BY IAN WALKER
All that adversity the Vancouver Whitecaps faced earlier this season is now paying dividends. Despite a disappointing regular season - marred by injuries and in-fighting - the Whitecaps are on the verge of advancing to the United Soccer Leagues First Division championship for the third time in four years.
Vancouver leads its two-game aggregate-score semifinal series with the Portland Timbers by a 2-1 margin heading into Sunday’s second-leg match at Portland’s PGE Park. While the Whitecaps’ attacking style of play in Game 1 was deserving of a bigger lead, what shouldn’t go unnoticed is the way the defending champions responded after giving up a controversial penalty kick goal to tie the game at 1-1 late in the first half.
“We were all upset about the penalty, but if you use your energy on that rather that refocussing on the game then you could easily lose it,” said head coach Teitur Thordarson, in reference to a hand ball called on defender Lyle Martin in the 44th minute. “So I spoke to them about getting refocussed on our game and not to worry about the referee.”
Whatever Thordarson said in the locker room, it worked. Marcus Haber proceeded to score the game-winner four minutes into the second half.
“It’s been a challenging year, but we’re stronger as a team for what we’ve went through,” said striker Charles Gbeke, who opened the scoring for Vancouver in Thursday’s 2-1 victory. “Having that to draw from is really proving to be a good thing.”
Portland were 10-3-2 at home this season and should be buoyed by a large and passionate crowd expected on hand for Sunday’s rematch. The Timbers need to win by two or more goals to advance to the next round while the Whitecaps need just a win or a tie to upset the regular-season leaders. Should Portland lead by a goal after 90 minutes, the two teams will play two 15-minute extra-time sessions, followed by penalty kicks to decide a victor.
“We cannot go down to Portland and defend for 90 minutes,” said Thordarson. “That will invite them into our half and cause problems for us.”
The winner will face either the Montreal Impact or Puerto Rico Islanders in the USL-1 championship. The Impact lead that semifinal 2-1.
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