I am a Whitecaps FC fan and my focus is bound to be upon the Whitecaps and their performance but before I consider that I am compelled to say that in many, many decades of watching football (I hesitate to mention the exact number of decades it has been) I have never been unfortunate enough to witness as contemptible, shameful and dishonourable a performance as that delivered this afternoon by FC Dallas. They disgraced themselves, embarrassed their fans and gave MLS, whose avowed aim is to become one of the top leagues in world soccer in the foreseeable future, a serious black eye. How can anyone who knows and loves the beautiful game admire this side? Can't be done.
I found the first half and the opening minutes of the second immensely frustrating. Granted the Dallas tactic of slowing down the game and preventing any rhythm or flow from being created was part of it but the Whitecaps own inadequacy was a large factor as well. As chance after chance was squandered and bad passes or poor touches scuttled every foray up-field I found myself wondering what it was that had us all so excited about this side's potential for the coming season. Throughout training camp we talked about a solid defensive core, a more creative mid-field and blistering speed in attack then a flurry of pre-season goals had us salivating for the start of league play. The first two games weren't quite as dynamic as we hope they might be but they were victories and then we went on the road for a long, long time. Losses and spiritless draws began to accrue and the Vancouver tradition of eating our young reared it's ugly head. The inevitable calls for Martin Rennie's dismissal began to ring out in the media and the blogs. Second guessing of the manager's team selection became the topic of conversation before and after each match. All of the optimism and enthusiasm began to drain away.
And it carried on into this match. By the end of the first half I was tearing my hair out in frustration and had a list of questions I was unable to prioritize. What was more frustrating? The Whitecaps' defense, particularly on set pieces?; Dallas' diving and delaying tactics?; The Whitecaps' finishing?; The referee?; Darren Mattocks?.
Then, after Dallas' goal at the start of the second half seemingly sucked the hope and life out of everything, something lit a spark that ignited the Whitecaps and the game and reminded me of what it was that had us so excited. Energy. Aggression. Creativity. Wonderful, fluid ball movement. Quick precise passes. And, wonder of wonders, Manneh and Camilo putting the ball behind a barely adequate goal-keeper to knot the score. Kekuta Manneh's entry brought pace and flair to the game but the real spark was the play of the Captain Nigel Reo-Coker. Over the past several games Reo-C has begun to establish himself as the heart and motor of this side and he is displaying the leadership qualities that the management told us to expect when they signed him in the off-season. He was a rock. His calm and control gradually wrestled the momentum towards our favour and his vision and aggressive runs dragged everyone else along until the Whitecaps were coming at Dallas in waves. It also became evident that defending is much easier when the game is mostly being played in the other side's half. It was, beyond a doubt, the best half of football from the Whitecaps this season. Perhaps in any season.
And, to use the cliche that Martin Rennie loves so much, it has given us something substantial upon which to build. The players will take confidence from this performance as they face the next phase of the MLS season. Those of you who have been kind enough to read my offerings on this blog recently will know I feel that the series of games beginning with Dallas today then away to Real Salt Lake followed by back-to-back home dates with The Galaxy and Portland, all teams ahead of the Whitecaps in the Western Conference standing as of this evening, is a critical point in the MLS season. It offers an opportunity to gain some ground on the teams we will be contending for a playoff spot with. Alternatively, if the 'Caps don't play well in these games they could find themselves so far behind the pace that they will never be able to catch up. Today's draw against the best team in the league, and I think all Whitecap fans and football fans everywhere know how difficult it is to write those words after what Dallas showed us today, is an excellent start.
The debates about tactics and team selection will continue, and will probably intensify when Kenny Miller is available for selection. That is part of the fun of being a fan. We can talk about Davidson's play and how to best use Kobayashi and when to include Johnny Leveron but the cycle of negativity has been broken and we can go forward with renewed optimism and enthusiasm.
One caveat. Kekuta Manneh had a great game but he is an eighteen year old rookie with loads of up-side but don't think that he is a savior. We can have great hopes for him but he could well be ruined by heaping pressure and expectations on him at such an early stage of his career and after one good showing. We need look no further than Darren Mattocks for proof of that.
So well done Whitecaps. The monstrous Mr. Hyde has turned back into the kindly Dr. Jekyll. Lets hope that this transformation is a permanent one.