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27 July 11:50 pm

Late July in the Beehive State, and the first of two visits to one of Major League Soccer’s toughest stadiums.

Such encounters usually provide a good measuring stick for MLS clubs. Friday night offered that type of test for Whitecaps FC, with the first of three regular season meetings versus Real Salt Lake.

Last season’s defeat in Sandy, Utah, was a distant memory. What was in front of Martin Rennie’s squad was a chance to close the gap on second-place RSL and solidify their hold on third place in the west.

A second win over league leaders San Jose Earthquakes provided a source of belief that earning a superior head-to-head record against Jason Kreis’ talented side was possible.

Now earning that head-to-head record will be settled in the future. As for Friday’s encounter, Whitecaps FC were given the feeling that their time to shine in MLS is still to come…

As a defeat, the Blue and White offered plenty in Friday’s match, and that may prove as a strong reminder to RSL, the Western Conference, and MLS that Vancouver are emerging in this league.

A draw or a Whitecaps FC victory was a possible outcome in Utah, but Salt Lake got a favourable penalty decision before scoring the match winner from arguably their best chance of the match.

It wasn’t a vintage RSL performance, but in some ways, it didn’t need to be. The desired result was achieved. With 42 points from 23 games played, it’s hard not to see Salt Lake outside the west’s top two places for the remainder of the regular season.

Nonetheless, Vancouver will relish their RSL re-match in two weeks. They certainly put enough of a scare into their hosts with the type of chances they created. How much joy would it have been to see a Jun Marques Davidson goal? Only the width of a post denied ‘Caps fans that possibility.

It would have also been interesting to see how Friday’s match would have unfolded had a second Whitecaps FC goal arrived soon after Mattocks’ well-taken equalizer? In the end, what we can take from Utah was how well we created our chances.

It was as if the move that created Mattocks’ goal inspired the great quality of Vancouver’s chances. Usually a solid defensive unit, Salt Lake were put on the back foot in the second half, and that offers a very good sign for the future.

There have been times when creating chances has been a challenge for Whitecaps FC in 2012, but that wasn’t the case on Friday. Coming from a variety of sources, RSL were put under the type of pressure that will have them dreading next month’s trip to BC Place.

And for the third straight game, Whitecaps FC offered something else - entertainment. Not only did Rennie’s side show again that they can compete against the league’s best, they can do so in entertaining style.

The job ahead will be to polish that ability to compete and entertain. Training sessions will help considerably, and with the schedule not as hectic over the next three months, a welcome reality.

Defeats always leave an empty feeling, but Whitecaps FC supporters know their squad have shown the resolve to bounce back and compete in 2012.

We also know RSL is an MLS powerhouse, but the impression the ‘Caps may have left on them might be more significant. With continued growth and progress, Vancouver may yet earn more of the MLS talk in the autumn months.

Time for a summer break! And then back at it in August. That looks like a tasty month…

26 July 2:22 pm

Dane Richards is becoming a crowd favorite with his play on the wing, and I have been thrilled by a number observations liking Dane to a young Carl Valentine. As a result, I spent some time with Dane to see how much we are alike, both on and off the pitch.

Dane is Jamaican and I have Jamaican blood (my dad is from Jamaica, so this is not just a good tan…), we both have lots of sisters - Dane has five to my four. We both have had some scary hairstyles and we both agree that our afros are not to be seen again.

On the pitch, we both played on the right wing, had speed to burn, and both of our left legs were for standing on. Both of us are not very tall, but learnt to bounce off defenders get to the byline, cross the ball, and energize the crowd with exciting wing play.

The only thing that separates us is our taste in food. Dane is a chef who likes good Jamaican food and I was brought up on your traditional English fish and chips.

In my playing days, my nickname was ‘Chalkie’, as managers told me to hug the sideline (chalk-filled lines). Now the ‘Great Dane’ (yeah, I made that up!) gets to do that job on the right wing for the ‘Caps and I will be feeling a little ‘Déjà Vue’ every time he speeds down the line.

25 July 4:42 pm

When you travel through the London Underground you'll hear an automated message at every station warning you to be cautious before you step off. “Mind the gap” says the kind voice, as it urges you to be aware of the distance between the train and the platform.

After a while the frequency of the announcement becomes somewhat comical. We get it, “mind the gap”. Thanks.

But the phrase has taken on meaning in the UK outside of just public transportation, and for many it’s no joke when they say “mind the gap”.

Take this year’s English Premier League race for instance. While it came down to the final seconds of the season for the title to be decided, Manchester City have no hesitation in reminding their rivals Manchester United to “mind the gap” between the two teams, as the Blues claimed their first league title in 44 years.

So on Wednesday, the Canadian women’s national team had to “mind the gap” when they played current FIFA Women’s World Cup champions Japan.

The Asian nation were unheralded before last year’s triumph, but they’ve proven to be worthy of their status. Canada, on the other hand, had an underwhelming campaign during the World Cup.

Now fast-forward back to Wednesday.

The first 20 minutes of the match did indeed show a gap between the two sides, as one team quite clearly looked superior to the other. That team, however, was the team in white with red trim.

As I sat only three rows from the field, I could see a Canadian side that was confident on the ball, dominating possession and not giving their opponents an inch when they did give the ball away.

The problem though was one we’ve seen all too many times before with Canadian national teams, an inability to find a creative way to generate scoring chances in the final third of the field.

The Japanese, meanwhile, were resolute in their play. Despite being outplayed, they remained patient and continued to play their game until they settled in and found opportunities. Once they did they punished the Canucks with two first-half goals.

Those goals knocked the Canadians off their game, and despite a second half goal which pleased the many red-clad fans in attendance, the Red and White couldn’t recover to get a result.

In the end, the match proved that Canada do indeed need to “mind the gap” as they work their way through this tournament. But after showing flashes of promise, they should also keep this in mind:

It’s still only a short step to the platform.

23 July 1:20 am

January’s CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament turned out to be one of the best soccer events we’ve ever had in this city. It was especially pleasing for myself and my family to watch my sister Brittany play in such an electric atmosphere in her hometown, something I know she’d dreamt of for years.

Pardon what may seem like exaggeration, but I probably have the best sister in the world. She is the most loving and caring person I know and always thinks of her family above herself. As her baby brother, she’s very protective.  On the positive I’ve always been pampered by her, particularly with gifts from her travels. On the other side, most guys will worry about whether or not they can bring a girl home to their mother, for me it’s my sister.

To see someone succeed who shows you such love brings extreme gratification. So the pride and joy I felt at BC Place that night in seeing the team qualify for the Olympic Games inspired me to make a quick decision.

I’m going to London baby!

It wasn’t only the swell of emotion that made the decision easy, but also the fact that myself nor anyone else in my family had ever been able to travel far to see Britt play in a major international tournament.

Growing up, if I wasn’t playing myself I’d be at all of Britt’s tournaments. From anywhere in the Lower Mainland, to the island, across the border, or as far as Winnipeg for nationals, we were always there. But as she continued to rise up and eventually play with the national team, it made it harder to tag along. With cost and time off required from school and work, we just weren’t able to attend and show our support in person.

That’s not to say that we didn’t go to some massive tournaments. I’ll never forget the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship held right here in BC and in Edmonton. That was the first milestone for what has been a golden generation of women’s national team players for Canada, and seeing 47,784 people pack Commonwealth stadium was nothing short of amazing.

I’ll never forget the medal ceremonies after that game. All the Canadian players were bitterly disappointed to have fallen to the United States in extra time. Yet still, amidst the heartbreak, my sister spotted myself and my parents in the crowd and blew us a kiss. That pretty well sums up how awesome she is.

There was also the 2003 Women’s World Cup which was held in the United States after original host nation China was deemed too dangerous due to SARS. My family certainly wasn’t complaining about the venue change. With knockout matches in Portland, we were able to go watch the quarterfinal win over China and semifinal match against Sweden.

That was a magical run for such a young team.

Now, my mom and I are back watching them in person, almost as if it’s all come full circle.

This time though, just maybe, that kiss will be blown with a gold medal around her neck.

22 July 9:34 pm

It was ‘Soccer Sunday’ on Bell Pitch, and what a way to wrap up a busy week for Whitecaps FC at BC Place.

Martin Rennie’s side have two more Sunday games at home this season. The win over San Jose was not only their second-straight 2-1 result over the Earthquakes, it was Vancouver’s second league victory on a Sunday afternoon in 2012.

Like any win, this hard-fought triumph over Frank Yallop’s MLS high-flyers was vital in terms of the three points taken, and the morale boost it provides the Blue and White.

To take six points off the favourites for the 2012 Supporters’ Shield (top club in the MLS regular season) is a huge building block to achieve. It was also the perfect tonic for a club that has been through an eventful recent spell.

Among those events have been several notable roster moves that have left supporters looking at their match day programs to familiarize themselves with the new faces. Of course, that familiarization is made easier if the new faces can make an immediate impact. This week, Dane Richards and Barry Robson did just that.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for Richards following his move west from New York Red Bulls. The Jamaican international has already made three appearances for the ‘Caps, but his efforts on Sunday will be remembered fondly.

Richards’ ability to out-pace defenders on the right flank is a real asset for Vancouver. The Caribbean midfielder not only found the scoresheet, he also tormented an MLS All-Star in Earthquakes left fullback Justin Morrow.

With Camilo Sanvezzo and Darren Mattocks also causing San Jose headaches, the speed and skill of the ‘Caps attack is sure to cause concern for Vancouver’s future opponents.

As for Robson, the midfielder’s integration with Whitecaps FC is improving by each match. The passionate Scot battled throughout Sunday’s clash - fully aware of the importance of the occasion.

His passing and distribution drew regular applause from supporters, while his efforts to win possession in midfield were very important during the spells that produced Whitecaps FC’s two goals on Sunday.

He also showed his striking power when he converted Vancouver’s lone penalty of the season so far. By the late stages, Robson’s name was chanted in praise throughout BC Place.

If Richards and Robson generated a large amount of excitement, the reaction new signing Kenny Miller received when he substituted late on for his MLS debut was also a highlight of the day.

Apart from almost making a sensational start with a chance at goal, the Scottish international striker did what he could to help his new club to victory in the final few minutes. His Whitecaps FC moments will surely come soon enough…

The Sunday dinner or BBQ will be a bit more satisfying for ‘Caps fans this July 22, 2012. With a dozen more matches left in the regular season, supporters will be hoping for a feast of satisfying results to consume on between now and late October.

Until Friday night!

19 July 1:54 pm

It was a disappointing result settling for a draw against LA Galaxy, but the sell-out crowd and the performances by both teams made it another memorable night at BC Place.

There are lots of reasons to be excited for the remainder of the season, as the ‘Caps last 13 MLS games are all against Western Conference foes.  There were complaints about the league’s conference-based schedule early on, but I have to say that this format makes each and every game very very important, as a win or loss is a six-point swing in the standings. So buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride the rest of the way.

When you look at some of the teams in the west – LA Galaxy, San Jose, Real Salt Lake, Seattle, Portland – you find players like David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Chris Wondolowski, Kyle Beckerman, Alvaro Saborio, Fredy Montero and Kris Boyd. With top talent, the quality of each remaining match promises to be exceptional, just as it was last night against the Galaxy.

On top of that, we find a key to any sports culture – tradition.

Big teams with big players bring back happy memories of playing in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Aside from Real Salt Lake, each of those markets were a part of the old NASL, with all but the Galaxy retaining their traditional name and legacy.

Today’s LA team have Beckham as their main attraction, but the old LA Aztecs had a certain Dutch player by the name of Johan Cruyff, one of the best soccer players the world had ever seen. Cruyff won the European Footballer of the year three times (1971, ‘73 and ‘74). He scored 33 times for Holland in 48 matches and the Dutch never lost a game that he scored in.

San Jose Earthquakes also had world-class talent, with a player by the name of George Best who I grew up watching at Manchester United. Best, from Northern Ireland, was also considered one of the best soccer players in the world. He helped Manchester United become the first English team to become European champions. While at San Jose, he scored one of the best goals in NASL history when he beat six players inside the box before smashing the ball into the net.

Of course, the Seattle and Portland rivalry with Vancouver already had the fans in a fever every time they played. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that both teams had quality international players on their roster. Portland had defender Willie Donachie (Scotland) and striker Clyde Best (Bermuda) while the Sounders could trot out midfielder Bruce Rioch (Scotland captain) and midfielder Alan Hudson (England).

As we saw last night with the Galaxy stars against our own players such as Barry Robson, Gershon Koffie, Young-Pyo Lee, Jay DeMerit and Darren Mattocks – not to mention the addition of Kenny Miller – there is once again some very talented players plying their trade in North America.

We’ve had a number of memorable matches already this season, and playing conference rivals with top talent on both teams will only make the rest of the schedule more meaningful and more exciting. We're set to witness mouthwatering games nearly every week, with playoff spots and trophies still very much up for grabs.

Let the rest of the western games begin.

19 July 12:26 pm

It was one of the hottest tickets of the summer in Vancouver – a visit by David Beckham and the star-studded LA Galaxy to take on Vancouver Whitecaps FC in a crucial MLS Western Conference encounter.

Most times, the hype and anticipation of a live sporting event is balanced by what unfolds during that event. Wednesday night, however, Whitecaps FC and the Galaxy took full advantage of the energized atmosphere at BC Place by offering more great moments to the 2012 MLS season catalogue.

From a soccer standpoint, the match was a tale of two halves. Whitecaps FC set the initiative by taking a two-goal lead into the halftime break before the Galaxy showed the heart of defending MLS Cup champions to earn something from their lone regular season visit to Vancouver.

The game likely left those who watched it live, on television, or online in one of three categories. For passionate Whitecaps FC fans, there was disappointment at being held at home, while Galaxy supporters would have been relieved to earn a late point on the road.

The third category may have been the more popular one, as the midweek clash left people fully entertained and fulfilled by the gallant efforts of both clubs. Yet, unlike the experience of a satisfying meal, Wednesday’s match will have fans hungry for more soccer entertainment in Vancouver.

There were likely some first-time visitors to a Whitecaps FC game at BC Place on Wednesday night, and depending on their level of knowledge of soccer, the club, and MLS, it proved an outstanding advert for new converts.

Much credit must go to the home side, who showed spirit and application to take the game to their high-profile guests. In particular, some key individual performances made Whitecaps FC fans jump out of their seats!

Fully deserving of the ‘Budweiser Man of the Match’ award, Gershon Koffie played with determination against LA. He deserved more than the one goal he actually scored, while his eagerness to create openings for Darren Mattocks and home debutant Dane Richards was a positive sign for the future.

The young Ghanaian also deserves praise for his defensive work, particularly in the first half, as he did well to nullify the threat that was David Beckham in central midfield.

It was in midfield that another of the ‘Caps top performers offered his new fans a taste of his influential abilities. Using the recent extended road trip to gain his match fitness, Barry Robson might have become the new hero in Van City.

His first-half goal was superbly taken, while his efforts to score again brought BC Place to life in the dying stages. With each match under his belt, Robson is proving to be a talismanic character in Martin Rennie’s side. At the very least, Robson would have been full of adrenaline from the crowd reactions to his efforts on Wednesday night.

And what of his fellow countryman Kenny Miller, who watched his new club from the press box? He must be itching to have a chance to experience the BC Place atmosphere on Sunday when San Jose Earthquakes pay a visit.

It is a bit difficult to sum up Wednesday’s match, but maybe the opinion of one broadcaster at the end of the game offers the best assessment. In his mind, a Whitecaps FC match at BC Place is the best live sporting event you can attend in Vancouver. When you assess our home games this season, the above argument has plenty of evidence to support it.

If you missed out on Wednesday’s soccer fireworks, you only need to wait four more days before another Whitecaps FC match takes place in downtown Vancouver.

Top MLS club San Jose make the visit this weekend, and if the events of May 5 are anything to go by, we are all in for a real soccer treat!

We hope to see you Sunday!

19 July 10:54 am

No one really left much when I was younger. Or at least if they did, I didn’t notice. That small state on the East Coast was all I knew, and all I ever thought I would know. And at the time, I was fine with that. I didn’t know any different, anyways… 

What I knew was volleyball, basketball, swimming and school. But not soccer. Or boys. Not romantically at least. Soccer season interfered with volleyball, and instead of being liked by the guys, I was one of the guys. 

Imagine my surprise when I went off to college and it turned out that the big man on campus, that handsome soccer-playing English boy with the accent, liked me. Despite my outfit at our first meeting, duck slippers and red plaid pajama pants, I guess he saw something he liked. Or he just wanted me to keep writing his papers for him. Either way, 8 years, 2 kids, 1 ring, and many moves later, we’re still together. 

Through all the moves, however, Vancouver never even remotely entered my mind. Why would it? I just always assumed we’d stay relatively close to home. Raleigh was a mere 5 hour drive from Maryland, and even then I still shed more than one crocodile tear when saying my good byes. 

I should know by now not to assume. None of this was ever the plan, really.  Soccer, married with a kid by 23, 2 by 25, Canada, moving, leaving, changing constantly. It’s just not what I imagined, or where I imagined, or who I imagined I’d be. 

Maybe I need to broaden my thinking a little, because, it’s a lot better than what I imagined. It’s better than I imagined because of the people, the experiences, and the growth that’s been forced upon us with the constant change. It’s been a blessing in disguise.  

When I first walked into BC Place for the ‘Caps home opener versus Montreal Impact, I was at a loss for words. This was definitely not something I had envisioned being part of, even if in a small way, back in my volleyball days. It was too huge and I felt too small. Watching Matt over the years to that moment was surreal. And it’s that point in time that made me realize that I need to think bigger, because you never know what life holds and where you may end up. 

I was just a tomboy ready to live my life with no surprises. Then one day I put on my duck slippers, crossed the hall of my dorm to hang out with my best friend, and instead of just having a regular night I met a boy. It’s amazing to think that that started a series of events that led us here, two extra souls in tow, for soccer, to Vancouver. 

Dr. Seuss said, “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.” Given that my life has ended up nowhere close to what I imagined, it can’t hurt to introduce a little bit of nonsense into my thinking. I’ll just be less surprised when the fantasy becomes a reality. 

Cat Watson
Wifey to 'Caps player, Matt Watson. Mommy to Evelyn and Theo. Cook, maid and laundry lady to the aforementioned parties. Oh, and I take pictures. And blog. (www.catwatson.com.)
 

 

15 July 8:11 am

One of the toughest stretches of the season is now at an end, and although it did not end with a result, there is a lot to look forward to at Whitecaps FC.

As for Saturday’s match in Chicago. One of the things that every ‘Caps fan can appreciate is the quality of players across MLS.

The Fire have such quality in the form of Pavel Pardo. A Mexican soccer legend, his pedigree in a free-kick situation ultimately secured Chicago a very good result after finishing the game with ten men.

The visit to Chicago’s Toyota Park ended one of the more challenging spells of the season for Martin Rennie’s side and some results in that extended road schedule might have been different…

Yet, to be sitting in a good position in the Western Conference standings with four of the next five games at home, it is all about looking forward and what can be achieved against our conference foes in the 14 games to come.

On Saturday, ‘Caps fans got a chance to see the club’s newest acquisition in action. Dane Richards came on in the second half and showed glimpses of what makes him an attacking threat in MLS.

The Jamaican international offers speed and skill when he gets forward, and against the Fire, his presence was a boost to the Blue and White’s attack that had more life after halftime.

With the ‘Caps schedule soon to have several days in between league matches, new faces like Richards will have the chance to be well incorporated into Rennie’s set-up with numerous training sessions.

And after several MLS seasons as a New York Red Bulls player, Richards offers valuable experience to a club in their second season in the league.

He has been through the battles in the Eastern Conference since 2007 and it will interesting to know if the winger will find the Western Conference playoff chase to be a reinvigorating one.

We welcome Dane to his new home on Canada’s west coast and hope he enjoys his time in Vancouver. I’m sure fans will enjoy him hitting the jet afterburners in a ‘Caps uniform!

The winger will surely be looking forward to this week, as we all will at Whitecaps FC. The visit of LA Galaxy is a highly anticipated one on Wednesday night, and after the display they put in against our Cascadia Cup rivals Portland Timbers, a very challenging one as well.

A big performance will be needed by the Blue and White that night, and with a passionate crowd at BC Place supporting Rennie’s side, it might be the type of match that inspires an unlikely hero or a new player like Richards.

Remember, it has been less than a month since Richards got a taste of the BC Place experience as a New York player. We now have a chance to make him feel welcome by getting behind every move and run he makes on Bell Pitch.

Should Richards get that chance against the defending MLS Cup champions, he will surely remember the moment fondly as a player and a person. Let’s make it happen!

On to Wednesday!

12 July 2:44 pm

It’s been an interesting road trip for Whitecaps FC so far. After starting with a loss to LA Galaxy, the ‘Caps responded with a win against Colorado Rapids and a draw versus Chivas USA.

Now head coach Martin Rennie will have to lift the boys from a tough last-second 3-2 defeat to Toronto FC on Wednesday as they get ready to play their fifth road game in a row this Saturday in Chicago. With a positive result against the Fire, the ‘Caps can look at this road trip in a positive light. So what really makes road trips so tough?

The Travel

When I first arrived in Vancouver in 1979, my longest road trip was from Oldham to London – which was a four hour bus ride. But in North America I had to endure four or five hour plane rides and different time zones, as well as the heat, altitude, and humidity.

My first couple of years traveling in the North American Soccer League (NASL) was an adventure as I went to many cities for the first time. One of the perks of being a professional athlete is getting to see a lot of great places, and everything is paid for. But not everything with travel is as glamorous as it might seem. There are long waits at the airport, many of which come on connecting flights. Flying to the east coast and changing time by three hours is especially difficult. You have to change your sleeping and eating habits with no real time for proper adjustment.

For anyone who’s travelled in a large group, you know how long it can take to get everyone organized. After the flying is done, you have to get everyone to the hotel by bus or vans, and then there’s the matter of sorting out rooms once you arrive at the hotel.

The Roommate

One of the biggest challenges of being on the road is finding the right roommate, not just because you have to like each other, but you need to be close to having the same routine before games. I always like to sleep in the afternoon before a night game, so my roommate needed to sleep as well. One of the best roommates I ever had was Fran O’Brien, even though he used to squeeze my toothpaste into his empty toothpaste on road trips. He was Irish.

Probably the hardest roommate I had was goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, who I lived with in Vancouver and shared a room with on the road. He was very hyper active and hardly slept at all. I had to get used to the TV being on until three or four in the morning, and constant chatter when we were awake in the room.

The Game

When the game finally arrives you have to adjust to different challenges. You have to get used to the field quickly: the size, playing surface, crowd noise, weather, altitude, and so on.

The home crowd always gives the home team an extra boost, as we’ve seen numerous times at BC Place, and even in the last match for Toronto.

As for the weather, I remember a game we played in Chicago and at halftime we found big striker Ray Hankin lying naked on the cold tile floor trying to cool down from the extreme heat out on the field.

I can imagine that few people would feel any empathy, but when you have to go out and compete at a professional level you have to battle a lot of things to feel fit and fresh enough to be competitive on the road.

In regards to making travel easier, the ‘Caps are lucky to have exceptionally organized and diligent team administrator Steve Bridge on their side.

In the end, you have to have the mental capacity to overcome all these things. At home the goal is to make your home field a fortress and dominate the opposition so they fear coming to your home turf.  On the road it’s much different, you must become a team that is tough to beat and that can frustrate the other team so their fans get on their backs.

There are many obstacles to overcome and lots of reasons not to win when you are away from home. But good teams find a way, and that’s what the ‘Caps will have to do in Chicago as they complete these five consecutive demanding games on the road.

Since 1979, Carl Valentine has been an integral part of the soccer community in Vancouver. A club legend, Carl was a key player for the Whitecaps FC team that won the 1979 North American Soccer League (NASL) Soccer Bowl, as well as the 86ers squads that won four Canadian Soccer League (CSL) titles. Now, Carl represents the 'Caps as club ambassador. Make sure to check back regularly for his columns and videos as part of 'The TWO ONE'.