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Oct 9, 2008

Sebrango could be the difference for the Whitecaps

Two years ago, when Eduardo Sebrango scored in overtime to knock his former team, Montreal, out of the playoffs, the veteran Vancouver forward ripped off his jersey during his goal-scoring celebration.

The ensuing yellow card cost him the chance to play in the USL First Division championship match against Rochester, another one of his former teams.

This past Sunday, history repeated itself, but this time, Sebrango kept his jersey on.

The 35-year-old celebrated with a front flip on the pitch at Swangard Stadium as the Whitecaps rallied from a one-goal hole to win their semifinal series 2-1 on aggregate against the Impact and earn another title shot.

Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

Sebrango and the second-seeded Whitecaps (17-9-8) will face No. 1 Puerto Rico (16-7-9) in the championship at 7 p.m. ET Sunday at Swangard. Vancouver topped Rochester 3-0 in 2006, without Sebrango. Now, the Caps get a crack at a second USL crown in three years.

Puerto Rico rallied at home from a 2-0 hole after Game 1 to beat No. 4 Rochester 3-2. Vancouver and the Islanders, who are 10-1-8 since early August in USL and CONCACAF Champions League play, posted draws Aug. 17 at Swangard (0-0) and Aug. 31 in Puerto Rico (1-1). The Islanders also won 1-0 Sept. 5 at home.

"They're two very good, very talented teams," said former Caps coach Bob Lilley, who parted company with Vancouver this past offseason after three years in British Columbia. "But Eddy Sebrango's the biggest difference-maker that will suit up on Sunday night."

A forward's lifespan isn't long, especially in the USL, but Sebrango has racked up 89 goals and 26 assists in 204 matches over the past decade in the USL. He has played a part in helping four different teams reach the title game. Sunday will be the fifth time his squad has played for a trophy, but Sebrango -- who won rings with Rochester (2000), Montreal ('04) and Vancouver ('06) -- has played in only three championship matches. He was injured in 2001 with Hershey and suspended in 2006 after two yellow cards, one for shedding his shirt.

Puerto Rico never has appeared in a title match, but the Islanders have been the USL's best squad over the second half of the season.

They led the USL in goals scored (43) and fewest allowed (23). The regular-season champions took a 17-match unbeaten streak -- 6-0-6 in USL; 3-0-2 in CONCACAF Champions League play -- into the playoffs. That was snapped with a 2-0 loss in Game 1 in Rochester, but Puerto Rico came back at home to thrill a crowd of 9,112 and won in overtime on Cristian Arrieta's header off a corner kick.

Puerto Rico is proficient on restarts -- all three of its semifinal strikes came off corners -- with Arrieta & Co. crashing the goal. Vancouver captain Jeff Clarke, who has slid back to central defense in the absence of the injured Geordie Lyall, will need to keep the back organized, and strong-bodied Wesley Charles must be active in the air.

Vancouver's midfield, anchored by veteran Martin Nash, will be tested during the run of play, too, because Puerto Rico's Jonny Steele has matured into one of the USL's top playmakers. The league MVP candidate led the USL with 11 assists. Defensive midfielder Edwin Miranda also can create out of the back.

The Islanders' depth showed again in Game 2 against Rochester. With Miranda (suspended for a Game 1 red card) and center back Nigel Henry (injured) unavailable, coach Colin Clarke plugged in Sandi Gbandi and William Yomby. Puerto Rico didn't miss a beat.

Over the past two months, Clarke has used a split lineup to balance USL and Champions League play. The Islanders are coming off Wednesday's 3-0 loss to Mexico's Club Santos Laguna, their first setback in international competition, in which they're 3-1-2, but Clarke rested most of his regulars so they'd be fresh for the USL title match.

Meanwhile, Vancouver needed one of its backups to come up big in the semifinals.

With the score 0-0 in Game 1, goalie Jay Nolly was given a red card in the second half for an apparent punch at Antonio Ribiero. Nolly thought the Montreal player was a few seconds late and a little too rough with a knee to his back after a 52nd-minute save.

But 23-year-old rookie Tyler Baldock gave up only one goal the rest of Game 1 as the Whitecaps played a man short, and then Vancouver won the series at home.

Jeff Clarke tucked a 30-yard blast into the top left corner in the 37th minute, and four minutes later, Charles Gbeke sent a roller in front and Sebrango lunged to get a foot on the ball near the 6-yard line. He toed it past goalie Matt Jordan.

It made a winner out of Baldock, who was making his first professional start, and sent the Caps to Sunday's final.

"Our core players, the ones with experience, have shown some of the younger guys how to win," said Sebrango, one of about a half-dozen players remaining from the 2006 championship team. "We take pride in that."

Jeff DiVeronica covers soccer for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle. He also writes a blog, Devo's Direct Kicks.

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