|Leading Scorer: Shaun Saiko (4)|
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Obviously, that first leg didn't quite go the way FC Edmonton would have wanted.
Actually, this whole season hasn't gone the way FC Edmonton would have wanted. Well, until last Sunday, when the Eddies finally scored their first win of the season by nailing the Carolina Railhawks 3-0. St. Albert, Alberta's Shaun Saiko, the third-best player in the history of that city behind Erin McLeod and me, scored the hat trick. Uh-oh! Edmonton's back!
Sadly, the storyline is not so simple. One of Saiko's goals was from the spot and another really should have been corralled by goalkeeper Ray Burse. Edmonton and Carolina played pretty even soccer until everything Saiko touched started turning to goal and these ain't Martin Rennie's Railhawks, with Carolina expected to vie with the Atlanta Silverbacks for last in the NASL. Plus, this week Vancouver has every off-field advantage: playing at home with one more day of rest.
Then again, Martin Rennie is expected to once again run out the B team for this game (rumour is he might actually play Russell Teibert, which surely means he's not taking Edmonton seriously). Edmonton certainly look like they could have scored last week. And two goals isn't that many, as the 2009 Whitecaps could remind us.
This isn't to start predicting upsets and shouting "Vancouver 1, Edmonton 3!" from the rooftops. I have confidence the Whitecaps, who are on better form and should get some quality from their depth, will win both the match and the tie. But it's a boring preview if I just talk about why favourites are favourites so let's at least try to find a reason or an upset.
Last week, I talked about how FC Edmonton isn't quite clicking yet. That's still true. To pick only the most glaring example, forward Kyle Porter has only one goal in 354 minutes despite piling up eight last year. Veteran midfielder and highest-paid player Ilja van Leerdam played well against Vancouver but still hasn't put together two good games in a row, and high-profile loanee Yashir Pinto is waiting for a chance to produce. Edmonton's defense managed to shut down what isn't much of a Carolina attack (Brian Shriver, Nick Zimmerman, and prayer) on Sunday, but Kevin Hatchi still looks like a shadow of his 2011 self and Fabrice Lassonde is said to be out injured.
Pinto deserves a further look, as he was Edmonton's strongest attacking player last week. The twenty-one-year-old has two assists already despite missing Edmonton's three-game season-opening road trip with visa issues. He's scored eight times for the Chilean U-20s and has also scored in the Chilean Primera Division. But by reputation he's more of a pass-first type. Indeed, one of Edmonton's problems since last season is that they have nobody who can just hang around up top and pound the ball into the goal; Shaun Saiko rides so high to compensate for this that he takes a lot of his playmaking out of the game. It's a mystery to me why Edmonton hasn't at least brought Ali Gerba in for a run around the block yet.
But Pinto is a talent and gave Carlyle Mitchell trouble last week, with only slightly mis-hit passes, a bit of bad luck, or an uncalled foul in the box stopping him. He's neither that small nor that quick but he's sly and shifty, with a knack of finding his way into the right position. It's early days in his North American career but I bet he's going to get a lot of Chris Wondolowski-style "how did we leave him so open?!" reactions in the coming months. He just needs to do up his shooting boots a little tighter and use the technical advantage he has over most NASL and MLS defenders (if Pinto gets a turn on Michael Boxall tonight...).
The Whitecaps may also have to work on containing Matt Lam. Lam was one of Edmonton's better players in the 2010 exhibition season; good enough to get a contract in the Japanese second division with Dwight Lodeweges. Japan didn't work out so Lam is back in Edmonton and off to a good start. He played as a substitute last Wednesday and, while too withdrawn to make a serious impact, was among the Eddies' more dangerous players; he also had a fine game against Carolina.
Last week, the Whitecaps dominated the middle of the park. If they keep that up, they'll win and that's the end of it. Edmonton just hasn't shown much creativity out wide and, despite pummeling Jordan Harvey to smithereens, didn't get a single decent cross out of 90 minutes. They don't do much crossing in general; Edmonton has a very straight-ahead attack. This could punish them again tonight.
For Edmonton to get the upset, they'll need players like Pinto, Porter, and Lam to rise to the occasion. They'll need to get something going through the middle of the park, which means that Shaun Saiko will need to get touches and use them more efficiently than he did of Wednesday. David Monsalve will have to hold up in goal and the Edmonton defense will need to play more intelligently: they were badly pushed-around by Eric Hassli and Omar Salgado last week so they will need to make up for their physical deficit with skill.
None of these things are likely to happen... but two goals just isn't that many if they do.