Kevin Hatchi of the Montreal Impact trips (er, "trips") Davide Chiumiento of the Vancouver Whitecaps. (Bob Frid/Canadian Soccer Association)
I warned you, guys! I warned you about the Montreal Impact!
Most of the game was actually pretty boring, I think you'll agree. A ticky-tack affair, mostly waged in midfield with both teams being a little too sloppy to make it interesting. Even in the first half, Dave Gantar was waging his one-man campaign to run every Whitecaps - Impact game, and this one was going to be a fine addition to disc nine of Dave Gantar's Greatest Hits as he alternatively blew the whistle every time two players ran too close together and put it in his pocket for even the most egregious offenses.
The Whitecaps had a couple of chances, thanks mostly due to Russell Teibert thundering down the left wing, realizing he had nobody to cross to, getting bored, and cutting into the middle. The Impact were so utterly unable to handle Teibert both times he tried this that, really, he should have just kept trying to cut through them, but that's just a lesson of youth and, anyway, he got some pretty good opportunities out of it. Terry Dunfield also had a few good shots and, when he got onto the field, Camilo was at least for a time a bit of a ball-winning firecracker out there. Sadly, Eric Hassli was unable to provide much incisiveness in the final third, while Davide Chiumiento was just off his game, and it kept the Whitecaps from taking the last, successful step.
And the Impact kept getting their chances. The game was quite evenly played, with the Whitecaps holding a slight advantage but nothing you could hang your hat on. Then, rampaging down at the wrong end, Ali Gerba drew a penalty from Alain Rochat and scored from the spot.
We were heading to extra time, and Montreal was picking up more and more chances. I told you, dog! I told about the Impact!
Now, to dive into the obvious question, was the penalty awarded by Gantar a penalty? I didn't think it was from where I was standing, but I was in the south end bleachers while the offense was on the north end: it would be hard to conceive of a worse angle for me to judge without a pillar being in my way. Teitur Thordarson, in fine form at the post-game press conference, said that he didn't know whether it was a penalty or not but a lot of people seemed to think it wasn't. Marc dos Santos said it was obviously a penalty and this was a well-officiated game (proving he's a liar or an idiot since even Impact fans don't think that game was called well).
I'll say this. If you're calling every little thing that happens in the game, it was a penalty. There's no doubt Rochat gave his man a little tug, so it's physically possible to call that. However, how you could then turn around and not call the abuse Nevio Pizzolitto dished out in the Montreal box, or the hand ball in the area in the second half, is beyond me. It was all fairly minor, ticky-tack stuff; nothing that would really get my ire up except Gantar was calling the fairly minor, ticky-tack stuff down at the other end.
The man seems to have a talent for ruining Vancouver - Montreal games. Except this time, oddly enough, he didn't ruin it. Instead we went into extra time and, after a few tentative first steps, the two teams immediately started launching the ball down the field and trying to pound each other end-to-end. It was sloppy, it wasn't out of any soccer handbook, but it was exciting and there were moments of great individual skill.
The winning goal was not a great moment of individual skill. Alain Rochat slammed a shot into the area, Mouloud Akloul drifted forward, caught the rebound, and knocked it past big bald Bill Gaudette. It was only too well-deserved for Akloul in every sense: he'd had a fine, fine game at centre back, he was always the first Whitecap up to try and incite the crowd on to greater levels of passion, and it was the first goal he'd scored as a Vancouver Whitecap without breaking his ankle. It was a pretty similar goal, too: sliding along the pitch, knocking in an opportunity with a rare poacher's instinct for a defender. Only this time, instead of our cheers turning to silence as Akloul couldn't get up, they simply revved up louder as Akloul popped to his feet and celebrated with the sheer, single-minded enthusiasm of a ten-year-old boy.
That Akloul goal will stay with me for a long time. It was like the soccer gods had decided upon the narrative of this game. Not long after Akloul scored, the bad guys cranked one off the post from distance that we in the south stands actually thought for a moment had gone in (with all the collapsing and horror that ensued). Very, very late in the game, Greg Janicki was caught too far up the field when Ali Gerba went on one of his trademark jogs into the Vancouver area: "oh, don't mind me, I'm fat and no threat" and then he's in a perfect position with that thundering right foot and powerful header of his and you realize he very much is a threat. The cross to Gerba was perfect, he had all the time in the world, and he kissed it off the far post. There was no way that wasn't a winning goal, one of the greatest moments of heartbreak a Whitecaps fan could ever possibly have experienced, but the soccer gods pushed it just a little wide. Mouloud Akloul's positive karma earned us a reprieve.
Montreal fans will feel hard-done by. I can't blame them; they had some lovely chances that went wanting. But if Vancouver had lost, we'd have felt just as aggrieved and with just as much reason. Sometimes, neither team deserves to lose. A 1-1 draw in the game was a just result, but it's almost too bad for Montreal that it meant losing the series.
I find it hard to analyze the performance of individual Whitecaps. When I'm singing and cheering and living and dying with every kick, it's more difficult than I might like to focus on whether the fullback is getting back into position as well as I might hope on the break. I will say that, in addition to the omnipresent Teibert and the obvious Akloul, I was greatly impressed by Gershon Koffie. The young midfielder might already be one of the better holding mids in North America: he just roams around slightly behind the ball, quietly controls his part of the pitch, and turns the ball up-field. He's raw, and that's amazingly obvious from the way he runs the transition into attack or the way he gets caught out of position from time to time, but he's also an undeniable talent with great skill and better instincts. Koffie excites the hell out of me.
I was also pleased to see Shea Salinas. Frankly, I didn't think he played brilliantly, but he did play usefully. He was active and looked fit, rampaging up and down the wing, playing the ball neatly even if he had no moments of inspiration. There's something to be said for a player you can rely upon to be useful like Salinas rather than a player who's sometimes a genius and sometimes a liability like Davide Chiumiento (I'm not understanding the praise for Chiumiento in this game: he was all smoke and no fire). After Salinas came in for Omar Salgado, the Whitecaps went to their long-awaited 4-4-1-1 formation with Salinas on the right wing, Teibert (and later Nizar Khalfan) on the left, and Davide Chiumiento withdrawn in the middle as a playmaker. The potential was obvious, even if having Camilo up top meant our target man left something to be desired. So much for the vanilla 4-4-2. The team is getting healthy and Thordarson is reacting accordingly.
It was a game the Whitecaps may have deserved to win and may have deserved to lose. Certainly a bit of both. But we did get the result, coming through in the last minutes when winners are made and losers shamed. I can't really ask for anything more. Bring on Toronto FC.
Game Ball: if it weren't obvious from what I was saying at the top of the page, I'm giving this honour to the Canadian Soccer Jesus, Russell Teibert. In ninety minutes Teibert was by far Vancouver's most dangerous player, both in open play and off set pieces. We saw Teibert's limitations (not quite enough aggression or ambition to go for goal) but also his strengths (speed, ball-handling, passing, crossing, finding holes in defenses that really ought not to be there) in gold. Mouloud Akloul was a very, very close second for a well-taken goal and useful defensive effort, but he didn't quite get there.
Most Disappointing: there weren't many serious disappointments in the Whitecaps lineup today, but Greg Janicki was the worst. Janicki's problems were positioning and speed. He was caught up-field or too wide a couple of times, including on Ali Gerba's sphincter-clenching last chance. Moreover, and I don't know whether the 120 minutes were just too many for a guy struggling to get fit, but he clearly and obviously struggled in terms of his mobility. The Impact were just having too much fun passing balls around him and running past him. We need better, although history suggests Janicki can provide it.
Next Up: the Vancouver Whitecaps flew out this morning on their way to Chicago to take on the Fire. Kickoff is Saturday at 5:30 PM Pacific, broadcast live on Rogers Sportsnet Pacific.