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Wileman: Whitecaps to have hands full with undefeated RSL

Luke Wileman
4/24/2014 9:28:48 AM
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April was always going to be a big test for the new-look Vancouver Whitecaps with games against some of Major League Soccer's top teams. After back-to-back matches against LA Galaxy, the 'Caps now head to Rio Tinto Stadium - a place where they have never won - to face Real Salt Lake, the only remaining unbeaten team in Major League Soccer this season.

The Form:

The Whitecaps are winless in their last three matches, but after a hard fought defeat at LA and a 2-2 draw against the Galaxy at home, there are clear signs the team is growing under new head coach Carl Robinson.

"In the last two games we've shown we can compete against one of the top teams in Major League Soccer," said Robinson. "Now it's another great challenge for us. You look at the fixtures we've had and it's been tricky against good teams. We get another big test. They are a squad that has been together for the last couple of years so it's another marker to see where we are."

The Big Question:

Will Kekuta Manneh start? The 19-year-old has appeared in every match this season but has started only once. The young Gambian was impressive coming on as a half time substitute against LA Galaxy at BC Place a week ago. He injected life into the Whitecaps attack and scored the game-tying goal with a fantastic strike with just four minutes left to play.

"I toyed with the idea of playing him from the start, said Robinson. "Me, being a young head coach thought is it better to be in the game and then unleash him on them."

There's no doubt Manneh has loads of talent and will have a big future in the game. But there is also still plenty that he needs to learn. Robinson doesn't want to rush the youngster, and acknowledges he needs to improve his defensive qualities before he becomes a regular starter. This is a long-term project. Robinson wants to build the Whitecaps around some fantastic young players, a job that doesn't need to be rushed. Manneh will continue to get his chance at the right times.

That also applies for Erik Hurtado. The speedster was drafted along with Manneh in the first round in 2013. He's still waiting for his first MLS goal, but was another big spark in the second half against LA when he came on as a substitute last week. "He's been training very well over the last two or three weeks and from where he was last year to where he is now, it is night and day for the kid," said Robinson when asked about Hurtado's form. "If he continues to push he'll get plenty of opportunities."

The Lineup:

Aside from whether Manneh will come into the starting lineup, one of the other big decisions for head coach Carl Robinson is in defence. It's extremely likely that Robinson will select Johnny Leveron in the team after bringing the Honduran on at halftime of the draw against the Galaxy.

Robinson has made no secret of the fact that he admires the qualities Leveron possesses, particularly his ability with the ball at his feet. The Honduran's abilities match the way Robinson wants his team to play. Leveron's only start this season was at New England where the Whitecaps registered their only clean sheet so far. On that day he was beside Andy O'Brien. It will be interesting to see which one of the veterans - O'Brien or Jay DeMerit - is replaced if Leveron gets the call to start.

The Opposition:

Stability has been a major factor in the success of Real Salt Lake over recent years. Despite losing head coach Jason Kreis at the end of last season when he departed to join expansion club New York City FC, RSL has started the season strongly under new head coach Jeff Cassar. He may be in his first season as manager, but Cassar has been at the club since 2007 and was a key part of Kreis' coaching staff.

They have also managed to keep a core group of players together over the last few seasons. Eleven of Salt Lake's current squad have been with the club for five years of longer.

Real Salt Lake's 1-0 win at home to Portland Timbers last week leaves them four points ahead of the Whitecaps heading into Saturday's match. Their clean sheet against the Timbers was their fourth of the season, in just seven matches. Veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando was the star of the show, winning the MLS Player of the Week award for his performance.

The Odds:

One of the areas the Whitecaps will need to improve upon if they are to make the playoffs this season is picking up points against Western Conference opposition. Both of Vancouver's wins so far wins this season have come against the East (New York and Houston). From four matches against Western opponents, they have two draws and two defeats.

History isn't on the Whitecaps side as they head to Utah - they've only won two of eight previous meetings against RSL, and have never won at Rio Tinto Stadium with three losses and a tie from their last four visits.

With RSL's strong start to the season, the home team will be heavy favourites heading into the match, but the 'Caps showed against LA a couple of weeks ago they have the potential to go toe-to-toe with the league's top teams, even on the road.

Where to Watch:

Vancouver Whitecaps at Real Salt Lake is live on CTV2 BC on Saturday at 6:30pm pt/9:30pm et.

Luke Wileman

Luke Wileman


Luke Wileman is an analyst for TSN's soccer coverage and his blog can be read on TSN.ca.

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