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).
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.
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.
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.