Describing this game requires me to set aside logic, to toss rational analysis to the site. Vancouver failed in its mission to win by three goals (or to win at all) and yet I walked out content. Or at least too exhausted to tell the difference. It was ridiculous.
Everything started out so well. The Whitecaps have traditionally had live music before every game but they surpassed themselves this time, booking a surprisingly excellent Beatles tribute band named the Fab Fourever who sounded much better than I do playing Beatles Rock Band, playing classic sixty tunes under a gorgeous Saturday sun. I even ran into Takashi Hirano, walking around what I suppose is now his former home ground, tapping his toes and generally looking to be in about as good a mood as Taka Hirano ever is.
The Southside was rocking, positively pulsating, the Timbers' Army in the north-east end immensely strong and doing their best, the two supporters groups raging vocally at each other even as they fraternized socially at the tailgate before the game and drained beers together at the pub after. The Whitecaps came out and had all the possession, owning it, the same as we've so often seen, but the referee was blowing his whistle at all the wrong moments (Justin Tasev, the same man who ruined last week's Vancouver - Montreal game, was up to his same reprehensible tricks and should be stranded on an ice floe for the rest of eternity). We failed to finish, as usual. And then all of a sudden Terry Dunfield headed home a Martin Nash pass through a forest of Timbers green and hurdled into the north end's VIP section, we had a 1-0 lead, and anything seemed possible.
But the Timbers. My god, the Timbers. The Whitecaps played as well as I've seen them play since adding all that new talent but Portland matched them blow for blow. When the second half opened, Portland came out thundering. One goal from Kalif al Hassen almost immediately after play resumed, Portland catching Willis Forko out of position and burning him with quick, accurate passing, then probable USSF D2 most valuable player Ryan Pore set up the infernally named Bright Dike to give Portland the lead.
Despair. Nothing could save us. That's what leads to the really amazing moments, though: being uplifted from despair to joy in a split second.
The game was dragging, just slightly. Oh, sure, the Whitecaps were still passing the ball around with obvious technical skill. Philippe Davies, one unfortunate missed cross in the south end aside, was on some of his finest form. Blake Wagner was engaging the offense for the first time in a while. But Ridge Mobulu was sulking and Thordarson hadn't dressed my pick for our best striker, Randy Edwini-Bonsu, meaning that Cody fucking Arnoux, that useless piece of Wake Forest trash, came in to replace Mobulu. As far as I was concerned, we had conceded the game at that point.
It's impossible to state how useless Arnoux has been. I know he's a former Everton reserve, and a consensus first-round pick in the MLS SuperDraft if the Whitecaps can't keep him out of it, and generally said to be a bright young American striker. He's pretty decent athletically and can hit the ball hard enough to challenge the sound barrier, but he has absolutely no first touch and lacks any sort of eye for the goal. He's inadequate at the USSF D2 level and I don't even want to think about what he'd be like in Major League Soccer. Just say no to Cody Arnoux. No team needs to carry that load around.
But Arnoux was actually all right when he came on (an upgrade over the inert Mobulu, anyway, who I normally like but had a rough afternoon), and the Whitecaps started to try and press forward again. They were holding the ball up capably and starting to move south again. The real spark came when Thordarson replaced Philippe Davies with, of all people, Kyle Porter. Kyle Porter? Making his first appearance of the season and picking a hell of a time to do it! I had quite liked Davies's game, but Porter changed everything. While not as accurate as Davies he was far more energetic and aggressive, trying to slam the ball down Portland's throat, and gradually the Timbers had to back off and give Porter the respect he was earning.
Just over an hour gone and the Whitecaps were threatening. Porter had the ball in a bit of an odd position, along the right flank but well forward, holding it up and keeping it away from the Timbers. Then he spotted his cross and with commendable speed struck a hard line drive towards the diving head of is that Cody Arnoux? CODY ARNOUX! I was in literal disbelief. I was shouting "Cody Arnoux!" as loud as I possibly could as the Whitecaps ran away to celebrate. It was a sterling, absolutely legitimate header, Arnoux diving full tilt and heading the ball into the top corner where nobody could reach it. He'd tied the game and done so beautifully, and I could hardly have imagined a more unlikely hero. I'd have been less surprised if Jay Nolly had headed it home. Cody Arnoux! Oh, so that's what Everton saw in that kid.
The Timbers, though. Damn them, the Timbers, they saw the momentum coming our way and they just didn't care. They kept playing their hearts out, even got a few chances on Jay Nolly. The Whitecaps struck as hard as they could in turn, with Terry Dunfield barely misplaying a good opportunity into Steve Cronin's chest and Cronin robbing Martin Nash blind on a ball struck just inside the box that Cronin dove, turned, and barely reached near the top corner to tip it wide. On the other end, Bright Dike forced Jay Nolly into a lunging save late. The two teams hardly took a breath as they threw chances at each other, for had they dared relax their opponent would surely have shoved it down their throats.
It was a 2-2 final but it was a blinder of a game to watch. Mouloud Akloul made his return to the Whitecaps lineup, which was a delight to see, and was dangerous (which was even more delightful). On a corner Akloul just lost out on a header to an attentive Cronin, and had Akloul headed home a goal that would have resulted in one of the largest celebrations I'd ever been a part of. In fact, Akloul was on rare form for the entire game: during warmups he was practicing his bicycle kicks, of all things, and nailing them. While on the bench he kicked the ball around with a few of the ball boys, to their seeming delight, and when he came onto the pitch he not only got his scoring chance but was almost implacable defensively. Then, after the game, he even handed out beers to a few Southsiders (but more on that later).
Even though we didn't get a win, never mind by three goals, it would be hard to be dissatisfied with the Whitecaps' performance. Greg Janicki, Luca Bellisomo, and Willis Forko weren't at their best: otherwise the three Timbers goals wouldn't have happened. But apart from them, Mobulu, and maybe Jay Nolly, the Whitecaps all played about as well as I've seen them play all year. They finally started to look, for the most part, like a team rather than a collection of individuals auditioning for roster spots in 2011. They just ran into a Portland team that was every inch their equal and determined not to give up a win.
We face the Portland Timbers in the playoffs next week, and I'm not sure I can take much more of this.
One other, almost tangential, note. After the match, the Southsiders and Timbers Army came out for the penalty shootout I mentioned in the game day thread yesterday afternoon. The rules were as follows: each supporters' group would draw its five shooters from a raffle, but the goalkeeper could be anybody the supporters wanted. The Timbers Army picked someone whose name I didn't catch, a game fellow, pretty agile but clearly not accustomed to this kind of thing. The Southsiders picked Whitecaps backup goalkeeper Simon Thomas.
Hey, we said "anybody the supporters wanted."
In truth, Thomas didn't have much to do. We were shooting from the top of the eighteen yard box, officially to prevent damage to the penalty spot, and the Portland players mostly scuffed their balls right down the middle, making life very easy for Simon, who did not concede a single goal on five shots. The Southsiders did rather better. We only wound up taking four shots and converted three of them, including a thunderous blast from Southside drummer Massimo Cusano that tore into the top right corner of the goal and probably got Tom Soehn thinking about an alternative to all those crappy strikers we've been using this year.
Since the game ended in a draw and we won the penalty shootout 3-0, as far as I'm concerned, we won the game. At the pub afterwards I didn't convert any Timbers fans to this viewpoint, but hell, I'm sticking to it.
Game Ball: Cody Arnoux came this close to taking it: his goal was lovely, his play apart from the goal was surprisingly good, and frankly I was attracted to giving him that little token of redemption. In the end I give the honour to Terry Dunfield, who scored the other goal and was almost flawless besides; he passed accurately, his tackling gave the Timbers fits, and he managed not to take a card. It's hard to ignore Dunfield when he puts weeks together without a single real mistake. But Arnoux, buddy, I noticed you and it was finally in a good way.
Most Disappointing: pretty clearly Ridge Mobulu. Mobulu is only nineteen and is entitled to the occasional sub-par night, but this was a pretty nasty one. He had his moments, including a lovely series of moves that deked out almost the entire Portland defense but not Steve Cronin, but when he didn't have the ball Mobulu was lackadaisical and failed to get involved in the play when his teammates needed him. He was by no means bad, but he wasn't good enough.
Next Up: well, that's a good question. We know the Whitecaps will open the 2011 USSF D2 playoffs at home against the Portland Timbers, but the date is not yet set. The smart guys I talked to seem to think it will be Thursday evening, followed by a return engagement in Portland on Sunday. We'll see.