It's taken me a couple of days to write about our last playoff game, that battle in Portland which, as battles went, was pretty much a Thermopylae. Bloody, constantly tense, ultimately entirely one-sided, and even though we lost, because of that loss we really won. Was it because the emotion of the struggle, the fact that we came within a bit of Jay Nolly heroism (and a bit of shoddy refereeing, determined to singlehandedly square accounts from what Portland fans insisted was an unjust first game in Burnaby)? Partially. It was also partially the long weekend, which not even I can blame the referee for.
This is a dangerous thing for a so-called pundit to admit, but it was difficult to wrap my head around the Portland - Vancouver game from any sort of intellectual perspective. Usually when I watch a Whitecaps game, I at least try to observe the tactics, the strategy, the quality of the individual players on both sides. But I spent most of the last match stuffing my fist in my mough and emitting a high-pitched whining sound, rocking back and forth on my chair and constantly waiting for the seemingly inevitable next shoe to drop. Probably the only correct soccer prediction I've made in the last several months came on the Vancouver Southsiders forum, where I predicted a 1-0 win for Portland and "very squeaky bums indeed." I shouldn't take that much credit for it, though, since if I'd really seen the future I'd have sworn a lot more. It was beautiful and terrible, like a hurricane, and like a hurricane we were lucky to survive it.
I don't want to sit back like a fool and say that we outplayed Portland and our smart defensive game got us the victory, because we didn't. We came out flat. We came out far too flat. Rather than killing the clock with an intelligent possession style, using our superior athleticism and passing skill, we killed the clock with a stupid strategy of fouling, classical time wasting, and hoofing the ball down the pitch as hard as we could possibly manage. Portland came back at us hard. Sure, they got a few lucky calls from the referee, but they also outplayed us comprehensively and if not for some bad luck, some Jay Nolly heroics, and the fact that our back four (minus Willis Forko) was the only part of the team that didn't break down and play the Timbers' game for them, we would have lost by 2-0. At best.
I don't want to talk about it anymore, though. I can't talk about it. I'm getting heart palpitations just thinking about that game. Forget Portland. Portland is gone. Portland is dead. We don't have to think about them for the rest of the year. The next stop is Puerto Rico, where the Whitecaps kick off their second round playoff series tomorrow, and that's where the action is. Let us forget about our last emotional orgy of frenzied despair and concentrate on the next.
The Puerto Rico Islanders were not a very good team in the regular season. They took the last playoff spot by four points over Miami FC and boasted a strikingly poor record of 9 wins, 11 losses, and 10 draws. With a +2 goal differential, the team was generally better than their record but, next to the NSC Minnesota Stars, they were still clearly the second-weakest team to make the playoffs this year.
What the hell happened? Puerto Rico has been contending for championships since forever and many of their core players from the glory days remain. Bill Gaudette, in his third season with the Islanders, is still in the upper echelon of second division goalkeepers along with Jay Nolly, Matt Jordan, and Steve Cronin. Experienced and highly respected defenders such as Noah Delgado, Alexis Rivera, and Scott Jones have been joined by promising new additions such as Major League Soccer veteran Marco Vélez and 21-year-old senior Puerto Rican international Richard Martinez. Former Football League striker David Foley is only twenty-three years old and in his first year with the Islanders but has shown all the quality you'd expect from a former Hartlepool man, and former Whitecaps journeyman Nicholas Addlery has experienced a scoring renaissance of sorts since joining Puerto Rico last season. But in spite of their formidable defense, Puerto Rico conceded a rather mediocre 35 goals this season, sixth in a twelve-team league. They also scored only thirty seven. They can neither stifle teams with defensive play like Vancouver or score them off the pitch like Austin (well, like Austin in theory).
The defense has been a big part of the problem. Some of them, particularly Rivera, are starting to show the years and the hard miles. The veterans have been mostly confined to the bench this season in favour of newbies like Vélez, Real Salt Lake loanee David Horst, Martinez, and 22-year-old Logan Emory. These new players have looked adequate at times but never played to the level expected from Puerto Rico in the past. Their striking is good enough, if not quite elite, at the top end with Foley. Addlery is a capable enough second banana, although again not in the league's first class. But beyond those top two Puerto Rico has starved for scoring, and their depth has cost them matches all season. Foley and Addlery accounted for fifteen of Puerto Rico's thirty-seven goals, with four more coming from veteran Josh Hansen and the rest limited to threes and twos dotted up and down the lineup. Hansen has no history of quality professional goalscoring and is easily reduced by top teams. Even Addlery, while fairly big and surprisingly good with the ball at his feet, lacks real place or aerial presence. When David Foley is shut down and unable to open up space for Addlery to operate, he can be surprisingly ineffective.
David Foley is by far Puerto Rico's greatest threat. He scored one of their goals in the first playoff game and assisted the other in remarkable style. Nine goals in twenty-eight matches during the regular season is a very fair return; better than anyone on the Whitecaps can boast. But he's not at the skill level of a Ryan Pore, nor is he large enough to impose his will physically like a Bright Dike. We saw how well Vancouver coped with those two offensive threats from Portland, and Foley simply isn't at their level. He is the sort of quite good but not great striker Vancouver made an art of eliminating this season. On paper, Vancouver should easily be able to overwhelm Puerto Rico's attack, and their own offense has shown enough flare the last three weeks that a goal or two seems inevitable. The Whitecaps should have a far easier time of their second playoff series than they did their first.
I'm still worried, of course. I wouldn't be myself if I didn't worry. Puerto Rico, for one, owns a tremendous home field advantage. The Whitecaps flew straight to Puerto Rico from Portland at the conclusion of that series, but it's not just the distance. The Puerto Rico fans are passionate, knowledgeable, and numerous: they can be an intimidating lot. The pitches themselves are usually... the polite word would be "quirky", and it can be an entire season's worth of study to determine how they go. We learn today that, like the Rochester playoff game last week, the Whitecaps - Islanders match has been moved to the old-style Astroturf at Bayamon Soccer Complex due to unplayable conditions at Juan Ramon,. The Rochester Rhinos certainly had trouble adjusting to that carpet, which the Islanders use regularly as a practice facility, and if any Vancouver Whitecaps have grown used to the smooth natural surface of Swangard Stadium then Bayamon will come as a real shock. Puerto Rico had a strong home record of 7 wins, 5 losses, and 3 draws at home this regular season for a reason, and a stunning 2-0 playoff victory over league champions Rochester at home only reinforced what an advantage the Puerto Rico Islanders derive just from playing in Puerto Rico.
The counterpart of that, of course, is that the Islanders had 2 wins, 6 losses, and 7 draws on the road in the regular season. They looked outmatched playing the playoff return leg in Rochester and during the regular season only one of those two wins came against a playoff team: the other was from league-worst Baltimore. Flying out of Puerto Rico is every bit as hard for the Islanders as flying in is for their opponents. But this disadvantage is muted during a playoff series, when both teams travel the same distance between legs. The trip between Vancouver and Puerto Rico is the longest road trip in professional sports. Both Vancouver and Puerto Rico will be making that immense journey across North America, and while the Whitecaps will of course have the comfort of their own beds and the support of their home fans, the sheer brutality of the trip might prove the great equalizer in the second leg.
Don't be fooled by anyone's record. This series is almost certain to be tough, and after fighting hard to survive Portland we'll see if the Whitecaps have another gritty battle in them.