A mountain to climb

BOB MACKIN -- 24 Hours Vancouver

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

Twenty-two.

That's the number on Bob Birarda's mind these days. That's how many players are unavailable for the Vancouver Whitecaps' head coach when he leads the 5-0 team through Colorado later this week.

Whitecaps visit the Real Colorado Cougars on Thursday, Mile High Edge on Friday and Fort Collins Force on Sunday.

"It's going to be a tough trip, some of these players have not experienced travel, three games in four nights at altitude," Birarda said, shaking his head. "It's going to be difficult."

Nine players left immediately after Saturday's 3-0 win over the Mile High Edge from Swangard Stadium to catch a B.C. Ferry to Nanaimo for a Canadian senior national team training camp. They'll also miss the Whitecaps' return date with Fort Collins on June 25 because of a national team friendly against Italy outside Toronto.

The rest of the players have to write secondary school final exams or are on the under-20 national team. The "junior nats" returned last Friday from a tour of Finland where they beat the host national team 2-0 twice and are getting ready to face China and Mexico in July friendlies before August's U-20 World Championship in Russia.

The 16 left over will have a chance to gain valuable playing time to show why they deserve to start or be substitutes for the likes of Kara Lang, Christine Sinclair or Andrea Neil later in the season.

"That's another good opportunity for me and other people that don't get to play as much," said striker Stephanie Smith. "It's going to be a challenge as well."

Whitecaps had a similar road trip last year in which they beat the Denver Lady Cougars 3-0, Mile High Mustangs 2-1 and Fort Collins Force 3-0. Ashley McGhee scored in each of the three games.

Birarda will rely on McGhee and Smith as well as the experience of American veteran Tiffeny Milbrett to help guide the rest of the squad, a mixture of first team substitutes and reserve team starters.

"This team is very deep," Smith said. "The people that don't see as much time would probably start on other teams."


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