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The Whitecaps have spent three days now in Puerto Rico, which is three days longer than I've ever spent there. They prepare to face a rival, Puerto Rico, that on the "I hate those bastards" scale ranks well below Portland and Montreal but above, say, Carolina and Austin. The officials have decided Puerto Rico's stadium is unplayable, but rather than employ the traditional solution of playing both games at Swangard Stadium, they're instead holding the first leg on a mediocre turf field in a 500-seat "stadium" called the Bayamon Soccer Complex. Home ground of Puerto Rican Soccer League side's Bayamon FC's reserve team, I might add, so you know it's quality.
As I said yesterday, Puerto Rico is a decent team with a poor record and some weaknesses. Vancouver is a fairly good team with a decent record and some weaknesses, so while we hold the theoretical advantage it doesn't take much to tip the scales the other way. The turf field, the late start, the long road trip to the most unfamiliar environment in the North American second division, the fact that the weather forecast is rainy with a high of thirty-one degrees... each of those represent a little edge the seasoned Islanders will have over the Whitecaps, too many of whom are still trying to get used to Vancouver, let alone Puerto Rico.
It would take a bold man (or an out-and-out Whitecaps homer) to predict a win for Vancouver in the away leg. The conditions are against us and Puerto Rico is too good to take lightly. If the Whitecaps come out sluggish, drained by the heat and the humidity, and start taking it easy on the unfamiliar surface, the game will go badly for them. The Rochester Rhinos were better than us this season and they didn't learn their lesson until it was too late. Puerto Rico has the firepower to get two goals behind Jay Nolly, and do you want to be in Rochester's situation, facing a do-or-die home fixture needing a two-goal win? Remember how thoroughly Portland bossed us around, yet they only won by one? We don't want that.
The Whitecaps need to stick to their game plan, use their substitutes intelligently, and hope the last three days in Puerto Rico have helped them acclimatize. Keep it simple but don't spend too much time respecting the weather and the stadium, and not enough time respecting the Puerto Rico Islanders. Puerto Rico's greatest advantage is their home field and their greatest disadvantage is that they can only play one game at it. If we lose by one, that's not a bad result. If we draw, we're in the driver's seat. If we win, you might as well start printing Finals tickets now.
The key for Vancouver, as always, will be strong central play. Puerto Rico's usual scoring strategy is to get the ball to David Foley in space, have him put on some tricks, and blast home a goal. Therefore, defensively, Greg Janicki and (most likely) Luca Bellisomo will have to just deny him that space. They shouldn't have a problem with this, and they've worked similar magic on better players in the past. But it bears emphasis that our central defenders will bear a lot of responsibility for either victory or defeat.
Beyond them, Vancouver's best ball handlers are in the middle of the park. Terry Dunfield might be in tough to produce chances: his best passes are low and along the carpet, and that can be hazardous at low-budget, aged artificial turf stadiums like Bayamon Soccer Complex. Hopefully the pitch isn't too irregular for him, but even if it is Dunfield's keen defense and hard tackling will come in very handy against Puerto Rico. The Islanders are capable of playing a physical game but many of their skill players are quite small and light. If Dunfield can put the fear of God into them, that's one more edge the Whitecaps can boast. Martin Nash can deliver long, aerial balls pretty well, which means that he should be able to distribute effectively even if the Bayamon pitch looks like a Norwegian fjord. But in the heat and humidity, can the old man turn in ninety quality minutes? What if Teitur Thordarson plays him as the number ten again and Nash is forced to run on that pitch as well as pass on it?
I both hope and expect that Cody Arnoux will get the start at striker. Whatever I might think of his ability to score goals (and while I'm still not enthusiastic, I am coming around on that), Arnoux is clearly a far superior all-round player to Ridge Mobulu. Mobulu might be the better pure scorer but if we need someone who can adjust to a chippy game, range back to pick up his own balls, and contribute in both ends of the pitch, Arnoux is the only choice. Moreover, Mobulu's high-speed-then-stop firecracker style seems more prone to both fatigue in the heat and ineffectiveness on the old turf.
There should be no problems from any of our wing players, I think. Ethan Gage still has my confidence after a solid performance in Portland. Willis Forko still hasn't got it after a mediocre performance and likely never will. Philippe Davies and Blake Wagner don't seem like they should really struggle on this surface: Davies's best passes are long balls through the air anyway and Wagner is sufficiently active with the ball at his feet that I think he'll be fine in the confined environment.
The key tactical decision, in my eye, is whether to play Nash forward and Gershon Koffie in central midfield (Teitur Thordarson's strategy in the last two matches) or to move Nash back and start Davide Chiumiento. Koffie, while not bad in the second leg against Portland, didn't carry on his momentum from his superb first leg. Moreover, Nash's mobility has been exposed a few times playing up front: his ball distribution is an asset but he simply can't move quickly enough and it costs Vancouver on the counter and in transition. The concern with starting Chiumiento is that his fitness is an issue, and in the heat and humidity on artificial turf you may not want to put him in that physical position.
For that reason I'd start Koffie in central midfield and Nash in an attacking role, replacing Nash with Chiumiento around the fifty-minute mark. Neither Nash nor Chiumiento can be expected to go ninety minutes in Puerto Rico, and therefore neither of them should be put in that position. Save their legs for Burnaby, when we will almost certainly need them. The only problem is if we fall behind and need offense: having to leave Nash on as we go for a goal would lead to one exhausted old man.
This is our last trip ever to Puerto Rico. The more I think about considerations like this, the less I'm going to miss it.
News and Notes:
- Wes Knight is still out with a shoulder separation. No word on the status of Zurab Tsiskaridze, whose foot was trodden on in practice before the last Portland game, but since recent history suggests he's a bench player to Thordarson at best I'm not sure it matters that much.
- The Whitecaps website states that there will be live streaming of the match from the Bayamon Soccer Complex, but then the Whitecaps website says a lot of things. The Internet streams from Puerto Rico have never been very reliable, and last week against Rochester the feed was canceled entirely when the venue changed. That change came at almost the last minute whereas we knew about this move days in advance, but I'll still believe the feed as soon as I see it.