As the Lower Mainland in British Colombia gets swept up in Stanley Cup fever, Vancouver's soccer team has its sights firmly set on lifting a trophy of its own over the next couple of weeks.
The Whitecaps will host Toronto FC on Wednesday at Empire Field in the first leg of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship Final, and amidst a busy Major League Soccer schedule, Vancouver head coach Teitur Thordarson is making no secret of where his priorities lie. The Iceland native made his immediate objectives quite clear by resting some of his leading players for Saturday's league match on the road against New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium.
A youth laden Whitecaps side fell to a 1-0 defeat in Massachusetts as the expansion club's winless streak in MLS stretched to 10 games, but Thordarson clearly had one eye on the upcoming two-leg championship match against their cross country rivals. After an extremely effective opening to the season, Alain Rochat was left at home to rest as Thordarson attempts to combat the fatigue within his squad. Prior to the game against the Revs, the Quebec born full back had played every minute of every match this season. Thordarson opted to give Rochat a break from league action to ensure he is fit and ready to play against Toronto.
Earlier in the week, the coach used the same tactic with Jonathan Leathers. The former Kansas City right back had started 11 straight games for the 'Caps this season before getting a night off in the 1-1 tie against San Jose Earthquakes.
It is a difficult balancing act for Thordarson as he attempts to utilise his squad to give them the best possible opportunity of succeeding in two competitions, but the Whitecaps coach was pleased with the performances he saw from his younger players despite not getting a positive result in New England. Changes to the line-up included Gershon Koffie and Russell Teibert coming back into the midfield, and Omar Salgado in attack alongside Chinese forward Long Tan who was handed a first MLS start. Increases in roster sizes in MLS over the last couple of years have certainly aided teams in their attempts to be competitive in multiple competitions, and Thordarson clearly has faith in the abilities of his squad players.
As Thordarson looks to youth in order to fight on two fronts, one of his best weapons has much more experience. The Whitecaps received a welcome boost over the last few days with the return of Captain Jay DeMerit following an extended layoff due to injury. DeMerit came off the bench against San Jose and started in New England. The United States international played just over an hour on his first start since early April.
DeMerit's return is not only a boost because of the physical attributes he will bring to the backline during the busiest month of the season, but also because of his leadership qualities. Thordarson talked after Saturday's match about DeMerit's ability to "keep the backline together", and despite some strong performances from those standing in for the injured captain in recent weeks, DeMerit's ability to organize the defence will make those around him more consistent. A healthy DeMerit is key to Vancouver's hopes of winning the Canadian Championship, and also lifting themselves up the Western Standings in the MLS.
With the Whitecaps winless since opening day in MLS, Thordarson will be anxious to see a turnaround in results in the league, but for now he has his sights set on making history and winning the Canadian Championship for the first time. After seeing Montreal lift the trophy in 2008 and Toronto achieve back-to-back success in the last two years, the 'Caps have a point to prove. While success will further test the depth of the expansion side's squad, everyone connected with the club knows just how much it would mean to see their team hoist the Voyageurs Cup. It's not only a matter of Canadian pride, but the opportunity to represent the country in the Champions League would also assist in further building the Whitecaps brand across the CONCACAF region.
Amidst the cramped schedule, there is relief in sight for Vancouver. They are without a league game this coming weekend, giving them the ability to fully concentrate on the Canadian Championship on consecutive Wednesday nights.
As the Whitecaps spend time in recovery and preparation, their opponents Toronto FC must travel to play at altitude against the Colorado Rapids on Sunday afternoon, giving them little time to focus on the final game of the tournament that will crown the kings of Canadian soccer.