Does the best soccer team in North America play in Los Angeles?
Vanni Sartini, the Italian head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps, thinks so.
The day before his group hosts the Los Angeles Football Club for the opening leg of the quarterfinal round of the CONCACAF Champions League, Sartini declared that “from Panama to the Yukon (LAFC is) the best team, so that’s the challenge that they present to us.”
Specifically, Wednesday night boils down to which team is best at BC Place. Despite Sartini’s declarations about LAFC’s status in the region, last year’s Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup winners have lost their last three games on the slow turf in British Columbia.
“We know they are very strong but we also know at home we have a strong record against them,” Sartini said. “We have the weapon to block them.”
LAFC’s only loss during a 10-1-1 run from the end of May through mid-August of last year, came on the road against the Whitecaps thanks to an 89th-minute game-winner that Steve Cherundolo had little interest in revisiting this week.
“What we’re doing differently now is apples and oranges,” the LAFC head coach said.
The same goes for Vancouver, which has a pair of 5-0 wins, including its first MLS victory against Montreal on Saturday, and the resounding CCL opener at home against Honduran club Real España.
Whitecaps forward Simon Becher was named MLS Player of the Week with a pair of goals and an assist against Montreal in his first start for the club.
The 23-year-old also is the quickest to score four league goals, needing just 87 minutes of game action to get there.
As for Sartini’s bold proclamation, “it’s certainly not true,” Cherundolo responded.
“I don’t think we can make general statements like that. It’s clearly Vanni trying to set the tone and play the underdog card,” the coach said. “That’s fine. I think they see themselves as kind of deriving a lot of their confidence and energy from being the underdog in the Western Conference. But that is not the truth. They are very good this year. Much improved and made some good signings. Spent money. And they have a very deep roster and a clear way of playing. I understand why he would say that, but I have to say I disagree.”
Like LAFC, the Whitecaps jumped out to a big advantage after the first leg of the Round of 16 and moved through on aggregate despite dropping the return match.
After trips to Costa Rica and Honduras, the all-MLS quarterfinal, which culminates at BMO Stadium in L.A. on April 11, is obviously less exotic for both sides. So there shouldn’t be a secret lurking around a corner in Vancouver that surprises LAFC, but there doesn’t have to be if the Whitecaps’ results against an otherwise dominant Black & Gold hold to form.
Vancouver is strong on set pieces and has adapted a style of play to suit its home turf that doesn’t require possession to be happy. The Whitecaps are content to mark zonally because that is where they see an edge over man-marking, which makes it easier for LAFC to turn the ball over and counter.
LAFC, conversely, wants to score no matter where it plays, but the slower field has bothered the club and goals are hard to come by at BC Place.
With away goals serving as the first tiebreaker, one finish could prove pivotal.
“The past is not playing,” LAFC captain Carlos Vela exclaimed. “It’s CONCACAF Champions.”
LAFC AT VANCOUVER
What: CONCACAF Champions League
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where: BC Place, Vancouver, British Columbia
TV: FS2, TUDN