VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Whitecaps couldn't pick a better time to break the dreaded Cascadian curse. The Portland Timbers limp into BC Place on Sunday sporting a six-game winless streak and without a road win all season.
They're out of Major League Soccer playoff contention and sit 12 points behind the Caps in the MLS Western Conference – a form reversal from last year when they finished 14 points ahead of their expansion cousins from Vancouver.
For a Whitecaps squad needing a win to clinch an MLS playoff spot, it looks like the perfect scenario.
But beware the curse.
The Whitecaps have never beaten Portland or Seattle in MLS play and this will be their 10th try since joining the league last year.
“Our form has been better than Portland's this year but in these huge Cascadia rivalry games, form goes out the window,” Caps midfielder John Thorrington said Friday after the team trained at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby. “It becomes kind of a one-off, playoff type of game and we have to show up with the right attitude and passion and stand up to the physical side of things.”
About 1,500 Portland fans are expected to travel from the Rose City to watch their team battle for a win that would give them the Cascadia Cup – the fan trophy symbolizing superiority in games involving Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.
Seattle wins the Cup if Portland loses or draws against Vancouver.
Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit said the chance to become the first Canadian team to qualify for MLS post-season play is “huge,” especially following the club's disastrous on-field performance in its debut season last year.
“There were some down days last year for all of us – even in the media and especially among the fans,” he said. “Those days aren't fun so when you put in the work and tinker and do the right things, it's great to see it come to fruition.
“Hopefully we use it as a springboard to stay at a successful level for years to come.”
Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie isn't a big believer in curses, noting Portland had the advantage of playing four of its six Cascadia games at home this season.
“For me, it's just important to get the win and get into the playoffs,” he said. “If winning takes care of another record for us, that would be important but it's most important to get into the playoffs.”
The Timbers (7W-16L-9D) fired coach John Spencer this summer and designated player Kris Boyd was struggling for playing time before suffering an injury that will likely keep him out of the lineup for the rest of the season.
Timbers general manager and interim coach Gavin Wilkinson said at times this season, his team has lacked the ability to play “collectively.”
“We're the second-youngest team in MLS and we hoped some of our younger players would mature a lot quicker this year,” he said in an interview Friday. “We miss the rugged player – one that rolls his sleeves up and gets everyone geared up and coordinates and communicates on the field.”
Wilkinson feels experienced Vancouver players such as Andy O'Brien, Barry Robson, YP Lee, Jay DeMerit, Alain Rochat, Kenny Miller and John Thorrington have clearly helped the Caps improve this season.
“They have gone for experience and age, which has gone well for them,” he said. “Maybe we need to learn a little bit from that and try to find a greater balance within our group and bring in a few more rugged, mature, experienced players.”
Wilkinson said Boyd, who makes $1.5 million this season, lost playing time in the Timbers' one-striker system this year to Bright Dike, who makes about $58,000.
“Bright Dike was given the opportunity to play and he scored,” he said. “Then we had a decision to make and decided to reward performance.”
Wilkinson said Boyd has a two-year contract so he expects him to return in 2013 but that decision will ultimately be made by new Timbers coach Caleb Porter when he takes over next year.
SIDE KICKS: Rennie has some tough lineup decisions to make as his squad is completely healthy now and Miller, Dane Richards, Atiba Harris and Carlyle Mitchell have all returned from international duty with their national teams. He said Richards is “full of confidence” after scoring twice this week in Jamaica's crucial 4-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda in World Cup qualifying.
“We just have to monitor how fresh he is with the travel and the fact he has played quite a few minutes,” Rennie said. “But he's definitely in contention (for a roster spot against Portland).”
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