By Geoffrey C. Arnold
Winning a soccer game in Vancouver has been nearly impossible for the Portland Timbers.
The Timbers will face the Whitecaps in the first leg of the two-leg First Division semifinal series tonight at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, B.C. The Timbers have won once in 17 games at Vancouver since 2001, but they say tonight's game is the perfect time to snap the streak and position themselves for a trip to the finals.
"It's been a big chip on our shoulders to get (a win) in Vancouver," Timbers defender Scot Thompson said. "The last couple of times we've been up there, we've been close."
The Timbers last won in Vancouver in May 2004, a 3-1 victory. Their best result since has been a 0-0 draw in 2007.
"Looking at our past in Vancouver, it will be a very difficult game," Timbers coach Gavin Wilkinson said. "We're ready to accept the challenge."
The Timbers, the regular-season champions and top seed, face not only a tough environment but also the defending champions, who are perhaps the hottest team of the four in the semifinals. Third-seeded Puerto Rico plays fifth-seeded Montreal in the other semifinal series.
Vancouver has lost once in its past 12 games (5-1-6). It shut out second-seeded Carolina in the first round of the playoffs. The seventh-seeded Whitecaps threw a suffocating defense at the RailHawks, one of four teams to score at least 40 goals during the regular season.
"We have played very well defensively and at the same time, created chances. We didn't score on more than one of them (against Carolina), but we created some very good chances, and we deserved to go through," Vancouver coach Teitur Thordarson said. "They arevery confident, but so are we."
The Whitecaps, who scored 42 goals this season, are led by forwards CharlesGbeke and Marlon James. The two combined to score 21 goals.
"They are both big, strong boys, and when they get ball in the box, they can create a lot of problems, and both of them can finish," Vancouver midfielder Martin Nash said. "We've been getting them good balls lately, and that allows them to get chances."
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Gbeke led the First Division with 12 goals and tied for second with 25 points.
"He's just a beast up top," Thompson said. "He's strong in the air and strong with his feet. He can hold people off and get himself in good position."
Wilkinson said neutralizing Gbeke and the 6-1, 200-pound James will present a formidable task.
"They're two man-mountains who are technically very good," Wilkinson said. "And they're both lethal around the 18-yard box. They're going to pose us some problems.
Vancouver is strong in the midfield with Marcus Haber (eight goals),Wesley Knight (tied for the division lead with eight assists) and Nash (four goals, three assists) leading the way.
"They have a lot of speed on their team -- particularly on the right side -- which I think could cause us a few problems," Wilkinson said. "They have added a little pace on the team, but I still don't think it's as good as ours."
After scoring one goal in the series against Carolina, the Whitecaps suspect more will be needed to eliminate Portland.
"We've got to attack them. We need to stay organized and not be afraid to go out and get some goals," Vancouver goalkeeper Jay Nolly said. "Leaving here with just a draw, that will leave the series in Portland's favor."
The Timbers defeated the Whitecaps twice during the regular season, but both of those games were in Portland.
"Vancouver has been very urgent in everything they've done lately. Every game (in the regular season) was a playoff for them," Wilkinson said. "We're going to see a team that is desperate. We have to match that."
The Timbers enter the game with a full load of confidence. They know that leaving Vancouver with a win or even a tie will place them in control of the series coming back to Portland for Sunday's game.