Bring on the Thunder - 24 Hours

By BOB MACKIN

- THE BUZZ

The second-place Vancouver Whitecaps (15-7-8) and the sixth-place Minnesota Thunder (10-11-9) begin a two-game, total goals first round playoff series at Swangard Stadium tonight (7 p.m. Team 1040/team1040.ca).

- HISTORY

The Whitecaps begin their 12th consecutive United Soccer Leagues' First Division playoff quest tonight. They have lost five first-round series and four in the semifinals, but were 2006 champions. Nine players remain from that squad: Jeff Clarke, Jason Jordan, Diaz Kambere, Steve Kindel, Stefan Leslie, Geordie Lyall, Martin Nash, Eduardo Sebrango and Alfredo Valente. Since 1987, Vancouver is 28-15-12 in playoffs. That includes the 1988-1991 Vancouver 86ers' Canadian Soccer League dynasty.

- THIRD WILL BE A CHARM

This is the third series meeting for the teams. The Thunder eliminated Vancouver in 2000's Western conference semifinal, but the Whitecaps got revenge in 2004.

- KEY CAPS

Of the 12 goals scored by Whitecaps' leader Eduardo Sebrango, six were game-winners. Whitecaps' goalkeeper Jay Nolly finished the regular season third-best in goals against average (1.043) with 10 shutouts and 12 wins. Thunder netminder Nicolas Platter (1.300) was one of two goalkeepers to appear in all 30 matches.

- IMPROVED

The Thunder rebounded from a dismal 5-12-11 2007 season to grab the last available playoff spot. The club has scored 11 times and surrendered four goals in its last six games and has not suffered a loss since Aug. 22. Melvin Tarley and Ricardo Sanchez lead the Thunder attack with 10 goals each. The only Thunder win at Swangard since 1997 was a 1-0 upset on April 26, 2008.

- CAPTAIN TALK

"They're a potential banana-skin team, but we've come second in the league, one point out of first and it's now down to us to show that wasn't a fluke," said Whitecaps' captain Jeff Clarke. "If we don't get to the final, I'll say the season was a disappointment. There's five games to play, we just want to win all five and there's no gray area."

- SECOND COURSE

The Thunder host the second leg on Sunday at 3:05 p.m. Pacific. It's available only via usllive.com.

- ELSEWHERE

The MLS-bound, four-time USL champion Seattle Sounders (6th, 10-10-10) host the Montreal Impact (3rd, 12-12-6) tonight at 7 p.m. Leg two is Sunday at 2 p.m. in Montreal. The Rochester Rhinos (4th, 11-10-9) host the Charleston Battery (5th, 11-12-7) at 4:35 p.m. and visit Charleston Sunday at 4 p.m. The first-place Puerto Rico Islanders (15-6-9) earned a first-round bye and will play the lowest-remaining seed in a semifinal series next weekend. The single-game championship is Oct. 11.