielder John Thorrington, who was named an alternate captain.

“You look at someone like Jay and know he’s been there, played on the biggest stage in the world and done well. That experience just generates respect and I think we’ll all feed off that. (He is) a great asset for the organization and league as a whole.”

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or jmayers@seattletimes.com

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