Seattle Sounders visit Swangard Saturday for pre-season match
BY BRUCE CONSTANTINEAU
VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps' inaugural Major League Soccer campaign is still 12 months away, but team eyes are clearly focused on the MLS prize.
The Caps host the Seattle Sounders at Swangard Stadium on Saturday for their fourth consecutive pre-season match against MLS opposition. A recent two-week training camp in Arizona featured a 3-2 loss to the Sounders, a 4-1 loss to Chicago Fire and a 2-1 victory over defending MLS champions Real Salt Lake.
"The expectations have definitely been raised this year," head coach Teitur Thordarson said in an interview during the team's practice Thursday. "The goal is to get a good group of players together and have as many players as possible go with the team into MLS."
The Sounders kept six players from their lower-tier United Soccer Leagues team roster when they moved into MLS last year and Whitecaps captain Martin Nash expects a similar number can make the same jump in Vancouver next year.
"Everyone's goal here is to be part of the team next year," the 34-year-old midfielder said. "But you have to have a good year and show the club that you're someone they need."
The former Canadian international definitely wants to be part of the Vancouver MLS mix in 2011.
"I want to play as long as I can and I think it's a realistic goal," Nash said. "We have gone to the league final the past two years and I feel I've been a big part of that. If it happens again this year, I don't see why I can't be a part of [the new MLS team]."
Whitecaps striker Marlon James — whose nagging ankle, calf and hamstring injuries forced him to miss nearly half the season last year — said he feels healthier than ever and ready to prove his stock as a future Vancouver MLS player.
"I definitely want to play for the team next year," he said. "My heart is here, I put my trust here and I hope they put their trust in me. I'm just looking for a better season."
The St. Vincent & Grenadines forward scored nine goals in 17 games last year and he is five or six pounds lighter this season thanks to an off-season workout and diet regimen.
Thordarson knows he's auditioning as much as his players are this year for a future MLS role but insists he doesn't obsess about it.
"My job is to make sure we have a good season this year so that's my focus," he said. "I hope to at least be a candidate for being a head coach in the MLS. With the experience I have from coaching clubs and national teams in Europe, I think that I'm well qualified."
The 58-year-old former Icelandic international was head coach of the Estonian national team for three years in the late 1990s, guiding them from 145th in FIFA's world rankings in 1996 to 68th in 1999.
It will be a drastically new-look Whitecaps — both on and off the field — when the team launches its 2010 USSF D-2 Pro League season April 11 by hosting NSC Minnesota Stars.
Former Tottenham Hotspur executive director Paul Barber arrives next week to become the Whitecaps' new chief executive officer, directing the team's future along with president Bob Lenarduzzi and chief operating officer Rachel Lewis.
Former DC United coach Tom Soehn is the new director of soccer operations while former Canadian international midfielder Colin Miller has joined the organization as assistant coach.
Even the team's residency program has changed, with managing director and head coach Thomas Niendorf leaving and Miller assuming coaching duties on an interim basis.
Notable on-field changes this year include the loss of forward Marcus Haber, the United Soccer Leagues 2009 Rookie of the Year, who signed a contract with West Bromwich Albion of the English Championship League.
Forward Charles Gbeke, who scored a team-leading 12 goals last year, has left to play with Chinese squad Guangzhou FC.
Off-season additions include former MLS defenders Greg Janicki [from DC United] and Blake Wagner [from FC Dallas]. Other new players — who all played with United Soccer Leagues clubs last year — include defenders Nelson Akwari and Zourab Tsiskaridze, along with midfielders Chris Williams, Jonny Steele and Ricardo Sanchez.
Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said he will bring a full Sounders squad to Vancouver this weekend, including goalkeeper Kasey Keller, striker Fredy Montero and former Arsenal winger/midfielder Freddie Ljungberg.
He expects a tough game from Vancouver, noting any quality differences between MLS and tier-two North American soccer only become apparent over the long term.
"Over a whole season, you would see a difference but on a given day, they will be competitive and give us a very good match," Schmid said.
He said some of his players who played for the USL Sounders are playing even better this year because they know what it takes to succeed at the higher MLS level.
"It's about consistency of performance week in and week out at the top level because the game is technically a little better," Schmid said. "As you drop down [in the level of the league], the game becomes a little more physical with a little more end-to-end kind of play."
Two hundred Sounders supporters are expected to make the trip to Vancouver, along with 10 members of the Seattle media.
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