Live on Sportsnet Pacific and West
It is no stretch to call this the biggest game in soccer history.
In one corner stand the Vancouver Whitecaps, the big bad bullies of Major League Soccer. Last year's MLS doormats, the Whitecaps have charged forward and defeated some comers to become a decent mid-table team punching a bit above its weight thanks to hot goalkeeping and a lucky free kick. Under ashen-faced supremo Martin Rennie, the Whitecaps are currently running near the top of the West and, no, I don't think anybody expects them to stay there but it's bloody impressive stuff all the same.
In the other corner, FC Edmonton, plucky home underdogs. Last year they surprised everybody by challenging for high honours through much of the season, only for their form to slip in the final third of the year and Fort Lauderdale to annihilate them in one horrifying playoff defeat. They stand last in the North American Soccer League, victims of too-high expectations and unable to get a single break in the world four games into their season. Nobody expects them to stay there either.
These two teams have never met: not competitively, not in a friendly, not in a Reserves or Residency match, nada. The Whitecaps went 2-1-1 against the Edmonton Aviators in 2004, for what that's worth, which is nothing. This Edmonton team doesn't have Ibrahim Mollaibrahimagaoglu to kick around.
We have only the teams' records in their respective leagues to judge them by, and those records suggest the Whitecaps should be the favourites. Fine; even in Edmonton nobody will disagree. But I've said all year that the Whitecaps' excellent record is bolstered by a bit of luck that's unlikely to hold forever, while FC Edmonton isn't as bad as their record suggests. I even warned yesterday not to underestimate the Eddies and still the 0-3 predictions roll in.
FC Edmonton has two previous matches against MLS competition, both against Toronto FC in last year's Voyageurs Cup. They lost the first leg at Commonwealth Stadium 3-0, which I think it the source of a lot of Vancouver's confidence. Well, I was at that game so let me remind you of what happened. Edmonton's best player Shaun Saiko was sent off unjustly in the 23rd minute for a firm but fair challenge on Oscar Cordon. Toronto's first goal was excellent, with Maicon Santos finishing off a lovely passing play that turned Edmonton's defense inside out, but for the most part the Eddies kept punching only to be sunk by Toronto capitalizing on some horrifying Edmonton errors. (Incidentally, errors in their own third would remain a serious problem for Edmonton all season.)
It was a game Toronto deserved, but probably not by the score they got. This was a time where Edmonton still hadn't found their feet: not long after they would lose 5-0 at home to Montreal, but at the end of the season Edmonton was in the playoffs and Montreal wasn't. Many of the worst players from that night... Conrad Smith, Rein Baart, Chris Lemire... are long gone. The return leg saw Edmonton lose a far more credible 1-0 game in Toronto where Aron Winter, despite a commanding aggregate lead, went with close to his best eleven and still had a fight on his hands. It was probably the last time Aron Winter got a coaching decision right.
Since most of my readers are Vancouver Whitecaps fans I'm sure they'll remember our own tangle with the then-North American Soccer League Montreal Impact. We won 1-0 at Stade Saputo, which was all well and good, after Russell Teibert slung the best cross of the Whitecaps season into Terry Dunfield. But it was a tight game, albeit one controlled on balance by the Whitecaps, and at Empire Field the Impact damned near killed us. Ali Gerba cashed in a bit of a questionable penalty (Gantar!!!!) and the teams spent extra time hurling the ball at each other in a match Vancouver was hugely lucky to win. And, again, this was a Montreal Impact team that finished out of the playoffs.
Vancouver also took some weaker teams badly in the pre-season. They lost on penalties with a "B" team to Martin Rennie's old Carolina Railhawks and, worse, barely edged out the Toronto FC Academy in Florida after Toronto's first team went to prepare for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Edmonton is a very athletic team with the double advantage of home field and a long rest. With the number of secondary players expected to play for the Whitecaps, the temptation will be to let the ball do less of the work and get into a straight track meet; this temptation must be avoided. Edmonton can and will outrun Vancouver if the Whitecaps let the game develop that way.
The key for Vancouver will be to challenge Edmonton's midfield, which features some relatively slow and unreliable players. Attacking midfielder Shaun Saiko is still their finest player but if Jun Marques Davidson starts the Whitecaps will at least have a chance to mark Saiko out of the game; when he's under pressure he's markedly less effective.
Both Vancouver and Edmonton may be able to make some hay down the wings. In Kyle Porter, Alex Semenets, and Matt Lam, Edmonton has three players who could run at or through the Vancouver fullbacks if they got the chance. Lee Young-pyo could handle them, but he's in Vancouver. A healthy Alain Rochat would do well, but he's recovering from injury and, horror of horrors, may well line up at centre back tonight anyway.
Edmonton's fullbacks are also a bit of a weakness. Fabrice Lassonde isn't used to NASL speed yet. Jonathan Joseph-Augustin, on the other flank, has played at a good level in the past but hasn't for a few years and has showed the occasional nasty challenge when caught out of position. Of course, the Whitecaps don't play wide well: Edmonton may get a reprieve there.
Vancouver would be smart to keep it simple, stick to their usual solidly defensive style, and count on skill up to to break through the Edmonton defense at some point. Of course, they would also have been smart to bring a stronger team. This is only our national championship and Martin Rennie's decision to prioritize 3% of the road to the NASL playoffs over 25% of the road to the CONCACAF Champions League makes him look awfully short-sighted. Canada's other two MLS teams have gotten huge attention and big attendances by mounting good Champions League runs; Rennie would appearently prefer a playoff spot for a fanbase that's pretty used to them.
Still, it's too late to do anything about that. The Edmonton lineup has a few changes as well: Steven Sandor reports that goalkeeper David Monsalve is likely to make his first start of the season.
This game ought to go Vancouver's way but there are question marks everywhere. I vacillate between predicting a draw and a Vancouver win. The trouble is that we just don't know what Vancouver's second eleven has to offer and how well that mixed squad will mesh, and we definitely don't know whether Edmonton will get their butts into that proverbial gear they've been lacking this year.
Either way, I'm predicting a good game. It's Edmonton - Vancouver. That's guaranteed.