We’re back in the CCL! For the first time since 2017, the Vancouver Whitecaps are playing in the CONCACAF Champions League. With the current 16-team, knockout round-only format, the ‘Caps have been drawn against Honduran side Real España for their opening matches.
Where: BC Place, Vancouver, BC
When: Wednesday, March 8th at 7:00 pm PST
How: AM 730 (Radio); OneSoccer, Fubo TV (Internet)
After two 2-1 losses, where Vancouver leads were given up in the face of multiple second half goals, scored across a span of nine minutes or less, it’s fair to say that the 2023 MLS season has not started off well for the Whitecaps. A possible cure-all may come in the opening round of the CCL, however, with Real España coming to town.
I mean, España just played (and lost 3-0, at home) three days ago, then travelled almost 5,000 km to Vancouver. What isn’t to like going in to Wednesday’s match? MLS-induced pessimism, certainly, but I’m thinking things will start to look up.
What Happened Last Time?
When there isn’t a real “Last Time” due to never having played the upcoming opponent, what do we talk about? The closest contextual evidence, of course.
And what would that be? Why, it’s the Whitecaps’ run to the 2016-17 CCL Semi-Final!
Winning all four group stage games, against the likes of Sporting Kansas City and Central FC of Trinidad & Tobago, earned Vancouver the #1 seed going into the knockout round and a date with the New York Red Bulls. One 3-1 win on aggregate later, and the ‘Caps were squaring off against Liga MX powerhouse Tigres UNAL in the semis. The dream run would end there as Tigres would knock out the Whitecaps, winning both ends of the home-and-away, 2-0 in Nuevo Leon and 2-1 in Vancouver.
But for a more Honduran-specific reference, we turn to the 2015-16 edition of the CCL, where Vancouver faced C.D. Olimpia in the group stage. The clubs exchanged 1-0 home wins, though neither advanced to the knockouts, finishing behind group-winner Seattle.
With non-MLS matches, there’s always a shakeup to the Starting XI for the Whitecaps, so I can’t imagine we’ll see every player who started in one, or both, of the two recent losses. Add in any currently injured players (Deiber Caicedo, knee; Cristian Gutierrez, thigh) and the Whitecaps’ lineup may look like the following:
Potential Vancouver Lineup - Hasal; Ahmed, Yao, Laborda, Blackmon; Dajome, Teibert, Raposo; Gauld, Vite; Cordova.
Aside from finding out the status of Wisdom Quaye, who’s suspended until August for a doping violation, and Claudio Innella, who missed Sunday’s game after picking up an injury on February 25th, there isn’t a lot of comprehensive information out there for the España lineup. I’m sorry, my Spanish is not that good!
Nevertheless, after combining info from a few different sources, I think the Real España might look like this:
Potential Real Espana Lineup - Lopez; F. Flores, Zuniga, Garcia, Mejia; M. Flores, Reyes; Vieyra, Rocca, Benavidez; Baez.
The names may not resonate now, but keep them in mind if you’re looking for someone to boo Wednesday night.
What’s Up With The Enemy?
First, a bit of history. According to Wikipedia, Real España is the third-most successful club in the history of the Honduran Liga Nacional, behind CCL regulars Olimpia and Motagua with 12 championships and 13 runner-up finishes since 1968.
They have some CCL experience as well, with an appearance drought that’s just a little bit longer than that of Vancouver. España last appeared in the 2014-15 edition of the CCL, going out in the group stage. To their credit, they did beat Pachuca of Liga MX, but admittedly it was in the last match of the group after the Mexican side had already qualified for the knockouts.
Over the past year, España‘s performance appears to have been good, not great. They finished fourth out of ten teams in the ‘22 Apertura and are currently fifth in the ‘23 Clausura. In their last five Clausura matches, España have gone 1-3-1 with a goal difference of -1. Interestingly, those are their only draws of the current season, while three of their four wins have come on the road. It’s entirely possible that the Whitecaps’ attack will be in for slog Wednesday night.
Then again, when the opposing fan base isn’t in the best of moods, maybe everything will be fine:
Mejor ni vayamos a Canada— Mauricio (@elmau7) March 5, 2023
“We shouldn’t even go to Canada.” I love that lack of optimism (and can, unfortunately, relate to it).
Who’s Worth Watching?
Stats for España were unfortunately a little sparse, but there was some info here and there on the ol’ interwebs. What I was able to glean reinforces a fairly reasonable belief: know where the goals are coming from. An attacking midfielder who primarily plays on the right wing, Benavidez is tied for the team lead in goals (3) during the current Clausura and leads all attacking players in minutes (883) across 11 matches. Sounds like a reliable leader to me.
And if he’s capable of scoring goals like this?
The Whitecaps defense better be on their toes.
One player not worth watching? Ramiro Rocca, in case he does this again. That celly earned him a six-game suspension!
Kind of Related & Kind of Hilarious
Let’s just say Austin FC’s first foray into the madness that is the CONCACAF Champions League did not go well:
Austin FC losing 3-0 to a club from Haiti and conceding like this is the most MLS thing ever pic.twitter.com/0UxKq2gWPP— German (@PopOutGerman) March 8, 2023
You’d be distracted too if the tree from your logo was jinxing you from behind the net.
Who’s Going To Win?
With no significant, recent bases of comparison for Vancouver against any Central American club, let alone one from Honduras and specifically Real España, the best guess I can run with is my old MLS prediction trope: lean into favoring the home side because travel is a pain. I expect España to dig in their heels defensively and hope for a counter attack goal, but I’m calling this a 2-0 win for the Whitecaps.
Eighty Six Forever Predictions
Andrew: 1-0 Real España
Caleb: 3-0 Vancouver
Luis: 2-2 Draw
Sam: 3-0 Vancouver
Referee: Fernando Hernandez Gomez; AR1: Sandra Ramirez; AR2: Michel Morales; 4th: Enrique Santander; VAR: Fernando Guerrero; AVAR: Guillermo Pacheco.