By JOSE M. ROMERO
The Vancouver Whitecaps are loaded with new faces, players who weren't with the club the past two years for its two runs to the USL championship game. They had also failed to beat the Portland Timbers in four regular-season matches in 2010.
Neither mattered Thursday night at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, B.C., where the Whitecaps stunned the Timbers with a 2-0 win in the first leg of the USSF Division 2 rivals' opening round, two-match playoff series.
It could have, and probably should have, been even more of a thrashing. The Whitecaps were denied two more goals when Terry Dunfield hit the post with a shot in 40th minute and Phillippe Davies rolled one off the near post in the 80th minute.
Vancouver put the Timbers on the defensive right away with a quick goal from midfielder Gershon Koffie. It happened on Vancouver's first attack into the Portland end.
Moments later, Vancouver went on the offensive again. A free kick by Davies was saved by Timbers goalkeeper Steve Cronin after it hit the post, and the rebound came out to Blake Wagner, who was taken down in the box by midfielder Kalif Alhassan.
Whitecaps midfielder Martin Nash, moved to forward for the game, converted the penalty kick in the 13th minute.
The rain and cool temperatures have arrived in the Pacific Northwest, and the pitch in Canada was slippery. But soccer fans in the region are being treated to their last looks at the lower-division Portland and Vancouver sides before they both move up to MLS in 2011.
Timbers fans could very well be seeing their USSF team for the very last time on Sunday evening at Merlo Field on the campus of the University of Portland, where the Timbers have to host the second leg because their stadium, PGE Park, is being renovated for MLS. The Timbers have to make up a two-goal differential after being thoroughly outplayed by the Whitecaps Thursday in front of a crowd of 5,018.
Portland entered the series as the higher seed at No. 4 and had ended the regular-season on a 10-match unbeaten streak. But their typical scoring threats, Bright Dike and Ryan Pore, were throttled by the Whitecaps' defense, which lost Wes Knight in the 71st minute to what looked like a serious shoulder injury.
The match was very physical and the action was up-and-down as the Timbers tried to rally. The Whitecaps drew a plethora of yellow cards and Timbers defender Ian Joy escaped a red card despite a vicious tackle on Davies in the first half. Vancouver was whistled for 24 fouls to Portland's 13.
The Timbers seemed out of sync from the start, their defense too inactive. Portland had one great chance to cut the deficit in the 84th minute, but Vancouver goalkeeper Jay Nolly blocked a point-blank shot off a set piece.
The Timbers find themselves in the position of having to attack right away in the second leg Sunday. If they don't, they could be looking at a sooner-than-planned start to their offseason leading up to their MLS debut.
"We feel like we did our job, we played a great game," Nolly said. "We just need to keep our heads because we don't want to lose our guys for the playoffs.
"We're starting to feel like team right now and its coming around at the right time."
What do you think of this series and/or USSF-2 playoff format in general? Can Portland can come back or will Vancouver end the Timbers' season?