Two months ago, the early promise of the Vancouver Whitecaps was immense. The expansion team, buoyed by a raucous home crowd on a sunny afternoon, had stomped Toronto FC 4-2 in its debut in Major League Soccer.
Today, with one-third of the season complete, the expansion campaign is near tatters. The opening win is the Whitecaps' only tally in the win column and the team's 1-5-5 record puts it in last place in MLS's Western Conference. Toronto has fared only slightly better, at 2-4-5, and is on pace to miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year in the franchise's five-year history, another gutting disappointment, especially under new head coach Aron Winter, a former Dutch soccer star.
Redemption begins for one of the squads Wednesday night at Empire Field in east Vancouver, where the teams play the first leg of the two-game Nutrilite Canadian Championship final. The second match is next Wednesday in Toronto and the winner qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League, the regional showdown of clubs from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Toronto beat FC Edmonton and Vancouver overcame the Montreal Impact in the semi-finals to arrive in the final.
Given uncertain MLS fortunes, hoisting the Voyageurs Cup - the silverware that goes to the winner - could be the highlight of the year for either club.
Toronto, which owns the past two Canadian championships as the only domestic MLS team against lesser rivals, arrives at Empire Field hungry to exorcise the pounding it suffered at the hands of the Whitecaps on opening day in March.
"We like it to come here and get revenge," Winter told reporters on Tuesday afternoon. "It's always nice to play a final and win something."
Toronto remains a work in progress. The roster has been overhauled - including the trade of star Dwayne De Rosario to the New York Red Bulls - and Winter has rotated numerous players through spots on the pitch as he attempts to install a Dutch-style game of so-called Total Football.
Vancouver, meanwhile, seems slightly bewildered, almost believing it should have several more wins - if only. In interviews at Empire Field on Tuesday, players and coach Teitur Thordarson insisted the team has played well but a combination of injuries, suspensions, a busy schedule, grinding travel, players away on international commitments, bad luck and "silly" mistakes have cost the Whitecaps as they struggle to find their footing in the unruly MLS.
"We've been playing some pretty good soccer in the last couple weeks," said team captain and key defender Jay DeMerit, who has barely played this year because of a groin injury. Vancouver is 0-3-2 in its past five games. It is a matter of being "more clinical" to deliver and prevent goals, DeMerit said.
"If we correct those two crucial parts, the rest is already there," said DeMerit, a veteran of the English Premier League.
Vancouver fans grow somewhat weary. As in Toronto, Whitecaps supporters are a voracious bunch.
"Being a Whitecaps fan at the moment is a bit like suffering death by a thousands cuts; no great bursts of pain, just lots of little tiny defeats that sap the will to live," fan Russell Berrisford wrote on the popular 86forever.com blog after yet another Whitecaps loss.
Attendance at Empire Field Wednesday night is uncertain. A warm, sunny night is forecast - but the soccer match overlaps with Game 2 of the Vancouver Canucks' tilt against the San Jose Sharks.
The winner of the Toronto-Vancouver series will play in the preliminary round of the Champions League in a two-legged scrap against an opponent in late July and early August, with the matchups to be set Wednesday.
Beyond the Canadian Championship, coaches of both teams were measured in their assessment of prospects through the rest of the MLS season. Winter, who is on a three-year contract, stressed that it will take time for his system of soccer to take hold and noted that many MLS teams are bunched up within just a couple points of each other, so if a side gets hot a playoff spot could quickly become much more realistic.
Thordarson acknowledged the Whitecaps face a significant challenge given the poor start but feels the real team is finally coming together, with negatives such as injuries fading and the team's best names ready to roll together.
It is much-needed, since the Whitecaps' schedule gets a lot tougher soon, including its next MLS match on May 28 against the strong Red Bulls, led by French star Thierry Henry.
"We're about to get to where we were hoping to be," Thordarson said.