By Gavin Day
VANCOUVER, B.C. — An all-Canadian final is a first for the USL First Division but Vancouver Whitecaps goalie Jay Nolly says Vancouver and Montreal players are no strangers to title intensity.
"I've been here two years and I've felt every game feels like a championship game against Montreal," Nolly said. "I think the fans feel it too. We usually have a sellout against them here and a sellout in Saputo Stadium."
For the first time, the soccer championship will be decided over two games. The defending champion Whitecaps host the Montreal Impact in the first leg Saturday. The second leg is Oct. 17 in Montreal.
Montreal (12-11-7) is seeded fifth while Vancouver (11-10-9) is seventh. As higher seed, Montreal gets to host the return leg.
"It's a Canadian derby. And there are obviously a lot of players that have been on both teams so that's also one thing," said Whitecaps coach Teitur Thordarson.
"But for me, this is a final and I prepare that just the same way against any other team in the league."
On the Whitecaps side, captain Martin Nash and Charles Gbeke spent time in Montreal while Eduardo Sebrango, David Testo, and Tony Donatelli of the Impact are former Whitecaps.
"We do know each other well . . . . I know a lot of players have different motivations to beat Vancouver, but it's two Canadian teams, two teams peaking at the same time and two teams that definitely deserve to be there," said Testo.
The Impact defeated the Whitecaps three times during the regular season but were beaten twice by them during the Nutrilite Canadian Championship.
Montreal coach Marc Dos Santos wants his players to forget their regular season success against Vancouver.
"We have to control our emotions and stick inside our box. If we stick to our principles of what we need to do as a team our chances of winning are very good."
The Nutrilite Canadian Championships is a sore sport for the Whitecaps, who were in the driving seat with just one game to go in the tournament. Already eliminated, the Impact fielded a team made up mostly of reserves against visiting Toronto FC, which needed to win by four goals to leapfrog Vancouver.
The MLS side crushed Montreal 6-1 and claimed the Voyageurs Cup on goal difference ahead of Vancouver, tripling its goal total from the first three games of the tournament in a single night.
The Vancouver squad, which was in town for a weekend game against the Impact, watched the debacle from the stands.
At the time, the Whitecaps were struggling on the field. Thordarson believes that being forced to watch that game helped the team come together and scrape into the final playoff position in seventh place.
"I think that was one of the reasons we managed to refocus and continue and get into the playoffs because everybody was disappointed with what happened," he said. "But we're done with that."
Nash says the sour end to the tournament wasn't Montreal's fault. He feels the game should not have counted in the standings since the Impact were already eliminated. For that, he blames the Canadian Soccer Association who organized the tournament.
"I think it's the CSA's problem more than Montreal. The CSA messed up with the ruling, that game shouldn't have meant anything," Nash said.
"We won the competition but we just weren't given the cup."
This is Thordarson's second season in charge with the Vancouver club and the Whitecaps players credit their coach's style of play for their success.
"He tries to get players to follow his system - to stay organized defensively and to attack as a unit. Come playoff time, it's worked," said Nolly. "He's a player's coach. He's approachable. You can ask him, if you've got a problem you can go up and talk to him and he'll let you know."
"It says a lot about his tactics and how they work in this league," said forward Marcus Haber, who was named rookie of the year Friday. "He knows exactly what he's talking about and he gets what he wants out of his players. He's put a good group together and we've bought into his system and it's showing on the field."
Vancouver beat the Puerto Rico Islanders 2-1 in last season's final at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby.
Montreal's Nevio Pizzolito likes the new two-game format.
"It means the team that deserves it will win," he said. "There will be no surprises. It will show a team's depth more as well in two matches. It's not just the 11 starters."
The Whitecaps aren't quite as welcoming.
"Personally I prefer a one-game final," said Nash. "That's how finals are played all over the world. I'm not sure why they've gone to two-games but it'll be interesting. It's the first time they've done two in this league. I don't know of any other league that does a two-leg final."
Said Thordarson: "It's different. I understand that also because of the distance between the cities and so on. It is important that the home supporters have the opportunity to see their team in the final," said Thordarson.
"It's new though, I've never been into that before. But for us, it doesn't change much. We'll just have to play as a normal first and second leg in the playoffs."
With files from Bill Beacon in Montreal
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