Vancouver Whitecaps will be hosting Mexican side Tigres UNAL in the Concacaf Champions Cup on Wednesday night, although on different grounds from the teams’ previous two meetings in British Columbia. After being displaced from BC Place by the BC Home + Garden show, Vancouver Island fans will be pleased to be able to watch the ‘Caps closer to home as the match unfolds at Starlight Stadium in Langford.
The @WhitecapsFC dream of becoming the 1st 🇨🇦 winner of the Champions Cup
The Blue And White 🔵 ⚪ debut in Round One vs Tigres 🇲🇽 👀 pic.twitter.com/fL1BecnDql
— Concacaf Champions Cup (@TheChampions) January 23, 2024
A Familiar Foe For The ‘Caps
This is the second time that the Whitecaps are facing Tigres in less than a year, after their dramatic draw in the Leagues Cup last summer. That match had to be settled by penalties after Pedro Vite’s free-flowing goal was cancelled out by a majestic André-Pierre Gignac scissor-kick. Tigres goalie Nahuel Guzmán was at the centre of attention in that penalty shootout. His pre-kick antics, that involved some string and some miming, not only saw him pick up a yellow card, but also garner worldwide attention. Said dramatics were enough to put off Ranko Veselinovic, who missed the crucial fourth penalty for Vancouver, before Fernando Gorriaran put the game to bed for the Mexicans.
🧞♂️ No trates de entender el Nahuelismo, solo disfrútalo. pic.twitter.com/OLChhwt2jI
— Club Tigres 🐯 (@TigresOficial) August 5, 2023
The Whitecaps will try to not get too distracted by Tigres’ potential antics ahead of this match, despite what happened last game.
“Last time, there was a pretty funny show at the penalty shootout,” said Brian White in the Whitecaps’ pre-match availability. “It’s something that we aren’t really focused on, we’re focusing on ourselves, executing our game plan, executing what we want to do on and off the ball.
“For us, it’s about controlling what we can control and putting our best foot forward.”
It will be a certainly tough test, regardless of dramatics, as Tigres are in full swing into their season and remain undefeated in their opening five matches of the 2024 Liga MX Clausura.
Curtain Raiser From Hell
It’s not a secret that despite Whitecaps Head Coach Vanni Sartini putting on some stellar football with his team over the years, the ‘Caps often start the year slow. However, this early February tie gives Sartini the opportunity to get his players’ head in the game ahead of the MLS season – and against one hell of an opponent.
“We are here to try to go to the second round, obviously, but of course we cannot forget that we have the league that is starting in a month,” explained Sartini at the media press conference. “Having the possibilities to play two real games against a very good opponent is going to help us in our preparation, and to help us get into the mood to be as intense as possible.”
— Vancouver 𝙄𝙨𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙 Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) February 6, 2024
“Hopefully it will help us have a better start than the two starts that I have had [so far] as Head Coach. It’s not that hard to do better than those two, so let’s say we will try [our best] to.”
With Tigres in great form, the Whitecaps will have to be at the top of their game, despite the lack of real competitive matches since last November. However, Sartini feels like his side can compete if they stick to their game plan and rely on some rotation.
“I think we are where I thought we would be: good, but not at our best,” admitted Sartini on his team’s preparation ahead of the match tomorrow. “We have to be completely honest, they are much ahead of us in their preparation, so it needs to be an effort where it’ll be very important to be good tactically.
“The other thing is that because of where we are at the moment, I think for sure we’ll probably play 16 players tomorrow instead of 11 [laughs]”.
Chance to See Some New Faces
This early test also allows Whitecaps fans to take a first look at some of the Whitecaps’ new signings in real action. MLS Veterans Damir Kreilach and Fafa Picault joined up with the Whitecaps around the New Year, providing some much-needed firepower for the ‘Caps to help support last year’s high-flyers Brian White and Ryan Gauld.
Kreilach scored 56 goals across three seasons for Real Salt Lake, while Picault has 52 goals in 221 appearances in MLS, across four different teams. Having those kind of players, with different profiles than that of White and Gauld, will hopefully allow Sartini to be more dangerous and unpredictable in how his team will attack any given game.
MATCH REPORT: Fafà Picault scored his first goal in ‘Caps colours on Tuesday as ‘Caps wrapped up their preseason camp in Marbella, Spain with a 1-1 draw against Norwegian top flight side FK Haugesund ✍️#VWFC | #FIFTYTGTHRhttps://t.co/4aD1KacqQN
— Vancouver 𝙄𝙨𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙 Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) January 30, 2024
Fans will also see two new defenders potentially feature for the Whitecaps, as Bjørn Inge Utvik and Belal Halbouni were signed while in the Marbella pre-season. They will look to push regular features Tristan Blackmon, Ranko Veselinovic, and Mathías Laborda for the starting places. Ahead of their travel across the Salish Sea, AFTN chatted with Halbouni about how ready he feels to play a part in the upcoming tie.
“I feel completely fit,” said Halbouni after their last practice before travelling. “I was mid-season with my team [in Germany] before joining up, so I feel extremely fit and ready to lock up a spot for the coming game”.
Welcome to the ‘Caps family, Belal Halbouni! 🌊
— Vancouver 𝙄𝙨𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙 Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) February 5, 2024
This game will be a good indicator for how far these signings have come, and whether they may be enough to push the Whitecaps to even greater heights in 2024.