Head to Head - The Province

The Province's Marc Weber breaks down the USL championship match

Martin Nash has been in this situation more times than the entire Puerto Rico roster combined, so perhaps he's too smart to admit his Whitecaps have an experience edge.

Number-crunch today's USL First Division championship game and you'll find a handful of statistics that support each team's case for a crown.

Most glaring for Puerto Rico is the fact that the better defensive team has won 15 of 18 titles. The Islanders allowed a league-low 23 this year, while the Caps let in 28.

On Vancouver's side is home field, an advantage apparently so great that the 2006 Whitecaps stand as the only road team to win a one-game title in this league's history. But when it comes to championship-game experience, Puerto Rico can't measure up to Nash, never mind the rest of the Whitecaps' roster.

Today marks the midfielder's fourth final. He won with Rochester in 2000 and '01, and hoisted the trophy with Vancouver in '06. In contrast, Puerto Rico midfielder Jonathan Steele is the lone healthy Islander who can claim finals exposure. He played 28 minutes in Rochester's '06 loss.

Nash's mild, measured comments never venture close to locker-room fodder, and Saturday he played down the importance of having been-there, done-that.

"I don't think it means a lot," he said. "They are a talented team with experienced players. Sometimes finals are strange. They're going to be prepared and pumped up for the final. I think home field is more important (today is the first championship game in Vancouver since the CSL final in 1992). To have that home crowd behind us in what's going to be a very tough game."

He could be speaking the truth. Puerto Rico finished atop the table and made it to the final for a reason. But it's tough to ignore the Whitecaps' 9-1 edge in combined finals appearances, which doesn't include the pair Eddie Sebrango missed due to injury ('01) and suspension ('06).

Jeff Clarke, Steve Kindel, Geordie Lyall and Jason Jordan all joined Nash and Valente on that '06 title team, and defender Omar Jarun went to the '07 final with Atlanta.

"Obviously, they've got the experience," said Steele, "but we've shown all season that we're a strong team, and it doesn't matter who we're playing against."

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The Puerto Rico Islanders' 3-0 loss to Mexican champion Santos Laguna in Wednesday's Champions League action showed how seriously they are taking today's final.

Coach Colin Clarke rested a handful of regulars and made it abundantly clear which competition means more to the club, though it could afford the Champions slip-up.

"Definitely our sights have been on the [USL] championship," said Islanders midfielder Jonathan Steele, who was one of the top guns still in the lineup Wednesday. "We've said that all along. We've played 30 games in this league and we've come too far for it not to mean more."

Like the Montreal Impact -- the Whitecaps' semifinal foe -- it's been a hectic six weeks for Puerto Rico. And like Montreal, Puerto Rico has talked down the effect travel and fatigue could have on the big game.

"Teams keep saying 'They must be tired,' but we keep proving that we're strong," said Steele, whose side arrived in Vancouver from Mexico on Thursday.

Granted, last Sunday Montreal was playing its third game in five nights -- including a trip back from Honduras -- which is more challenging than what Puerto Rico is facing. But the degree to which Vancouver out-hustled and generally outplayed Montreal in the opening half is reason to wonder if all these games could also catch up to Puerto Rico at the wrong time.

Clarke played it smart Wednesday, sitting goalkeeper of the year Bill Gaudette, along with all-league defender Cristian Arrieta, midfielder Noah Delgado and forward Tai Atieno. All four will likely start today.

Clarke expressed frustration at the jam-packed schedule but also made it clear there would be no excuses.

"Why can't they extend the season one more week?" mused Clarke. "It's not going to cripple anybody, and you'd get a better product on the field. But fatigue will not be an excuse. We feel we've got a deep squad, which has helped."

Immediately after their Rochester semifinal win, Clarke also told the team that Vancouver had been selected over first-place Puerto Rico as host, and that he didn't want to hear another word about it.

"Everyone wants to play at home, of course," said Steele, "but we didn't have much time to be disappointed. There would have been people hanging from the rafters at that game, though."

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Today, 4 p.m., Swangard Stadium

Radio: TEAM 1040; TV: Fox Sports World Canada Vancouver Puerto Rico

Record 15-7-8 15-6-9

Goals for 34 43

Goals against 28 23

Most goals Sebrango (12) Arrieta (7)

Most assists Martin (5) Steele (11)

Most minutes Nash (2,626) Henry & Gaudette (2,430)

Goalkeepers

All-stars

Vancouver -- M Nash (first team); F Sebrango, D Charles,

D Hirano (second team)

Puerto Rico -- G Gaudette*, D Arrieta, M Steele (first team)

*goalkeeper of the year

Notes: Vancouver is 10-2-5 at home in USL-1 play, including the playoffs; Puerto Rico is 7-4-5 away. ... Vancouver beat Minnesota 5-4 and Montreal 2-1 to advance to the final; Puerto Rico had a bye, then beat Rochester 3-2 (all scores two-games, total goals). ... On Saturday, Puerto Rico's Colin Clarke was named the USL coach of the year, while Cristian Arrieta was picked the top defender and Jonathan Steele, league MVP.

Province Line: Whitecaps 2-1 on penalty kicks

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THE STARTING 11

Vancouver Whitecaps

1. Jay Nolly, G

8. Steve Kindel, D

2. Jeff Clarke, D

4. Wesley Charles, D*

24. Lyle Martin, D

9. Alfredo Valente, M

7. Martin Nash, M*

20. Ethan Gage, M

25. Justin Moose, M

98. Charles Gbeke, F

16. Eduardo Sebrango, F*

Puerto Rico Islanders

1. Bill Gaudette, G

26. Cristian Arrieta, D

24. William Yomby, D

12. John Krause, D

2. Scott Jones, D

7. Edwin Miranda, M

22. Jonathan Steele, M

5. Noah Delgado, M

10. Petter Villegas, M

14. Tai Atieno, F

11. Fabrice Noel, F

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WHITECAPS TO WATCH

THREE PLAYERS WHO COULD PLAY A DECIDING ROLE IN THE FINAL

Martin Nash, M

- Freddy Valente has been terrific this season, but it's Nash, with his unique ability to drop in a perfect ball over the top, who is most likely to play the role of game-changer. Often it's his pass that goes unrecorded as the second assist.

Eduardo Sebrango, F

- This one's pretty obvious, given that Sebrango scored 12 times in the regular season and has a knack for timely tallies. He's also been in these kinds of games before and seems to be clicking lately with Charles Gbeke.

Wesley Charles, D

- Tough to not give a nod to goalkeeper Jay Nolly, but aside from a slip-up in Minnesota, the imposing Charles has been a human eraser, heading balls out of trouble and making tackles -- important against the Isles, who led the USL in goals.

© The Vancouver Province 2008