For the first time since 2017, the Whitecaps will play a competitive match outside of either Canada or the US. The site? San Pedro Sula, over 6,000 kilometres south of Vancouver. The mission? Don’t lose by five or more goals. Seems easy, right?
The ‘Caps certainly set themselves up well last week with a thumping 5-0 victory where Real España completely fell to pieces in the second half. It turned what could have been a much more nervy trip for the second leg to one that feels like it should be just a formality.
Of course, “should” is the important word in that sentence, as you can never count on this club to not bungle a situation. And Austin FC’s 3-0 loss in the Dominican Republic against Haitian side Violette last week to open their own CCL campaign shows that no away match in Central America can be taken lightly. But even then, 3-0 was an absolute disaster for the Texan outfit, and if the ‘Caps lost by that scoreline they would still go through to the next round. It would take a cataclysmic performance for them to be eliminated on Wednesday night.
With that in mind, it’ll be interesting to see how Vanni Sartini approaches this match. Five players have started every match so far, including Ryan Gauld, Andrés Cubas, and Julian Gressel, all of whom are massively important for the team this season. Given that the ‘Caps have a quick turnaround to a road match against the Galaxy on Saturday, now would surely be the time to give those key players a rest. And so it appears to be the case, with Sartini revealing to media on Tuesday morning that Gauld, Gressel, Cubas, Ranko Veselinovic, and Alessandro Schopf have all remained in Vancouver.
It’s possible that there could be complete rotation in the lineup, with players like Ali Ahmed, Karifa Yao, and JC Ngando given the start. The danger of a complete overhaul is that it throws out a group without experience playing together before, having to make it work in a uniquely difficult environment relative to MLS play. But again… shouldn’t a five-goal advantage be enough of a cushion to compensate for that risk?
Real España themselves have not played since the first leg, as their match on the weekend was postponed due to massive travel issues trying to return home. The team was stranded in the US for multiple days, with some of the players not touching down in Honduras until Monday. There was also one player who had to stay behind in Vancouver after he collapsed post-match and had a brief hospital stay here in the city. The ‘Caps invited him to a practice and to the match against Dallas before he went home.
All in all, it’s been a bit of a nightmare of a CCL campaign for the Honduran side. For some amount of hope they can point to the fact that they have had a massive home victory in the competition before, as they defeated Costa Rican side Municipal Liberia 6-0 back in 2009, although I can’t imagine that any of the players currently at the club were part of that match.
For the Whitecaps, the job is pretty straightforward: manage out a result with no one getting hurt. It’s also perhaps the chance for players more on the fringes of the squad to get some valuable experience playing quite far away from home. A much different task against LAFC is what in all likelihood awaits in the quarterfinals, but a 90-minute business trip is still on the schedule.