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Whitecaps look for strong start against MLS newcomers the Montreal Impact

03/09/2012 08:18 EST | Updated 05/09/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact will renew their longtime rivalry in yet another league Saturday as they square off in the Major League Soccer season-opener for both teams.

The Whitecaps hope to get off to a good start after a disappointing MLS debut season in 2011. The expansion Impact will attempt to make a good first impression.

"I think there has been a rivalry just because there's two Canadian teams that fought very hard at the top of the second division for many years," said new Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie. "I'm sure that rivalry will continue. At the same time, with the East-West split, there's not as many games between the teams, so that maybe takes it away slightly. But (Saturday), there will certainly be that rivalry there. But, I think, most importantly, the teams are just focused on their first game and doing as well as they possibly can."

Vancouver and Montreal have competed against each other in several lower-tier leagues under the same and different club names for nearly 20 years, along with the original North American Soccer League in the 1970s and early 1980s and highly-emotional Canadian championships in recent years. Most of the players are gone from the Whitecaps and Impact squads that competed in the latest battles, but the intensity is not forgotten.

The Impact leads the all-time series with a 29-16-10 mark and has held the upper hand in Vancouver by going 15-8-4.

"It's a great place to start," said Whitecaps captain Jay DeMerit. "To create the rivalries in the MLS that we're doing so far is something that's important — not only for us as a team and for the fans, but as a league."

Vancouver is looking for a strong start after beginning 2011 with much hope and then finishing in last place with only six wins. The Whitecaps are wary of placing too much emphasis on the result after last year's season-opening win against Toronto prompted high hopes and expectations.

Vancouver fired coach Teitur Thordarson in late May, but replacement Tommy Soehn, the club's soccer operations director, could not salvage the season the way ownership and management had hoped. Players said it's time for them to respond on the pitch after management made significant changes in the off-season.

DeMerit said there's no better place to start well than at home at newly-renovated B.C. Place Stadium, where the team moved after starting the 2011 campaign at temporary Empire Field. The team picked up its play following the relocation. DeMerit said he and his mates have to keep the momentum going.

"This a great venue for us," said DeMerit. "Toward the end of the season, we started to make it our own. That's going to have to continue now this whole season if we're going to get ourselves turned around from last season."

Goalkeeper Joe Cannon does not want to place too much emphasis on Game 1 in light of what happened last season. He prefers that the team focus on the task at hand rather than the big picture. Still, it's important to make a good opening statement.

"The results will start coming if we can do the right thing," said Cannon. "But, for sure, we want to get started on the right foot and take it to them - and let the whole league know that when they come into B.C. Place it's going to be a tough night.

"I don't think you can (put too much into this game). I've been on teams that won their home opener like last year. Everybody thought we had won a championship and, obviously, everyone knows what happened. And I've been on teams where it didn't go well in your home opener, but we ended winning an MLS Cup. It's a big game though, but we ended up winning an MLS Cup (with the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001). It's a big game, though, because you want to get your fans behind you and you want to send a message to the rest of the league."

The Whitecaps beat the Impact 3-0 en route to winning a pre-season tournament in Orlando. Vancouver finished the tournament with a perfect 4-0 against MLS rivals, with other wins coming against Houston, Sporting Kansas City and Toronto. Vancouver's only loss came against Rennie's former Carolina RailHawks team, which plays in a lower-tier.

But Rennie and his players stress that not much can be made of pre-season contests.

"It's always important to win the game, but it was just a friendly game," said French star striker Eric Hassli. "(Saturday) is another game - totally different."

Hassli, speaking in English after doing virtually all of his interviews in French last season, said the club is more organized and more confident than it was last season.

Vancouver's core of talent has remained intact. The biggest difference, said Hassli, is that returnees now have MLS experience that most of the team lacked in the first year.

In contrast, Montreal, coached by former U.S. national team assistant Jesse Marsch, has only four players who have not played in MLS before.

Vancouver defender Alain Rochat said the Whitecaps also have a new attitude that differs strongly from the "euphoria" that they felt after last season's big win in their first-ever MLS game.

They were surprised then. Now, they just want to win.

Goalkeeper Cannon said the renewal of the rivalry with Montreal in the home opener bodes for the Whitecaps going forward.

"It'll be important to have the emotion behind us rather than against us," said Cannon. "Obviously, there's some bad blood and, hopefully, we'll let that continue (Saturday) and keep the rivalry going."

Note_Midfielder Davide Chiumiento is the lone Vancouver holdover from the season in which the Whitecaps were members of the same league, in 2010. He was a late addition that year. ... Montreal coach Marsch has tutored DeMerit with the U.S. national team.

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