For either the first 45 or first 60 minutes of last night's game, depending on how generous I'm feeling, the Vancouver Whitecaps were having a tough time against a Colorado Rapids team that's goddamned garbage on the road.
I've watched relatively little of the Rapids this season (as I intimated yesterday, I just do not care about that team) but if Colorado shows that level of commitment every game it's a mystery that they're one-and-a-billion on the road. If a Whitecap and a Rapid were chasing down the same ball you could pretty much bet the Rapid would get there. Vancouver was keeping things stupid, opting for low long passes through the middle that turned into automatic turnovers, while Colorado was attempting to get some build-up going. Darren Mattocks couldn't get on the end of any through balls and was thus largely useless; Sebastien Le Toux was in full cinder block mode.
Chances were going both ways, with Matt Pickens and Joe Cannon both coming up big, but you had to say that Colorado had the slight advantage in what looked like a 0-0 draw unless someone made a mistake.
Well, it fell to the rookie Mattocks to make that mistake. First on a rather ungainly dive that suggests he needs remedial study at the Camilo Sanvezzo School of Fine Acting; then a tough, frustrated foul on Drew Moor. The two yellows were arguably harsh but they were also both mental lapses from a young man of marginal experience at any decent level who was having a hard time making an impact on the game.
And it woke the Whitecaps up! I'm not just referring to Le Toux's goal, which was a hell of a way to make amends for a crappy game (he would later screw up again by hitting a two-on-nobody breakaway shot straight into Pickens's right foot rather than passing to a sublimely open Eric Hassli), or Davide Chiumiento's assist which is definitely making the end-of-season highlight reel. But they played better with ten men than they did with eleven: more clear-cut chances, fewer for the opposition (Colorado's best chance to tie it up, when they rattled the goalpost, came off a foul in my books).
Now, on the one hand I'm delighted. The Whitecaps turned their big guns on the Rapids, a pretty good team, and blew them out of the water. So many teams (I'm looking at you, Canada men's national team) have the firepower but lack the confidence or the cohesion or the je ne sais quoi to use it effectively. When roused, though, Vancouver took care of business against a quality opponent in a way that the 2010 or 2011 Whitecaps could never have managed.
On the other hand, it's disconcerting that it took an hour for the Whitecaps to really turn up the pressure against a team we're dueling for a playoff berth. Martin Rennie's teams have been known to coast. The Carolina Railhawks took their foot off the gas for about two months last year and it proved fatal. This year's Whitecaps played the Voyageurs Cup like an unpleasant obligation rather than a tournament they wanted to win. Not to criticize Rennie too much, as his teams are still on balance quite good; this year's Railhawks will be damned lucky to make the NASL playoffs. But it's a weakness.
Give me the 2012 Whitecaps who don't always appreciate their opponents over the 2011 Whitecaps who didn't deserve to be appreciated any day. But, even as we celebrate a lovely victory, the lesson for the Whitecaps must be do that for ninety minutes next time.