By Ian Walker
METRO VANCOUVER — The Portland Timbers were the best team in the United Soccer Leagues First Division this season, hands down. Little does that matter now. The Vancouver Whitecaps are the hottest side in the 11-team loop following a 2-1 victory over the Timbers in the first leg of the two-game aggregate-goal semifinal series at Swangard Stadium on Thursday.
It's a heavy statement, indeed. But one that garnered little argument when posed to Whitecaps players following the game, played on a cold and rainy night in front of 4,516 diehard soccer fans.
"Watch out, man," said striker Charles Gbeke, who scored and assisted on the game-winner to further cement his choice as USL-1 first-team all star for the first time in his career earlier in the week. "We're the defending champions and have a lot of confidence right now. That's a tough combination to beat."
Vancouver has just one loss in its last 13 games — going 6-1-6 over the span — having allowed just 10 goals during the streak. A win or a draw in Portland on Sunday would advance the Whitecaps to their second straight USL-1 championship and third in four years. Even if the top-seed Portland wins by a goal, the teams will play two 15-minute extra-time sessions, followed by penalty kicks. The winner will face either the Montreal Impact or Puerto Rico Islanders for the USL-1 championship. The Impact lead the Islanders by a goal heading into the second-leg match Sunday in Puerto Rico, courtesy of a 2-1 home victory earlier Thursday.
That said, the series between the I-5 rivals is far from over. The Timbers went on to eliminate the Whitecaps from the 2007 post-season by a 3-1 margin, despite trailing by a goal after the first game. History also isn't on Vancouver's side, with the team being shutout in its two trips to Portland this season. The Whitecaps have just one win and one draw to go along with four defeats in its last six games at PGE Park, where the Timbers went 10-3-2 this season. More than 10,000 fans are expected to take in Sunday's game.
"We were just thinking about this game and first-and-foremost to get the win," said Whitecaps striker Marcus Haber, who was dangerous all night and headed home Gbeke's cross in the 49th minute to secure the victory. "We know it's tough playing there — no one's had an easy time playing there all year. It's going to be a crazy atmosphere, there's always a big crowd on hand. So hopefully we can harness that and get the result we need."
Gbeke opened the scoring in the 25th minute, but the two teams went into the break tied courtesy a controversial penalty kick awarded Portland after referee Geof Gamble called a hand ball on Vancouver defender Lyle Martin in the box just before the half. Timbers midfielder Ryan Pore took the shot, beating Jay Nolly with a low shot to the goaltender's right.
It could have proved to be an unfortunate turn of events for the home side, who were clearly controlling the play and gaining momentum as the half went on. But rather than dwelling on the negative, the Whitecaps came out pressing to start the second half and regained the lead on Haber's first ever playoff goal.
"We knew we took it to them in the first half and were unlucky to not be up by more that one," said Haber. "We knew if we came out of the break pressing we'd get our chances."
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