Roller-coaster speeds up for Caps women - The Province

Jim Jamieson

A win on Saturday earns team a berth in semifinal

With a cast of characters nearly large enough to supply extras to the movie 300, the Vancouver Whitecaps women were hoping their season wouldn't have the same ending as the Spartans in the film.

After a boggling 39 players conga-lined themselves through the lineup of the USL W-League team in just 12 games, the Caps find themselves back in the playoffs after a year's absence, and looking at an alignment of planets that may favour a run.

That will have to begin Saturday night at Swangard Stadium when Vancouver hosts the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference title game. A win gets the Whitecaps into the W-League semi-final at Virginia Beach, Va., this coming Thursday.

Already pillaged by the Canadian Olympic team, the Whitecaps went young with the national Under-20 team, but had to do without the core of that group for nearly a month in the middle of the season.

The U-20s are back, boasting a CONCACAF qualifying tournament championship, but the team's ace in the hole may well be veteran striker Tiffeny Milbrett hitting her stride after a slow start (for her) to the season.

The 35-year-old Milbrett, a women's soccer legend in her native U.S., went goal-less through the first six games of season but had five in the second half -- including three in the last two contests -- to lead the team in scoring.

"As a person who has been a goalscorer my whole life, you never know when you're going to score or when it's going to be hard to find the back of the net," said Milbrett. "I'll be the first to say when it's been a battle for form or a lack of chances. This season was more about a lack of luck for me. I was creating chances, but I think I've learned as I've gotten older that you can be playing the best you can on the field for 90 minutes, but still not score."

Still, Milbrett can't over-emphasize how much she relishes the chance to play when everything is on the line.

"As you advance further, the pressure-cooker heats up, but that's when it's time to perform," she said. "As well for these young kids; what a chance for them to prepare for a game that means much more because they weren't in this position last year."

While the CONCACAF tourney win was huge for Canada, Whitecaps head coach Bob Birarda -- also the U-20 head man -- is well aware that re-integrating a group of highly skilled individual players into a new team structure has as much potential risk as it does reward. Beyond the obvious hangover of physical and emotional fatigue from the gruelling tournament in Puebla, Mexico, some roles will have to shift to make the new group effective.

"It is a challenge for us to resolve," said Birarda. "It's about what our roles look like and how they relate to other people's roles. These players have been exposed to very high-level competitive soccer, but at the same time, they're very young and they're not used to their roles shifting significantly.

"It's about figuring out which parts fit together and who can handle their new role best. Add to that we were away for a month and they're exhausted, so the challenge is to get them to focus on a new prize."