Vancouver paired with their preferred first-round foe, Carolina
By Marc Weber
They might not admit it now, but a handful of prominent Whitecaps said last month that they'd rather face Carolina than Puerto Rico in the opening round of the playoffs.
Seventh-place Vancouver (11-10-9) got its wish and will host the second-place RailHawks (16-7-7) Thursday at Swangard Stadium (7:30 p.m.) in the opening leg of the USL-1 quarterfinals. The return leg is the following Sunday in Cary, N.C. (2 p.m. PT).
The higher seed chooses where to open the home-and-home series. The thinking behind starting on the road is that even a tie in the opening leg leaves you in good standing coming back to your home fans.
But Carolina must travel twice and Vancouver -- the reigning USL-1 champions -- only once.
"They're a very talented team with experienced guys, but I think we match up well," said Whitecaps goalkeeper Jay Nolly. "It just depends how we come out. If we come out fired up, I think we can get a good result at home and we've been tough for them at their place." Carolina beat Vancouver 2-1 in Cary on July 17 and tied 1-1 there on Aug. 18. In their lone meeting at Swangard, the teams tied 0-0 on Aug. 15.
Considering Vancouver was 2-0-1 against Puerto Rico, it might seem odd to think they match up better against a team they went 0-1-2 against. However, the Caps can point to a dominant home performance in that 0-0 tie when they outshot the RailHawks 22-9. Plus, Carolina needed an 87th-minute equalizer to earn their home tie.
"They're obviously a good team, but I don't think we have to fear anybody," said Caps head coach Teitur Thordarson.
Vancouver's biggest concern right now -- as it has been all season -- is at centre back where ten different players have taken a turn. Starters Shaun Pejic and Chris Pozniak both missed Friday's 2-1 win over the Cleveland City Stars with groin injuries and Pozniak's return is in doubt for Thursday.
Mason Trafford and Michael Onwatuegwu didn't jibe in the first half against the Stars and Luca Bellisomo might have earned himself a playoff start with his second-half performance.
"I think Luca did very well when he came on," said Thordarson, who has been reluctant to use the former SFU Clan player in the middle this season.
Thordarson also said he's optimistic that central midfielder and captain Martin Nash (hamstring) will play Thursday.
"I think he'll be ready," said the coach. "We just have to get him through training Monday and Tuesday, and then get him a little bit of rest Wednesday." Charles Gbeke scored his league-leading 12th goal in Friday's win. Marlon James netted the winner on a penalty kick.
- Midfielder Vicente Arze, left off the 26-man roster at the USL-1 roster freeze, will not be back with the Whitecaps next season, the Bolivian confirmed. He was a rookie of the year nominee last year but struggled to regain his good early-season form in 2009 after a nagging hamstring injury.
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