Reds must contain 'Caps Hassli

Vancouver Whitecaps Eric Hassli fights for the ball against Toronto FC Ty Harden during the second...

Vancouver Whitecaps Eric Hassli fights for the ball against Toronto FC Ty Harden during the second half of their season opening game against Toronto FC in Vancouver, British Columbia March 19, 2011. (REUTERS/Ben Nelms)

KURTIS LARSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:19 PM ET

The Vancouver Whitecaps are undefeated in seven consecutive Canadian championship contests, but have never lifted the Voyageurs Cup.

Strangely, a 0-0 result in tonight's Cup final would see Vancouver keep its perfect record, but TFC lift the trophy for a third consecutive time on away goals.

The Reds bring a 1-1 draw from last week's first-leg back to BMO Field where a win or scoreless match hands them the title. A Vancouver win or a draw involving each team scoring two or more goals sees the Whitecaps into the Champions League for the first time.

Over-matched in a season-opening 4-2 loss and handily outplayed a week ago, TFC must find an answer for Eric Hassli. Vancouver's designated player was far too comfortable in the opening leg and created problems through his ability to involve so many teammates in the attacking third.

Success likely hinges on Adrian Cann and Dicoy Williams closing the target man and disrupting the passes that routinely found Hassli last week.

The Whitecaps attack flows through its designated player and his strike rate against the Reds hasn't gone unnoticed.

In four halves against TFC, Hassli has had his way with a defence that can't turn in a similar showing if TFC hopes to limit the Frenchman's all-important influence in the club's biggest game to date.

SECOND-HALF SCENARIO

Although a goalless final secures TFC's passage into the next stage, the Reds can't leave it until the end.

The visitors would benefit from a scoreless opening hour and the pressure would build. The Reds would inevitably fall back into their defensive shell and throw on a fifth defender in an attempt to preserve a 0-0 scoreline.

Toronto's previous two games featured similar scenarios with the Reds playing adequate opening halves only to sit back and absorb waves of offence in the final 15 minutes. But after escaping the first leg with a 1-1 draw, a scoreless final is unlikely Wednesday night.

Keeping in mind the Whitecaps haven't played since last Wednesday, Reds head coach Aron Winter knows the visitors will be fresh in the late-stages or if the final goes to extra-time.

"It's strange when you're playing a final that one team gets a week off to recover," Winter said.

His message gives reason to get forward from the start in search of an opener before fatigue sets in. An early goal would force the visitors to throw numbers forward earlier than they would like, leaving them exposed for large stretches of the match.

GOLD CUP BENEFITS

TFC should benefit more than any other team when a record 32 players represent 15 MLS clubs during this summer's Gold Cup.

Following this weekend's match with the visiting Philadelphia Union, Toronto host Sporting Kansas City. Already struggling this season, Kansas City will be without four first-team contributors when they come to BMO Field.

The Reds then return west for the fifth time this season to play L.A. on June 11. The Galaxy will be without U.S. captain Landon Donovan and Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.

TFC's big break comes four days later in New England as the Revs will be without their top pair -- Grenadian captain Shalrie Joseph and U.S. international Benny Feilhaber.

AROUND THE PITCH

Tonight's Cup winner will meet Nicaraguan champion Real Esteli in a series in late July "¦ Esteli's controversial venue passed FIFA inspection and an attempt to locate the club's 4,800-seater produced an expected result -- a patchy ground that should benefit the home side should the Canadian winner not secure a big win at home "¦ Good to see Nana Attakora help preserve the clean sheet in Denver. His ability to provide quality minutes should TFC advance back to the Champions League will be an asset when matches start to mount "¦ Did the referee swallow his whistle in first-half stoppage time Sunday? Manager Gary Smith thought his side should have been awarded a penalty when Cann took down Quincy Amarikwa in the area. "I've seen penalties given for far less," Smith told the Denver Post "¦ Looking back at the first leg of the Voyageurs Cup, Cann narrowly avoided a penalty on a similar play.

FINAL THOUGHTS

A mountain of injuries forced Winter into moving a number of players into spots that were previously occupied by Alan Gordon and Jacob Peterson -- players the Dutchman said likely won't participate in the final.

Sunday's match in Colorado saw Alen Stevanovic move into central midfield and Javier Martina fill Gordon's role. Both players did well in their assumed roles and Winter may start them in similar spots against Vancouver.

Stevanovic sees far more of the ball centrally and is far more dangerous facing goal and running at defenders. Similarly, Martina has shown an ability to peel off defences and latch onto balls played in behind. As we saw in Colorado, he also floats out wide and is capable of playing balls through to advancing midfielders.

It's the third of four meetings this year between the two Canadian clubs and after being thoroughly outplayed in the first two meetings, the Reds have something to prove.

Riding high after grabbing a point against the defending MLS champions, TFC are in the final stretch of what has been a difficult schedule to start the season. And although the Whitecaps haven't defeated an MLS side since beating Toronto in March, the 'Caps are rested and confident after controlling things last time out.

It's exactly what the tournament's creators imagined -- two top flight Canadian teams in an historical winner-take-all final for the first time in history.

Kurtis.Larson@sunmedia.ca


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