It was a struggle for Eric Hassli in every sense.
Those were ninety interesting minutes.
For the first hour or so, the Vancouver Whitecaps sit back and let the Chicago Fire do as they liked. The Whitecaps weren't as complacent as they were against the Columbus Crew but they were still far, far too passive. As a result, the Chicago Fire moved the ball around and got some marvelous chances. Let's appreciate just how lucky the Whitecaps were to get out of the first half drawn 0-0: between goal posts and powerful shots kissed just wide, the Fire deserved at least one goal and arguably two. For the most part the Whitecaps defense (with one surprising exception) melted like butter and not a single man in the midfield was even decent. Davide Chiumiento, Gershon Koffie, Terry Dunfield, all were having their worst game of the season. Blake Wagner was the best of the bunch and even he wasn't good.
In the second half, things slowly improved. Koffie started to connect passes again, the wing play improved, the defense calmed down, and the game began to turn in the Whitecaps' favour. The Whitecaps brought in Shea Salinas and, even if Salinas himself didn't play particularly brilliantly, that was the turning point. The Whitecaps surged forward, got one lovely chance, got a few decent ones, thundered towards the Fire goal, and by the end of ninety minutes they might have felt aggrieved to not win this game.
Both teams deserved three points, and both teams gave the other plenty of opportunities to win it. The 0-0 draw is, ultimately, a pretty fair outcome. The scoreline was boring but the game was anything but, and the Whitecaps have their first road point of the 2011 season. It was a winnable game and Vancouver has hopefully learned some lessons from the two points they didn't get. We're no closer to the playoffs today. But this may be the proverbial first step on the journey of a thousand miles.
This team was starving for Russell Teibert. I don't just mean it in terms of his skill; the downgrade between Teibert and Wagner is as precipitous a drop between starter and backup as any on this roster. I also mean it in terms of his mentality. How much better-off would the Whitecaps have been had they come out and put some pressure on the Fire? Unfortunately, Teibert was down with a foot injury at the last minute, one that saw the youngster confined to the bench, and it fell to Blake Wagner who has the energy and offensive pressure of a cactus.
There's room for optimism, of course. You may say that we got a road draw on a tough schedule and that's a victory, but I saw us mustering a small number of shots and no goals against one of the most unremarkable back lines in Major League Soccer.
Instead, the Whitecaps got very very lucky. They simply played with the ball too far back. When they did get it, they mostly did very little with it, knocking up long balls because the midfielders weren't doing anything and the defenders were too far back to string together anything intelligent. I still can't figure out how Marco Pappa or Diego Chaves didn't plant at least one of the chances they got in the back of the goal: Jay Nolly made a couple of very adept saves but it was mostly luck. The Fire were playing very well, connecting lots of passes and looking very impressive technically. I was surprised and impressed by Chicago, and if they'd played at the same low level Columbus showed last week maybe things would have been different. But the Whitecaps responded in exactly the wrong way: they let Chicago do as they liked.
In the second half, things were different. Gershon Koffie in the first half was worse than a liability; Gershon Koffie in the second was his old self. He was challenging for balls, winning them, and connecting passes. The defense was more aggressive, particularly the fullbacks but with a little help from Mouloud Akloul. When Salinas came into the game, Teitur Thordarson played it smart by moving Chiumiento to the left wing. Working off the active and enthusiastic Rochat, Chiumiento was a new man in the second half and created several decent opportunities for the Whitecaps. It was, very literally, like night and day. Chicago was actually doing very little different, but the Whitecaps weren't letting them play their game anymore. Vancouver's skill was coming to the forefront.
If only Eric Hassli had been a bit more reliable. I can't even imagine how Hassli failed to beat Jon Conway on a beautiful clean breakaway. Hassli timed his run perfectly and ran alone seemingly for miles. But, rather than use his powerful shot to try and beat the journeyman Conway, Hassli almost tried to run it through him. He charged straight for Conway and tried to juke past him at the last minute, but timed it slightly too late and Conway wound up smothering the ball. What a ridiculous decision by Hassli! I can hardly imagine his logic there; even if he had gotten by Conway, a defender was approaching and Hassli would have been off-balance at a mediocre angle and short range. His odds of scoring wouldn't have been that much higher than if he'd just cut towards the middle and shot as soon as he was within the area. I don't know whether he had too much confidence or too little. Either way, he blew it and actually had a rather bad game overall, sending too many balls right back to Chicago.
To their credit, in their post-game statements the Whitecaps players made it clear that they understood the situation. Teitur Thordarson and his crew harped on the first half as much as the second: grateful for the point, impressed with the finish, but fully aware of the flaws. That's exactly the right attitude to take.
Yes, the Whitecaps could be forgiven for being tired, but their problem wasn't that they looked exhausted. Except, perhaps, mentally. The problem was that they simply let Chicago play their game and you can't do that with the Fire, or indeed with any professional team worthy of the name. As impressed as I was by Vancouver's last half-hour, it only matters if they can keep it up for ninety minutes next time.
The Whitecaps don't have a chance to catch their breath, either, as they return to Vancouver to take on the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday (more travel). They have the Saturday afterwards off, because Major League Soccer is stupid, but that's not much consolation. This team needs to knuckle down and start grinding out some wins rather than hoping wins come to them, and I don't care how many games they're playing in a week.
Man of the Match: I can't believe I'm saying this. My man of the match is right back Jonathan Leathers. This isn't a "he was the best of a crummy bunch" award either; Leathers was excellent. After a couple very rough games in a row, Leathers put in a superb all-action performance. He did a masterful job keeping the ball off of Chicago strikers down the right, he was interestingly offensively, and even when he made an error he did a masterful job covering it up. He was good in the air and on the ground. It was an absolutely superb game by Leathers and no, I don't quite believe it either.
Most Disappointing: I could say Hassli but, if I'm honest, that would mostly be for his one miss. I definitely give this award to Camilo. At times, it was hard to tell he was on the field and that's a bad sign for an attacking player. Camilo's problem is that he has rotten distribution and is only mediocre at getting open; it's no coincidence that Vancouver's game in the final third was much more effective when Nizar Khalfan came in. Khalfan didn't do much (one bloody-near-run shot towards the end aside), but he at least kept moving and got into good positions and forced the Fire to respect him. Camilo couldn't even manage that. I'd be bitterly disappointed if Camilo got the start against San Jose.
Next Up: The Whitecaps return to Empire Field to take on Frank Yallop and the San Jose Earthquakes on Wednesday. Kickoff is 7 PM Pacific; the game will be broadcast on Sportsnet ONE.