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Two big simultaneous games on the first day of the Voyageurs Cup deserves two game-day threads. But since I'm just one man, and this is just one website, they'll have to settle for sharing one. They're already sharing a timeslot and what's good enough for Sportsnet is good enough for me.
On one end of the country, in the land of poutine and smoked meat, the Vancouver Whitecaps prepare for yet another tough game against yet another team that hates their guts. The Montreal Impact have always played the Vancouver Whitecaps tough, and they won't be taking it easy just because we're in MLS now. Quite the contrary, I expect the passion to be turned up to eleven. Anybody who's at Stade Saputo the day of a Montreal Canadiens game seven is a die-hard, and I'm sure the Whitecaps will hear it from one of the most hostile crowds in North America.
On the other, in a pleasant little prairie city just emerged from winter's icy grip, a fledgling team makes its competitive home opener. FC Edmonton is the smallest professional team in Canada playing at the biggest soccer venue in the country. Even with Aron Winter talking about his depth and how he's going to give the nobodies a run out, there isn't anybody marking FC Edmonton as favourites. They probably shouldn't be, either. Toronto FC isn't as bad as their record suggests and FC Edmonton probably isn't quite as good as their two wins indicate.
Two very different games, in perhaps the two most radically opposed parts of the country, to determine who's in the drivers seat for our national championship. How quintessentially Canadian.
My anticipated lineup for FC Edmonton is a wild, barely educated guess. They have a few key injuries to players like Paul Matthijs and Alex Semenets but it's still a more-or-less healthy team. The big issue with them is that their first eleven doesn't seem to be fully set; there's a lot of directions that Harry Sinkgraven could go with this team. However, he's been sticking hard to his 4-3-3 so far this season and I have no reason to believe he'll change his mind now. My apologies for the lack of my usual formation graphic; I haven't got Photoshop on my netbook.
Rago - Oppong - Hamilton - Surprenant
Kooy - Saiko - Lam
Smith - Lemire - Antoniuk
I find it hard to imagine that FC Edmonton can hang with Toronto FC. You guys know that I'm not an MLS supremacist, nor am I a limp-wristed Toronto sympathizer. But, even with the depth players in, the game really is at Toronto's disposal.
I mean, who's Edmonton got? Veteran goalkeeper Rein Baart can, theoretically, steal a game, particularly with Toronto's sometimes-mediocre finishing, but that's nothing you can rely on. The defense has some promising pieces; Alex Surprenant looks like he's gotten back his form from his days as a can't-miss Impact prospect, I like the looks of young Paul Hamilton, and some of the others aren't bad players for this level. They're decent individuals, but short on veteran savvy and without a real stud in the bunch. Worse, they're not yet playing as a team and were carved open by the Carolina Railhawks a couple times in their last game.
The midfield is much the same story; young players, some good guys. I love the look of Shaun Saiko more and more every time I see him; he has that young Julian de Guzman look to him. Unfortunately he's facing the actual Julian de Guzman. The injury to Dutch veteran Paul Matthijs is going to hurt Edmonton significantly. And at forward, with Alex Semenets hurt guys like Chris Lemire are going to have to carry way too much of the mail. Dan Antoniuk is the team's most accomplished scorer on the team and Antoniuk was last a decent professional forward in the paleolithic era. Say what you will about Toronto's weaknesses, but unless Edmonton's decent individuals play far better as a team than they did against Carolina, Toronto has Edmonton's number at every position.
The Vancouver starting lineup, as ever, is filled with question marks. Not just the usual (everybody is injured!), but the unusual (somebody is certainly going to be rested!). There's been a lot of scuttlebutt that Joe Cannon might make his second start of the year in goal in place of Jay Nolly. I think some of that is just supporter dissatisfaction with Nolly burbling to the surface and leading to a bit of wishful thinking, but still, it's being repeated by knowledgeable people. As for the rest, well, all I can do is guess. Some of these guesses are even less well-grounded than you might think; for example, Russell Teibert has been training well lately and, with Stephen Hart in the stands in Montreal, might want a chance to show off his stuff to the national team boss. As ever, this is pure guesswork.
The fitness questions are the biggest ones. If Mouloud Akloul is ready to go, I can see Teitur Thordarson giving Akloul a chance in the starting lineup and giving Blake Wagner the night off (boy, do I hope that happens). Gershon Koffie is probably an automatic starter if he isn't too banged-up from the African Youth Championship and his long flight from South Africa. Terry Dunfield has a broken nose; not a critical injury but Teitur may still not want to risk him. Davide Chiumiento has had some fitness problems lately; maybe he gets the day off? Shea Salinas is fighting to come back; maybe he gets some time? Who knows?
Leathers - Boxall - Rochat - Wagner
Knight - Dunfield - Koffie - Teibert
Hassli - Sanvezzo
As for Vancouver, well, there's a lot of questions in this game. Which Vancouver team will show up? The one that beat Toronto, played New England hard, played Sporting Kansas City even harder, and looked like an underrated playoff contender? Or the team that crapped the bed against Houston and Dallas? The Whitecaps, on their best day, can certainly handle whatever the Impact will throw at them. But lately the Whitecaps have been far from their best and Montreal might not have to elevate their game too far to handle the Whitecaps at home.
For that matter, Montreal has some identity issues to sort through too: they're on a record of no wins, two draws, and one loss to start the year and have looked awful. But there's way too much talent on that team for it to stay that way. They have the best goalkeeper in division two, Bill Gaudette. They have the best forward in Division Two, Ali Gerba. If you were to list the best defenders in division two, Philippe Billy would be near the top of almost anyone's list, and if you were to assemble a fantasy NASL midfield you might end up with Antonio Ribeiro, Leo Di Lorenzo, David Testo, and Luke Kreamalmeyer. Add in some first-class journeymen like Zurab Tsiskaridze and Amir Lowery, some good-looking European talent like Kevin Hatchi and Idriss Ech-Chergui... list all their key players like that and you begin to realize why Montreal would be a pretty decent MLS team if they joined the league tomorrow.
Yes, they've really sucked so far in 2011. But with all that talent, unless Marc Dos Santos spent the winter drinking grain alcohol out of a plastic jug the team is going to put it together eventually. If the Whitecaps are missing a few players or are a bit lethargic and the Impact decide to put it together against us... they could run us off the pitch. I'm serious. There is miles of talent in that lineup. If not for Montreal's struggles so far this year I'd be terrified.
As it is, I'm quietly afraid. I'm trying to talk myself into this matchup (Ali Gerba is strong and skilled but slow; Michael Boxall seems put on this earth to mark the guy) but anything could happen. Anything from 3-0 Vancouver to 3-0 Montreal wouldn't surprise me in the least. It's all in the cards.
God, I love this tournament.
Note: I'm in Edmonton and will be attending the FC Edmonton - Toronto FC game. I'll check into this thread with updates on both games when I may, but obviously, any of you guys watching Montreal - Vancouver are more than encouraged to swing by and keep me informed!