VANCOUVER, B.C. - The 2017 Major League Soccer season hasn't started yet, and both Vancouver Whitecaps FC and the New York Red Bulls are preparing for one of the most important games in the history of each franchise. The CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals will feature Vancouver vs New York in a two leg series starting on Wednesday, February 22, at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. Both teams have ramped up preseason as they look to advance to the Champions League semifinals.
"It's a big game, we know that," said Vancouver Whitecaps FC Coach Carl Robinson. "It's the first time in history our club has been in this, this far in the tournament. We want to try and take advantage of it, but it's going to be a very tough game, and we know that. It'll probably come down to a little bit of fitness towards the end of the game, so hopefully we'll be right on."
The Whitecaps will be short-handed as Yordy Reyna, Christian Bolanos, Nicolas Mezquida, and Fredy Montero won't travel to New York due to injuries and fitness concerns. Reyna was spotted in a walking boot and crutches at the teams practice facility on Sunday.
"I don't know the exact status of him," said Robinson. "All I know is he won't be playing and he'll be out a few weeks."
Bolanos is dealing with a troublesome knee injury that has his return to play date a few weeks away. Mezquida (hip) trained on the sidelines on Sunday. Newly acquired striker, Fredy Montero, is still getting his match fitness in place. It sounds like he will play in the return leg at B.C. Place on Thursday March, 2.
With this amount of talent back in Vancouver, will the Whitecaps look to sit back against the Red Bulls, or will they turn up the tempo, looking for an elusive away goal? It's an interesting quandary for Vancouver. You want to score a crucial away goal, but not get caught with your pants down on any New York counter attacks.
"That's something I'll speak to the group about," said Robinson. "There's a number of ways to try and deal with the first leg. It's not going to be won in the first leg, but it certainly can be lost in the first leg. We've got to be sure we're drilled into what we want to do. We've got a number of injuries, we know that. Whichever team goes out and steps on the field they'll have a roll and responsibility to do, and we'll be prepared."
The durable David Ousted is expected to start in net for Vancouver. Ousted will be looking to stay sharp as both teams are still working on chemistry, tactics, and preseason jitters. It could be an ugly football match with poor man-marking and plenty of scoring opportunities. If that's the case, Ousted will have to be a one man wall.
"I think they're in that build up phase as well, and that process of getting ready for MLS," said Ousted. "I think they see this game as something to come in for and try and win as well. I think you're going to see two teams who might not play the most polished of soccer, but I think the intensity is going to be there."
Whoever can advance from the quarterfinals will face an even stiffer test in the Champions League semifinals. A matchup against Tigres UANL or Pumas UNAM awaits Vancouver or New York. The Champions League has been dominated by Mexico teams since it's inception. An MLS team yet to be champion. Defeating a club from Mexico is a clear must for the eventual winner.
"It'll be a big test," admitted Robinson. "Whichever team qualifies out of this tie, gets a Mexican rival. That leg is going to be very difficult as well."
Vancouver wanted to change preseason plans by going to Wales, and Portland to prepare for the New York Red Bulls. This two leg series will likely determine if traveling abroad was just what Whitecaps FC needed in preparation for a busy 2017 campaign.
Notes: CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals winners are guaranteed at least $200,000 in prize money.