Whitecaps veterans expected to step up against Portland Timbers

 

 
 
 
 
Vancouver Whitecaps FC #88 Robert Earnshaw battles New York FC #2 Jason Hernandez for the ball in a regular season MLS soccer game at BC Place, Vancouver  September 26 2015.
 

Vancouver Whitecaps FC #88 Robert Earnshaw battles New York FC #2 Jason Hernandez for the ball in a regular season MLS soccer game at BC Place, Vancouver September 26 2015.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

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PORTLAND, Ore. – There were some surprises on the Whitecaps’ 18-man roster for today’s Western Conference playoff game against the Portland Timbers.

Nicolas Mezquida (hamstring), who supposedly was the closest of the injured Caps to returning, didn’t make the trip, but captain Pedro Morales did.

Morales, who has started just twice since June because of various injuries, will be on the bench.

And in another surprise, head coach Carl Robinson has left veteran striker Robert Earnshaw off the roster, choosing instead to put Darren Mattocks on the substitute’s bench.

The kids have been alright for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season. The youngest team in MLS did, after all, finish with 16 wins and the third-best record among the 20 teams.

The trio of 20-year-old winger Kekuta Manneh and 23-year-old Uruguayan forwards Octavio Rivero and Cristian Techera combined for 24 of the Caps 45 goals.

But as so often happens at playoff time, it’s the savvy veterans who step up. They’re the ones who display that measure of calmness when the intensity increases, as it surely will today at a deafening Province Park. They’re the ones with that extra little bit of composure in tight, pressure situations.

As my colleague at The Province, Marc Weber, so sharply noted, the average age of the 10 goal scorers on the four winning teams in the knockout round games was just over 30.

The Caps’ fortunes may well rely today on the ability of Manneh and Techera to get the better of the Portland Timbers’ excellent fullbacks, Alvas Powell and Jorge Villifana, and on Rivero bumping his bewildering slump.

But it’s certainly possible that a pair of 34-year-olds, Argentinian midfielder Mauro Rosales and Welsh forward Robert Earnshaw, might have a say in how the first leg of the two-game Western Conference semifinal plays out.

Earnshaw, even while getting few opportunities to play this season, has talked often about how quality and experience will shine through. And he’s supremely confident that he can get the job done if he gets the opportunity.

It was in what amounted to garbage time last Sunday at BC Place, but the two late substitutes did hook up for the Caps’ third goal in the 90th minute of a 3-0 victory over Houston. Earnshaw showed the clinical finish of a man with an English Premier League resume by heading home a perfectly delivered cross from Rosales, who is in the MLS playoffs for the fifth time in five seasons, the first three of them with the Seattle Sounders.

Back to full health apparently after a hamstring pull late in the regular season, there was considerable speculation that Rosales would start today at the No. 10, or central attacking midfield. But head coach Carl Robinson has, surprisingly, decided to stick with the same lineup that started the regular-season finale, meaning Gershon Koffie will be the No. 10.

Normally a holding midfielder, Koffie has just one goal and one assist this season and doesn’t provide the kind of creativity that Rosales or even Nico Mezquida would.

So does that mean the Caps won’t go be pressuring the issue early and that Robinson will be more than satisfied with a low-scoring draw? Strange decision.

Earnshaw will presumably be on the bench. But he’s now scored twice this season as a late substitute, the first time against Portland when his neat chip over goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey was the winner in a 2-1 victory. Could Agent 88 – his jersey number and his nickname – be a superhero for the Caps?

“It’s this part of the season where the (lack of) concentration and the mistakes can take you out of the playoffs,” said Rosales in a not-so-subtle message to the club’s youngsters.

He said that message has been harped on constantly throughout the season.

“It’s just being a man. Even if you are young, you are a professional and you have to play as one.

“Us, as a team . . . we’ve had the most successful season for the club so far (in MLS), but we want more. This is our hunger. (We have to be) full of energy to get to where we want to get. Everybody’s motivated, confident to do our best.”

TIMBERS’ MINDSET: The Timbers are, predictably, downplaying any suggestionthat playing for the third time in eight days and coming off that enthralling 120-minute overtime contest on Thursday night will leave them zapped physically.

“There’ll be a lot of talk about the quick turnaround, but I like the fact we’ve already gotten a win in the playoffs,” Portland head coach Caleb Porter told reporters in Portland on Saturday. “We’ve been in a match that was tense. For me, I think that’s a good thing.

“We’re in a playing rhythm. I think that could be an advantage for us.”

Portland certainly has momentum on its side. They closed out the regular season with three consecutive wins and will be riding an emotional high off beating Sporting Kansas City in an epic 11-round penalties shootout.

“I woke up this morning not knowing what day it was,” centre back Nat Borchers said Saturday. “But I think we’ve digested it and are ready for (today). In the playoffs, there’s that added rush, adrenaline, motivation.”

That will surely carry the Timbers early, but by the 70th minute, how tired will the legs feel?

GOALKEEPING HERO OUT: The Timbers starting 11 includes Jake Gleeson as the goalkeeper, not Adam Kwarasey, who tied with the Caps' David Ousted for the league lead in shutouts with 13.

Kwarasey was one of the heroes in that shootout on Thursday, stopping three shots and scoring the winner in the 11th round. But he apparently has the flu, so the Timbers will turn to Gleeson, who has played 40 games in USL Pro the last two years.

The Timbers will also be without injured holding midfielder Diego Chara for the second consecutive game. Jack Jewsbury, who played for Chara on Thursday will start again.

CAPS STARTERS: Ousted, Beitashour, Waston, Parker, Harvey, Teibert, Laba, Manneh, Koffioe, Techera, Rivero.

gkingston@vancouversun.com

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Vancouver Whitecaps FC #88 Robert Earnshaw battles New York FC #2 Jason Hernandez for the ball in a regular season MLS soccer game at BC Place, Vancouver  September 26 2015.
 

Vancouver Whitecaps FC #88 Robert Earnshaw battles New York FC #2 Jason Hernandez for the ball in a regular season MLS soccer game at BC Place, Vancouver September 26 2015.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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