Thorny welcome awaits Whitecaps in Portland - The Province


In City of Roses, Portland fans infamously hostile

BY MARC WEBER

The City of Roses will feel like the City of Thorns to the Vancouver Whitecaps today.

Ten thousand passionate Portland Timbers fans will be willing their team to come back from a 2-1 first-leg deficit in this USL-1 semifinal.

Among them will be 1,000 members of the rabid, rambunctious Timbers Army, famous around the league for their barb-slinging behaviour.

In 2004, when one-time Whitecaps goalie Lutz Pfannenstiel was playing for the Calgary Mustangs, the PGE Park faithful serenaded him as the "Singapore Prison Whore." He'd spent 101 days in a Singapore slammer for a match-fixing scandal he said was a set-up.

They can be ruthless.

"They are loud, they are annoying, they say a lot of crazy stuff, some unfriendly stuff, but we can handle that," said Caps' forward Charles Gbeke.

Vancouver proved its mettle in the last 10 days, notably with a 0-0 road tie in their quarterfinal series against the Carolina RailHawks, then by bouncing back from a controversial penalty kick in their win over Portland on Thursday.

Gbeke was a man possessed that night.

But this is not Cary, N.C., where only 2,400 fans showed up for the decisive battle. And this is not Swangard Stadium, where the Whitecaps are an unbelievable 16-1-2 all-time against Portland. This is Soccer City USA.

"They are really passionate about their team, but we have the passion, too," Gbeke said. "We're going to focus and we're going to go through. Nothing is going to distract us."

Seeing the degree of domination against the league's first-place Timbers on Thursday, it appears this seventh-place Whitecaps team -- chasing a second straight championship and third in four seasons -- is born anew.

An attacking style that bordered on reckless has morphed into something more patient and precise, though still aggressive and effective. Defensively, they've gone from tragic to trustworthy. And a bench has emerged that can change games, or preserve them.

"This is the real Vancouver Whitecaps," said Gbeke.

Captain Martin Nash added: "It's the team you saw in the Nutrilite championship. When the big games come, we seem to step up.

"We're playing smarter. We've been hammering it into the young guys that if it's not on, pull it back. We've got to have that mix of going forward fast and keeping possession and I think we've been finding that mix."

Vancouver vows to continue attacking, and they must after leaving a goal or two on the field Thursday. But head coach Teitur Thordarson showed against Carolina that he is capable of conservative decisions -- subbing off highly-effective forward Randy Edwini-Bonsu for a fifth midfielder late in the second half.

The starting lineup will likely be the same as Thursday's. That means three first-year USL players -- forward Marcus Haber and midfielders Wes Knight and Kenold Versailles -- along with second-year centre back Luca Bellisomo will be thrust into a hostile environment.

Nash praised his young teammates' poise and said the squad was brimming with confidence.

"Their fans will be pumped all all game long, but we're riding high right now and we believe we can beat anyone," he said. "Especially with the performance we put in [Thursday] night, we have all the confidence in the world."

And one clear benefit of youth: Only Nash and Lyle Martin will remember the 2007 series, when Portland overcame a 1-0 deficit with a 3-0 home win to knock off the defending champion Whitecaps.

mweber@theprovince.com

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