Veteran returns from injury to lead underdog Caps into the playoffs
BY IAN WALKER
It's been almost four weeks since Martin Nash pulled his hamstring and was forced to miss the remainder of the United Soccer Leagues First Division regular season. The Vancouver Whitecaps went 3-1-1 to secure the league's final playoff berth and a first-round matchup with the Carolina RailHawks in their captain's absence.
Nash resumed training this week and will be among head coach Teitur Thordarson's starting 11 when the Whitecaps face the league's second-place team in the first match of the two-game aggregate series tonight (7:30 p.m.) at Swangard Stadium.
"I was able to train all three days and it's coming along -- it felt really good [Wednesday]," said the midfielder, who was injured Aug. 29 against the Rochester Rhinos. "I'm not as fit as I was, but it's the playoffs so I'm sure the adrenalin will get me through."
Thirteen points separated Vancouver (11-10-9) and Carolina (16-7-7) in the USL-1 standings, but the Whitecaps enter the match with just one loss in their last 10 games, going 4-1-5 over the span. Vancouver was an impressive 9-3-3 at Swangard this season.
"The Whitecaps are the defending champs and one of the most established teams in North America, so we know this will be a tough game for us," said first-year RailHawks head coach Martin Rennie. "I think a lot of the Whitecaps troubles this season have been injuries, which is just one of those things. They are definitely a better club with Nash back. Yes, he's not played in a while, but he's a very good player in this league and his experience is immeasurable."
The RailHawks had the option of hosting the first-leg of the series at home or away, and chose the latter -- which may seem to favour the Whitecaps, considering Carolina will have to make the cross-country trip twice. The RailHawks arrived in Seattle earlier this week -- where the team has been training at the Sounders' facility -- in an attempt to counter the effects of the three-hour time difference. The second-leg will be played Sunday in Carolina, giving both teams two days rest, rather than just one as in previous seasons.
"It just came down to us wanting to play the second game at home and with two days between games it should be enough to recover," said Rennie. "We've been really good at home (11-2-2), so figured we'd just get the first game out of the way."
While the Whitecaps season has been marred by injuries, the team enters the post-season as healthy as it has been all year, with just midfielder Nazir Khalfan (ankle) and Geordie Lyall sidelined. Defender Chris Pozniak (groin) resumed training Wednesday, and although he will not play tonight, he could be available for Sunday's second leg.
Vancouver was winless (one loss, two draws) against Carolina this season, with its loss coming on the road. The RailHawks held opponents to just eight goals against in 15 home games.
"That first game is really big, it's always hard on the road so a positive result [tonight] is crucial," said Nash. "Especially when you consider how good Carolina is defensively. We don't want to go in there being down."
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