PORTLAND — Soon, this second division stuff will be ancient history for the Portland Timbers, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the fans of both clubs.
But that doesn’t figure to dampen the passion when the rivals clash in the first round of the U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2 Pro League playoffs.
The Nos. 4 and 5 seeds in the eight-team playoff, the Timbers and Whitecaps meet in a two-game, total-goals series that begins today in Burnaby, British Columbia. The second game is set for 6 p.m. Sunday at the University of Portland’s Merlo Field. The winner of this series advances to the semifinals.
The Timbers have two wins and two ties in four clashes with the Whitecaps this season, including last weekend’s 2-2 draw in British Columbia. But the Whitecaps are the team that has been to the league finals two years in a row and knocked the Timbers out of the playoffs in 2009.
“Both organizations have had success. They’ve had more than us when it comes to finals,” Timbers head coach and general manager Gavin Wilkinson said. “They ruined our season last year. I think that’s in the back of our minds.”
Both franchises move to Major League Soccer next season, and the anticipation of that step up has created excitement that at times overshadowed this season.
Wilkinson said he is proud of the way players have maintained focus on this season when each of them dreams of playing in MLS next season.
“We know we need to perform every day because we all want to be here next season,” said Ross Smith, a first-year Timber who has helped solidify Portland’s defense. “We share the ups and downs with each other. I think that brings us even closer together, knowing how much we all want it, and admiring that desire in all of us.”
Wilkinson and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson have been vocal about their desire to end the team’s 10-season run at the second-division level as champions.
“We want to go into this first game understanding that this is a very, very important game, not only for progressing to the next round of the playoffs, but for the organization,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve never won anything that counts.”
This season the Timbers found their stride when it mattered, rising from the edge of missing the playoffs to finish with the fourth best record in the league by going unbeaten over their final 10 matches.
In those games, the Timbers have six wins, four ties, and six shutouts.
Their defense has solidified and their offense has become more dangerous as rookie Bright Dike (Dee-Kay) has gained confidence and consistency.
Ryan Pore scored a league-leading 15 goals, many of them early in the season, while Dike finished with 10, tied for fourth in the league.
“(Opponents) got a little bit more physical with me, and I think they were throwing numbers towards me a little bit more,” Pore said. “That’s what you expect. But other guys on the team stepped up and started scoring goals, and I think we’ve been dangerous ever since.”
Wilkinson said the key to creating danger in the playoffs will be playing with confidence and with flair.
“We need players’ personalities to come forward,” Wilkinson said. “We’ve got the Golden Boot in Ryan Pore. We’ve got a phenomenal forward in Bright Dike. You look around the team and we’ve got good players. So what we need is those good players to turn up on the day and have a belief in themselves.”