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Vancouver Whitecaps control destiny heading into Honduras

Team takes 5-0 cushion into second half of 2-game CONCACAF Champions League series
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Real Espana’s Gerson Chavez (right) grabs a hold of Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s JC Ngando during second half CONCACAF Champions League soccer action in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, March 8, 2023. Despite tough travel and punishing weather, the Vancouver Whitecaps know they have the upper hand as they prepare for CONCACAF Champions League play this week.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rich Lam

Despite tough travel and punishing weather, the Vancouver Whitecaps know they have the upper hand as they prepare for CONCACAF Champions League play this week.

The team also knows it has to treat the edge in competition with respect.

“Honestly, we know we have an advantage. But in football, there’s a lot of surprises,” midfielder Pedro Vite said via a translator Tuesday. “You’ve seen a lot in the past where a team has a three-goal lead and the other team will come away with the result.

“So we have to stay focused on the task at hand. We’ll have to keep a sharp head toward their attack and make sure we follow our game plan as well.”

The ‘Caps took a resounding 5-0 victory in the first leg of their round-of-16 matchup against Real CD Espana in Vancouver last week.

The result gives them a big cushion as they head into the back end of the two-game aggregate series in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Wednesday.

Last week’s result will linger in the players’ minds, admitted defender Tristan Blackmon, but the Whitecaps must do their best to treat the away game as a fresh opportunity.

“I think you have to do your best to treat it like it’s 0-0. We want to win here. There’s no other way to look at it,” he said.

“We’re treating it as a game we want to win and that’s all we’re trying to do here.”

The five-goal lead that could prove necessary as the club enters hostile territory for the latest outing in a tournament involving the top teams in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

The trip from Vancouver to Honduras was lengthy and, with temperatures expected to hit 33 C around kick off Wednesday, the conditions are far from what the Whitecaps are used to.

Espana also holds a solid home record in CONCACAF play, going 17-5-11 at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. The club has scored 60 goals and allowed 31.

The Honduran side has quality players and Vancouver needs to be ready for them, said ‘Caps head coach Vanni Sartini.

“I think we need to be very, very good positionally and not give up anything, especially in our midfield because they can create problems,” he said. “The more patient we will be, the more chances we will have to score a goal and get forward on the scoreboard.”

The Whitecaps face a punishing schedule this month, with Wednesday’s outing marking the team’s fourth of five games in 14 days between Major League Soccer play and Champions League competition.

On Saturday, the club battled FC Dallas to a 1-1 draw to earn its first point of the season in league play. After Wednesday’s game, the ‘Caps (0-2-1) will head to California where they’ll face the L.A. Galaxy on Saturday.

With the cramped calendar, Sartini opted against bringing some of his usual starters to Honduras.

Attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld will miss Wednesday’s game after contributing a pair of assists in last week’s Champions League win. Fellow midfielders Julian Gressel, Alessandro Schopf and Andres Cubas are also back in Canada, alongside defender Ranko Veselinovic.

It’s important to get “hungry” players and fresh bodies into the lineup, Sartini said, especially because a solid start will be key to getting a result against Espana.

“We need to not give any hope to the other team from the start,” the coach said. “So we need to match their intensity, be ready to go and try to win the game.”

—Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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