The final series of the 2012 Voyageurs Cup begins on Wednesday night in Vancouver. Toronto FC, last year's champions, opted to have the second and decisive leg at home and will therefore travel across the breadth of the country to continue their defense of that title.
Semifinal hurdles for each side were dispatched easily enough, Vancouver winning both matches against FC Edmonton handily in the end. Toronto meanwhile, bunkered for the result they wanted in Montreal - a dire scoreless draw - before transforming into a dynamic attacking side that would not even be undone by the early dismissal of Richard Eckersley, shutting out the Impact and scoring two goals of their own at home.
A foreseeable rematch, one energized by the ill-will that has accumulated over the years.
In 2009, a dramatic, unbelievable five-goal win in Montreal against a second-choice Impact side saw TFC pip the Whitecaps at the post. In 2011, a lightning-affected cancelation forced a controversial replay, negating the score, stripping Vancouver of their one-goal lead, and eventually - following a 2-1 win - seeing Toronto through to the Champions League, once again at Vancouver's expense.
Such misfortune has caused some angst among the Vancouver faithful and the organization.
In league play, Vancouver have enjoyed far more success than Toronto this season. But this is cup action, league results go out the window and rivalry is taken to another level. Just how will circumstance - both past and present - manifest itself on the pitch in Wednesday night's match?
Under Martin Rennie Vancouver have show quite a bit of tactical fluidity, as one would expect from a new coach feeling his way through a new squad and league. They have evolved throughout the young season.
A pronounced 4-2-3-1 opened the season against Montreal, it soon became a more rigid 4-4-2 - Rennie will often tinker with the formation to suit the strength of the players available and the shape of the opposition.
Most recently it has become a 4-3-3, producing a rather successful stretch - five straight wins in all competitions - before the loss to New England on the weekend.
Vancouver's expression of the formation is quite a bit different from Toronto's and given the plethora of options available, it will be difficult to predict every move Rennie will make.
Assuming the strongest possible eleven, the projected lineup sees Joe Cannon in goal; from right to left across the back - Y.P. Lee, Martin Bonjour, Jay DeMerit, and Alain Rochat; Jun Marques Davidson holding the defensive point of the midfield triangle; Gershon Koffie and Matt Watson in midfield; Sebastien Le Toux, Eric Hassli, and Camilo across the top.
There are tough decisions to be made at several positions.
In defence, Lee and Rochat went the full ninety on the weekend, while Koffie and Davidson were extracted very late; too late to be considered rested. Jordan Harvey can perform admirably at left-back, but he went the full match as well. Carlyle Mitchell played the entirety, even after suffering a concerning head injury and Michael Boxall, after an impressive rookie campaign, has not seen the pitch in first team action this season.
Midfielder John Thorrington did not travel, but has only featured as a starter in the 4-4-2 formation, recently appearing as a substitute. The three-man midfield requires younger legs to cover all the extra space.
Davide Chiumiento played the entire New England match and is a defensive liability; he could be brought on to add some creativity as a second half substitute, either centrally or on the flank. He is tactically undisciplined at times, floating to wherever the pockets of space are to be found - which is why Rennie prefers Watson and Koffie - more reliable options - in the midfield, His ability to play defense splicing passes will be a concern for the fractious Toronto back-line should he see the pitch.
Up top, it is equally possible that Camilo is moved centrally with Omar Salgado brought in on the left, relegating Hassli - who also played a full match on the weekend - to the bench and allowing for more movement from the front three, but having his big physical presence front and centre will occupy the TFC centre-backs and create space for the wide attackers.
Salgado was removed from the weekend's match with a half-hour remaining looking tired and frustrated after a long stretch of matches and a running battle with Stephen McCarthy. Then there are Long Tan and Atiba Harris to consider - though Harris is nursing a slight knock - and fit-again Darren Mattocks and Etienne Barbara, who have both made appearances in the last few matches, mostly seeking to build match fitness and reacquire that scoring touch. It is unlikely either is ready to start, but they will be options to be considered.
The likes of Floyd Franks, Russell Teibert, Greg Klazura, Michael Nanchoff, and Bryce Alderson, have either not seen the pitch, or have been used sparingly; some only appearing in the series with Edmonton to date.
Plenty of choices to be made.
Aside from questions of personnel, the only real unknown is how Vancouver will approach this first leg. There are, as always, two main options, with several strategies that can be employed.
Whether to attack and press the home advantage in the hope of carrying a substantial lead into the second leg or to keep things tight, not give up any away goals, and look to grab the result in Toronto.
Added to that quandary is a pair of important rivalry matches that bookend the second leg.
Cascadia Cup clashes - with Seattle at home this weekend and away to Portland the next - another factor to consider; losing to a geographic and hated rival is never acceptable, but given the prize of a birth in the Champions League, they will probably be placed on the back-burner for now.
It is entirely possible that Toronto will look for a repeat of their dull performance in their first leg with Montreal, keeping the tie at zero, hoping to return home with the championship within reach, especially with the news that Torsten Frings did not travel with the side due to a recurrence of his shoulder injury.
Toronto is not fond of artificial surfaces, though they are more rested, having had the weekend off from MLS play.
Vancouver will likely look to keep things close and look to grab an advantage later in the match with some attack-minded substitutions.
Though much was made of their numerous attacking options prior to the league beginning, it has been their defence that has seen them through the trials and tribulations of the early season.
Before the four-goals allowed in New England, they had only conceded seven in nine matches. Strong goalkeeping performances from Cannon, including a pair of "Save of the Week" designations, combined with a big physical centre-back pairing of club captain, DeMerit and Bonjour have limited the opposition's chances.
Vancouver will look to build from the back, seldom launching goal-kicks up-field. In Rochat and Lee they have two very experienced and professional full-backs, the type who know when to get forward and are seldom caught out of position. They are expected to press forward, adding width in attack for interplay and overlapping runs.
Davidson is the cornerstone of their midfield, solidifying the middle of the park, allowing Koffie to press forward - something he has done much more of this season. Watson is a more defensive companion to the aforementioned duo, providing improved stability, but less link up play with the forwards than Chiumiento, who functions almost as a withdrawn forward regardless of which flank he is supposed to be stationed at.
The Whitecaps are very fluid in attack; excellent passing and movement witnesses an almost innate understanding between the forward three - or four with Chiumiento on the pitch. They are explosively quick in transition. More often than not they will exploit the wide areas in order to move forward, but are adept at working through the middle if given the space to play.
Le Toux in particular is fond of coming in-field to provide an outlet, collect a pass, then play it up to Hassli with his back to the defenders. The big Frenchman will then either play a safe pass back - where someone else can knock it over the stationary defense for a runner to collect - or will flick it beyond his marker into space, where a Le Toux, continuing his run, can pounce.
When out of possession the wide forwards drop deep and tuck in, converting to a 4-5-1, to clog the midfield and increase numbers to regain the ball.
Pressing is a key feature of their game, whenever the ball is lost the tireless work-rate of Le Toux, Koffie, Davidson, et al. will look to regain possession as soon as possible.
Hassli has found his scoring boots of late - three goals in last four matches; all competitions - while Camilo has been sensational all season - to watch at least- Le Toux actually leads the team with three goals. Salgado has been a revelation of late on the left flank, using his pace and size to trouble full-backs and provide service into the middle.
Vancouver has plenty of dead-ball threats, but only the left-foot of Lee has found the twine - with the eventual game-winner against Columbus. Camilo, is fond of a curling effort, and quite proficient at them, while Rochat and Chiumiento are options as well.
DeMerit and Bonjour must be watched carefully from corner kicks, DeMerit scored the game-winner from one, getting in front of his marker in the second half against Chivas.
Looking to the previous round of the Voyageurs Cup, the result against FC Edmonton should be thrown out the window; all due respect to the Eddies, but they were woefully overmatched, allowing Vancouver to walk to the final round and give playing time to a number of fringe players. Once they returned home from Edmonton with a two-goal cushion - goals from Hassli and Harris - it was highly unlikely they would not make the final.
That being said, there were a few moments in the second leg - especially once Yashir Pinto's header had put the Albertan side within a goal of drawing level - where had Edmonton been more capable in the final third, things could have gotten tenuous for the Whitecaps.
In the end Rennie simply looked to his bench, to call upon rested regular Le Toux - who came on and scored a brace - and the convalescent attacking talents of Mattocks - added a goal in stoppage time - and Barbara - won a penalty with a clever dive, only to be denied by a diving save from David Monsalve - to settle the tie; a comfortable 5-1 win on aggregate.
The league has been less-kind to the Whitecaps, though they currently sit in fourth position in the West with seventeen points after ten matches.
There has been a peculiar grouping of results in the early season: a pair of wins to open against weaker opposition - 2-0 home to Montreal and 0-1 at Chivas; scoreless draws against more solid foes - home to DC and away to Philadelphia; a pair of 3-1 losses against the most in-form clubs - at San Jose and home to Kansas City; followed by a string of one-goal wins to weakened sides, each hampered by injuries to key players - 1-0 over Dallas at home, 0-1 at Columbus, and a late 2-1 win over San Jose at home; culminating in a 4-1 loss in New England on the weekend.
The New England game, results wise, was an anomaly. It was the perfect throw away match - their longest road trip of the season, coming in the midst of a very busy stretch of action, against a cross-conference rival, on short rest, and with the prize of the Champions League none too far in the distance.
Rennie left several starters - DeMerit, Camilo, Thorrington - at home and rested Bonjour as well; fielding a makeshift centre-back pairing of Rochat and Mitchell.
One was left with the impression, given the grudging acceptance displayed by Rennie as the match turned embarrassing, that this was a gamble he was willing to take. Not once did he emerge from the bench - according to TV images - to shout instructions or inspire his side, he seemed resigned to the outcome. He looked frustrated when the third New England goal poured in, but the lack of animation hints at a man playing the long game.
How the team will rebound from such a defeat is tough to say. Sometimes when a coach gives players the chance to make excuses and not give their all they will seize it.
Without flinging accusations, Vancouver looked a beaten side, even after they took the early lead through Hassli; a lead that barely lasted a minute. Goalkeeper Joe Cannon did not seem to react to any of the shots that turned to goals, granted they were fine strikes, but that lack of effort was slightly disheartening.
All that being said, expect a hungry and attacking side to take to the pitch against Toronto. The hallowed grounds of the regional championships is a target the organization has long coveted, a primary step on their stated quest to become one of the best - and most recognizable - clubs in the world.
On the defensive end Toronto will have to be wary of Vancouver's quick transition and dynamic movement. Both Vancouver's goals against Montreal were the result of fine passing on fast breaks that went unchecked and exploited gaps in the defense. Control the pace of the match and a result is within reach.
If a Toronto defender is beat, give the attacker the outside. The Whitecaps forwards are very fond of physically cutting back, wrong-footing the defense and curling an effort - Camilo - or placing a low shot - Hassli and Le Toux - to the far-post.
Keep an eye on the movement of Hassli; for a big man he moves deceptively. He likes diagonal runs to collect through-balls to break offside traps - as he did against San Jose, eventually scoring the late game winner at the second time of asking - and drifting slowly to the near-post to be in position for a pull-back - as he did against New England.
Vancouver has proven to be at risk of switching off from throw-ins on occasion. In their first meeting with San Jose in California, a clever lob from Ramiro Corrales picked out Chris Wondolowski, who had maneuvered himself into a good position off the shoulder of DeMerit, to out muscle the defender and put himself in on goal, deftly chipping it over Cannon in goal.
Against New England on the weekend, Lee Nguyen's second goal, that wonderful half-volley, was precipitated by Le Toux watching the thrower rather than watching the movements of the target behind him.
It was not entirely Le Toux's fault; despite the pressure the Whitecaps apply high up the pitch, for some reason - whether it is a reticence to concede free-kicks or a fear of penalties - they do not press the ball well within shooting range. Gaps and time are available for shots from distance.
After Nguyen collected the ball, Koffie was guilty of not stepping out to confront him, allowing adequate time to set up the strike. Clyde Simms took a couple of lashes from distance as well, that could have caused Vancouver more trouble than they did. Watch for Ryan Johnson, Reggie Lambe, and even Julian de Guzman to get chances for a crack from distance.
The Whitecaps are also vulnerable to extended pressure in the box or crosses to the far-post, which have accounted for a majority of the goals they have conceded. Two of New England's goals - Nguyen's first and Shalrie Joseph's were the result of half-clearances falling kindly; while San Jose stormed back with three unanswered goals after Wondolowski drifted off Harvey at the far-post and Alan Gordon connected with a Steven Beitashour cross with a diving header.
Points of Interest
Toronto has never won in Vancouver - three draws and a loss in Voyageur's Cup action and that 4-2 loss to open the Whitecaps inaugural season last year.
Return leg aside, the two sides will meet in Toronto - for their only league match this season - on July 11th.