DeMerit (right) anchors the Whitecaps' defense.
It's been 44 league matches over a span of 14 months since Sounders FC lost back-to-back Major Soccer League


Coming Off Second Loss, Sounders Open Cascadia Cup Defense in Vancouver

DeMerit (right) anchors the Whitecaps' defense.
It's been 44 league matches over a span of 14 months since Sounders FC lost back-to-back Major Soccer League contests, dating back to the first two matches of the 2011 season.

That streak, along with an unbeaten run away from home that has reached a league-high eight (7-0-1), is on the line tomorrow afternoon (2 p.m., KONG-TV) against Vancouver Whitecaps FC in this season's first Cascadia Cup match. The venue: BC Place, which has been renovated with a retractable roof and reclaimed as a prime soccer venue.

Welcome to the Northwest's other rivalry.

In no way is this the Seattle vs. Portland hate-fest; it's just the latest chapter in a sporting competition between the two cities that dates back nearly a century and encompasses hockey, baseball, basketball, and soccer, among other sports.

Starting in 1974, when the original Sounders and Whitecaps joined the North American Soccer League, clubs representing the cities have met 125 times at all professional levels. The tally: Seattle 61, Vancouver 45, with 19 draws.

The Cascadia Cup, which goes to the best of the three teams in head-to-head competition, was first awarded in 2004. When all three teams were eligible, Seattle and Vancouver each won it three times; Portland's victories in 2009 and 2010 came when Seattle wasn't competing, having already joined MLS, where Vancouver and Portland arrived last season.

This match is the first of nine, through October 21, that will determine this year's Cascadia Cup. Last year's, the first to be decided in MLS, went to Seattle, which drew with the Timbers and Whitecaps at home before coming up big on the road, winning at Portland in July and clinching the Cup at Vancouver in September.

This season, MLS schedule-makers have stacked the deck against the Sounders, who have two matches each at Vancouver and Portland, only one at home. Two of the three Timbers-Whitecaps matches are at Jeld-Wen Field, so four of the nine contests will be played in Portland, three in Vancouver, and just two here.

The league's best team, through two months, played here last Saturday. It wasn't the home team. But if you're looking for MLS' most improved team, set your sights 140 miles north, where the Whitecaps have won half of their 10 matches, just one less victory than all of last season, eclipsing Portland as the Northwest's second team and becoming the main threat to wrest the Cascadia Cup from the Sounders' grasp.

It wasn't until August 7 last year that the expansion Whitecaps had more victories (three) than head coaches (two). Even finishing with a late flourish--two wins in their final four matches--Vancouver finished 6-18-10, tied for the league's worst record with 28 points, 35 fewer than the Sounders. The Whitecaps were respectable at home, with six wins and five draws, but could not win on the road, going 0-12-5.

Change was a necessity. It arrived in the form of another coach, Martin Rennie, a 36-year-old Scot who had thrived in U.S. soccer's minor leagues--turning losers into winners in Oregon, Ohio, and North Carolina over the course of six seasons--but had never been tested in a major league.

Rennie took a cleaver to a roster that had scored a league-low 35 goals and gave up 55, third-most in MLS. He bid adieu to 11 players and brought in 14 new faces, including Sébastien Le Toux, a Sounder from 2007-09 who totaled 25 goals for Philadelphia the past two years. Rennie made a splash with his first big international signing, luring countryman Barry Robson, an attacking midfielder, from England's Middlesbrough; Robson, 33, will join Vancouver in July.

After replacing half the back line and bringing six new players into the starting 11, Rennie's Whitecaps took a Sounders-esque approach to defense in the month of March. Keeper Joe Cannon had a hand in four consecutive shutouts as Vancouver set an MLS record with a 471-minute opponents' scoreless streak to start the season. But the Whitecaps won just half of those matches, failing to score against Philadelphia and D.C. United and going 2-0-2.

The defense lost the plot, giving up a total of six goals in losses to Sporting KC and San Jose, bounced back in shutout wins over FC Dallas and Columbus, but hit rock bottom last week in a 4-1 loss at New England. Revolution midfielder Lee Nguyen, signed by Vancouver as a free agent in December but waived in March, a month after making homophobic comments on Twitter, got his revenge with two goals. The loss snapped a three-match winning streak that featured an impressive home victory over San Jose, one of two teams to defeat the Sounders.

The Whitecaps' attention has been divided; they've been playing a parallel competition to their MLS schedule, competing in the semifinal and finals of the Canadian Championship, where the winner earns the Voyageurs Cup and a place in the CONCACAF Champions League. Eric Hassli's stunning volley in stoppage time (see below) gave Vancouver a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC at home two nights ago; the return leg is Wednesday in Toronto.

The Whitecaps' roster includes four Canadians but has a much stronger American influence, with 10 U.S. players, three in the starting 11 and two more coming off the bench. Team captain Jay DeMerit, a fixture on the U.S. National Team for the past five years, is a hard-nosed anchor in the middle of the defense. Another American, Jordan Harvey, has switched from right to left back. Cannon, in his 15th MLS season, has five of the Whitecaps' shutouts, teaming with another American, Brad Knighton, on the sixth, and has racked up two MLS Save of the Week awards so far.

Le Toux has been the Whitecaps' top offensive threat in MLS play, with three goals and an assist. Fellow Frenchman Hassli--a tall (6-foot-4), strong striker whose second goal, an improbable shot from distance in the 85th minute (see below) handcuffed Kasey Keller and earned Vancouver a draw in Seattle last year--has two goals and two assists, as does Brazilian forward Camilo Sanvezzo.

It's difficult to criticize a team that won seven times and drew once in its first 10 matches, coming up with 22 points out of a possible 30 and outscoring the opposition 13-4, while registering six shutouts.

But in both of their losses, especially last week's 1-0 defeat by Real Salt Lake, the Sounders have displayed a tendency that plagued them through their first three seasons: an inability to finish their scoring chances. With superior offensive talent up front in Eddie Johnson and Fredy Montero and midfield support from Mauro Rosales and David Estrada, Seattle dominated the first half but failed to get the lead.

Real Salt Lake scored the only goal it would need six minutes into the second half, taking full advantage of a momentary defensive lapse as Fabian Espindola found an opening in the middle between Adam Johansson and Jeff Parke and laced Luis Gil's through ball into the right corner, ending Bryan Meredith's shutout streak at 275 minutes. RSL packed it in defensively from that point forward and withstood a couple of late flurries to record its league-high eighth victory.

Meredith, a 22-year-old rookie, will start his fourth straight match, as Michael Gspurning's hip injury sidelines the starting keeper for another week. Joining Gspurning on the bench will be midfielder Brad Evans (strained calf), left back Leo Gonzalez (strained quad), and center back Patrick Ianni, who has a bulging disc in his lower back and could be out for a while. Another 22-year-old rookie, Andy Rose, could make his fourth consecutive start in midfield in place of Evans, while Marc Burch will replace Gonzalez on the left.

With midfielder Alvaro Fernandez ready to start on the left for the first time since early April, Seattle could have Fernandez, Rosales, Johnson, and Montero--who scored twice in a three-minute span of the second half in last year's 3-1 win in Vancouver, a match Rosales missed due to injury--together in the starting lineup for the first time this season.

The Sounders' depth--23 players have seen action, 21 as starters--will continue to be tested over the next several weeks. Beginning with this match, Seattle plays eight of its next 11 on the road, with the first three in eight days, a three-week break that will also see the beginning of U.S. Open Cup play, then five more, four on the road (including trips to Montreal, Portland, and Real Salt Lake) over the following 19 days.

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