Our nemesis, goalkeeper Bill Gaudette of the Puerto Rico Islanders, through the Southsiders' smoke at Swangard Stadium. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
All right. Now I'm ready.
When the match began, it immediately made itself into one to remember, but for all the wrong reasons. Vancouver and Puerto Rico both came out gangbusters. The Whitecaps knew they had a chance to win the series in ninety minutes and go on to one last second-division final. The Islanders were their usual sly selves, wasting time and seemingly looking content to go to penalties, except for the fact that when they counterattacked Vancouver they did so with such ferocity and vigour they at times were as offensively-spirited as the Whitecaps themselves.
But the pace was slowed to choppiness by the work of referee Dave Gantar. Gantar has officiated his share of Whitecaps games: for example, the infamous final series last year where the Impact caught seemingly every break from Gantar and went on to a thumping victory. On Sunday evening, he was not visibly biased. Just incompetent. He let flagrant fouls go from both sides but called the most ticky-tack infractions (and non-infractions). Neither side could predict what would be called next, which led to an odd combination of brutal fouls when the referee seemed a bit far back and flamboyant dives when Gantar was right in the action. The match, which seemed set to become an automatic classic, had trouble getting going. It looked like another officiating embarrassment was looming.
The two clubs kept warring it out, though. The Whitecaps pressed to the Puerto Rico end, failed to finish, then the Islanders turned it around and punched up a glorious chance of their own. Jay Nolly was forced to make a magnificent save in the first half: he seemed dead to rights with the ball on striker/hobbit Dave Foley's foot but Nolly moved like hell, extended himself, and deflected Foley's firm shot into the corner. The goal had literally been taken for granted, the fans were deflated, and Nolly puffed them back up again in a fraction of a second. By the end of the first half, we were singing Nolly's praises like he were a Greek god.
What a shame he could be only the second-best goalkeeper on the night.
The rap on the Whitecaps all season has been that they can't finish. They're going to continue to hear about that in the aftermath of a game in which they recorded sixteen shots to their adversary's five and yet lost 2-0. But I'll stick up for the Whitecaps' finishing instincts in this case, because they put some marvelous shots on goal. Terry Dunfield, Gershon Koffie, and Ridge Mobulu all had absolute five-bell opportunities in the first ninety minutes that they struck very nearly as well as they could be struck. But they ran into a goddamned wall, and its name was Bill Gaudette.
Bill Gaudette might just be the most hated goalkeeper in North America. He's big, bald, has the facial hair of a villain in a Bruce Willis movie, and is more than happy to make clear exactly what he thinks of players, referees, and of course opposing fans. He is the grandest, most elaborate time-waster I have ever witnessed, having gotten the art of sapping seconds off the clock down to the finest science. You may think the smoke in the picture at the top of the article is from our machines, but actually it is the infernal fog of a player clearly spawned from Hades itself. He is also horribly, diabolically good at tending goal. Even by his impressive standards, Sunday night was showing off: the sprawling fingertip saves, the leaping through immense traffic to snag a cross that seemed absolutely perfect, the deflections of balls that seemed un-deflectable. Never was a clean sheet through extra time so marvelously earned. If the Puerto Rico Islanders wind up winning the championship, they should rename their stadium in Bill Gaudette's honour.
We at the stadium, meanwhile, were tense but still more-or-less confident. At the half, almost everybody in the Southside who was able had their phones out, trying to catch the latest update in the Carolina - Montreal game, where the Railhawks seemed on the verge of an historic victory. When Tom Heinemann scored in the eighty-ninth minute and the Impact had their equalizer called back, we actually burst into a chant of "na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, au revoir". As acts of hubris go, singing goodbye to a rival when you're still tied in your own do-or-die playoff game is up there.
In the second half, the Whitecaps were attacking towards the Southside. We hurled imprecations at Bill Gaudette; chanted things that I would never say outside of a soccer stadium. It was a torrent of abuse that only rose in intensity every time he denied us (and there were many). Teitur Thordarson did the best he could tactically, but this team's series of rapid changes and unfamiliarity with each other came back to haunt it. For example, in the seventieth minute Thordarson finally sent out Randy Edwini-Bonsu, and soon he was carving through the Puerto Rico defense like his old self. The Islanders had no answer for Edwini-Bonsu's athleticism. Nobody ever does. They simply held on for dear life (which Dave Gantar, of course, generally allowed) and tried to muscle him away from scoring positions. All the same, he got a couple good shots off.
But what struck me was the way his midfielders failed to use Edwini-Bonsu. Randy is a fine young striker who I would like to see the team carry into MLS, but he's also 5'6". He's nobody's idea of an aerial man. Yet there were the Whitecaps, even the very good ones like Dunfield and Koffie, slinging in high crosses as if expecting Edwini-Bonsu to leap up three feet, beat one of the 6'2" defenders guarding him, and head it into the net. How was that going to happen? Yet the Whitecaps kept trying it, far too often, like they were used to the 5'10" Cody Arnoux, who still isn't really a threat on headers but can at least get up there.
The goalkeeping and the lack of chemistry were just enough to undercut the Whitecaps. By the end of ninety minutes, with the sun setting, the tension was building. Former Whitecap Nicholas Addlery had been substituted on for Puerto Rico despite allegedly being out for the rest of the playoffs. He didn't look terrific. But it was just one more way for the Islanders to burn us.
The dagger came in the hundred and thirteenth minute: almost two hours of walking on eggshells. Addlery caught the ball near the top of the area on a failed clear. There were plenty of Whitecaps between him and the goal and he had nowhere to go, no open passing lanes. So he took the shot, a widely arcing thing. Addlery normally has lead feet but he struck that one with an enviable soft touch: it was moving so slowly it almost glided past Jay Nolly's fingertips and into the north goal.
I couldn't even describe the miserable noises that came out of the crowd when that shot went in.
The Southsiders rallied. The song goes "we shall not be moved" and we meant it: all the vocal fury we had went into one last, furious burst to try and motivate the Whitecaps to get an equalizer. The Whitecaps, for their part, needed no motivation: they poured on the throttle, got the ball into the area, did not score. Terry Dunfield seemed to have the game on his foot from just behind the penalty spot, but dammit!, Gaudette robbed him again. Evil triumphed over good that time, but Vancouver kept pressing. We kept the pressure up, won a corner. Jay Nolly sprinted into the area, one more attacker, and for an instant I wondered if I might see two goalkeepers score dramatic equalizers in two days. Not so much: Gaudette punched Philippe Davies's corner away. The Whitecaps and Islanders wrangled for the ball as Jay Nolly tried to get back into his goal, but it was Nicholas Addlery who came out with it (again) while Nolly was still at the half-way line. He charged down the pitch and Nolly challenged him: he had no choice but to try, but there was no chance Nolly could win the ball off Addlery cleanly in open play. Sure enough, Addlery came away with the ball, nothing but grass between him and the goal, and just got the shot into the lower corner.
So that was it. The last Whitecaps men's game of the 2010 season, the last Whitecaps match in the North American second division, and the last time the men will play at Swangard Stadium. For many of those players, it will be their last appearance in the blue and white period, as Thordarson and Soehn pare the roster down for Major League Soccer. There's a temptation to call such moments "bittersweet" but this one was just bitter: they had played their balls out for two hours, lost in front of the home fans in the final gasp of their beloved old stadium, and now faced months of uncertainty regarding their future. Not even a glimmer of a silver lining to be found.
I've always found the calls of "give us a wave!" and shouts for a player to come mingle with the fans distasteful at the best of times. Asking a player to come over and touch us with his presence crosses the line from support into idol worship, and asking for that after so wrenching a loss is worse than disrespectful. Those players, though, still found the time to come over, to a man, and shake the hands of the supporters, a solemn but dignified procession. Last of all came the coaching staff, a ringing chant of support for Teitur Thordarson as he approached showing that the supporters, at least, had lost no faith in their Icelandic tactician. Maybe that's the most unpleasant thing about wishing these players goodbye, in some cases forever: not only are most of them good soccer players, most of them are good people. A lot of them make less money than most of their fans but are playing the same they love, and the Whitecaps I've spoken do in my life have never seemed anything but grateful for it. Now they're at their homes, or their hotels, and almost none of them have any idea what uniform they'll be wearing next season.
I'm going to miss watching games in Swangard Stadium, but when the Whitecaps are in Major League Soccer the building will still be there. We can't say as much for the players who once waged war on that grass. What a pity they couldn't go out in glory, rather than in tears.