Whitecaps Set For Carolina Playoff Series
Vancouver Whitecaps FC (11W-10L-9D - USL-1 regular season) look to defend their USL First Division championship title when they take on Carolina RailHawks (16W-7L-7D - USL-1 regular season) in the first round of the league playoffs this week.
Teitur Thordarson's side claimed the final postseason berth in USL-1 after suffering just one defeat in their last 10 matches (4W-1L-5D). They now take on a Carolina side that were one of the most improved clubs in 2009 under first-year head coach Martin Rennie. The two sides will meet at Swangard in the first leg on Thursday night before heading to Cary, North Carolina, for the second leg on Sunday afternoon.
Whitecaps fans will be hoping for a repeat of last season's playoff run, as Vancouver went on to claim their second USL-1 championship title in three seasons in 2008. After defeating Minnesota Thunder 5-4 on aggregate in a tricky first-round match-up, the Whitecaps overcame Canadian rivals Montreal Impact 2-1 on aggregate to reach the championship final. Then on Thanksgiving Sunday (October 12, 2008), two headed goals by Charles Gbeke secured the league title for the Blue and White in front of a sold-out and enthusiastic crowd of 5,822 at Swangard Stadium.
This will be the first time that the Whitecaps play the RailHawks in the playoffs, with Vancouver unable to record a win over Carolina during the regular season. On July 17, the RailHawks earned their first home win over the Whitecaps in club history after a 2-1 result. A Marco Reda own-goal and a second-half strike by Sallieu Bundu secured the win for Rennie's side. On August 15, the Whitecaps were held to a frustrating goalless draw at Swangard before Carolina earned another stalemate with the 'Caps after a 1-1 result at WakeMed Soccer Park on August 18. Marcus Haber gave the Whitecaps the lead midway through the second half before Andriy Budnyy equalized in the dying stages of the match. Thursday's first leg will be the ninth all-time meeting between the two clubs, with Carolina only in their third season as a USL-1 outfit. Vancouver's all-time record versus Carolina currently sits at two wins, two defeats, and four draws.
Thursday's game will also be the Whitecaps 91st playoff match all-time, with the club's record of 44 wins, 33 defeats, and 13 draws stretching back to the 1976 North American Soccer League (NASL) season. In fact, since the club's first NASL season back in 1974, the Whitecaps have only missed the playoffs on four occasions, with 2009 being the 13th consecutive year that Vancouver has played postseason soccer. The last time the Whitecaps missed the playoffs was during the 1996 American Professional Soccer League campaign.
September and October of 2008 hold special memories for Thordarson and the players that were part of last year's championship-winning team. Last fall, the 'Caps built on a superb regular season campaign by embarking on a successful postseason run, as the club enriched their folklore as a playoff side.
A year on, the challenges seem a little more daunting after the club's seventh-place finish. This leaves the Blue and White facing a difficult path towards a successful USL-1 title defence. Carolina provide the first hurdle in Vancouver's quest, with Thordarson fully aware of what lies in store against the rejuvenated RailHawks. "It's going to be two very tough games," he told whitecapsfc.com. "Carolina have had a great season and are still in good form. The games we've played against them this season have been entertaining and fun to watch, so I'm hoping this will be the case again this week. We don't have to win the first game at home, but we'll need to play well enough to stay in the series for the second leg. If we manage to do that, then anything can happen."
Thordarson is also pleased that his squad will have an extra day to prepare for Sunday's second leg in Carolina. Last season, the 'Caps played the first two playoff rounds as a two-match set on a Friday and Sunday. "It's a huge benefit to have the extra day's rest in between both games," he said. "Last year, it was tough to play these series between Friday and Sunday. This scheduling will hopefully have a positive impact on the quality of the playoff matches we have in the league this year."
The Whitecaps are hoping that several keys players will overcome their injury concerns for this week's playoff series. Captain Martin Nash (hamstring) and centre back Shaun Pejic (groin) are back in training and may be in consideration for Thursday's first leg. Defender Chris Pozniak is also recovering well from a groin problem and could see action in Sunday's second leg. Fellow centre back Reda looks to have overcome a calf injury and should be available, but midfielder Nizar Khalfan remains sidelined with the ankle injury he picked up in the September 13 home win over Austin Aztex. Meanwhile, youngsters Philippe Davies and Alex Semenets are away with the Canadian U-20 national team at the 2009 Francophone Games in Beirut, Lebanon.
2009 has seen a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of the RailHawks. After missing the playoffs by just two points in 2008, Carolina went on to have their best season in the league by finishing just three points shy of first-place Portland Timbers. With an impressive home record of 11W-2L-2D, Rennie's efforts to make Carolina one of the most improved teams in USL-1 this season will surely have him in line for the league's Coach of the Year honour. Like Thordarson, the young Scotsman has enjoyed a highly successful first year as a USL-1 head coach, having led Cleveland City Stars to the USL Second Division title last season.
Rennie's challenge will now be to build on their fine regular season campaign with a successful playoff run. The last time the RailHawks were in the postseason was in their inaugural year of 2007, but after claiming the eighth and final playoff spot that term, Carolina were beaten 3-0 on aggregate by eventual champions Seattle Sounders in the quarterfinals.
One player that is looking forward to the playoff series is North Carolina native Justin Moose. The winger, who returned to action last week after a three-and-a-half month absence with a foot injury, is ready for a tough battle with his foes from his home state. "It's going to come down to who wants it more," Moose said. "We have a good side, and so do Carolina. The RailHawks are a deep team, with guys all over the pitch that can perform. They have dangerous players on the flanks, so we're going to have to be tight defensively in order to cancel that threat. It's going to take our best effort to get results in the game here in Vancouver, then down there on Sunday."
Following Thursday's first leg at Swangard, the Whitecaps and RailHawks will head to Cary, North Carolina, for the decisive second leg of their first-round playoff match-up on Sunday afternoon. Kick-off from WakeMed Soccer Park is at 2 p.m. PDT and can be seen live on USLlive.com.
Vancouver's first-round playoff match-up with Carolina will be contested as a two-match, aggregate score series. If the aggregate score is tied at the conclusion of the second leg, then two 15-minute extra-time periods will be played to determine the series winner. If both sides remain tied at the end of extra time, then the series will be decided using a penalty shootout. *Unlike European club competitions or the CONCACAF Champions League, the 'Away Goals' rule is NOT in effect as a tiebreaker in the USL-1 playoffs*.
MEN'S TEAM AWARDS
Before Thursday's playoff match, the Whitecaps will honour the men's team with their annual individual awards following the recent completion of the USL-1 regular season.
The club will present awards for Most Valuable Player, Outstanding Defender, Newcomer of the Year, and Fan Favourite. There will also be the presentation of the Whitecaps Blue & White Award, which goes to the player or players that have made a positive contribution to the community.
35 YEARS PLAYER CARD
The 17th and final edition of our '35 Years' player cards will be distributed free to the first 1,000 fans that enter Swangard for Thursday's playoff match. The final player card will be of former Whitecaps striker Trevor Whymark.
A goalscorer that spent ten years with English club Ipswich Town, Whymark will long be remembered for scoring both goals in the 1979 Soccer Bowl final that earned the NASL championship title for the Whitecaps. He was second in regular season scoring with the club in 1979 before leading all 'Caps players with 15 goals during his final season with Vancouver in 1980. Whymark, who made one international appearance for England, sits 21st on the Whitecaps all-time points list with 64.
A smoking ban in and around Swangard Stadium remains in effect for Thursday's playoff match. This means no smoking will be permitted inside or outside of the stadium gates. Burnaby Parks, Recreation & Culture have placed signs in Central Park at key locations as a reminder.
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USL First Division Stories from September 22, 2009
- Showdown in Downtown - Vancouver Whitecaps
- Whitecaps Begin Playoffs on Thursday - Vancouver Whitecaps
- Teteh Bangura On Final USL-1 Team of the Week - Cleveland City Stars
- Timbers' Josten Selected As Player Of The Week - Portland Timbers
- Whitecaps Set For Carolina Playoff Series - Vancouver Whitecaps
- Students Join The Fight Against Malaria - Montreal Impact
- Shields named to USL-1 Team of the Week - North Carolina FC
- Week 24 USL-1 honors announced - USL-1
- Battery set for playoff series with Montreal Impact - Charleston Battery
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