HARRISON, NJ – The wait is almost over.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC open their 2017 campaign on Wednesday night against New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. PT at Red Bull Arena – the match will be streamed on CONCACAF’s Facebook page.
Whitecaps FC will then host the decisive second leg on Thursday, March 2 at BC Place (7 p.m. PT – tickets still available). The team that scores more goals over the two legs will advance to the semifinals and face Mexican giants Pumas UNAM or Tigres UANL.
“As a player you want to be a part of the club’s history,” Whitecaps FC goalkeeper David Ousted told reporters. “I think we all really enjoy being here. We all love this club. I think being a part of its history in that way would be huge as a player. For a team, this is a chance to get our season started in the right way.”
History in the making: This is the first time either Vancouver or New York have reached the Champions League quarterfinals. Both teams have said publically that they’re treating it as one of the most important games of the season. It’s not often a game this early in the season has so much meaning. Which team will rise to the occasion?
Sit back or go for goal? With the away goals rule in play, do the ‘Caps come out all guns blazing or do they play it safe and keep themselves in the series heading into next week’s decisive second leg at BC Place? “There are a number of ways to try and deal with the first leg,” said Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson. “It’s not going to be won in the first leg, but it certainly can be lost.”
Missing pieces: The ‘Caps will be without the services of new striker Fredy Montero, who stayed in Vancouver to work up his fitness levels, and attacking midfielders Christian Bolaños (knee), Nicolas Mezquida (hip), and Yordy Reyna (foot) on Wednesday. That’s a whole lot of attacking creativity on the sidelines. In their absence, who might step up for the Blue and White? Either way, the ‘Caps are expecting a scrappy affair. “We sped up the whole preseason to get ready for this game,” Ousted said. “Soccer wise, it might not be the most polished. But the intensity is going to be there, the tackles are going to be there, and we’re going to fight for a good result.”
Matias Laba (DM) vs. Sacha Kljestan (AM): Kljestan, who was just named New York’s new captain, is the playmaker for the Red Bulls. He makes the team tick. Case in point: he led MLS with 20 assists last season. To put that number into context, no player has recorded more assists in a single season since 2000. Suffice to say, Laba and company will need to be on their game to keep him in check.
Kendall Waston (CB) vs. Bradley Wright-Phillips (FWD): The other danger man for New York is former English Premier League striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, last year’s MLS Golden Boot winner. Wright-Phillips, in fact, scored the only goal in last year’s 1-0 victory over Whitecaps FC. The year before, Ousted stopped not one, but two of his penalty kicks in a 2-1 win at Red Bull Arena. It will be up to the likes of Waston and fellow centre back Tim Parker to limit the striker’s chances on Wednesday.
WHAT IS THE CONCACAF CHAMPIONS LEAGUE?
The CONCACAF Champions League is a 24-team competition between the top clubs from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The winner of the CCL qualifies for the annual FIFA Club World Cup, where they compete against the top teams from Asia, Africa, South America, Oceana, and Europe.
An MLS team has never won the CCL – though Montreal reached the final in 2014-15.