The game was more-or-less even, but the Whitecaps took their chances and their opponents did not.
I can't believe I just wrote that.
The idea of Vancouver running out to an immensely promising 2-0 victory at home over Portland was unrealistic enough; the idea that we'd do so in a game where the possession and chances were more-or-less equal because we took our chances was simply unfathomable. And if you'd told me that our scoring hero would be Gershon Koffie, and that although Cody Arnoux would have a terrific game both off and on the ball, I simply wouldn't believe you. I'd call an ambulance and have you committed to the nuthouse because you've clearly lost touch with this reality.
Yes, it turns out that there's a reason Teitur Thordarson is one of the most acclaimed managers in North American soccer and I'm just some guy with his thumb up his butt. His decisions didn't work out perfectly, but for the most part Thordarson's game plan worked to perfection. I could defend playing Koffie ahead of Davide Chiumiento simply because of Chiumiento's fitness issues but I never expected the 19-year-old Koffie to look as sublime as he did. I doubt anyone did, except maybe Teitur Thordarson.
And up front, Cody Arnoux? The guy who I've spent the past two months trying to roll into a freshly-dug grave, Cody Arnoux? He challenged the Timbers constantly, ought to have drawn a penalty late in the first half, made a few sublime feeds including one to Terry Dunfield that Dunfield promptly kissed off the post, and was far more present defensively and in transition than I'm used to.
I'm flabbergasted. You can just push me over with a feather. Portland played very well, but Vancouver played better. We got our goals, and we head into Portland with a significant, if far from overpowering, advantage. I'm not sure how I can react to this.
Actually, I do know one way to react to this, and that's with a bit of history. Last year the Whitecaps faced the Timbers in the second round of the USL-1 playoffs. Portland had just won the regular season title and the Cascadia Cup, but in the first game in Burnaby the Whitecaps emerged with a thrilling 2-1 victory. Given that the Whitecaps were probably the best defensive team in the league even though we couldn't win games (sound familiar?), there was cause for confidence heading into Portland. A bore draw would do it, and we were good at getting bore draws.
Instead, what resulted was a terrifying 3-3 gun-slinging duel that weaved back and forth and was in doubt until the last second. Jay Nolly played poorly for possibly the first time but the Whitecaps attack punched above its weight (and Charles Gbeke was on that team so that was pretty weighty). Sitting in my apartment watching the game, I was practically screaming in frustration as the Timbers absolutely, positively, refused to die, and when the final whistle came I pretty much collapsed onto my bed in emotional exhaustion. In a way, that unnerving 3-3 draw was much more frustrating than the pants-kicking we took from the Montreal Impact in the final, simply because it was so constantly in the balance.
Not only is history telling a cautionary tale, but not all is well in the present either. We picked up what may have been a key injury in the seventy-second minute when Wes Knight was taken off in pain. Knight was Vancouver's minutes leader among outfield players and is obviously a central part of our back line. There's no official word on Knight's injury yet: it looked like it was an upper-body knock around the shoulder or collarbone. It's also possible that he aggravated the back injury that caused him to miss time in late September, although that didn't look like the cause from what I saw. Whatever the cause, Knight was certainly in pain, but on the other hand he was also tweeting not long after the game ended. No disrespect meant to Ethan Gage, who did a fine job replacing Knight, but Worldwide Wes is not a player we can afford to lose at this time of year.
So the Whitecaps aren't home free quite yet. It bears repeating after a game like this no matter how obvious it is: the Portland Timbers are an excellent soccer team. Ryan Pore and Bright Dike are two of the best attacking players in the division and are far superior to their Vancouver counterparts. Our defense is good, but workmanlike and not as athletic as Portland's attack (there were a few sequences, particularly in the second half, where the enormous Dike threatened to simply power through Greg Janicki until Janicki's footwork outdid Dike's and got the ball away). It wouldn't take a lot of luck for the Timbers to go up 2-0 as quickly as we did, and then all of a sudden the series is back on even terms and we're trying to scrape out a goal on the road with the momentum dead against us.
This dose of realism, important as it might be, is a distraction from what was really a terrific all-round performance from the Whitecaps. Nobody on the team was universally poor: even my whipping boy Willis Forko, while offensively as inept as ever, managed to mostly keep his feet aside from a few moments in the second half and coped with Portland's attack effectively. Terry Dunfield was not as dominant as he has been but the Timbers were still clearly afraid of him both on the ball and off: he barely missed a goal on a lovely passing sequence with Blake Wagner and Cody Arnoux and his tackling was as firm and sublime as ever.
In fact, the whole midfield was excellent: Philippe Davies is going to take some heat for missing that sitter but he missed it for the right reasons; settling down and trying to get the shot right rather than just panicking and kicking it as hard as he could. Besides, his distribution and defense were on form all day and it was his magnificent free kick that led to Vancouver drawing its penalty. Blake Wagner was quiet but in a good way: he didn't test Cronin personally but passed as accurately as I've seen him and was constantly active. I think a large part of the reason that Forko got off so easy last night was that Wagner was constantly looking out for him: given his attacking midfield role, he sure ranged back a lot. And if I can count Martin Nash as a midfielder, I will: he was a key link between the midfield and Arnoux. Considering that he can't bloody run anymore, I was hesitant about Nash's value as a number ten. Certainly, Chiumiento is better suited for the role. But Nash did very well in an unfamiliar position and forced the Timbers to respect him. He bloody near missed that penalty, with Steve Cronin getting a lot of the ball, but it went in and that's what counts.
Then there's Gershon Koffie. Do you know how many minutes Koffie played in the regular season? Seventy-eight. Do you know how old he is? Nineteen. Do you know how he managed to dance around seasoned professionals, score a lovely poacher's goal, test Steve Cronin a few times, tackle the bejeezus out of a few poor schmucks, and generally look like some sort of soccer prodigy? Because I sure don't. I mean, I liked Koffie's seventy-eight minutes well enough that I put him on the bench in my ideal playoff lineup. I'm a Gershon Koffie fan. And I still have no idea where the hell that came from. He and Dunfield had almost no connection in central midfield, which was practically Koffie's only flaw: if he learns to keep it simple when he has to and develops that ESP all great central midfielders have with Dunfield, that would get me even more excited than I already am.
The Whitecaps were just so sound. It was delightful. The Timbers gave Vancouver their best shot and Vancouver won anyway. Not even I can really find a downside in that.
Game Ball: having just licked Gershon Koffie's popsicle, I'm going to turn around and award this to Jay Nolly. Playing his best game of the season right after I criticized his being named the Whitecaps' most valuable player? I'm going to go ahead and take the credit for that. But Nolly quite literally did not put a foot wrong. He came out and grabbed corners without bobbling them. He made a few terrific saves in the first half. He didn't even miss his man on goal kicks, which has been an old weakness of Nolly's. And this after I specifically said that he was struggling gripping the ball in wet conditions. Why do you even read this site? I clearly have no idea what I'm talking about. Kudos, Jay Nolly.
Most Disappointing: nobody was disappointing, so I'm not going to hand this out. The worst Whitecap was still maybe a six out of ten. Come on, how can I bash somebody for that?
Next Up: the second leg of Vancouver's first round takes place in Portland, Oregon, at 6:00 PM PDT on Sunday, October 10. I have it on excellent authority that good seats are not, in fact, still available.