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Here's the deal for the Whitecaps, and it ain't pleasant.
First, Carolina beat Austin 3-1 last night thanks to some shambolic goaltending by my anti-boy Miguel Gallardo. That means the Whitecaps need to drub the Portland Timbers by at least three to regain first place in the NASL Conference and a better seed for the upcoming playoffs. The Whitecaps, offensively challenged as they are, have only scored three goals in a game twice this season and only won by three goals once. And that was against Baltimore, a team playing out the string so thoroughly that last night in Tampa Bay they decided not to bring any substitutes and had their head coach playing midfield. They lost 6-3 (!), but then again their coach, 36-year-old Jim Cherniski, scored a brace. So perhaps we ought to ask old striker Teitur Thordarson to suit up tonight.
Second, the team that we have to beat by three happens to be one of the better teams in the league this season. The Timbers have a modest record but some terrific players: Ryan Pore is my vote for USSF D2 most valuable player, with fifteen goals and some all-round dominating performances. 23-year-old striker Bright Dike has nine goals this season and the former first round pick of the Columbus Crew is making a compelling argument to come into MLS with the Timbers. The team has little enough scoring depth, but they combine those two elite scorers with an MLS veteran, Steve Cronin, in goal and a defense that has allowed the second-fewest goals in the entire division.
Optimists would say that the Whitecaps defense has made its bones defending teams with two good strikers but no scoring depth, and that if our magnificent back four can neutralize Pore and Dike who knows what will happen? We sure won't manage to score three freakin' goals on Steve Cronin, that's what will happen. And if we don't win this one by three, our probable opponent in the first round of the playoffs? The Portland Timbers. God damn, I hate the playoffs.
I hate the regular season, too. Come to think of it, at this moment I hate just about everything.
I'll give voice to the optimists again. In practice earlier this week, the so-called rigid Thordarson seemingly agreed with my analysis of Davide Chiumiento and played his bright young prospect in the central attacking midfield role of a 4-2-3-1, which isn't a formation I've seen a professional unleash in anger for some time but apparently looked bloody good in practice. Ridge Mobulu was the target man, which might be problematic since while I love Mobulu as a prospect I'm not convinced he can finish to save his life right now. I still don't see three goals coming out of that formation, but if Chiumiento can unleash the dragon on the Timbers and Mobulu can poach one it's certainly a wild card.
Also, Mouloud Akloul is expected to return at last from his ankle injury in a substitute role. Akloul played about twenty minutes in his single game of the MLS season and scored a goal. That gives him an extremely impressive strike rate, and implies that if he plays ninety minutes he should score four and a half times. That would probably get us the result we want, but unfortunately Akloul is almost certain to come off the bench and reduce the number of goals he can score.
The playoff situation, in full, is as follows. If Portland beats us by three or more, the Timbers pass the Rochester Rhinos as the third seed and as a result we'll play Rochester in the first round. If we lose to Portland by less than three, draw, or beat them by less than three, we play Portland. If we do somehow manage to pants Portland and beat them by three or more goals, we retake first place in the NASL Conference, enter the playoffs as the second seed, and will take on the NSC Minnesota Stars in the first round. But even that's not a hugely bright side, since last time we played the Stars they beat us 1-0 and made it look easy.
I think I'd almost rather lose by three or more. Portland's a solid team which has had some bad luck, whereas Rochester is an average team that's gotten a few lucky wins they didn't deserve. Hey, Simon Thomas, congratulations on your first professional start. Davide Chiumiento as the attacking midfielder? Nah, he's not in shape yet, bring on Russell Teibert. And Dou-Dou Toure as our striker! Yes, it's all coming together. La'Vere Corbin-Ong, starting central defender. Let's get our tank on. Except that, oh right, we're playing those bastards the Portland Timbers, and even though the Cascadia Cup is already decided for this season (in their favour [again]), I really, really want to beat Portland even if it does screw us up for the playoffs. If we had to play Portland and the winner would be fed into the Disintegration Machine, I'd still be going balls-out trying to win it.
There really is no way for us to win. Except to win this game, and to win this game huge. That would be immensely satisfying on every level. It would give us a relatively weak playoff opponent, it would give us our rightful second seed back, and of course it would involve curbstomping the Portland Timbers. That is definitely the best possible scenario.
So Ridge, I hope you've been practicing your shooting because we're bloody well going to need you.
News and Notes:
- No official word on the Whitecaps' starting eleven, but if they stick to that 4-2-3-1 I'd expect the following: GK Nolly, LB Forko (should be Tsiskaridze but Teitur seems to have a bit of a crush on ol' Willis), CB Janicki, Bellisomo, RB Knight, CM Dunfield, Nash, AML Wagner, AMC Chiumiento, AMR Davies, ST Mobulu (should be Edwini-Bonsu but apparently Teitur is hoping that if he ignores Randy long enough he'll go away).
- Mouloud Akloul, as mentioned above, and Nelson Akwari are both back from injury. Akloul is almost certain to come off the bench and Akwari probably should just to be on the safe side. Also back from his bad back is Wes Knight, who will probably slot straight back into the starting eleven. Good job last week, though, Ethan Gage.
- I really, really want to see Zurab Tsiskaridze start today. I don't know what it is but Willis Forko has looked pretty incompetent at left back. Most glaringly, he's been completely unable to move the ball forward or contribute to the attack in any meaningful way, which is an important qualification when you need to win by three. In particular, if Teitur goes 4-2-3-1 that means that Forko will need to play the ball a bit further: either to the attacking winger Wagner or across to one of the central midfielders. This would be a bad thing. Start Tsiskaridze, Teitur, I'm begging you. This game isn't about 2011. This game is about 2010. We need this one.
- The Southsiders and the Timbers Army have a fun little fundraiser going: before the match at about 3 PM they're going to be hosting a penalty shootout between the two supporters' groups. The Southsiders will be picking the shooters with a raffle: one ticket for three bucks, three for five, and an arm's-length for fifteen. Tickets will be sold and the raffle conducted at our usual tailgate spot; the actual shooting will take place on the south goal at Swangard Stadium. So if you ever wanted a chance to take a shot off Swangard's hallowed turf, this is your moment.