Whitecaps return to CONCACAF Champions League seeking first win of 2023

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VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Whitecaps had a knack for performing on the big stage last season.
When the games mattered most, the club seemed to rise to the occasion, winning a series of do-or-die matchups that helped the ‘Caps capture the Canadian Championship and nearly squeak into the Major League Soccer playoffs.

Now head coach Vanni Sartini is hoping to recapture some of the same magic in CONCACAF Champions League play.

“I think last year it was our specialty, the big games. So we always showed up on the big games, the big games that we had at B.C. Place, the big games that we had in the Canadian Championship,” Sartini said Tuesday.

“But we didn’t have the consistency in the league. I hope that we can do a step forward this year, keeping our quality in these big games that we have to play like do or die and also doing better having consistent points in the league.”

The Whitecaps have struggled through their first two games of the MLS season, dropping consecutive 2-1 decisions where they scored first, then suffered second-half defensive lapses.

Seasons aren’t won or lost in the first few games of the year, said ‘Caps defender Ryan Raposo.

“I don’t think we’re in panic mode or anything like that,” he said.

“There’s always going to be pressure to make three points. I don’t think there’s any added extra pressure from the outside coming in. But of course, we’re professional soccer players. We want to win every single game that we play.”

The Whitecaps will look for their first win of 2023 Wednesday when they host Honduran side Real CD Espana in the first leg of a two-game series to open the CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament between the top clubs in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

Vancouver enters the competition as winners of last year’s Canadian Championship while Real CD Espana earned their way in with a top-six finish in CONCACAF League play last season.

This year will mark the third time the Whitecaps have played in the competition, with the club’s best result coming in 2016-17 when Vancouver reached the semifinals.

CONCACAF games have an atmosphere similar to a Canadian Championship matchup or a MLS playoff battle, Sartini said. With a two-leg series, though, there’s one important distinction — Wednesday’s game is only the beginning.

“The main different thing is that (Wednesday), it’s kind of the first half of the game, it’s not the entire game,” the coach said.

The second leg of the series will take place at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on March 15.

In between, the Whitecaps will host MLS side FC Dallas on Saturday as part of cramped calendar that will see the club play five games across 14 days.

“I think the team that the club has built, it’s built for these competitions,” Raposo said. “Obviously we have four competitions this year. And if you look at the depth in our squad, you can play one starting 11 one day and have just as good as starting 11 the next day.”

Tristan Blackmon is one of four players on the ‘Caps roster who have played in Champions League before. The 26-year-old defender made it to the finals with Los Angeles FC in 2020 and ultimately lost to Mexico’s Tigres UANL.

“There’s a trophy on the line. I think that motivates everybody,” Blackmon said of the tournament. “You go out there, you have the same opportunity to win as the other team and you want to just make the most of it because there’s home and away. .. I think that’s plenty enough motivation for a lot of us.”

Home and away matter for the two-leg series, with away goals counting for double in the aggregate score.

That’s something both sides will be thinking about when they take the field at B.C. Place on Wednesday, Blackmon said.

“I think, at home, everybody goes for it. For the most part, you want to score as many goals as you can and concede as little as you can,” he said.

“For me, I just want to win. I just want to score as many goals as we can and get a win and then we go and we do the same thing and treat every match as if it’s the last last game potentially in the tournament. There’s definitely some tactics behind it for sure. But I think the biggest thing is getting a result.”

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