'Caps primed for season opener

Mood electric at Thursday's practice

Ian Walker
Vancouver Sun

Thursday, April 10, 2008

BURNABY - Management is pleased. The coach is full of joy - his words. And the players are stoked.

Nothing new here, smiles are always free in the days before a new season. That said, even an outsider could sense the energy in the air during the Vancouver Whitecaps' spirited 90-minute session at Simon Fraser University on Thursday morning. In case he didn't, a ground-shaking clap of thunder near the end of practice ensured the mood was lost on no one.

"It's the start of a new season, with a new coach, new players and a new style of play ... there are a lot of reasons to be excited," said veteran midfielder Steve Kindel, in anticipation of Saturday's home- and season-opener against the Montreal Impact at Burnaby's Swangard Stadium. "For some guys this is going to be their first game in the league or as a Whitecap. This is going to be my 11th and I can't wait to get things going for real. Think about it - we haven't played a competitive game in six months."

Some fans would argue even longer. Vancouver won just three of their final 18 games last year - including playoffs - scoring just 11 goals. The Whitecaps finished with a record of 9-7-12 and averaged less than a goal a game. Eddy Sebrango led the team in goal scoring with seven.
But enough about last year. This is a happy story, remember.

The Whitecaps come into the USL-1 season having scored 12 goals in five pre-season games. More impressive than the team's 4-0-1 exhibition record is that half of those dozen goals came in a pair of wins over USL-1 rivals Portland and Seattle.

Goals continued to come fast and furious over the last 20 minutes of Thursday's practice. Players were divided into four teams and competed in a five-on-five tournament played on half the field. The veteran-laden black team - made up of Kindel, Alfredo Valente, Martin Nash, Jeff Clarke and Lyle Martin - was victorious in the championship game. More telling than the number of quality opportunities was the ruckus made when it became obvious there wasn't going to be a third-place game.

It's an encouraging sign.

"I feel we have, through the whole group, this competition between them," said head coach Teitur Thordarson, who will name his opening night starting lineup today. "All of them are so committed to what we are doing."

The 2008 edition of the Whitecaps FC men's team boasts nine new players, including a pair of goaltenders (Srdjan Djekanovic and Jay Nolly), a set of twins (Nick and Mason Webb) and a defender from Japan who hardly speaks English (Takashi Hirano). There are also former youth internationals from Jamaica (Nicholas Addlery) and Bolivia (Vicente Arze) as well as a Palestinian international (Omar Jarun). A local university star (Luca Bellisomo) rounds out the newbies.

Back for redemption are experienced goal scorers Valente, Sebrango and Jason Jordan; midfielders Kindel, Nash, Clarke, Martin, Tony Donatelli and Stefan Leslie; as well as defenders Adrian Cann, Geordie Lyall and Diaz Kambere.

"Getting the guys on the same page mentally so we gel together on and off the field - almost like a family - is very important," said Cann, who was named captain earlier this week. "It's up to the older guys to show the younger ones a sense of pride and urgency. A sense of winningness."

The USL-1 consists of 11 teams and will compete over a balanced 30-game schedule - up from 28 last year - with each team playing opponents three times. The top seven teams will advance to the playoffs, with the Commissioner's Cup winner (regular-season champion) receiving a bye into the semifinals. The first round will involve the No. 2 through No. 7 seeds competing in a two-leg, aggregate-score series.

The three winners will advance to the semifinals, with the No. 1 seed pitted against the lowest remaining seed.

While training camp officially started last month, Thordarson has been working with players since the new year in an attempt to familiarize everyone with the Whitecaps' new attacking, offensive-minded style of play. Not to mention, with each other.

"I have sensed their sense of excitement since the start," said Thordarson. "The players are very into it. They train with a smile and they give a lot into it, offer a lot into it and seem to like what we're doing. That's very important. The spirit you have in training you bring with you into the game."