While any of the three teams could win the Cascadia Cup in the next two Saturdays in MLS play, the Seattle Sounders are in the driver's seat. With a win over the Vancouver Whitecaps they not only qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs, they also get their first trophy. Or more appropriately, their fans get their first trophy as this is a Supporters Cup. It is of, for and by the fans. So while the players win it, the local supporters group will hold it with pride.
Standing in the Sounders way is a more typical expansion team. One that has struggled at points with fan relations, and more significantly has struggled settling on a coach and evaluating talent. For everything that the Whitecaps have done over their 30+ year history this year has frustrated a loyal fanbase and in this edition of three questions that couldn't be more clear. Ben Massey from 86 Forever answers the key points to the upcoming match. The focus is on the coaching change, the defense and the end of Empire Field.
SaH: What has the biggest tactical difference between Soehn and Teitur?
86F: The biggest tactical difference is that Teitur Thordarson had some tactics. Say what you will about the man, accuse him of not reacting quickly enough to game situations if you like, but he put his players out with a goal in mind. He played them in their proper positions, he gave them roles appropriate to their abilities. His team was always well-balanced, always reasonably competent at scoring and defending given injuries and the team's skill level. If the team fell behind, you knew you'd see Nizar Khalfan or Omar Salgado come out for some fresh legs; if the team went ahead you knew you'd see players come into midfield to try and hold the lead. Teitur would play a player without caring where he came from, only what he could offer. He'd bench an old favourite like Philippe Davies and play one of Soehn's men like Jeb Brovsky if he thought Brovsky could bring more into the team.
Tom Soehn, on the other hand, slams his face into his desk every week. "Durr, John Thorrington is good!" he'd cry incoherently as he scribbled "ThORigTONNN" onto the lineup card at right back (and in green crayon). Russell Teibert is a useful player so throw him in at left back, why not? Peter Vagenas? Ha, his name looks like a female body part, he must be worth giving 90 minutes every single week as he lobs impotent mortars of passes so directly to opposing defenders that they should send a thank-you card. And if the team goes down 1-0 or 2-0, expect Soehn to stand on the sideline like this has never happened before, watching his team grow more discouraged, then finally bringing on Long Tan in the second minute of stoppage time because that's totally going to make a difference.
SaH: The Whitecaps defense looks like a good bagel, soft with a big hole it. Is there one person to finger?
86F: Tommy Soehn.
The team has a few useful defenders: Jay DeMerit has looked like his old self since coming back from injury, Alain Rochat is utterly elite, Jordan Harvey proved himself in Philadelphia, and Jonathan Leathers is serviceable if sometimes error-prone. Unfortunately, the team still can't run out a healthy, coherent four-man back line. Much of the problem comes down to the departure of Mouloud Akloul: a skilled, ball-handling French centre back, Akloul was released after the semi-guaranteed contract despite the fact that his $150,000 salary wouldn't come off the salary cap and his roster spot still hasn't been filled. As a result, Rochat (a native left back and probably the best player in MLS at the position) was moved to centre back; his speed and intelligence are still there but he isn't a great aerial player and is not particularly physical, meaning he's not at his best. That moves Jordan Harvey to left back, where (for whatever reason) he has consistently been beyond horrible with Vancouver despite his proven MLS pedigree. And every so often Soehn will have a brainwave like moving Harvey to centre back, or playing Jeb Brovsky and John Thorrington at right back, or playing Bilal Duckett in any capacity whatsoever, and the team is just put further behind the eight ball.
At its best, the team's defense still isn't very good. But it could be an awful lot better than it is.
SaH: How does Empire Field play? Will you miss it?
86F: At first, Empire Field was an entertaining novelty but now it's just annoying. Its artificial turf is old and worn-down, with an uneven distribution of rubber pellets ensuring a rolling ball isn't quite predictable. It isn't as dangerous as some of its detractors say (Jay DeMerit's groin injury came in a road game and David Ferriera's tragic season-ending mishap was just bad luck on Jonathan Leathers's tackle) but, compared to two of our Canadian rivals in Montreal and Toronto as well as Vancouver's old home in Swangard Stadium, it's still a lousy surface. The sight lines in many parts of the stand are as kooky as you'd expect from a temporary stadium made of prefabricated parts. The stadium is relatively inconvenient to get to and in a lousy part of town. From an arrogant, self-entitled media twerp's perspective, the press box is inhumanly small and going to press conferences or locker rooms in high school-style portables loses its novelty after a while.
It has its bright points. The place can be incredibly loud when the crowd gets going and the simple unpretentiousness of Empire is, in of itself, appealing compared to the $500-million-dollar glitz and glamour of BC Place. The stadium has its fans. I'll be glad to say that I went to games there... but I don't think I'll miss it.