Strong's Notes: Same Faces in Different Places

John Strong examines a 'Caps side fighting for their first MLS playoff berth

Jay DeMerit, Vancouver Whitecaps

Photo Credit: 
(Getty Images)

Two weeks removed from a very long, disappointing night in Seattle, the Portland Timbers return to the field Sunday afternoon for their final road match of 2012, and penultimate game overall, against their other Cascadian rivals, the Vancouver Whitecaps (4 pm PT, ROOT SPORTS750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). The superlatives at stake remain the same: the Timbers need a win to take the Cascadia Cup at the last chance, and would love to avoid being the fifth team in leage history to go an entire season without an away victory. At stake for Vancouver? What they’re calling the biggest game of their MLS tenure.

Right Back Where They Started From
It was a while ago now, but you’ll remember the Whitecaps started 2012 on fire under new head coach Martin Rennie: shutouts in their first four outings, five wins in their first nine, and an 8-4-5 record come the halfway point of the season—good third best in the Western Conference. Whether due to a prototypical midseason swoon, or, as was accused, tinkering of the squad by Rennie, the Whitecaps then hit the wall: a 2-8-2 run that included a team-record-tying five straight losses, and almost two months without a win.

That was, until two-plus weeks ago, when the Whitecaps exploded with a 4-0 win over Chivas USA. It marked their biggest MLS win, more goals than they’d scored in the previous seven games, back-to-back shutouts for the first time since July, and for the group a needed boost of breathing space after seeing their lead over FC Dallas for the fifth and final playoff spot slowly dwindle. Now, a victory on Sunday against the Timbers—or a Dallas loss two hours later in Seattle, or draws in both—would give Vancouver not just their first playoff berth, but the first for a Canadian team in MLS history.

Same Faces in Different Places
Some of the recent success can be attributed to changes in Rennie’s lineup and system with the Whitecaps. One of the notable changes since the Timbers beat Vancouver in late August has been Alain Rochat: one of the better left backs in the league has been moved in the last month to a holding midfield role, sitting at the defensive base of a diamond in the center of the park. That’s allowed Jordan Harvey to retake the left back spot from Rochat, and has had a trickle effect as well, sending Marques Davidson to the bench, and Gershon Koffie—a midfield bruiser dating to the end of their USL days—to the wing.

Still out there are the midseason-signed Scottish duo of Kenny Miller and Barry Robson, as well as Brazilian Camilo, who scored his first goal in eight games in their last win. One of the interesting faces to pop back up has been Matt Watson—one of the players Rennie coached with the Carolina Railhawks— with whom the Whitecaps are actually 5-1-2 with five shutouts when he starts. The Whitecaps are also hoping to get speedy, dynamic rookie forward Darren Mattocks back from a hamstring injury suffered a few weeks ago against Seattle.

That’s to say nothing of the changes in the back: professional journeyman Brad Knighton, who briefly played on loan in Portland in 2008, has started the last five games in goal in the place of Joe Cannon, one of the longest-serving netminders in MLS. He’s finally got the team’s first choice centerback pairing back in front of him: Jay DeMerit and Irish veteran Andy O’Brien have started the past two matches—the game in Portland being the only other one they’ve done tdue to injuries to both since O’Brien’s midseason arrival.

Just Like Last October
It’ll be a party atmosphere at BC Place on Sunday, a sellout crowd expecting to see their team celebrate a playoff berth with a win, after finishing bottom of the league last year. After massive changes in the winter—and summer, for that matter—it seems as if the Whitecaps have figured things out again, and are optimistic about the momentum they can gain before a likely knockout round match at the defending champion Galaxy in a few weeks time.

However, beyond the issues of pride, Cascadia Cup, and that long-elusive road win, the Timbers can also fall back on being in a familiar spot: last year at just about this time, they came to Vancouver to play the first game at the refurbished BC Place, and quite effectively spoiled the party with a 1-0 win—their last away from home. Ruining the fun a second time in as many years would serve well to provide a positive punctuation to a difficult 2012 for the Timbers.