Surprise win over RailHawks
By Ian Walker
On one side you have the defending champs. And on the other, a team that finished dead last in the United Soccer League's First Division last season.
What a difference 12 months make. This year, it's the Vancouver Whitecaps who are the ones coming off a somewhat disappointing regular season, claiming the league's seventh and final playoff berth. The Portland Timbers, meanwhile, cruised to top spot in the standings en route to a first-round bye in the post-season.
In other words, the Whitecaps have the Timbers just where they want them.
"We're not feeling that there is any pressure on us at the moment," said Whitecaps head coach Teitur Thordarson, only days after his team upset the second-seed Carolina RailHawks by a 1-0 two-game aggregate score in the first round of the playoffs. "Nobody expected us to eliminate Carolina after the season they had. The RailHawks had not lost many games at home, and yet, we were able to bring their season to an end by earning two shutouts. Having eliminated a top team like Carolina, we can go into the Portland series with the same attitude as we had last week."
Helping matters is the little fact that Portland has just one win at Swangard in 18 games played at the Burnaby facility. The two teams have met 38 times in league play dating back to 2001, with the Whitecaps holding a decided 21-10-7 record against their I5 rivals overall. Vancouver and Portland have clashed twice in the post-season, with the Timbers winning the 2007 series 3-1 on aggregate and Vancouver the 2002 series 2-0 on aggregate.
Portland held a 2-1-0 edge over Vancouver this season to claim the franchise's first Cascadia Cup -- a fan-based, head-to-head competition between the Pacific Northwest sides. After opening the season with a loss to the Whitecaps, the Timbers (16-4-10) went on to set a USL-1 record with a 24-game unbeaten streak. To their credit, the Whitecaps (11-10-9) have just one loss in their last 12 games.
Any way you look at it, the second-round matchup is shaping up to be much more competitive than the seedings might suggest.
"If you look at the way we've been playing the last six to seven weeks, we've hardly lost a game and should've had better results than what we earned," said Thordarson. "The first game of this semifinal is at home, so I'm looking forward to that because I feel we have been doing our things very well. Like the Carolina series, we will need to be very good tactically and be disciplined in our performance."
Vancouver comes into the game relatively healthy, with just midfielder Gordon Chin (knee) and defender Geordie Lyall (groin) sidelined with injuries.
The two teams feature five of the league's top eight scorers this season, including the Whitecaps' Charles Gbeke who led all goal scorers with 12. Portland and Vancouver were among the highest scoring teams, but the Timbers allowed almost half as many goals -- with only 19 on the year compared to the Whitecaps' 36 against.
The second leg of the series goes Sunday afternoon at PGE Park, where as many as 10,000 fans are expected to take in the game. Whitecaps management is expecting the team's 13th sellout of the season tonight.
The winner of the series will advance to the USL-1 championship against either the Montreal Impact or Puerto Rico Islanders.
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Tonight vs. Portland Timbers
7:30 p.m. at Swangard Stadium
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