The first leg of the 2009 USL-1 playoff series between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Carolina RailHawks was a tight battle, but the home team came out on top tonight at Burnaby's Swangard Stadium. It wasn't traditional threats Charles Gbeke, Marcus Haber or Marlon James who scored, although they all saw action and created chances. When it came down to it, though, 19-year-old supersub forward Randy Edwini-Bonsu was the only one who managed to find the back of the net, and keeper Jay Nolly preserved the clean sheet for Vancouver. Nolly said holding the RailHawks off the scoreboard was key for the Whitecaps.
"The first game of the playoffs, to get the clean sheet, I think that's great for our defensive mind," he said. "They've been weathering a lot of goals of late, so this will keep them up."
Both sides created substantial chances throughout the game. Vancouver finished with 11 shots, but only three of them hit the target. By contrast, Carolina only managed seven shots, but they forced Nolly to make six saves, some of them tough. The possession was reasonably even, but Vancouver seemed perhaps more determined to attack (likely thanks to the lack of an away-goals tiebreaker in USL-1), and they had the better chances.
Nolly, who was named the team MVP before the match, has played every minute of all 30 USL games this year for the Whitecaps, 2700 minutes in total. He is believed to be the first Whitecaps' goalkeeper to play an entire league season since Arnie Mausser played 26 games in the Whitecaps' 1977 season. Nolly said he isn't fatigued, though.
"When you get a win like this, it's hard to be tired," he said.
Nolly said the workload has helped him maintain consistency and improve his game.
"Definitely," he said. "You pick up little things. Every game, you become better. It's been great for me to play 30-something games this year. It's been great for my development."
Edwini-Bonsu's goal came in the 77th minute after Nolly booted the ball downfield. James flicked it on for the young striker, and he promptly blew past RailHawks defender Jeremy Tolleson before beating Carolina keeper Caleb Patterson-Sewell and neatly tucking the ball into the net. It was his first goal for the senior team, and it came in his first playoff start.
"It feels amazing," he said afterwards. "I've been waiting so long for this, and it finally came at an important time. It's a great win right now."
The Whitecaps now go to Carolina for the second leg of the two-game aggregate series Sunday (5:00 p.m. Eastern, 2 p.m. Pacific, to be live-blogged here). They have struggled on the road at times this year, but Edwini-Bonsu said he's optimistic that will change.
"We just have to come together as a team and work hard for the whole 90 minutes, not let up in the last five minutes like we've been doing lately," he said. "Just work hard for the whole game and we'll get the result."
Head coach Teitur Thordarson said both teams were defensively-minded tonight.
"Both teams didn't want to lose," he said. "It was more that than the will to win."
Thordarson said he brought that defensive mindset to the game tonight because he was confident his strikers would capitalize, even on limited opportunities.
"Our main assignment to the players was don't let in a goal," he said. "We knew we could create chances."
Thordarson said Carolina will have to attack Sunday thanks to being down a goal, which may open up scoring opportunities for Vancouver.
"It will be a new game down there, and they will have to open up," he said. "I just hope we can defend as well as we did today."
Thordarson said he was impressed with Edwini-Bonsu's play off the bench.
"He's done extremely well as a player," Thordarson said. "He has really done his things well every time he's come on."
Tonight's game saw four different Whitecaps' players up front. Gbeke and Haber started, with Edwini-Bonsu and James in relief. Thordarson said he appreciated having players with their speed on the bench to change the tempo of the game.
"It surprises the opponent every time we do it," he said. "It's extremely nice to have opportunities off the bench where you can change the game tactically."
Thordarson said although Gbeke and Haber were the first-choice pairing for much of the year, they may not get the start Sunday. He said he wants to evaluate his options before then. Regardless of who starts, the others may appear in relief.
Team captain Martin Nash said it's a tremendous asset to the Whitecaps to have so many quality attacking options
"We have a lot of depth," he said. "The young players are great. They've taken their lumps over the year, they've been up and down at times, but that's to be expected of young players. All in all, they've been great. They were great tonight, so hopefully they can keep up this effort."
Nash returned to the lineup after missing time with an injury and played all 90 minutes, creating some excellent scoring chances off passes and set pieces. He said his teammates were key to him getting through the match.
"I haven't played for months, so it's not easy to walk back in, but the guys around me gave it everything they've got and that made it easier for me to contribute," he said.
Nash said the team will have their work cut out for them on their trip to Carolina Sunday.
"It's going to be tough; they're a great team," he said. "We've got to go work our ass off and hopefully we'll get the result."
[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute].