VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Whitecaps will shift their attention from a cross-country-rivalry to a cross-border one Saturday.
The Whitecaps host the Seattle Sounders in a Major League Soccer game at B.C. Place Stadium (TSN, 5pm et/2pm pt). The game serves as a regular-season interlude for the Whitecaps before they head to Toronto for next week's second leg of the Amway Canadian Championship final.
"It's kind of a tricky situation for us, because we have our biggest game of the year on Wednesday," said Vancouver goalkeeper Joe Cannon. "I'm hoping that we can stay focused. I think, with our crowd, we will be able to. But they're a good team."
The Sounders (7-2-1) and Whitecaps (5-3-2) are rivals from decades and leagues gone by, dating to the original North American Soccer League in the 1970s and early 1980s. Seattle entered MLS in 2009 and made the playoffs in its first three seasons, reaching the Western Conference semifinals in 2011.
The Sounders, whose owners include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and TV comedian and game show host Drew Carey, have also won three U.S. Open Cups that determine the American qualifier for Champions League play -- and boast the league's highest average attendance at 38,724 per game.
Now, the Whitecaps are looking to emulate Seattle's MLS success.
"They present a standard for most teams -- certainly, off the field," said Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie. "It's incredible the number of people that come to their games, the atmosphere surrounding the game. And coming in as a new team, they've had relative success. Right away, they've made the playoffs, they won the U.S. Open Cup and they're definitely a strong team. They're one of the ones that we would look to gauge ourselves against.
"Obviously, there's others, but they would definitely be the one -- and the fact that they're our local rivals down the road, that means even just a little bit more."
The Sounders, who will bring a large and loud contingent of fans up Interstate 5 with them, have won five of their past six games while building a 7-2-1 record. Seattle has allowed a league-low four goals against -- and just one on the road while going unbeaten (2-0-1) away from CenturyLink Field.
Coach Sigi Schmid's crew has produced a modest 12 goals, putting it in the middle of the league's scoring pack. But Cannon said the Sounders are a better offensive team than the statistics indicate.
"They're a team that's really spotty," he said. "They try to create situations and go on the front foot, and they try to put teams on the back foot. By being so aggressive offensively, it helps their defence out, because they have guys that are physical in the back, that can man-mark, and it makes the game very predictable for them."
Vancouver captain Jay DeMerit said the Whitecaps have to disrupt Seattle's rhythm and "formula."
"They just have a system that they all really know very well," he said. "They're all on the same page. They're very organized, and away from home, that's a huge key.
"For us, we need to capitalize on the fact that we're at home, get them on the back foot and be very wary of the long ball and stay organized."
Whitecaps attacking midfielder Sebastien Le Toux, who played two seasons for Seattle in a lower-tier league and one more after the move to MLS, is expecting his former club to pose a strong test.
Le Toux, a 28-year-old Frenchman, hopes to have a strong game after shining in a Seattle uniform. He scored 25 goals for the Sounders between 2007 and 2009 -- a key factor in Vancouver's decision to acquire him in a preseason trade from Philadelphia.
"It's just a very special moment and special game for someone who spent three years there -- and three great years," said Le Toux.
Big things are also expected of fellow Frenchman Eric Hassli, who has scored four goals in the past five games after ending a 17-game scoreless drought that spanned two seasons. Hassli has achieved most of his success in a reserve role.
The striker came off the bench last Wednesday to give the Whitecaps a 1-1 draw with Toronto in the first leg of the two-game, total-goals Canadian final. He also subbed in during Vancouver's last home league game against San Jose and scored to give his club a 2-1 win.
"He's been great for us," said DeMerit. "When you've got a big guy like that, he's got offensive talent and likes to get in the box when the game's tight. And when the game gets a bit open towards the end of games, that seems to be -- at least this season -- when he's most useful.
"That formula, so far, has been working. If we can get him to do it for 90 minutes, all the better."
Coy Whitecaps coach Rennie said he is contemplating a start for Hassli -- just as he does before every game. But the Vancouver skipper is confident that Hassli will provide a strong showing either way.
"He's on a good run scoring goals right now, and I'm sure over the next few games he'll be a really key player -- whether he starts or whether he comes on," said Rennie. "He's proven he can do well from either position. So we're happy to have him, and happy to be able to choose one way or the other."
When asked if he would prefer to start, Hassli took the high road, stressing the need for team success.
"I hope we win the game," he said. "That's all I care about. I just work to be ready on game day and try to do my best every game."
Last season, Seattle earned a win and a draw against Vancouver. In the second contest, Hassli scored a memorable goal on a volley from the right corner of the 18-yard box into the opposite corner of the net.
The goal, watched by millions on YouTube, is considered one of the best ever in MLS play. Hassli smiled at the memory, but said it does not matter to him whether he scores another highlight-reel goal.
"I don't care if I score off my butt," he said. "I just want to score."
Note: Saturday's game will serve as part of the Cascadia Cup series involving games between Vancouver, Seattle and the Portland Timbers. The team with the best record in the games against each other will be awarded the fan-created cup named after a region that includes B.C., Washington and Oregon. ... The Whitecaps have no significant injuries, although striker Atiba Harris is questionable due to a bruised thigh. ... Seattle will play without goalkeeper Josh Ford (knee), midfielder Steve Zakuani (leg), defender Michael Tetteh (hamstring) and forward Babayele Sodade (knee).