Sandy • The drums pounded and the smoke bombs erupted inside CenturyLink Field in downtown Seattle Sunday night as they typically do. Major League Soccer was at the forefront hours after the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil as arguably the league’s most-fueled rivalry, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, took center stage on the ESPN network.
Soccer continues to brew in the Pacific Northwest, a stronghold of the sport in this country. But north of the border in British Columbia, the Vancouver Whitecaps are starting to have a say with its Cascadia cohorts.
Now in their fourth season in MLS, the Whitecaps may not may not have a Clint Dempsey like Seattle or Portland’s ever-growing Timbers Army, but Vancouver’s still-under construction core is having an impact. Built through choosing wisely in the draft and and stockpiling versatile talent, the Whitecaps have shown in the last two seasons that a bright forecast lies ahead.
“It’s a team to be reckoned with now,” said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey, “and a team to be reckoned with in the future.”
Start with the youthful base: Youngsters Erik Hurtado (23), Kekuta Manneh (19) and Darren Mattocks (23) have loads of potential as attacking-based, speedy players. Throw in signings like Designated Player Pedro Morales, a 29-year-old Chilean with six goals and eight assists in 2014, 24-year-old Uruguayan Sebastian Fernandez and the Whitecaps sport an attack that can be nerve wracking for any defender.
“In terms of their dynamic play, being able to beat guys 1-v-1, I think they’re up there, for sure,” defender Nat Borchers said.
The construction is about more than flash. Midfielders Russell Teibert (21), Gershon Koffie (22) and Matias Laba (22) patrol the center of the park and allow the young goal-scorers to do their work when needed. The club rid itself of Scottish international forward Kenny Miller earlier in the season, wanting to further the development of its attacking corps. It also cut ties with 2013 MLS Golden Boot winner Camilo in the off-season, selling the Brazilian forward to Mexican club Queretaro for a hefty transfer fee.
In the process, Vancouver has turned handed the car keys to the kids. It hired former MLS midfielder Carl Robinson in the offseason and his implementation of a wide-open, versatile offense has helped the club’s youngsters progress.
“Carl’s got them playing good, attractive soccer going forward,” RSL coach Jeff Cassar said. “I think that a lot of times they give up a lot of the game. It’s whether you punish them when you get those opportunities. If teams don’t punish them, they stick around and they have dangerous, dangerous players in the attack and they’ve caught fire, the young players.”
In their lone previous meeting this season, RSL’s arguably best half of soccer was negated by an equally disappointing second half that saw a 2-0 lead at home vanish when Fernandez’s 35-yard strike zipped into the net in the final minutes of stoppage time to steal a 2-2 draw.
Ability, form and goal-scoring prowess can be scintillating — and Vancouver has showcased its ability to score some wondrous goals this year — but has made the postseason only once — in 2012. The L.A. Galaxy bounced the Whitecaps 2-1 in a wild card matchup that season. The club is different than it was two years ago, but still has some climbing ahead to become part of the upper echelon in the Western Conference.
“A team that, without question, has the ball rolling forward and belief in their young coach,” midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. “They have a lot of positives going for them as a club — and obviously the West is pretty good.”
Vancouver at RSL
O At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • CW30.
Radio » 700 AM
Records • RSL 7-4-7, Vancouver 6-4-8
Last meeting • RSL 2, Vancouver 2 (April 26)