Whitecaps, Red Bulls set to meet in first leg of Champions League quarters

Whitecaps, Red Bulls to clash in CL quarters

Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted doesn’t expect one of the biggest matches in club history to be a thing of beauty.

The Whitecaps and the New York Red Bulls are set to play a meaningful game for the first time in 2017 on Wednesday when they meet in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final.

With the Major League Soccer schedule not set to kick off until the first weekend in March, both clubs had to ramp up their pre-season training regimens quicker than usual to get ready.

“I think soccer-wise it might not be the most polished,” said Ousted. “But the intensity’s going to be there, the tackles are going to be there and we’re going to fight for a good result.”

The Whitecaps began preparations last month with 11 days in Wales before returning home and then travelling to Portland, Ore., for a series of exhibition games and more practice sessions.

“Hopefully we are up to speed,” said Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson. “The boys are a great group of lads. They enjoy working hard.

“We’ll be prepared. It will just be if we can perform on the day.”

The Whitecaps advanced as the top seed from the group stage in 2016, one of the lone bright spots in a disappointing campaign that saw them miss the MLS playoffs and also allow a late goal to lose the Amway Canadian Championship.

“It’s the first time in history that our club’s been this far in this tournament. We want to try and take advantage of it,” said Robinson. “It’s going to be very tough game. It will probably come down to a little bit of fitness towards the end.”

Despite having not kicked a competitive ball yet this year, the Whitecaps will be minus four attacking options on Wednesday. Yordy Reyna, Christian Bolanos and Nicolas Mezquida are all out injured, while Fredy Montero, a designated player who joined the club on loan last week, is also staying home to get ready for the return leg.

That means Robinson will likely go with some combination of Kekuta Manneh, Erik Hurtado, Alphonso Davies and Giles Barnes up front.

At the other end, Vancouver will have to be wary of Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who led MLS in scoring two of the last three years.

“There’s a number of way to try and deal with the first leg,” said Robinson. “It’s not going to be won in the first leg, but it can certainly be lost. We’ve got to make sure we’re drilled into what we want to do.”

After clashing at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., the teams will link up for the finale of the two-game aggregate series at B.C. Place Stadium on March 2. The winner will face a Mexican opponent in the semis — either Tigres UANL or Pumas UNAM.

The Montreal Impact became the first Canadian team to make Champions League final in 2015 before losing out to Mexico’s Club America.

No MLS team has ever won the competition that includes teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean under its current format. Robinson said fans in Canada and the United States will continue to view the tournament as secondary to making the league playoffs until that changes.

“Unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet because we’ve been behind the Mexican teams, and rightly so,” he said. “We are improving, we are getting better, and it will be a big test for whichever team qualifies out of this tie.”

The side that lifts the Champions League title in April also earns a spot in the 2017 Club World Cup, which features soccer’s six continental champions, plus a team from the host United Arab Emirates.

“You want to be a part of a club’s history,” said Ousted. “We all enjoy being here, we all love this club. Being part of its history in that way would be huge.”

Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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