Well, it’s been about three weeks since I’ve written one of these previews, and a lot has happened in Whitecaps-land in that time! A 19-round penalty shootout, a dramatic late winner against the Galaxy, and a transfer deadline day coup bringing in two Canadian national team regulars.
Sadly, the Vancouver debut of Richie Laryea and the re-debut of Sam Adekugbe will have to come after the ‘Caps big clash with Mexican giants Tigres on Friday night. It’s the Round of 32 in the Leagues Cup, and the ‘Caps are in the hardest quadrant of the bracket with Monterrey and LAFC looming if they’re able to even make it past this first knockout round.
Of course, if they lose then they get two full weeks off to prepare for the stretch run of the MLS season so it’s not all bad, but it would certainly be cool to take down one of the region’s best teams. The biggest question, though, is will Vanni Sartini put his foot fully on the gas pedal?
There has been a little bit of experimentation with the lineup choices so far in Leagues Cup, with JC Ngando starting both matches and Isaac Boehmer getting his first start of the season in goal against the Galaxy. At the same time, mainstays like Ryan Gauld and Andrés Cubas have been out there as well. Given that the ‘Caps are now into the knockouts, you’d expect that Yohei Takaoka will be back in goal and that Sartini will want to put out his first choice XI.
Ranko Veselinović had to come off injured against the Galaxy, but there’s been no word that he’s in danger of missing this match and should partner with Tristan Blackmon at the back. The ‘Caps have continued to switch back and forth between their 4-3-2-1 and 3-1-4-2 formations, and there doesn’t quite seem to be clarity as to which one they’ll really want to stick with (it’ll also likely depend on how Laryea and Adekugbe get integrated).
The biggest decider as to which formation is used against Tigres likely depends on whether Sartini wants to start both Brian White and Sergio Córdova up front. The big Venezuelan striker has finally started to find his shooting boots, and with two big goals against Club León he showed that he could get it done against Mexican opposition. White, meanwhile, was the hero against the Galaxy with the last-minute winner.
Gauld’s versatility means he can play basically anywhere, whether as part of a front two, a midfield trio or out as a wingback. The 4-3-2-1, however, provides the most opportunity for him to influence the attack while having both of the big forwards out there. It also leaves room for the likes of Alessandro Schöpf, Pedro Vite, Ngando and the hopefully fit Ali Ahmed to slide in behind alongside Cubas.
Looking at the visitors, this is not the not the first time Tigres have travelled to BC Place! The first time came back in the second leg of the 2017 CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, when the Liga MX side came to town and won 2-1 to take a 4-1 victory on aggregate. Brek Shea scored the lone goal for the ‘Caps on that night, and the only player in the Vancouver 18 still on the roster is Russell Teibert (who was an unused substitute that night).
Tigres, by contrast, still have four of their starters from their last trip to Vancouver: goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman, fullback Javier Aquino, midfielder Guido Pizzaro and forward Andre-Pierre Gignac, all of whom are in their 30s and are vastly experienced players. Tigres has the oldest side in the entire Leagues Cup competition, but they’ve already ground out road wins in both Portland and San Jose, showing why they’re habitual contenders in Liga MX.
It’s going to be a very difficult task for the Whitecaps on Friday night, as they’ll know after they were unable to defeat León in the group stage. Being at home helps, and if they’re able to make it past this match we could see reinforcements arrive for the next round, but it’ll take a great performance up and down the roster to try and kickstart a Cinderella run in this tournament.