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Whitecaps ready to battle 1st-place Sounders
By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
VANCOUVER - Jordan Harvey didn't quite know what to make of the Vancouver Whitecaps coming into the 2014 campaign.
After a tumultuous off-season that included the team's head coach getting fired — as well as its best player forcing his way out of town — the defender wasn't alone.
"I had a lot of questions," Harvey said this week. "It was a young team and everything, but we acquired some really quality players. We had that first game (a 4-1 home victory over the New York Red Bulls) and the expectations were huge, but we also saw how high we could reach and the bar was set.
"I think we have the consistency, the depth to maintain that."
Nearly a third of the way through the season, those characteristics will be put to the test on Saturday when the Whitecaps (4-2-4) host the top team in Major League Soccer at B.C. Place Stadium as the Seattle Sounders (8-3-1) travel north to face their bitter geographic rivals.
"Arguably they're the best team in Major League Soccer at the moment. The league table doesn't lie," said Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson. "It's a good test for us to see where we are. It's a test that I'm looking forward to as a coach, and I know my players certainly are.
"They're a very a good team, but let me tell you, so are we."
The Whitecaps enter Saturday with 16 points through 10 games, but just one of their four wins have come against Western Conference opponents — a trend from last season that Vancouver will have to shake if it wants to return to the playoffs after missing out in 2013.
"It's vitally important. Winning any game of football is good, but obviously every time you don't win against a Western team you're losing points and they're gaining points," said Robinson. "It's very important and we need to make sure that we compete with the Western teams and beat the Western teams. That's a big focus for us this year because we didn't do it enough last year."
The Sounders have 25 points from their 12 games, but will be without midfielder Clint Dempsey, who is away with the U.S. national team as it prepares for the World Cup in Brazil.
"It's a test for us because Seattle are where they are," said Robinson. "We've had a very positive start. We've still got a lot of work to do, a lot of improving to do, and we'll continue to do that, whatever the result on Saturday. It's just a marker for us to see where we are."
The Sounders have won five of six and are coming off a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes last weekend, while the Whitecaps will have had 10 days off since bowing out of the Amway Canadian Championship semifinals to Toronto FC on May 14.
"I think it's going to be a game that's going to be a bit open," Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid told the club's official website. "They're a team that likes to counter attack and get forward, so it might open up at certain times during the game."
There's no doubt the Whitecaps have turned heads around MLS ten games into the schedule after a tricky off-season. Robinson was promoted from an assistant's role to replace former head coach Martin Rennie in December after a prolonged search, with the Welshman taking over just in time to watch star striker Camilo Sanvezzo refuse to honour the final year of his contract.
Undaunted by that setback, Robinson brought in talented fresh faces, including Matias Laba and Pedro Morales and the roster has gelled quickly.
"I think we've surprised a lot of people. I don't think we've surprised the dressing room, though," said Vancouver captain Jay DeMerit. "I think the manager has kept the squad that he wants here because he believes that we can be capable of the things we've been doing the first 10 games.
"It's up to us to make sure we go beyond that."
The veteran defender has been with the Whitecaps since the club joined MLS in 2011 and knows the importance of beating the top teams in the West — something Vancouver did twice last season against Seattle.
"It has to come from us," said DeMerit. "It has to come from the fact that we believe in it and we believe we can do it and do it consistently."
While the Sounders will be without Dempsey on Saturday, the Whitecaps will have to be wary of Seattle striker Obafemi Martins, who has five goals and six assists.
"He's a top player. He's a world-class footballer," said Robinson. "He's someone who scores goals and that's why he's paid big money. We've got to make sure we eliminate the service into him and eliminate him on the ball because he's a fantastic player."
Apart from its importance in the standings, the game is also Vancouver's first of the season in the regional Cascadia Cup — a mini-tournament played between the Whitecaps, Sounders and the Portland Timbers. The team with the most points in the games played amongst the three clubs at the end of the season takes the title, which Vancouver did in 2013.
"It's like a playoff atmosphere," said Harvey. "You can feel the support, the energy from the fans and it's always one that we want to win for them. The Cascadia Cup — that's some hardware that we want to keep."
DeMerit likens the atmosphere to the local derbies he was a part of during his time playing in England.
"You get that full atmosphere, that constant hum of chants, that full intensity that comes with that rivalry and that only rivalry games seem to create," said the 34-year-old. "Both sets of fans are very passionate about their clubs and that's what we want. That's what we're trying to build here in North America and in MLS and there's no better example than the Cascadia rivalry."
Notes: The Whitecaps are 3-1-1 at home so far this season, while the Sounders have the same record on the road. ... Seattle and Portland tied the only other Cascadia game played so far this season 4-4. Each team plays six games in the competition. The Whitecaps visit the Timbers on June 1. ... Vancouver announced Thursday that striker Darren Mattocks has obtained a green card in the U.S., freeing up an international roster spot. ... Harvey and DeMerit, who are both American, said they were surprised that Los Angeles Galaxy star Landon Donovan was left off the U.S. World Cup team. Said Harvey: "That's a crazy decision. I'm really shocked by it. He's a quality player — best U.S. player in history."