Vancouver's Jay DeMerit (right) and Eric Hassli are expected back in the Whitecaps' lineup against Toronto FC on Wednesday.
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DeMerit, Hassli expected back in the mix against Toronto

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Jay DeMerit has already missed more time this season than he would have liked, and there’s little doubt that his absence has hurt the Vancouver Whitecaps.

But the Whitecaps’ team captain and defensive anchor is slowly working his way back to full fitness after a nagging groin injury, and his return will be crucial to the team in the first leg of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship final on Wednesday night against Toronto FC at Empire Field (10 pm ET, Rogers Sportsnet) and beyond.

“I’m getting there,” DeMerit said after only his third start of the season last Saturday against New England. “Again, that’s up to the manager and the physiotherapists and me to sit down and talk about how we want to continue to progress. I’ve progressed positively over the past week, but again, always erring on the side of sensibility is the way we’ve been looking at it this time around, and we’ll continue to do that.”

It’s no coincidence that the Whitecaps’ only MLS win this season — way back in the season opener against Toronto FC — included a healthy DeMerit on the back line, as well as a pesky Eric Hassli up front. The Frenchman scored two goals on that historic day at Empire Field but hasn’t quite kept up since.

Still, there’s no doubt that Hassli is a force up front when he’s on top of his game and a much-needed physical presence for Vancouver. He’s the center of the 'Caps attack, and without both him and partner Atiba Harris, they’ve struggled to generate quality scoring opportunities.

Both DeMerit and Hassli are expected back on the field for the first time Wednesday against Toronto FC, with the Whitecaps hoping to replicate the success they had against Toronto in March.

“I think you have to come together as a group and, not necessarily look [entirely] to the first performance against Toronto, but that was the best game of the season,” DeMerit said. “So you have to look at that game and use that to try and gain an advantage going into this game.”

Vancouver should field their strongest lineup since that first game, with Alain Rochat, Jonathan Leathers and Camilo resting over the weekend, and Davide Chiumiento playing only 11 minutes in anticipation of this match.

“It’s been very important to rest those players because they were totally exhausted after all the games we have had lately,” head coach Teitur Thordarson said.

Now, with few injuries to use as excuses, the ‘Caps will look to rediscover that winning feeling.

“We’ve been playing some pretty good soccer as of the last couple weeks,” DeMerit said. “It’s just about transitioning that now and making sure that we’re more clinical in both ends of the field, in front of the goal, scoring, and making sure that on the defensive end we’re not giving up silly goals. We correct those two crucial parts and the rest is already there.”

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