Thursday, October 07, 2010

Whitecaps set for playoff start, Impact already off and running

Canada’s two USSF-2 teams start their playoff campaigns this week with home-and-home series. Montreal got off on the right foot Wednesday, beating the Austin Aztex 2-0 thanks to an Ali Gerba brace. Meanwhile, Vancouver will face their long-time rivals from Portland in a two-game series starting tonight at Swangard Stadium (10:30 p.m. Eastern: I’ll be live-blogging from the stadium press box, and the game can be seen via streaming video at Both teams are in slightly different situations, but they have some of the same concerns and will face some of the same challenges.

For Montreal, putting the ball in the net consistently has been an issue for most of the year. Gerba was solid down the stretch run, scoring nine goals in his last seven regular-season games, but he didn’t score at all in the regular season before that. The Impact weren’t able to find much scoring depth, either, and their depth hasn’t shown up much at all lately.

The 2-0 home win was a terrific start for the Impact. As Ben Massey writes, they did well defensively against a determined Aztex team, and that does put them in the driver’s seat. Don’t go predicting them to advance just yet, though. The Impact have been much better at home than on the road all season long, going 12-11-7 at Stade Saputo with 19 goals for and 11 against.. By contrast, they were 5-7-3 on the road, where they allowed 19 goals and only scored 17.

Montreal is facing a difficult opponent as well. The Aztex finished second in the USL Conference with a 15-7-8 record and 53 points, 10 more than Montreal. They earned the third playoff seed overall, while Montreal was seeded sixth. Austin is particularly dangerous at home, where they won more games than any other USSF-2 squad, going 10-2-3. Austin has scored 33 of their 53 goals at home and conceded only 18 of the 40 they allowed all year. Keep an eye out for Manchester United academy product Eddie Johnson (not the American one); he led the team with 14 goals this season and looked absolutely dazzling in the games I saw. Max Griffin added 10 more goals for the Aztex, so he’s a guy to watch as well, as is Jamie Watson, who ranked third in the league with seven assists.

The Whitecaps share some of the same issues as Montreal, most notably finding consistent scoring. Their biggest problem this year has been putting the ball in the back of the net, and as Marc Weber writes, that’s the top question facing the team heading into tonight’s playoff opener. Vancouver finished second in the NASL Conference with a 10-5-15 record, but they only scored 32 goals all year. Part of that’s thanks to a revolving cast up front (and on the whole team, to be honest), but part of it has just been poor finishing. However, they don’t have a significant home-road split (5-2-8 at home with 17 goals for, 5-3-7 on the road with 15 goals for, 11 goals conceded both home and away), so it might not be quite as critical for them to win the first one as it was for Montreal.

Portland isn’t going to be easy to top, either. The Timbers finished third in the USL Conference, but actually put up more points than Vancouver (49 to 45) and thus are the higher-ranked side (fourth versus fifth) heading into this one. They’re a remarkably similar team, too; tough to beat, but with scoring issues (they notched 34 goals for, two more than Vancouver, and conceded 23 goals, one more than the Whitecaps). These teams know each other well, and even if tactical changes may or may not be in the mix, there’s going to be even more intensity to the matchup than normal. Expect plenty of harsh tackles and heated emotions tonight, even if we might not see many goals.

The other USSF-2 playoff matchups are the No. 1 Rochester Rhinos against the No. 8 Puerto Rico Islanders and the No. 2 Carolina RailHawks against the No. 7 NSC Minnesota Stars. The Stars and RailHawks played to a 0-0 draw in their opening leg in Minnesota yesterday, You’d have to think that favours the RailHawks to advance at home, as they were one of the league’s best teams this year; however, both teams don’t have a particularly notable home/road split, so the Stars might still be in it.

Rochester is in Puerto Rico tonight to take on the Islanders, and that match has already run into some controversy. Here’s the release that was just published on the Rhinos’ site:

Bayamon, Puerto Rico -- Due to inadequate and unplayable playing conditions at Puerto Rico's Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium, tonight's first leg playoff match has been moved to the Bayamon Soccer Complex. Because of the sudden and unexpected change in tonight's venue there will be no broadcast available for tonight's match. Please follow the Rhinos twitter page for updates throughout the match.

That’s certainly interesting. It will be curious to see how that affects the game. Rochester should be heavily favoured, but odd things seem to happen in Puerto Rico. The return leg is Saturday in Rochester.

Remember to come back here at 10:30 p.m. Eastern/7:30 p.m. Pacific for the Vancouver – Portland live blog!

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

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