Ready for prime time - Vancouver Sun

Iain MacIntyre

Whitecaps lead, then rally for tie against MLS foe

The Vancouver Whitecaps are ready for Major League Soccer even if their city is not. That's a shame.

Swangard Stadium -- which, in case you haven't noticed, is actually in Burnaby -- was filled well beyond its capacity of 5,288 on a gorgeous Wednesday evening to see the Vancouver Whitecaps' final CONCACAF Champions League qualifier against Toronto FC of Major League Soccer.

The 2-2 draw on a late equalizer by Whitecap Eddy Sebrango represented a great night for Canadian soccer. But imagine how much better it would be had 15,000 or 20,000 fans been watching in the Whitecaps' downtown stadium and if Vancouver and Toronto played often enough in the same top league to boost their rivalry and soccer in Canada.

The proposed downtown stadium, alas, has received less support from the City of Vancouver than the safe injection site in the same neighborhood, so the Whitecaps are stuck in the United Soccer Leagues until 2010 when a renovated B.C. Place will be ready.

But will Major League Soccer wait for them until then?

Let's hope so because the Whitecaps proved in their two games against more illustrious TFC that they are nearly MLS calibre now. And the atmosphere at games here and in Ontario hinted at the rivalry Vancouver-Toronto could be in soccer. Just like it is in anything else.

"Whether it's the Argos, Leafs, whoever, coming to town, it's buzzing," Whitecaps' captain Jeff Clarke said. "It's an easy game for us to get up for.

"You've got to look at the hierarchy of the leagues. They [TFC] were a bit condescending. I don't think they respected us as much before the two games as after them."

The Whitecaps won 1-0 on Canada Day at BMO Field in Toronto, where TFC had been unbeaten since September in the MLS. But Wednesday's draw eliminated Vancouver in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament due to two earlier losses against the Montreal Impact.

The Impact, which also plays in the USL, could yet win the Canadian championship and advance to CONCACAF's prestigious club competition if it beats Toronto in Montreal in two weeks.

"It's absolutely possible to go to MLS," Vancouver coach Teitur Thordarson said. "The quality difference between MLS and our league, I don't think it's a huge difference.

"I'm not unhappy with the fans here. But when we came to Toronto, and saw the atmosphere in the stadium there. . . I just wish we could give our fans the same facility here."

Sebrango, one of USL's most prolific scorers, capitalized on a mistake by Toronto defender Maurice Edu, rounded goalie Greg Sutton and lifted the Whitecaps into a 2-2 tie with three minutes remaining.

Sebrango also opened scoring in the 43rd minute, slotting a shot from 13 yards inside the post by one-timing a layoff from Whitecap Justin Moose after a good run by Nick Addlery.

But the Vancouver defence looked vulnerable throughout the first half against Toronto's speedy forwards, and TFC tied it 1-1 in the 61st minute when forward Jeff Cunningham burst past big defender Omar Jarun, then cut the ball back in the Whitecap penalty area.

Laurent Robert's shot was helped into the Vancouver goal by Edu.

Fourteen minutes later, Toronto took the lead when a foray by Amado Guevara again split open the Vancouver defence and left room on the left side for Rohan Ricketts to take a pass and shoot from an angle between Whitecap goalie Jay Nolly and his near post.

"If Vancouver and Montreal get an opportunity to step into MLS, they'll cope with it no problem," TFC coach John Carver said. "I think it would be great for Canada."

And he's an Englishman.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008