It has been six years since the Vancouver Whitecaps played in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Their last game in the competition was on April 5, 2017. The Whitecaps played Mexican powerhouse Tigres Álvarez in the second leg of the semi-finals at BC Place. Brek Shea got an early goal to cut the aggregate lead to 2-1 but Tigres scored two in the second half to advance to the final and won the tie with a 4-1 aggregate score.

A lot has changed since they were last in the CCL. Carl Robinson was the Whitecaps’ head coach at the time. The team had players like Shea, Kendall Waston, Fredy Montero and Cristian Techera. They also had some kid named Alphonso Davies. Wonder what happened to him? 

You most likely have guessed it already but Russell Teibert is the only current member of the Whitecaps who was still with the club back then.

The CONCACAF Champions League has also changed since then. In 2017, there was still a group stage and the Whitecaps won their group. The group stage no longer exists in the CCL and it is now a 16-team knockout tournament.

For the current Whitecaps team, the first leg of the round of 16 against Honduran side Real España is important. Everyone knew it before the season began. Head coach Vanni Sartini stressed the importance of Wednesday’s game at BC Place, especially since the Whitecaps are still winless in the young MLS season. While the CCL is not MLS, a win is just what the Whitecaps need.

“The importance was enormous even if we won these two games but especially now because we lost,” said Sartini on Tuesday afternoon to the media. “We need to (have) the best of our ability on Wednesday and try to win the game, not only to go further in the Champions League but to start a series of victories that needs to happen also in the league.”

Real España qualified for the CCL this year by winning the Liga Nacional. They won both the Apertura and Clausura. What the heck are those? Well, most Central and South American Leagues and the Mexican League split their seasons into two halves and each half has its own champion. Why do they do this? It is apparently because there is a lack of cup competitions in many Central and South American leagues.

This season, Real España has a record of four wins, three losses and four draws in the Liga Nacional Clausura. (The second half) Much like the Whitecaps, they are looking to bounce back after a loss. Their last game was last Saturday and it was a 3-0 loss at home to Montagua.

“We scouted them, they’re a team that it’s very hard to break,” said Sartini when asked about tomorrow’s opponents. “We saw them both in the league and when they played international competition of CONCACAF league last year…There are a couple of players that when they win the ball, can be fast and crafty enough to put us in trouble.”

According to Har Journalist of Daily Hive, CCL games will not have VAR. Expect a typical CONCACAF game with a lot of physicality.

“There’s going to be a lot of chippiness in these games,” Whitecaps defender Tristan Blackmon told Har. ” We’ve just got to be ready to grind out results.”

In any competition with two legs, it is important to get a good result in the first leg, especially if your team is the one hosting.

Anything can happen in the Champions League and the Central American environments are tough. At the time of this writing, Austin FC is down 3-0 to Haitian side Violette SC in a game being played in the Dominican Republic due to political unrest in Haiti.

Sartini stressed that importance, especially considering the Whitecaps’ abysmal road record over the past year and the fact they have to travel to Honduras for the second leg which takes place next Wednesday.

“It’s critical to do our best tomorrow, it’s gonna be a six-hour flight to Honduras, (and) the weather is going to be completely different,” he said. “We know how Central American teams are stronger when they’re home and when they’re able to put the game on the ground that they like.”

If soccer games were played as one 45-minute period, the Whitecaps would be undefeated this season. But we all know that is not the case. Two huge reasons why Vancouver is still without a win this season are because of zonal marking (or lack thereof) and poor defending on set pieces. 

Sartini was asked about those today by Last Word On Sports’ Felipe Vallejo.

“Short set-pieces are the weapon you use against zonal marking because you move the zone and you try to create gaps to play the ball,” said the Whitecaps’ head coach. “What we have to do better is not get so antsy. The ball travels, but it’s still a set play. You need to be in the structure of that set-play.”

Sometimes… we make mistakes and the ball travels and you think ‘ok, we need to go and chase the ball’ and we free space, and that’s the cross inside. We work on this, we need to be better on this.”

Indeed they do because it will look ugly if they lose tomorrow and Sartini is already under pressure.

Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday. You can watch the game on OneSoccer (or find other ways to watch it if you don’t have OneSoccer) or listen to it on AM730.