So maybe a thing or two will change in Major League Soccer after all.
Last year in the USSF Pro Second Division, the Vancouver Whitecaps scored thirty goals all season. This year we're already at four. The last time the Whitecaps scored four goals in a match was on July 25, 2009 against the Puerto Rico Islanders in a memorable game delayed by ferocious lightning storms.
And the crowd. Good heavens, that was different. The annoying thing about Empire is that, with its huge, open, temporary construction as well as the winds blowing through, sound is just carried away. I was sitting on the opposite end of the stadium from the Southsiders and regret to say that I couldn't hear them, but then I was sitting close enough to the Toronto FC supporters that I could have flung rocks at their heads and couldn't hear them either. The sounds that carried were either structural or gutteral: the sounds of over twenty thousand pairs of feet banging on steel, or the almost frenzied cries of "WHITE!" "CAPS!" alternating from end to end.
The game lived up to the hype. We were hardly getting warmed up when Eric Hassli, our glorious designated player, got himself on the board beautifully. Then the old villain Dwayne De Rosario equalized and we must have thought "oh, no, I guess maybe we are just another expansion team." Apparently not. The final score was 4-2, with the Whitecaps firmly in control, and on a beautiful day, the beautiful game got just a little lovelier.
I'll spare you my soul-searching on what a great day this is for Canada, on how it's so great that two Canadian teams are playing each other and so on. Listen, Canadian teams have been playing against each other in major league games since before I was born. None of it mattered and a shocking small amount of it made any long-term impact on soccer in this country. What matters, long-term, is that we capitalize on this momentum and establish soccer as a core part of our sports culture instead of just another fad.
What matters short-term is that the Whitecaps keep winning. Toronto FC is not a formidable team, and head coach Aron Winter has been very careful to downplay expectations in the short haul. But Toronto is still a team with plenty of proven MLS talent. Adrian Cann, Nana Attakora, Stefan Frei, Dwayne De Rosario, and arguably Maicon Santos. You take just those four to five guys and you have a pretty good, experienced core to build out from that's mostly on the right side of thirty years old. When the Toronto brass emphasizes what a long-term process this is going to be, they're doing the right thing. But don't confuse that with Toronto having a completely hapless team because they don't. It's not a playoff team, but it's not useless either.
Toronto enjoyed a fair amount of possession, but it didn't mean anything. Even when they were down two goals Toronto preferred to pass the ball back and build up very conservatively. It wasn't "total football", whatever it was, and it didn't work. With a few exceptions they did very little to challenge Vancouver's back four, and particularly in the first half the Whitecaps defense moved up with impunity: all of Jay DeMerit, Alain Rochat, Jonathan Leathers, and even Michael Boxall occasionally went forward to get involved with the offense in open play. For the most part, when Toronto tried to go forward slowly and gradually, it just didn't work.
That said, Toronto had their moments. On the counterattack they were extremely dangerous. Dwayne De Rosario got his goal (the eight thousandth in MLS history, they say) when the ball turned around quickly and he found himself being marked by Michael Boxall. At game speed I thought De Rosario might have been offside, but that's just because he got away from Boxall so quickly on the well-placed long ball. It was almost like a raw rookie was defending one of MLS's most accomplished goal scorers, and on the ensuing break De Rosario beat Nolly. Easy.
Ultimately, the Whitecaps just had too much talent for Toronto to counter. Eric Hassli was a force. He was worth every penny of a designated player contract yesterday. His strength and his unbelievable ball skills were exactly as advertised, and when he got deep into Toronto territory he could deal with the hapless Ty Harden as he saw fit. The Toronto defense fought hard against Hassli; a Nana Attakora elbow to the back here, Adrian Cann or Ty Harden wrapping an arm around his waist as he tries to run past there, but since Hassli tackled pretty hard himself I can't really complain. Since we're on the Eric Hassli beat, I was pleasantly surprised by the DP's defense. He's not the quickest guy, and that limits his ability to track back, but when he does Hassli does it all right. He cut out a few passes, he made some lovely tackles to win the ball off of defenders or even midfielders. It's a minor part of a forward's job, but particularly on set pieces or in dangerous defensive situations, Hassli might be as much of an asset in his own end as he is up the field.
My man, and this site's poster boy, Terry Dunfield rewarded all of us who thought he could be an MLS starter. His goal, of course, was a thing of beauty, as he caught a nice deflection pass off the toe of Atiba Harris, took a couple steps in from the corner of the area, and just knocked a firm but accurate shot past Frei. Apart from that, he simply played vintage Terry Dunfield. What a hellion he was in the centre of the park! Toronto's best chances apart from their counters came off the wing, and a major reason was that if they tried to go up the middle Dunfield would intercept the pass, or strip the ball, or force the play wide. He wasn't in his usual spikes-up killer mode, but he didn't have to be. His yellow card, for jumping into the stands to celebrate with the fans after his goal, was a hell of a good yellow card for the hometown boy to take.
I can't praise Terry Dunfield and ignore Gershon Koffie. He played a simpler game than I'm used to, mostly sticking box-to-box and very seldom going on the attack. But it worked like a charm, and if Koffie keeps doing that sort of thing then I'm fine with John Thorrington taking his time recovering from injury.
While Toronto FC had some chances on the wings, the advantage went to Vancouver for sure. Russell Teibert was utterly on form. He embarrassed MLS veteran (and one-time paper Whitecap) Nathan Sturgis, dribbling the ball by him repeatedly. He almost rope-a-doped right back Dan Gargan and drew a reckless yellow card from the frustrated fullback. His crosses were both audacious and well-placed: even when they didn't work out, they were always full of possibilities. He was masterful on corners and set pieces to an extent I didn't even remotely expect; his superb corner led directly to Atiba Harris's goal as well as five-bell scoring chances for Hassli, DeMerit, and Boxall. On the other wing, Davide Chiumiento finally looked a little like the Swiss Ronaldinho. I thought Teibert was maybe a little bit better because of his distribution, but there was no denying that Chiumiento's are-you-kidding-me touch dribbling the ball kept Toronto on their heels. He came out with a hamstring injury after the half, and his status for next week is currently unclear. But full credit to Nizar Khalfan, who looked very good as a substitute.
Toronto's fans, of course, knew that their most recent building process wouldn't show results instantly. But the Whitecaps are building from scratch too. Their starting eleven contained seven MLS debutants, remember. In what should have been an even fight, the Whitecaps got a knockout. We'll see how they look against the likes of the Los Angeles Galaxy, but right now how can you not be excited?
Game Ball: When you get two goals, terrorize the opposing defense every time you get the ball whether you score or not, and look like we should already be talking about finding you a bigger club even when this is your second game with teammates whose language you don't speak, you're going to get the game ball. Congratulations, Eric Hassli. Seldom has a standing ovation been so richly deserved.
Most Disappointing: This is a tough one. Atiba Harris had some trouble, of course, but he also took his goal pretty well and had some nice moments up top. Jonathan Leathers clearly struggled at times but didn't make any serious mistakes while showing some nice enterprise and aggression which pushed Toronto's midfield back a step. Jay Nolly conceded two goals, but the first from Dwayne De Rosario was extremely difficult and the second from Maicon Santos was literally unstoppable. You know what? I'm not giving this out. Nobody was disappointing. Not a soul in white.
Next Up: Next Saturday, the Whitecaps will take on the Philadelphia Union in Philadelphia. Kickoff 1 PM Pacific, with the game broadcast on SportsNet One.