VANCOUVER — Understanding the footsteps he follows in, and knowing the direction the team wants to head, made being named the Vancouver Whitecaps captain for the club's first Major League Soccer season all that more special for defender Jay DeMerit.

"I understand the rich history, the captains before that have done this club a great service," DeMerit said Wednesday, prior to the team practising on a cold, wet afternoon. "I hope to continue that and really look forward to that.

"It's a very proud moment. It's something that is just the beginning for myself and the club."

DeMerit, a Green Bay, Wis., native, has played in the English Premier League and on the U.S. national team. He was Vancouver's first MLS signing.

Even then coach Teitur Thordarson believed the centre back had the combination of skill on the pitch and off-field charisma to be captain.

"Jay is an excellent leader," said Thordarson. "That is the first and most important quality.

"I like to have the captains (play) centre back. They see the game in front of them. They can help the players in front of them."

DeMerit wore the captain's armband while playing for Watford FC of the English League Championship. He was taught lessons there that can be applied in Vancouver.

"That role was a big learning experience," he said. "How to lead on the field, how to become a person that other players can come to."

He also came to understand the role of captain didn't end when he walked off the pitch.

Following the 2008-09 season, DeMerit received the Community Ambassador award in recognition of his charity and community work with Watford.

Now DeMerit will be playing in a city where the captains of the NHL Vancouver Canucks and the CFL B.C. Lions are expected to be visible in community charity work.

"For me that's all part of the role," said the likable DeMerit. "It's not just being active around your team and your teammates. It's about being active in the community.

"It's about representing the club and growing the club."

The Whitecaps also named midfielder Terry Dunfield, a Vancouver native, and John Thorrington, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, as the MLS expansion team's alternate captains.

During warmups DeMerit and Dunfield chatted and laughed.

Dunfield said DeMerit has established himself as a central figure with the Whitecaps in just the few weeks the players have been together.

"Jay has shown he's both a leader on and off the field," said Dunfield. "His attitude is infectious.

"He's someone we are all going to follow into battle."

The Whitecaps play their first MLS game against Canadian rival Toronto FC on March 19.

The Whitecaps have been around as a team since 1974. They won the 1979 North American Soccer League title and have won championships in the Canadian Soccer League, and the United Soccer Leagues First Division.

DeMerit becomes the team's 20th captain.

Playing in their first MLS season could mean some difficult stretches as players adapt to the new league, and it's during those times the team will need a unifying force.

"You have to be careful and not try to do everything on your own," said the 30-year-old DeMerit. "In these types of situation it's always about a collective effort, especially when you come into a team like this where there's all sorts of new guys, a new coaching staff.

"What we've shown all ready is everyone seems to be on the same page and has an attitude to work for each others."

Determination and persistence have been the cornerstone of the five-foot-11 DeMerit's career.

He played college soccer at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Undrafted out of university, DeMerit worked as a bouncer to raise money to travel to England. He started with a team in the ninth tier of English soccer and worked his way up to Watford.

DeMerit has 23 caps with the U.S. national team. He started all four matches for his country during last summer's World Cup in South Africa.

Asked what kind of captain he would model himself after, DeMerit pointed to former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.

"Guys that play with that type of character," he said. "They look like they are having fun, they lead by example.

"They don't seem to be a dictator. They are one of the guys. That's the type of attitude I try to bring to a team."