Sunday, July 13, 2008

The GBU: Whitecaps draw with TFC

Photo: The Vancouver Whitecaps take on Toronto FC at Burnaby's Swangard Stadium. [Andrew Bucholtz photo].

A bit late getting to this one due to the other work I've had to do, but I was at the Vancouver Whitecaps - Toronto FC match on Wednesday, so I figured I'd better write about it briefly here. This was of course the Whitecaps' final match of the Nutrilite Canadian Championships, and came on the heels of their stunning Canada Day victory [myself, Out of Left Field] over TFC at BMO Field [myself, this blog]. Unfortunately, the pair of eggs they laid against Montreal meant that they needed to win by a landslide to have any hope, and there wasn't much of a chance of that happening. There was plenty of pride on the line, though, and the Whitecaps played their hearts out, earning a draw in the end [Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail]. Here's the breakdown, in classic GBU style:

Final score: Whitecaps 2, TFC 2

How I saw it: In person

The Good:

Eduardo Sebrango: Cuba's greatest export other than cigars or rum again proved his value to the Whitecaps, scoring two stunning goals. His 87th minute equalizer in particular was a thing of beauty, as he stole the ball, broke in on goal and beat a sliding tackle from Tyrone Marshall and a diving Greg Sutton before gently slotting a drive into the back of the net. He had plenty of other chances as well, including one in stoppage time that was called back for offside and a stellar opportunity just before his second goal where he stole the ball and was in prime shooting position, but took too long and was promptly dispossessed.

Jay Nolly: The Whitecaps' keeper, who stole the show on Canada Day, was again in fine form. He made several crucial saves, including a brilliant one in the 64th minute on the speedy Jeff Cunningham who was in all alone. Nolly dove headfirst for the ball right at Cunningham's feet, always a risky play and one that would have undoubtedly resulted in the award of a penalty if he had missed, but he pulled it off, hit the ball first, and left a bemused Cunningham flopping to the ground in vain and then sitting there for a minute awaiting a call that would never come. He also did superbly well to keep out an Amado Guevara blast on a 27th-minute rebound after TFC winger Rohan Ricketts drilled the ball off the underside of the Whitecaps' crossbar.

Justin Moose: The speedy little winger turned in another stellar performance and created several noticeable chances down the flank. Perhaps the best one was his blasted shot in the 44th minute, where he collected his own rebound off a superb diving save by Sutton and calmly set up Sebrango for the Whitecaps' first goal. Even more impressive, though, was the defensive job he did on Laurent Robert, who is usually one of TFC's strongest offensive players but was barely noticeable Wednesday night.

Omar Jarun: The tall American central defender hasn't featured too prominently for the Whitecaps this year, at least in the matches I've been to or watched, but he turned in a fantastic performance Wednesday and should be worthy of future consideration in manager Teitur Thordarson's future squad selections. He won countless battles in the air against TFC's shorter strikers, Jeff Cunningham and Amado Guevara, and made several key tackles on the ground as well. One of his strongest efforts of the night was his well-timed slide to block a dangerous cross from the speedy Marvell Wynne in the 22nd minute.

The fans: It was a capacity crowd of over 5,600 that packed Swangard Stadium, the only time I've ever seen it quite that full. Perhaps more impressive was that the vast, vast majority of them were decked out in Whitecaps jerseys or colours: often, you see more European jerseys at Caps' games than local ones. There were a few Toronto fans in attendance as well, and the Vancouver fanbase treated them perfectly: they were given full respect on the concourse and in the stands, but their cheers were shouted down properly by the assemblage of West-Coasters. In fact, it was great having some visiting supporters along: their chants seemed to galvanize the crowd into further and louder support for the local side against the team from "The Centre of the Universe".

There's plenty of good reasons for Whitecaps fans to resent Toronto besides the typical stereotypes and East-West controversy: many still think it's a bit unfair that they got an MLS franchise and a largely publicly-funded "National Soccer Stadium" that's rarely used for national matches despite Toronto's historical lack of support for its soccer teams, while the Vancouver area's long history of passionate support for its soccer teams was seemingly overlooked. Now, granted, that probably has more to do with Vancouver city council making it difficult to build a soccer-specific stadium (that they wouldn't even have to pay for, by the way) than with any fanbase issues, but there are a lot of Vancouver fans who resent the way Toronto seemingly got a franchise on a silver platter, and they were out in force Wednesday night. Overall, that's probably a good thing, as those sentiments would help to create a fantastic rivalry if Vancouver ever gets into MLS.

The massive fan support also had one other significant impact: it was one of the best advertisements for the idea of an MLS franchise in Vancouver. It certainly demonstrated that the city's fans (and those from its outlying suburbs where I hang my hat) care about MLS-calibre games even when there's no Beckham [Dan Stinson, Vancouver Sun via] to be found, and it should demonstrate to the league that there's a bona fide rivalry here waiting to be exploited (there's actually two great rivalries ready and waiting if Vancouver gets into the league, as they've been warring with the Seattle Sounders since recorded history began, and there would be a third one if Montreal joins the party). Even one John Carver, who happened to be coaching their rivals on this day, is in the Vancouver-for-MLS camp: he told the Globe's Matthew Sekeres that the competition and Vancouver's fan support demonstrated that the city deserves an MLS team, along with Montreal.

"Over the two games between ourselves and Vancouver, it shows us how much this competition means to people," TFC head coach John Carver said.
Carver added that the tournament showed him that both Vancouver and Montreal belong in the more prestigious Major League Soccer loop, where TFC competes.
"That's the biggest thing that came out of this competition," he said. "It would be a great rivalry."

That ever-expanding camp also includes one Steve Nash, by the way, and possibly even MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who recently told Eric Koreen of the National Post that "the Canadian markets clearly would be successful for an MLS soccer team to come up here." Gazidis qualified his statement by talking about how the league can't promise anything yet as they're evaluating their expansion policy, but even that's hopeful for those who dream of an MLS Whitecaps franchise: it sounds like perhaps they aren't as firmly stuck on only adding two more teams as they had previously stated.

The Bad:

Steve Kindel: The Whitecaps' midfielder turned in a rather lacklustre performance Wednesday night: many of his passes missed the mark while others were intercepted, and he wasn't able to do much to shut down Toronto's attack. Granted, it's certainly difficult to deal with the likes of Carl Robinson (who has graced Swangard Stadium before, by the way: he was one of Sunderland AFC's prized new signings when they stopped by a few years ago for a friendly before their first recent trip up to the Premiership) and Maurice Edu, but Kindel's performance was still below average for him and the play in the middle of the park was probably the biggest difference between the sides, despite a strong performance from Kindel's fellow inside midfielder Martin Nash (brother of the aforementioned Steve).

Nicholas Addlery: Sebrango's Jamaican striking partner proved rather disappointing on this day. He had several good chances, but invariably squandered them, notably in the 50th minute where Sebrango set him up in the box and he elected to blast the ball wide from a sharp angle instead of sliding it over to Alfredo Valente, who had a wide-open net to shoot at. He was replaced by Jason Jordan in the 72nd minute, who was much more effective.

The Ugly:

Jeff Cunningham: No, this is not a comment on Cunningham's physical attractiveness or lack thereof, which I am singularly unqualified to judge. Rather, it's a comment on his diving, which he displayed so prominently that you'd think he was practicing for the 10-metre platform event at this summer's Olympics. Cunningham is a tremendously skilled forward and one of the fastest players in MLS, but he'd be much more likeable if he didn't fall over in pain every time someone breathed on him. I felt referee Carol Anne Chenard did a great job of calling the actual fouls while refraining on the more overdone performances (Cunningham's flying leap and subsequent sulking on the ground after losing the ball to Nolly on a breakaway come to mind), but Cunningham should have been booked for diving at least once in my mind. It's performances like that that make it tough to sell many North Americans on soccer.

Toronto's second goal: TFC's first goal was a thing of beauty, as Edu brilliantly volleyed a mishit shot from Robert past a surprised Nolly, who had no chance. Their second goal wasn't anywhere near as nice, though, and really shouldn't have happened. The Vancouver defence was asleep at the switch and left Ricketts all alone in the box near one side of the goal, and he made no mistake, firing the ball home from a sharp angle almost immediately after he received it and before Nolly could get across the goal.

FC references:
The Vancouver Province's Marc Weber, a skilled soccer writer on the Whitecaps beat, had his excellent article on the game almost ruined by an incompetent editor who clearly knows nothing about soccer and gave it the horrible title "Caps put pressure on FC". We saw this with the inital wave of articles about Toronto FC, but most journalists have learned by now that "FC" could refer to any one of a million clubs, as it simply stands for "Football Club" (indeed, the Whitecaps' full name is Vancouver Whitecaps FC). Weber clearly knows this, as his article refers to the Toronto side by the proper TFC acronym throughout. Unfortunately, whoever wrote that headline must have missed the memo.

Looking ahead: The draw eliminates Vancouver from contention for the championship, but it means that Montreal only needs a tie with TFC in the final game [BMO Field, July 22] to advance. It also shows that Vancouver's win on Canada Day wasn't just a one-off fluke, and demonstrates that the calibre of play between MLS and the USL isn't as vast a gulf as many MLS-centric fans would have you believe. Interestingly, many of these people will forever argue that MLS isn't that far below the EPL in the face of their own league's detractors (an assumption I support, by the way), but still believe that they have the right to dump all over any other pro soccer in North America. If you're sick of people bashing your own league, don't perpetuate the cycle of detraction by going after the guys below you on the totem pole. MLS fans and USL fans ultimately have the same goal: promoting soccer in North America, and many, like myself, enjoy both leagues. In any case, I still like TFC when they're competing in MLS, but I'll be firmly rooting for the normally-hated Montreal Impact to strike a further blow for the USL on July 22.

- Duane's take on the game from a Toronto fan's perspective. [Out of Left Field].
- Simon Fudge's game recap. [].

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