Impact favoured over Whitecaps - The Canadian Press


MONTREAL -- With a one-goal edge and home-field advantage, the Montreal Impact would seem in command for the second leg of the United Soccer Leagues' First Division final against the Vancouver Whitecaps.

But Impact veteran Mauro Biello isn't taking anything for granted against the defending champion Whitecaps.

The Impact won the first leg of the two-game, total-goals final 3-2 in Vancouver last weekend. The second leg is set for Saturday before a sellout crowd of 13,034 at Saputo Stadium.

"The one-goal lead doesn't guarantee us anything," Biello said Thursday. "You have to play the game and we have to impose our game like we did in Vancouver.

"If we sit back and try to defend the lead we could be in trouble. Soccer is a funny game. The ball can bounce in any direction. We have to be prepared for a very difficult game and if we do that, we can be successful."

The Whitecaps, who squeaked into the seventh and final playoff spot and then upset Portland and Carolina in the playoffs, are certainly not hanging their heads.

"Our whole season has been an underdog deal," said midfielder Wes Knight. "We can play with nothing to lose.

"We can come into this stadium and just give it our all. And a team that is as resilient as we have been can perform better when we have our backs to the wall."

The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly Thursday as both teams crammed into a tent at the stadium for a lunch to promote the final and hand out the league's individual awards, including three to the Whitecaps: Marcus Haber as rookie of the year, Charles Gebeke as league goal-scoring champion and Knight for leading in assists.

Portland's Gavin Wilkinson was named coach of the year while Puerto Rico's Cristian Arrieta earned Most Valuable Player and defender of the year honours.

While they are rivals on the field, these teams know each other well, and not only from having played against each other six times already this season.

Gbeke and suspended midfielder/captain Martin Nash once played in Montreal, while the Impact have five former Whitecaps: strikers Eddie Sebrango and Joey Gjertsen, midfielders Tony Donatelli and David Testo and back-up goalkeeper Srdjan Djekanovic. Others have played together on national teams.

Sebrango scored the goal that eliminated Montreal from the semifinals a year ago, then opted to return to the Impact, where he played from 2002 to 2006, to be closer to his family.

Now the native of Cuba is gunning for a fifth league title, having won in 2000 with Rochester, 2004 with Montreal and 2006 and 2008 with Vancouver. Although he won't play, Nash can also get a fifth Cup, having won in 2000 and 2001 with Rochester and twice with the Whitecaps.

"Last year was huge because we had the chance to have the final at home as well and we could celebrate with the fans on the field, which was special," said Sebrango. "Hopefully it will be the same here."

Nash, the brother of basketball star Steve Nash, was shown the red card in the first leg for a late tackle on Roberto Brown. His spot will likely be taken by Chris Pozniak, while the loss of injured midfielder Lyle Martin is offset by the return from injury of Ansu Toure.

"It doesn't matter who's playing -- it's who wants to be a legend," said Gbeke. "That's where legends are built. If someone wants to enter the history books, the final is where it can happen. It's not about talent, it's about heart."

It was a topsy-turvy season for both clubs.

The Whitecaps beat Montreal twice in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship, but failed to win the competition when already eliminated Montreal dressed a B team and was trounced 6-1 by Toronto FC, with the Vancouver players in attendance, in the deciding match. Toronto had needed to win by four goals to cllinch the competition.

The Impact then beat Vancouver in all three of their regular season meetings and the first leg of the final.

But both teams started slowly.

After taking their second league title in three years, the Whitecaps made sweeping changes to get younger and it took half the season to come together. They have lost only twice in their last 15 league matches, both times to Montreal. The Impact have lost one of their last 13 games.

The Impact could not buy a goal early in the season, and it only picked up after coach John Limniatis was replaced by 32-year-old Marc Dos Santos.

"We had a brand new team and Montreal went through a coaching change," said Knight. "There was some adversity for us, but there's only one part of the season where you need to be at your best -- and both teams have peaking at the right point.

"Going through Portland and Carolina, the top two teams in the league, and Montreal going through quality teams (Charleston and Puerto Rico), I don't think there are two better teams now to be in this final."

Last week, an own goal by Vancouver's Shaun Pejic put Montreal ahead in the first half. Despite being down a man in the second, Vancouver got goals from Haber and Marlon James while Peter Byers and Sebrango scored for Montreal.

The Impact were able to control the midfield in the first leg and will be looking to do the same on Saturday, while Vancouver brings tall bodies on attack in Gbeke and Haber who can strike at any moment.

Coach Teitur Thordarson is vying for a second title in as many years with the Whitecaps.

Both teams are seeking a third title overall. Montreal won in 1994 and 2004. Biello played on both of those teams and there is speculation he will retire after Saturday's game.