The USL-1 semifinals kick off today, and both matchups are intriguing. Here's a brief breakdown of what we're likely to see. Both series involve home-and-home, total-goals clashes with no away-goals rule. If still tied after both legs, the teams will go to extra time and then a shootout. The winner of each series will advance to the USL-1 final.
(1) Portland versus (7) Vancouver:
On paper, the seeding system makes this one (which I'll be live-blogging) look like a bit of a mismatch. However, as I wrote before the Whitecaps' first-round matchup against the second-seeded Carolina RailHawks, their low ranking is a bit deceiving. The team has plenty of talent and a surprising amount of depth. They've struggled with consistency this year, partly due to personnel issues (especially in central defence), partly thanks to their emphasis on giving young players plenty of experience and perhaps even partly as a championship hangover, but they've been in fine form lately, putting up a 5-1-6 record in their last 12 USL-1 games. The defence in particular looked strong over two legs against the RailHawks; they allowed a few chances and even conceded a penalty (which was brilliantly parried by keeper Jay Nolly), but kept Carolina off the scoreboard and dealt with their dangerous scoring threats. As Nolly mentioned on Full Time Sunday, the team sees themselves as more of a fourth or a fifth seed than a true seventh seed. Shaun Pejic has also been a nice fit in central defence since joining the team partway through the year.
The Whitecaps' depth is especially evident up front where USL-1 goal-scoring leader and All-League First Team member Charles Gbeke started on the bench in Sunday's second leg against Carolina. Gbeke, Marcus Haber, Marlon James and Randy Edwini-Bonsu can all fill the net, and they'll all likely see playing time against Portland. Picking who to start will be a difficult decision for head coach Teitur Thordarson, but that's a nice problem to have.
Portland comes into this as a significant favourite, and for several months earlier this year, they were the most dominant team in the USL. They struggled a bit down the stretch, though, and their first-round bye means they haven't seen playoff action yet. Their key players are keeper Steve Cronin (19 goals against in 28 games, 10 shutouts), midfielder Ryan Pore (10 goals and two assists in just 21 starts) and forward Mandjou Keita, the team's top scorer with 11 goals and seven assists in 29 games.
There's a long history between these sides dating back to the NASL days. Portland beat Vancouver in a home-and-home series in 1978, but Vancouver got revenge in their next playoff clash, in USL-1 in 2002. Portland has the most recent victory, though, defeating the Whitecaps 3-1 on aggregate in the 2007 playoffs.
As Marc Weber of The Province wrote this week, the key to this one may be who does more with home-field advantage. Vancouver is 15-1-2 against Portland at home all-time and 31-21-7 overall, but just 16-20-5 on the road. That includes just one win in their last nine games at Portland's PGE Park. As this series is total-goals, it may come down to who can win by more goals at home. My prediction's for a Vancouver upset win, as they're really clicking into nice form at the moment.
I'll be live-blogging both legs of this one. The first leg is tonight at 10:30 p.m. Eastern/ 7:30 p.m. Pacific at Swangard Stadium. The second leg follows Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. Pacific.
(3) Puerto Rico vs. (5) Montreal:
This one should be quite interesting as well. The Impact are coming off an impressive 4-1 aggregate victory over the Charleston Battery, while the Islanders thumped the Rochester Rhinos 5-2. Both teams can fill the net, so the question here is whose defence will be better.
On paper, I'd give the defensive edge to the Islanders. They have a solid defensive line and one of the best keepers in the league in Bill Gaudette, while Montreal has the less impressive tandem of Matt Jordan and Srdjan Djekanovic. Puerto Rico's also received strong performances from defensively-minded players like Christian Arrieta and Noah Delgado
I like Puerto Rico's offence, too. Former Vancouver striker Nick Addlery has done quite well with the Islanders, and Fabrice Noel forms an excellent strike pairing with him. Montreal looked to upgrade their offence this past season by acquiring former Vancouver striker Eddy Sebrango, but he's had a disappointing season with only four USL-1 goals. Roberto Brown led the Impact with seven goals and three assists, but it took him 1568 minutes to do that.
The one mark against the Islanders is that they had to play a CONCACAF Champions League match Tuesday, so they'll be less rested than the Impact. They've had to travel a lot in the last week, too, which also doesn't help. However, head coach Colin Clarke elected to rest several of his key players in Tuesday's game (a 2-0 loss to Cruz Azul), sending them straight to Montreal. It's a bold gambit, and we'll see if it pays off. In the end, I'm picking Puerto Rico in this one; I like their depth and their defence. It could be a close one, though.
[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]