View from the middle

Prost Amerika previews the match in Portland

A preview of the Cascadia Cup match in Portland from the half-way house of Prost Amerika HQ in Seattle.

I remember the last Vancouver Whitecaps FC versus Portland Timbers match at Merlo Field. The Timbers won the contest 1-0 in the second leg of the 2010 USSF D-2 Pro-League quarterfinals; claiming their last victory as a second division club. Whitecaps FC had won the first leg at Swangard Stadium 2-0 and deservedly advanced into the semi-finals.

Although Vancouver won, it was in many ways the Timbers night as their fans waved goodbye not only to the second division, but to some beloved players such as Ian Joy and Ross Smith. It was also an emotional last match for head coach Gavin Wilkinson in his goodbye, but also a time for optimism with the task to build a new side for Major League Soccer (MLS).

Vancouver marched on to the next round only to be undone by a Puerto Rico Islanders side containing one David Horst (now with the Timbers). Incidentally, the Islanders went on to win the trophy after beating Martin Rennie’s Carolina RailHawks in the final. That last night at Swangard was just as emotional as the Merlo Field experience.

In the cases of both Portland and Vancouver, there was a sense of passing, but not of expiration; of organizations developing from boys into men, of waving your kids off to school for their first day even with the latent fear they would come home in tears having scraped their knee or been bullied by the older boys. Whitecaps FC fans might relate better to that last concept after their 4-0 hammering against D.C. United, identical to the Texas size whooping the Timbers received against FC Dallas. The learning curve has been pretty steep for both sides.

The teams, however, would meet again at the pre-season Cascadia Summit at Starfire, a tournament in which Whitecaps FC’s star shined brightly as Omar Salgado, Russell Teibert, Camilo and Davide Chiumiento promised to be a quarter of attacking youngsters that would rampage through MLS.

Since then, trajectory would not be an accurate word to describe the Whitecaps season. The initial euphoria of the opening day 4-2 win over Toronto FC was soon swamped by a litany of troubles; some self-inflicted, some down to ill luck. If it wasn’t red cards, it was international call ups. If it wasn’t either of them, it was injuries; sometimes injuries sustained on international duty. Stuff just happened, and it mostly happened to the ‘Caps.

At the time, head coach Teitur Thordarson was fielding a different back four on a match by match basis it seemed. The Nutrilite Canadian Championship (NCC) exit was perhaps the lowest point of the season but there have been some signs of optimism since.

Whitecaps FC ‘Designated Player’ Eric Hassli has made his peace with MLS referees while forward Mustapha Jarju has been brought in to make for a potentially explosive all DP forward line. As entry into their new home on Bell Pitch downtown at BC Place draws near, it will surely rejuvenate the fan base as well as allow a reinvigorated approach to marketing the matches.

The appointment of new head coach Martin Rennie was universally well received. In a way, it almost felt like Vancouver got a fresh start, in effect a second expansion season. There is a feeling of newness that something good is about to happen in Vancouver.

Portland are still clutching at the 2011 oxygen tank even after dispiriting away losses to two direct rivals in competition for the coveted tenth place wild card berth. Their season has been compartmentalized to say the least. In a 38 day span in April/May, Timbers picked up 16 points in seven matches. Their other 17 matches have yielded just ten points.

Head coach John Spencer has also had to juggle his back four but less because of injury than the amount of goals conceded. With 40 goals leaked, only Toronto FC has a worse record, with some of the Timbers leads seeing multiple goals being tossed away.  

The transfer window saw the additions of Mike Chabala and Lovell Palmer and the initial prognosis is favourable. Palmer’s absence from Wednesday’s loss in Kansas City through suspension damaged the side and Timbers fans can expect more changes in future transfer window opportunities. There is always hope that the return to fitness of long term injury victim Bright Dike will find the Timbers a working option up front.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the upcoming match is the 2011 Cascadia Cup consequence. Portland has just one point and would need to win on Saturday and see future results go their way in order to clinch the title. Vancouver also has one point but that was secured in Seattle and still has two remaining home matches in their favour.

If the ‘Caps win in Portland, suddenly they become Cascadia Cup favourites. They could then claim it by beating Seattle on September 24at Empire Field while playing to a draw would leave the ‘Caps another chance next week when Portland visits BC Place. Portland, on the other hand, can push themselves back into the running with a win but, although they will still require some help as they need Sounders FC not to win in Vancouver.

At this stage, the most important ramifications of a Portland win would be made on the MLS Table. New York, Chivas USA, D.C. United and Houston do not play each other, so theoretically all can lose which would propel the Timbers back onto the fringes of the playoff race. In the next eight days, the Timbers have both Chivas USA and D.C. United as opponents. Should they walk away with nine points; the world will look just a little different for Timbers fans.

Whitecaps FC fans already know a different world awaits them. But they would like the Cascadia Cup to enter it with them.