By Gary Kingston
VANCOUVER — They could have drawn half-a-dozen intriguing matchups, could have gone to Honduras, El Salvador, Trinidad, Costa Rica, Guatemala or Panama for CONCACAF Champions League preliminary round games.
But if the Vancouver Whitecaps do indeed clinch the Nutrilite Canadian soccer title next week, should Toronto FC not produce a miracle in Montreal, they’ll face a frequent USL foe.
In a draw at CONCACAF’s New York offices on Thursday, the Canadian champion drew the Puerto Rico Islanders in the home-and-home preliminary round of the 24-team zone qualifying that will be conducted in late July and early August.
“That’s the point of getting in the competition is to play someone from a different league,” said disappointed Whitecaps’ captain Martin Nash. “I’m surprised they even allow teams form the same league to meet in the first round.”
At least a couple of Caps wondered if CONCACAF might have manipulated the random draw.
Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi wouldn’t even joke about it when asked about possible subterfuge, but said it’s ironic that Puerto Rico, whom the Caps beat 2-1 for the USL First Division title last year, are in Vancouver for a regular-season game July 25 and the first leg must be played July 28-30.
“They can just stay here,” said Lenarduzzi, adding “most teams in this kind of format do tend to want the second game at home.”
Firm dates for the round — the second leg must be completed between Aug. 4-6 — will be announced next week.
In the Champions League, eight clubs were seeded directly into the Group Stage. The other 16 were divided into Pot A and Pot B and then matched in Thursday’s draw, the only stipulation being no two teams from the same country could meet.
Vancouver, which will claim the Canadian title if Toronto can’t beat Montreal by four goals or more on Thursday, has split two games this season with the Islanders, who made the Champions League semifinals last year.
Lenarduzzi and Caps coach Teitur Thordarson said it would have been nice for the club and its fans to see a Central American team, but at least they have a book on the Islanders. “And from an entertainment point of view, they’re always entertaining games,” said Lenarduzzi.
• The Caps, 3-4-2 on the season and losers of three straight league games, face Miami FC at Swangard tonight at 8 p.m. Central defender Jeff Parke (turf toe) is out, but it looks like his partner on the back line, Wesley Charles, will play after shaking off the effects of a hip injury.
• Striker Marlon James, the Caps’ big off-season signing who’s played just 70 minutes at home because of injuries, should sub in tonight. James’ only full regular-season game this year came in Minnesota, where he had three goals. “His strength is finishing,” said Thordarson. “If we can bring him the ball in or near the 18-yard line, he will finish. He’s a very strong forward. We just have to get him game fit.”
• Caps defender Justin Thompson has left the team to devote more time to business interests. The 28-year-old North Vancouver native, who returned to the Caps this season after two years with Portland, had played 376 minutes over six games.
• The women Whitecaps open tonight’s doubleheader at 5 p.m. against the Los Angeles Legends.
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