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So. This is it.
The playoffs feel awfully anticlimactic this season, somehow. Usually it's the culmination of all the team has worked for: the ultimate goal of all that cheering we've hurled ourselves into for the last thirty games. But this season is different, of course. We're heading into Major League Soccer next year and pretending that hasn't affected anyone's mindset would be self-delusion. Certainly, the team will be playing hard and the fans will be chanting their lungs out, but there's that lingering reminder that bigger things are around the corner. The soccer gods have even cast as our first-round opponent the team that's moving up a division with us, as if to deliberately call this a sneak preview of what awaits in 2011.
Even the club has been taking it easy, trying out new players, new formations, looking to the future more than the present. Which is a bloody shame because the present involves the Portland Timbers, those hated rivals, and a chance to not only put one over on our Cascadian counterparts but to exit the second division not with a whimper but with a roar. To tell the world "we're not going to MLS because we're rich, or because of our fans; we're going to MLS because we're better at soccer than you are." To finally together the tantalizing potential, to finally make that breakthrough the Whitecaps have spent six months seemingly on the verge of, and to give us something more than hope for the future: confidence in the present.
The odds are against us. I have Portland winning this two-leg playoff derby, and we finished below them in the standings. But immortality is still there for the taking, if the Whitecaps have the wherewithal to grasp it.
There's hardly any point in writing a tactical preview of this match given we played this same opponent on Saturday. There have been no new major developments from either team in the intervening few days, no cunning strategems that have been unveiled. It comes down to the almost overly simple question of who can execute best on the day.
Back on Saturday, the Whitecaps manage to hold the sterling Portland star Ryan Pore in check in spite of our new, more offensive 4-2-3-2 formation. But the Timbers still managed to exploit our central defense in spots and, indeed, got both their goals in this fashion. I doubt that our central defenders are likely to play that poorly again. Central defense has been such a marked strength of this team, no matter how exposed they've been at times by the rotating cast in front of them, that one can almost count on their rising to the occasion.
Meanwhile, the Whitecaps actually managed to get a few goals for once. I'm not sure that will last either. Portland's defense is every bit as good as Vancouver's, and as we saw a few times on Saturday goalkeeper Steve Cronin can steal a game as well as anybody. The Whitecaps generally moved the ball very well on Saturday, but that's because they were keeping the plays simple: only Kyle Porter's cross to Cody Arnoux for the second goal showed much of an audacious spirit. For the most part, the Whitecaps were limited to either simple ball control to get a good scoring chance, or letting Davide Chiumiento try to take guys on. This worked, by all means, but a defense as good as Portland's should start sniffing out those passing lanes eventually.
As much as I hate to boil the game down to something so simple, Portland and Vancouver are extremely evenly matched and whatever team plays its best soccer is the team that's going to win. Because of the fact that their players have been together the whole year and are far more familiar with each other, I think Portland's probably going to play the better soccer. Certainly, a draw here in Burnaby would bode ill for the Whitecaps: winning in Portland is never an easy thing to do. And if we lose, well, it might be time to take down the Whitecaps banners in Swangard Stadium based off that alone.
This is a big one. Unless you're looking to 2011, then it's not so big at all.
News and Notes:
- On the injury front, Randy Edwini-Bonsu and Ridge Mobulu are both questionable with muscle strains. They should both be available to Teitur Thordarson at least as substitutes, however.
- An interesting fact for those of us watching the series: the Timbers' home ground of PGE Park is beginning renovations this week, and as a result Sunday's game in Portland will take place at Harry A. Merlo Field on the campus of the University of Portland. It's supposedly a lovely little soccer-specific stadium, but with a capacity of less than 5,000 it's not an ideal playoff home for the Timbers given that they would easily draw over 12,000 to any playoff matchup at PGE Park. It's also made getting tickets difficult for away supporters, but to their credit Portland has gone through the trouble of making a block of seats available to the Vancouver Southsiders.
- The last playoff series between Portland and Vancouver took place just last year: the Whitecaps prevailed in what I can tell you was a heart-attack-inducing series. Let's hope this one goes in our favour a little more easily.