Oh my god these games are getting so frustrating.
The Vancouver Whitecaps come out, with a bunch of important players missing from their first team lineup, and play the New England Revolution hard in the first half. They don't have the majority of the possession but they certainly do the most good with it. They have the three best chances of the half. They control the field as they see fit. I wouldn't say that "a goal was a matter of time" but, certainly, the Whitecaps looked more likely to win that game than the hometown Revolution did. Everything was going so well from kickoff, and really, that should have been our hint that it would all go straight to hell.
You see, at some point we did something to offend the soccer gods. That's the only possible explanation. The second half begins and Wes Knight goes up to challenge for a ball, comes down, and steps very slightly on Benny Feilhaber's foot, which had come down into Knight's landing zone while he was in the air. By the letter of the law it was a penalty, but if you called a penalty every time that happened games would end 7-6. More importantly, referee Chris Penso had let the Revolution play in their own end, ignoring a couple charges on Omar Salgado and Long Tan, as well as a fairly rough challenge on Salgado early in the corner of the area, that were all penalties by the letter of the law. I'm not saying that these offenses were all penalties; I'm saying that none of them were.
Unfortunately, Feilhaber goes down and makes a total meal of it. Penso, clearly influenced by the New England crowd, calls the penalties. Shalrie Joseph hits the ball past Jay Nolly, and the Whitecaps just can't rally to respond despite putting a couple nifty chances on Matt Reis. The result: no points when we clearly earned one and possibly earned three.
And if this were the only time this season the soccer gods had spit on us, it would be frustrating enough. But this keeps happening. So now the pessimists have more grist for their wheels, the Whitecaps are further out of the playoff race, and Wes Knight's first properly good game of the season is spoiled. The Whitecaps didn't help themselves after that penalty, let's be clear. But at the same time, oh my fucking god when are we going to catch a break this season?
Before I get too deep into bemoaning our misfortune, I should at least whine about our poor play after the unfortunate penalty call. Bad refereeing, in Major League Soccer, is a fact of life. Particularly on the road, where mediocre referees can be swayed by mediocre crowds into making awful decisions. Successful teams are the ones that come back from those setbacks in style and get at least one point anyway. The Whitecaps are not a successful team.
The Whitecaps very slightly panicked after Joseph slotted away that penalty. I think it's the mark on a team where the players aren't terribly familiar with each other yet and where the confidence is at a low ebb. In the first half they were patient, even clinical; constantly self-assured in possession. In the second half they tried to rush things a bit too much. Shea Salinas owned the first half by keeping calm, moving the ball backwards if he had to, waiting for his chance and seizing it when he came. In the second half he still had room but Salinas was too eager, as if thinking "we need a goal now." Whereas before he might have hung back and waited for his chance, in the second half he tried to force it and it didn't work. Mouloud Akloul, Gershon Koffie, and Jeb Brovsky all had decent games spoiled by the same affliction. On the left wing, Russell Teibert was actually rather poor but was the most effective Whitecaps attacker in the second half simply because he kept his head when all others around were losing theirs.
I think Teitur Thordarson panicked a bit too. I've been a stout defender of his all season and will be again; his attackers seem to mostly be speaking with the benefit of hindsight and with the expectation that the coach is responsible for all our bad luck. But that doesn't mean he's perfect. Substituting out Omar Salgado for Nizar Khalfan was just wrong-headed: Salgado had a couple pretty good chances that easily could have been goals if Matt Reis hadn't been so on his game. When he came out Salgado still looked pretty active. He may have been injured, but if so nobody's mentioned it as of this writing and he looked fine on the field. Khalfan, of course, is the ultimate feast-or-famine guy, and lately it's been "famine". Last night was no exception.
Meanwhile, he left Long Tan in. I was just fine with Tan starting in place of Camilo and I can think of one reader in particular who's wanted Teitur to release the dragon for weeks now. He showed some nice stuff and, actually, I thought Tan had a better chance of scoring yesterday than Camilo's had for a couple weeks now. But his timing is unbelievably off. Whiffing on a header from a lovely Wes Knight cross that really ought to have been a sure goal. Getting another beautiful cross from Shea Salinas tangled up in his feet when it should have been another one. Slamming a spectacular half-volley right into Reis. The guy has decent speed, some moves in the open field, good positioning, and the finishing instincts of a decapitated chicken.
Yet, ultimately, the Whitecaps seemed to have once again lost a game they shouldn't have lost. We controlled the play for, what, sixty minutes? And even in the last thirty, we were usually fighting the uninspired Revolution to a draw. If Wes Knight's foot came down six inches to the left, we'd be tearing our hair out wondering how we hadn't won (actually, given the way we played after the penalty, we might have won period). The loss is unsatisfying, not just for the impact on the standings but the way it happened.
Certainly, the Whitecaps should take some lessons from this game. But it's nothing they wouldn't already have consciously known. When in trouble, take a deep breath and don't let it bother you unduly. The team has actually been pretty good at coping with adversity, but most of those games were at home before a friendly game or in games which had at least been even instead of ones which they had borderline dominated. To give up a goal against the run of play is unusual for a team which has had very little of the run of play this season.
They shouldn't let this happen again. They can't.
Man of the Match: Although it's mostly on the back of his strong first-half performance, this award has to go to Shea Salinas. Salinas was Vancouver's best option over the ninety minutes and even when he was forcing his chances a little bit, New England's defense never seemed to quite have him under control. On another day, he could have put up some really gaudy numbers. His decision making wasn't quite there and you can see that he needs a bit more time to get into full game shape, but I still very much liked what I saw from Salinas last night.
Most Disappointing: Long Tan. It's too early to say we should slay the dragon but... well... to be fair, Blake Wagner gave him a real run for his money (what was he doing on that Feilhaber run that was incorrectly called offside?)
Next Up The Whitecaps return to Vancouver to take on Toronto FC this Wednesday in the first leg of the Voyageurs Cup final. Kickoff is at 7 PM Pacific, and if you stay home to watch the Canucks game then you're a bad person. There. I said it.