Whitecaps host Puerto Rico in battle for first place - The Province
The Vancouver Whitecaps aren't shy about what they want and seem sure about what it's going to take to get it.
"One of our short-term goals is to get first place," says Whitecaps midfielder Alfredo Valente, whose team takes on the USL First Division's other current front-runner, the Puerto Rico Islanders, tonight at 7 at Swangard Stadium to kick off the final month of regular season action. "We want first place and we want that first-round bye.
"The league is so tight right now. You see it in the standings. To not play in the first round, to get yourself right into the semis, is a bonus."
The Whitecaps (11-6-4) are three points back of the Islanders (12-6-4) with a game in hand after Puerto Rico's 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders Friday.
Vancouver has nine games remaining and three come against the Islanders. Two of those, Aug. 31 and Sept. 3, are in Puerto Rico, which ups the ante tonight.
The top seven teams make the playoffs.
"It can be a crazy atmosphere down there," Whitecaps defender Omar Jarun says of Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium. "Lots of fans, a Mexican band, the refs are all for them. It's not easy to go in there and get a result.
"Last year, when I was with Atlanta, there were all sorts of bad calls when we went there to play. There's nothing you can do about it."
Valente adds: "It's a nine-hour trip. It's almost like playing a game in Europe. It's difficult down there."
The Islanders have been difficult to play everywhere this season, in large part because of a greater focus on defence under coach Colin Clarke.
Clarke, a native of Northern Ireland, came in midway through last year, and has the Islanders playing more organized soccer, evidenced by the fact they've given up just 20 goals. They allowed 34 in 28 regular season games last year and 36 in 28 the campaign before.
"The knock on them over the years was that you could outwork them and their skill game wouldn't be a factor then," said Caps midfielder/defender Steve Kindel of the Islanders, which is an identical 6-3-2 at home and on the road going into tonight. "Since they've made some changes in staff, you can see a difference in mentality."
Kindel and forward Nicholas Addlerly missed last Sunday's entertaining 3-2 home win over the Atlanta Silverbacks due to yellow-card accumulations. Both are eligible to return tonight. Other candidates for starting spots are defenders Lyle Martin and Geordie Lyall, who saw action off the bench Sunday after stints on the injured list.
© The Vancouver Province 2008