Keepers key to Nutrilite championship
Nolly, Frei might have to bail out their teams on Wednesday
The old adage goes that you need great goalkeeping in the NHL playoffs in order to win the Stanley Cup.
The same could very well apply to this year's Canadian Nutrilite championship, the annual tournament that crowns the best pro soccer club in Canada.
The Vancouver Whitecaps host Toronto FC Wednesday (7 p.m. PT) in the opener of the two-game, home-and-away finale, and if the teams' recent form is any indication, goalkeepers Jay Nolly and Stefan Frei could be the difference between a loss and a victory.
Nolly has been solid between the posts for the Whitecaps, but he's been somewhat hung out to dry by a defence that has conceded 16 goals in 11 Major League Soccer matches. Likewise, Frei has been one of the few bright spots for TFC while playing behind a porous back line that has allowed 17 goals in the same number of games.
All too often they have had to rescue their clubs by coming up with big saves — Frei robbed Dan Paladini on a late breakaway to allow Toronto to escape with a 2-2 draw against the Chicago Fire on the weekend.
Nolly is expecting a tight affair Wednesday, where one defensive error could settle things, and for that reason, he thinks he has to be especially sharp.
"If you look at a lot of the games we've played against Toronto in the Nutrilite, they are all very close games for the most part.… It does really come down to the defence, the classic one mistake being made," Nolly told CBCSports.ca.
His Toronto counterpart agrees.
"As a goalkeeper, you're the backbone of the team and there's always going to be parts of the game where the team is struggling and you're the one that bails them out. When you do make a big save, it sparks some energy into them again," said the Swiss-born Frei.
Nolly and Frei have faced each other only twice during their careers. Frei was in net when Toronto defeated Vancouver in last season's Nutrilite championship, while Nolly came out on top during the 2011 MLS season opener for both clubs on March 19, a 4-2 win for the Whitecaps.
Fierce competitors though they have been whenever they have met, there is a mutual respect between the two.
"He's done fabulous for Toronto over the years that he's been there, especially in the Nutrilite," Nolly said of Frei. "I give him props for that because I like to see guys like him do well. He's a great goalkeeper."
Frei is impressed with how Nolly has been able to hold onto the No. 1 goalkeeping position in Vancouver with MLS veteran and backup Joe Cannon breathing down his neck.
"He's playing over Joe Cannon, and Joe is a solid goalkeeper as well, so I'm not surprised that Nolly is keeping the spot because he's been playing well. He's made some key saves this season and has been keeping them in games," said Frei.
One thing Frei has that Nolly doesn't is a winner's medal in the Nutrilite championship.
Toronto has won the last two tournaments, including in 2009 when Vancouver looked to have things all wrapped up. TFC needed to beat the Montreal Impact by four or more goals in the last match of the round robin. Anything less than that, the Whitecaps would have taken the crown.
TFC ended up winning 6-1 over the already-eliminated Impact. It's a result that still irks the Whitecaps, who were in attendance for that match — they were scheduled to play the Impact a few days later.
Now set to compete in his fourth Nutrilite championship, Nolly is especially eager to taste success.
"It's been difficult, especially a couple of years ago when we had a great tournament. We thought we were going to win it and then Toronto stole it at the end when they beat Montreal. It was very tough to be there and see that. Now it's my fourth turn and I want to win one of them," Nolly said.
The away goal rule is in effect as the first tiebreaker in this series, which puts added pressure on the Whitecaps. A win by TFC would give them the upper hand in the deciding game back at their home stadium BMO Field on May 25 — a fact not lost on Frei.
"You don't want to go back to Toronto having to dig yourself out of a hole. It's good that the second game is at home because we feel more comfortable there, but it's more important that you start out the away leg on a positive foot to set yourself up for the second game," stated Frei.