BY JOSE M. ROMERO
Oh, those wild and crazy USSF-Division 2 schedule-makers.
Their flair for the dramatic brought the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps together for one last regular-season go-round Saturday afternoon north of the border in beautiful Burnaby, B.C. and Swangard Stadium.
It's the last time these two storied clubs will meet as lower-division opponents in regular-season play before taking their Cascadia rivalry to MLS in 2011, where they will join the Seattle Sounders to become North America's cradle of highest-level professional soccer. Rivals in the NASL days, then USL and the one year of USSF-2, Portland and Vancouver could still meet in the league playoffs.
The Timbers have the fourth seed of eight playoff teams locked up, and if they beat the Whitecaps Saturday, can send Vancouver below them into the fifth spot. That would set up a first-round, home-and-home series of matches between the two sides, and Portland, as the higher seed, would host the second leg on Oct. 10.
Vancouver can avoid the Timbers with some help. The Carolina Railhawks, like the Whitecaps, seek to capture the No. 2 seed and play seventh-seed NSC Minnesota Stars in the first round. According to the Whitecaps' website and the Vancouver Province. a Carolina loss to Austin Friday night means Vancouver earns the No. 2 seed with a win or tie over Portland. If Carolina draws, Vancouver clinches with a win, and if Carolina wins — Austin seeks to clinch the No. 1 overall seed, so it should be a good contest — the Whitecaps must beat the Timbers by at least one more goal than the Railhawks defeat the Aztex.
While Vancouver controls its own seeding destiny for the most part, it enters the Portland match having lost its last two matches and is 0-2-1 against the Timbers this season. The Timbers, by contrast, are sizzling with a nine-match unbeaten streak and have a win at Swangard this season already.
Another reason to keep an eye on this one: Vancouver and Portland are 1-2 in the league in scoring defense, having allowed 20 and 21 goals to opponents in 2010.
It's anyone's guess which players from both teams will make the jump from USSF to MLS, though several will get a long look for sure. The coaches are on track for promotion, as Portland's Gavin Wilkinson is wearing two hats as the current MLS Timbers' technical director and Vancouver's Teitur Thordarson has been named the MLS Whitecaps' coach next season.
Both teams have two of the most devoted and passionate fan bases at any level of pro soccer on the continent, and their ranks will likely swell with the move to MLS.
The two clubs have a history that dates back to the NASL in 1975. Vancouver is 32-23-9 all-time against Portland, 22-7-2 at home.
In both cities, MLS-ready stadiums are being remodeled and season-ticket sales for 2011 are going well. But first, another chapter (or two) in the Portland-Vancouver derby needs to be written.