Yet another athlete giving a vegan diet a shot. I don’t know much about MLS (or club “football” in Europe), but it seems to me like out of any major sport, a plant-based diet and soccer would be a perfect fit. Turns out the reigning MVP of the MLS has been plant-based for 20 years!
Some athletes, like Oakland A’s relief pitcher Pat Neshek, turned to veganism because of an enlightening experience.
In 2007, Neshek read The China Study — which details the connection between nutrition and disease — and instantly cut out meat and dairy.
For others, it’s ethical reasons. Or medical.
Tennis star Venus Williams changed to a vegan diet in 2011 in an effort to combat the auto-immune disease Sjogren’s Syndrome.
Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Matt Watson simply wanted to try everything possible to stick in Major League Soccer.
“I had a terrible diet,” said Watson, a 27-year-old from Redditch, England, who spent four seasons with the second-division Carolina RailHawks, including time under current Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie.
“I ate a lot of Chick-fil-A,” he said, referring to the American fast-food chain.
“It’s like fried chicken, burgers, french fries. Virtually every day after practice I’d get that, or Chinese food. Too much Coca-Cola. I’ve got a sweet tooth, so tons of cookies and sugary stuff.
“I think at the level I was playing at maybe you can get away with it. But here, I wanted to give it my best shot, so I thought I’d give it a try. This might be my only chance to play in MLS.”
Watson had a teammate in Carolina, goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald, who was a vegan. The two also played indoor together for the Baltimore Blast and Fitzgerald had been prodding Watson to change his ways.
“I used to give him stick,” Watson admitted. “But I thought I’d give it a try for a week.”
And that week has turned into months, and Watson — who was also affected by the documentary Forks Over Knives — doesn’t see turning back.
“I actually instantly felt better,” he said, “which might be obvious when you have a diet of Coca-Cola.”
Watson started six of the Whitecaps’ first nine games this season as Rennie favoured an athletic, disruptive midfield to establish a defensive foundation.
While Watson struggled at times in possession, he certainly didn’t lack energy. He can run for days. (Carl Lewis is the most famous vegan athlete).
Watson hasn’t played since May 5, hampered by an ankle sprain, but he’s fit again and could see time this week.
There are things Watson misses. Like Cadbury’s chocolate, and burgers. Team barbecues, he said, can be a source of considerable envy.
He gets his protein from beans, quinoa and tofu. The Whitecaps work with Dana Lis, a SportMedBC dietitian, who’s hooked Watson on Vega protein shakes.
Watson’s wife is not on board. Neither are his kids, which makes life a little tougher.
But the hardest part might not be missing meat or milk chocolate, or dealing with dinners at home, but rather putting up with the ribbing from some of his teammates.
“I just take the abuse,” Watson said. “It’s mainly Barry [Robson] calling me names, a little girl or whatever. And Brad [Knighton]. Brad is Captain America.”
There’s one man’s opinion, though, that means a lot more to Watson. Canadian international Dwayne De Rosario, who plays for D.C. United, was MLS MVP last season.
De Rosario has been meat-free for 20 years; he was a vegan for 10 and has since started eating fish.
“That’s not bad company to be in,” said Watson. “If he can do it, it can’t be that detrimental.”