Alex Semenets is an obviously talented young player who's starred for Canada's U-20 team, came up through the Whitecaps Residency, dominated USL PDL, is only 22, and doesn't even start. You're telling me FC Edmonton can be written off? (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
It's my experience that most Vancouver Whitecaps fans watched the team, at least casually, during the second division years. They might not be able to name the starting lineup of the 2009 finalists (although many can) but they also know a thing or two about the old leagues and the quality of play.
Even those fans who hopped on later would have gotten a taste of the North American Soccer League when the Montreal Impact came to town, spent 120 minutes beating the shit out of us at Empire Field, and lost because of a well-deserved crapping on by the soccer gods (thanks, Ali Gerba). And no Vancouver fan with even a slight taste for schadenfreude will have forgotten Toronto FC dropping a CONCACAF Champions League two-legged series to the Puerto Rico Islanders a couple years ago, to say nothing of the second division Whitecaps' own better-than-.500 record against MLS opposition. Or the number of players and staff we brought in from that level who are acquitting themselves well enough that we can say "hey, that league's probably not all awful."
Naturally, with all this experience and knowledge, Whitecaps fans and press are so full of confidence for Wednesday's Voyageurs Cup match against FC Edmonton there's a risk they'll float over the North Saskatchewan.
As of when I'm typing this sentence (10:20 AM Pacific), the Southsiders "I Know the Score" prediction thread has 48 predictions, of which 46 predict a Whitecaps win, one predicts a draw (and that's a running 0-0 draw prediction the guy's been making every match for three seasons), and one predicts a loss (and that's a joke). They predict, on average, a margin of victory over two goals. And if you check its brother "I Know the Lineup" thread, you'll see that a lot of these optimists are also predicting the Whitecaps to use a weakened starting eleven.
Okay, fans are always optimists. So here's Bruce Constantineau, no rookie he, writing brightly about the Whitecaps resting two or three of its most valuable players as if it's no big deal. And Marc Weber, calling any failure of the Whitecaps to advance "a shock", says that the Whitecaps are favoured "barring a natural disaster, or perhaps divine intervention.".
The hubris is so thick you can cut it with a knife.
FC Edmonton is off to a terrible start. With one draw through four games, they're doing better than Toronto FC but not by much. They were spectacularly inconsistent last year and, with team architect Dwight Lodeweges back in the unemployment line after bad luck with Japan's JEF United, if I were Harry Sinkgraven I'd be checking my back in the locker room. But they've also had the league's toughest starting schedule and some rotten luck. They have only one home game under their belt this year and will likely take on Vancouver before the largest crowd in their history. If you've watched Edmonton play, you've seen a team that's certainly not clicking but which isn't short on skill and desperately wants the sort of crazy luck that sees, for example, a poor Lee Young-pyo free kick bounce into the net. Oh, and they got Saturday off and have been training at home for more than a week.
The Whitecaps should be favourites. But by more than two goals? "Barring a natural disaster"? If the Whitecaps think that way even for a second they're in for a good old-fashioned Edmonton stabbing.
Edmonton's come out the gate with a ferocious schedule. Their first three games were all on the road: at Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and Puerto Rico. Those are, by consensus, the three best teams in the league and also the three toughest road trips. Juan Ramón Loubriel Stadium in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, where Edmonton has their sole point this season, is the toughest venue for the visitors in MLS or the NASL (although, sadly, recent renovations have replaced the hilariously unpredictable and dangerous grass pitch with newer sod). Getting one point from those three games is of course not good, but it's by no means end-of-the-world stuff.
The Eddies' single home game was the Sunday before last against defending NASL champion Minnesota. Edmonton's new stadium wasn't even ready, with the new stands still under construction, forcing about 1,500 die-hards to cram into Clarke's single grandstand. While suckers like me were watching the Whitecaps Reserves die a thousand deaths against Portland, Edmonton fought one of the games of the year: both teams went down to ten men, traded goals and spectacular plays at both ends, and in the end Edmonton lost 4-3 on a last-second goal by veteran Devin Del Do. It wasn't the sort of loss you usually see from a last-place team, and if there were any doubters that performance should have convinced them the Eddies will remain in the playoff chase.
Their players should inspire respect. We all remember goalkeeper Michal Misiewicz, Canada's most valuable player at Olympic qualifying. Long-time fans will also recall Kyle Porter, struggling a bit with nagging injuries and fitness but still a proven scorer at age 22, and the real hardcore will pick out Residency alums like Alex Semenets, Paul Hamilton, and Antonio Rago. Midfielder Shaun Saiko has long been a favourite subject of this space, with me doing everything but forging Martin Rennie's signature on a discovery claim form to convince the Whitecaps to sign him. Hamilton is the leading player on a good defense that also boasts former Montreal Impact man Kevin Hatchi and long-time Canadian youth international Fabrice Lassonde. New forward Yashir Pinto, out of Chile, is a tall player with foot skills although immigration issues have kept him out of the team in the United States. And that's without even getting into their depth, which is formidable. They have weaknesses (wide defense, the back of midfield) but every team does.
If I had $20 to bet, I'd still put it on Vancouver. If the Whitecaps play a strong lineup, keep their focus, and play frustrating soccer to keep Edmonton's super-creative Saiko and talented Semenets/Matt Lam-Porter-Pinto troika in check, Vancouver should be able to slip a ball through a mistake-prone midfield and get their chances. But every Floyd Franks or Greg Klazura increases the chances of a mistake. Every casual "I can beat this guy in my sleep" run from Atiba Harris is one more turnover Edmonton can shove down our throats with a typical quick counter. Every player not yet too familiar with his teammates is one more player who could be on the wrong page when the Edmonton players, many of whom have been together since 2010, come on the attack.
Don't you dare write these guys off. Don't you dare. In the old days we enjoyed laughing at Toronto FC fans who saw their designated players, their European veterans, and their names made famous by Sportsnet and TSN and said "ah, this should be easy" while forgetting that the biggest difference between an MLS player and an NASL player is marketing. Yes, of course, the average MLS team is better than the average NASL team, but that doesn't mean you can run out the backups (many of whom were just in the NASL or a lower level last year) and calmly predict a 3-0 win away on short rest.