That was brutal.
It was brutal physically. Jay Nolly, Gershon Koffie, and Cody Arnoux all went down for extended periods of time, and Arnoux did not return. The Vancouver Whitecaps looked utterly played out by the end of the match, and in the last ten minutes seemed to be falling into the hoof-it-and-pray non-strategy out of simple desperation and exhaustion. It was, in short, a typical Puerto Rico road game in October, where the rain is pouring, the temperature is thirty degrees, and the game is being played at an amateur-quality stadium with seams in the elderly turf field.
It was brutal to watch. Well, I can't speak for those in Bayamon, but from here in Vancouver, watching the web feed that was choppier and less effective than a man in Puerto Rico shouting highlights at me through a tin can and a string was an exercise in frustration. In the second have the feed was smooth but also blurry enough that it was difficult to distinguish which player was which when they were in the middle of the pitch. So this analysis is going to necessarily
be very shallow.
It was a brutal stadium, too. The rated capacity for Bayamon Soccer Complex is 500 souls, but the Islanders added temporary seats for their fans. The Islanders faithful sounded good, apart from the cowbell, and probably enjoyed a great view close to the action. But the stadium itself... listen, I love the North American second division. I think the fans are great almost to a man and the quality of play is severely underrated. But watching soccer in facilities like that makes me look forward to Major League Soccer like a starving man looks forward to a Baconator.
In no sense was that game pleasant. But the Whitecaps emerged with a 0-0 draw and return to Burnaby with the advantage. That's an outcome worth any amount of viewing brutality.
The Whitecaps were clearly playing back most of the night. They made the opposite of the mistake Rochester made last week: whereas the Rhinos didn't respect Puerto Rico enough and got burned for it, Vancouver respected Puerto Rico a little too much. Unlike Saturday against Portland the Whitecaps played pretty good defense and limited Puerto Rico's chances for the first hour, apart from a cracking individual effort from distance by midfielder Kendall Jagdeosingh ten minutes in that kissed off the post. Vancouver played smart, and though I disagreed with the strategy I was relieved by the execution: the Whitecaps showed that they could shut it down against a fairly strong team and look good doing it. They even grabbed a few opportunities on the counter, though they were unable to finish them off.
Would I have preferred a bit more offensive effort, a bit more attacking spirit than mere constant counters can provide? Obviously I would. But the quality of Vancouver's defensive performance soothed a lot of my fears. Playing like that they weren't going to allow a goal, except from bad luck or marvelous individual play that they wouldn't have a chance to stop anyway. They might even grab one (Blake Wagner and Cody Arnoux both came pretty close). For the first hour, Vancouver by and by large had an element of control in their game. At least, they did as far as I could see, which wasn't all that far.
While it's pandering to a cliche to say it, it's also so obvious that it has to be mentioned: in the adverse conditions, it was clear the Whitecaps were tiring faster than their opponents. It was obvious that was going to happen and it could hardly happen otherwise. Playing a defensive, counter-attacking style is exhausting: you are constantly trying to force the other team's play, reacting rather than acting, and when you get a scoring chance it is from a quick transition that requires a lot of pace just to get into the play. It was thirty-one degrees in Bayamon at the time, humid, and the field was as bad as I've ever seen for a professional game. Even the Islanders, old hands at dealing with Puerto Rico weather, were showing the strain. But the Whitecaps had it worse, and by the seventy-minute mark during stoppages Vancouver players were visibly bending over and sucking wind.
Now, Teitur Thordarson did his best. He kept the substitutes rolling and, with the exception of leaving Martin Nash on a bit too long, usually managed to pick out the exhausted Whitecaps at the same time I did. I once again left with respect for Thordarson's tactical acuity. There were a few eyebrows raised when Chris Williams came in, but he's a veteran player who's always in good shape and can play the defensive role as well as anybody: putting him in for Blake Wagner was a good move that paid off. Kyle Porter up at striker didn't achieve much but did scare the Islanders and force them to respect him, then he was moved back to the midfield and kept the ball moving to what we're rapidly finding out is his usual high standard. Not a single bench move failed to pay off. Full credit to Thordarson. But even in USSF D2, you only get five substitutes and you have eleven men on the field. He couldn't substitute out all his exhausted players.
As a result, late in the game the Puerto Rico Islanders were attacking in waves. They were used to the conditions but not immune to them: the Islanders were fresher than the Whitecaps but still not exactly fresh. There was little enough pace in Puerto Rico's attack, just more than Vancouver could bring to respond. Perhaps exhaustion is also why Puerto Rico's finishing was so poor: skying balls over the goal, kicking them wide, pathetically dribbling into trouble rather than passing out of it. For the last fifteen minutes in particular, Puerto Rico controlled the play. But that didn't meant they ever looked like getting anything out of it.
The Islanders unleashed the dragon and came at the Whitecaps to try and get their vital home goal, but came away with nothing. We head to Swangard Stadium in a superb position. Vancouver lost twice at home all season, to Montreal and Portland. Puerto Rico isn't even in that class. We should be able to get this one.
Game Ball: This is difficult to award on a day when the Whitecaps were all decent but not spectacular. It's even more difficult when I only saw about an hour of the game at all and only forty-five minutes of that were even remotely watchable (thanks again, Puerto Rico Islanders). All the same, out of a sense of tradition as much as anything I give the honour to Ethan Gage. It was the second straight marvelous game for Gage as Wes Knight's injury replacement. In Portland, the Timbers tried to attack down Gage's flank repeatedly and were constantly turned back. In Puerto Rico, the Islanders for the most part knew better than to try, but when they did he rebuffed them. Even his yellow card came the right way, on a tackle that was firm but probably fair and at the very least made Puerto Rico think twice about taking him on again. Blake Wagner could easily have taken the honour, as could either of the central defenders. There was a lot to go around on the defensive side of the ball.
Most Disappointing: I'm actually a bit reluctant to hand this one out, both for the technical reasons I laid out and because none of the Whitecaps really played poorly. Even Willis Forko, in an environment where he only had to look after his defensive responsibilities, seemed fairly sound. In the end, I give the nod to Gershon Koffie, who was disappointing in so far as, after a very good first playoff game and quite a good second, he seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the play in Puerto Rico and didn't contribute like we've been expecting. He was by no means bad, and I remain eager to see what else he has to offer to the Whitecaps, but this was not a game up to his usual standard.
Next Up: the Whitecaps take on the Islanders Sunday afternoon at 4 P.M. in Vancouver to determine who will advance to the USSF Division Two Pro League final. Not that the stakes are high or anything.