Sebastian Le Toux, Vancouver Whitecaps
(Getty Images)

Strong's Notes: Tremendous Turnaround

After last Sunday’s win over Chicago continued their positive trend of recent weeks, the Portland Timbers now enter the 2012 Cascadia Cup at home Saturday night against the Vancouver Whitecaps (7pm PT, Presented by JELD-WEN Windows & Doors; ROOT SPORTS750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). Regardless of the history and rivalry between the two sides, regardless of the Timbers’ hopes to continue this run and climb back up the Western Conference standings, Saturday’s game also marks Portland’s last in MLS play for three weeks, meaning whatever happens in these 90 minutes will set the tone for a while to come. It’ll come against a Whitecaps team that’s run out of a little bit of their early season steam in recent weeks.

Tremendous Turnaround
Last year was not a very fun MLS debut for the Vancouver Whitecaps, one of the proudest and longest-running clubs in North America. Their 6-18-10 record saw them tied for last place in the league, and they became one of a handful of teams to go an entire season without a road win. Young Scotsman Martin Rennie became the team’s third coach in one year when he was hired late in 2011, but has helped lead a renaissance in British Columbia.

The Whitecaps flew out of the gate in 2012, especially defensively, with four straight clean sheets that led to two wins and two draws in the first month. Including Canadian Championship matches, the Whitecaps then rattled off five straight wins in April and early May, and are amongst the playoff places in the Western Conference. Offseason additions Lee Young-Pyo—a living legend in South Korea—Martin Bonjour, Sebastian Le Toux, and a few players brought by Rennie from the second-division Carolina Railhawks, have combined with a rejuvenated incumbent cast to create a “180 degree turn” from last year, in the words of goalkeeper Joe Cannon.

Recent Rocky Road
However, not all has been entirely well the past two weeks for Vancouver. It all started on May 12, when the Whitecaps rested some key players in the days ahead of their Canadian Championship Final first leg against Toronto, and facing a third straight two-game week. Those new faces were stunned by the New England Revolution in a 4-1 loss; Eric Hassli had to score another stunning volley in stoppage time to salvage a 1-1 draw with Toronto days later. Last weekend, two leads at home against Seattle evaporated into a frustrating 2-2 draw; and, Wednesday, against the quasi-self-proclaimed “worst team in the world,” the Whitecaps lost out on a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League with a 1-0 loss in Toronto in the second leg of the Canadian finals.

So, at the end of a fourth multi-game week, with points drying up, and frustration building up, the Whitecaps come to Portland to try to avenge a pair of losses last season. Will they show some fatigue, or will they continue their plan of squad rotation, which hasn’t always paid dividends? Will they be emotionally hung-over from Wednesday’s demoralizing loss, or have a white-hot fire lit underneath them in their anger? Those are the two biggest questions ahead of this game from the Whitecaps perspective.

Look, Legitimate North American Soccer History!
The Timbers and Whitecaps, in their various NASL and USL guises, have played against each other 70 times dating back to 1975, and in recent years what could have been argued as an also-ran for Timbers v Sounders has taken on a life of its own. After Seattle left for MLS, it was only Portland-Vancouver—in league play at least—in 2009 and 2010, with the Whitecaps knocking the Timbers out of the playoffs, and at home, both years. Last year in MLS, the two expansion sides tried to one-up each other on and off the field.

It was advantage Portland with two wins in 2011, and it was a rare feat to boot: just the sixth out of 18 season series that went the Timbers’ way. However, the recent trend has been the Axe Men’s friend, going the last eight regular season games—dating back to 2009—without losing, the longest such run since the NASL Timbers won their first six games over the Whitecaps. Even more shocking, after going 2-18-3 in B.C. in the USL era, the Timbers won 1-0 up there last season.

None of that, of course, matters much Saturday night. It’s an entirely new Whitecaps team from last year. So maybe the biggest question after all is this: with the next two weekend devoid of league soccer to play, who wants to feel good about life more?