It took two seasons for the Vancouver Whitecaps to become the first Canadian team to reach the MLS playoffs.
Toronto FC, meanwhile, is hoping an unusual choice for the franchise’s eighth coach pays dividends as it tries to reach its first postseason in its seventh season.
Ryan Nelsen will make his coaching debut for Toronto FC in Saturday’s matchup at Vancouver in the MLS opener for both teams.
Vancouver (11-13-10) finished fifth in the Western Conference and lost to eventual champion Los Angeles 2-1 in the playoffs last season - the first under coach Martin Rennie. The Whitecaps are looking for further improvement after a 1-6-3 finish to the regular season.
“Last season, we felt like we had to make adjustments,” Rennie said. “Going into this season, we feel like we have the players that we want. Now we want to stick together and be a good team.”
The 37-year-old Rennie’s counterpart on the sideline will be the 35-year-old Nelsen, who has never coached at any level and whose arrival in MLS had to be heavily negotiated by Toronto FC (5-21-8).
Nelsen was hired in January, but there was a major catch - he was busy playing in the English Premier League for last-place Queens Park Rangers. The London club, fighting to remain in the league, wanted the defender to stay on for the duration of the English season while Toronto wanted him to join its club for the preseason.
The teams eventually came to an agreement, with Nelsen making his 21st and final start of the season Jan. 29 against reigning English champions Manchester City. He joined Toronto less than a week later and is eager to begin coaching.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Nelsen, who was New Zealand’s captain at the 2010 World Cup. “I think the guys are looking forward to it, I think it’s been a really long preseason.”
Nelsen is familiar to MLS having played for D.C. United from 2001-05. It’s no secret why Toronto hired a defensive-minded coach after conceding a league-high 62 goals last season and finishing with an MLS-low 23 points.
“Toronto, we let up a lot of goals last year so that had to be a key point this year,” goalkeeper Joe Bendik said. “He’s done a great job of getting everybody’s shape together and really focusing on the back four.”
Bendik will start in place of an injured Stefan Frei, out with a broken nose.
The home team has won all three MLS meetings between these clubs, with Vancouver winning its first MLS game 4-2 over TFC in 2011. TFC won 3-2 in the lone 2012 matchup on Terry Dunfield’s goal in the fifth minute of second-half stoppage time.
Dunfield is a Vancouver native who played for the Whitecaps in 2011.
“It should be an exciting game and I can’t wait to put one over on my hometown hopefully,” Dunfield said.
Darren Mattocks scored both goals for the Whitecaps in last year’s defeat. Mattocks scored a team-high seven goals as a rookie, adding the lone tally in the postseason.
Vancouver captain Jay DeMerit is questionable with a lower leg injury. Rookie Brad Rusin will start if DeMerit does not.