The Vancouver Whitecaps will be heading to the W-League Final Four for the first time since they hosted the tournament and claimed the championship in 2006. They sealed a berth today with a 2-1 victory in the Western Conference final against the rival Pali Blues in front of 1,712 fans at Swangard Stadium, but it wasn’t an easy one.
Keeper Siobhan Chamberlain turned in a tremendous performance for Vancouver, turning away four shots, including one that went off her and then off the post. She said it was a thrilling experience despite the pressure.
"I enjoyed this one, although it was hard work," she said. "You need a bit of luck sometimes and we got it today."
Pali began with a lot of pressure, but the scoring chances they generated were repelled by the Vancouver defence. Emily Zurrer and Martina Franko stood strong in the middle, while Robyn Gayle and Chelsea Stewart were solid on the wing and Chamberlain made some key stops. Still, Pali easily could have pocketed a couple of goals in the early going if luck had been on their side.
Vancouver broke the game open in the 35th minute when Desiree Scott crossed it across the field to Gayle, who delivered a lovely ball in to Melissa Tancredi. Tancredi made no mistake, heading it home past Pali keeper Chante Sandiford from short range to give Vancouver a 1-0 lead. Six minutes later, Gayle sent in a great free kick for Tancredi, who crossed it to the wide-open Amy Vermeulen. Vermeulen made no mistake, burying the shot from six yards out to put the Whitecaps up 2-0. It looked like they were well on their way to victory.
The momentum shifted after halftime, though. The Blues put on pressure and created several good chances, but they still couldn’t beat Chamberlain. That changed in the 61st minute when Julie Bukh delivered a perfect free kick from 30 yards out to defender Sara Gama, who finished off a superb run with a terrific header that beat Chamberlain and pulled Pali within one.
Both sides continued to go for goal, and they each had their chances. Tancredi delivered a tremendous strike from 25 yards out that Sandiford punched off the bar. The rebound fell for Melanie Booth, who volleyed it wide. Christen Press and Janice Cayman each had chances for Pali, but they couldn’t convert and the match finished 2-1.
Head coach Hubert Busby Jr. said the close game followed a pattern the team's seen all season.
"We always try to make it interesting for the fans," he said with a laugh.
Busby said Pali's three-defender formation caught the Whitecaps by surprise at first, and they weren't prepared for the waves of attackers heading at their goal.
"We tried to make adjustments during the game," he said.
He was particularly impressed with Chamberlain's performance in goal.
"She made some key saves at key moments."
Defender Martina Franko concurred with that assessment.
"She had the game of her season," Franko said. "She just showed leadership and made saves when needed."
It was Tancredi who won the game for Vancouver, though, scoring one goal and setting up the other. Busby said her performance didn't surprise him.
"She's been our MVP," he said. "She's a very experienced player, she knows how to get the goals."
Tancredi said it was a terrific feeling to see off a long-time rival.
"I feel great," she said. "This is a great win against Pali, again. I'm kind of sick of playing them, but it was great."
She said she was worried when they conceded a goal in the second half, though.
"I was kind of afraid because we have kind of a tendency to let teams back in games," she said.
Tancredi attributed Vancouver's eventual success to the decision to keep attacking rather than sitting back and defending.
"We kept pressure, kept going, and it worked for us."
The Final Four starts next week in California. The semifinals will take place Thursday, with the final set for Saturday. The Whitecaps men are back in action tomorrow night at 7 p.m. Pacific against Minnesota; I'll be live-blogging that one so come back then!
[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]