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Baltimore - Vancouver Review: So Close, and Yet So Far

Jay Nolly's remarkable streak of consecutive minutes for the Vancouver Whitecaps is at an end, but Vancouver's undefeated streak is not. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Jay Nolly's remarkable streak of consecutive minutes for the Vancouver Whitecaps is at an end, but Vancouver's undefeated streak is not. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

For forty-five minutes, Crystal Palace Baltimore was putting the fear of God into me.

They were coming out gangbusters! A team which had lost eight more games than it had won took on a team that is aspiring to make the MLS playoffs in a year's time and started to roll like Rommel in the desert. The Whitecaps would keep possession, kick it around for a bit, turn it over carelessly and crack, like lightning there comes Baltimore. Within five minutes midfielder Matthew Mbuta had blown down Vancouver's right flank on the break, turned Wes Knight inside out, and slung one of the prettiest crosses you'll ever see into the box which evaded Gary Brooks and from him a wide-open goal by as little as it's possible to miss by. Not long later a Baltimore player I unfortunately missed the number of buzzed the goal with a thirty-yard shot that Nolly just got his fingertips to.

Baltimore lacked individual skill but were outplaying Vancouver badly. It was like a bear fighting a cheetah. The bear is huge and strong and indomitable but that cheetah is so bloody quick that if the bear lets his guard down...

Unfortunately, in that fight the bear only has to get one good swat in and it's all over. The bear struck just before the end of the first half, when Philippe Davies took a free kick, lobbed a gentle ball up to Greg Janicki, and boom. 1-0 and Vancouver never looked back, picking up two more in the second half and romping to a 3-0 victory. Baltimore had a few chances, including a very good one early in the second half, but it was Vancouver's game from that point on.

It's not often I actually feel bad for an opponent, but I feel bad for Crystal Palace Baltimore this morning. They earned a better fate than a 3-0 drubbing before a crowd of 1,150 that was actually pretty good by Baltimore standards. I'm here to talk about Vancouver, not Baltimore, but a moment of thought for the gallant fallen, who played better than any of us could have predicted and walked out with a scoreline worse than I'd ever expected.

First off and most importantly, the victory clinches a playoff spot for the Whitecaps. We were hardly in a position to worry about missing the post-season, but it's worth mentioning all the same. The Whitecaps are first in the NASL Conference, six points ahead of the Carolina Railhawks (Carolina has a game in hand) but behind both Austin and Rochester in the USL Conference. If the playoffs began today the Whitecaps would play the Puerto Rico Islanders, which would be a series to remember.

I only watched the game on a web broadcast from Baltimore that was bad even by the poor standards of USSF D2 web broadcasts. There was no sound at any point in the game and the camerawork, which followed the ball only on occasion as if the cameraman had better things to do, looked like it was being done by someone's dad. Even the colours were washed out. I expected to see a pause at half time while the guy tried to swap out the Beta tapes he was recording on, but no such luck. Those looking for actually informed, eye-witness testimony are pointed towards JoshuaR's magnificent FanPost; he was in Baltimore and attended the game.

Jonathan McDonald and Randy Edwini-Bonsu were our ersatz strike force to start the game. McDonald was astonishingly useless, and I'm about ready to execute his professional career and bill his family for the ammunition. He is the worst striker that the Whitecaps have run out this season and in case you couldn't remember that is really saying something. His ball control was nil. He couldn't get a shot on goal. His speed wasn't enough to make up for his other deficiencies and he had a remarkable knack for just sauntering into an offside position when the midfield was trying to turn the play upfield. It's not a coincidence that as soon as McDonald was removed for Ridge Mobulu in the sixty-third minute, Vancouver's offense immediately improved.

Edwini-Bonsu was his usual fireworks show. There were lots of flashes and bangs, and his speed clearly terrified the hell out of the Baltimore defense, but he didn't generate many key opportunities. His one golden chance in the first half Edwini-Bonsu did a terrific job to get into a good position in the area, an even better job to move away from his marker and receive the pass, then drove the ball wide from a lovely scoring position and literally crumpled to the plastic in despair. It wasn't all bad for Edwini-Bonsu, though: when a magnificent Ridge Mobulu solo run against pretty much the entire city of Baltimore culminated in Mobulu playing a nice pass to Edwini-Bonsu with space Randy poached his goal well enough. I remain high on Randy Edwini-Bonsu even if that strike brings his goal tally for this season up to two: he has all the ingredients and he is improving mentally game after game. More and more he's getting to the right spaces instead of just relying on his athleticism to beat guys, and he is capable of finishing when he's calm.

It was another fine game from Terry Dunfield. He was involved on Edwini-Bonsu's goal, running the give-and-go with Mobulu that made the whole thing possible, and took another Mobulu feed at the top of the box to just demolish a shot that roared into the lower corner in the seventy-sixth minute. Once again, he was unerring in distribution and tackled hard enough to give Baltimore a hard time (probably the only Whitecaps midfielder who distinguished himself in that regard). Considering that my reaction to the Whitecaps signing Dunfield was a string of profanity, I'm beginning to grow alarmingly fond of our new Canadian journeyman. Not only has he not had a weak game as a Whitecap, he hasn't had a weak ten minutes.

Finally, no account of this game would be complete without mentioning Victoria, British Columbia native Simon Thomas, who after two seasons in the team finally made his senior Whitecaps debut. Thomas came in for Jay Nolly after eighty-two minutes, which initially had me terrified that Nolly had suffered a stroke or something because you don't remove Jay Nolly! Nolly had played every minute of the 2010 season to that point, and that after playing every minute of the 2009 season and almost every minute of the 2008 season. But a 3-0 game is as good a chance as any to finally give Thomas some work, and even if he mostly distinguished himself by watching shots thunder off his posts it was nice to see a good young keeper finally get into a competitive match.

The score flattered the Whitecaps. But, having come out on the other end of some bad luck a few times this season, I guess it was nice to see the Whitecaps dominate a scoreline they didn't really deserve to dominate. It's rough for Baltimore, but I somehow doubt that's the most important thing.

Game Ball: Terry Dunfield came this close but in the end I have to give it to Ridge Mobulu for sheer spectacularness. He played only twenty-seven minutes but they were twenty-seven minutes that completely redefined the game for the Whitecaps. Baltimore struggled at times with Edwini-Bonsu, and they even had a bit of trouble handling Cody Arnoux in spots, but Ridge Mobulu was completely unlike anything they could even conceive of coping with. Two assists, both well-earned, in less than half an hour is a good night's work in my book.

Most Disappointing: I'm not sure I can really say I'm disappointed in Jonathan McDonald since my expectations are so low, but he was certainly the worst player on the pitch. Let's just go with Mobulu as one striker until his hamstrings explode and let Edwini-Bonsu, Arnoux, and Davide Chiumiento swap the other spot. I'm done with McDonald. When he's on the pitch it's like the Whitecaps are playing with ten men.

Next Up: Saturday, September 18, the Whitecaps will pay a visit to Joe Warren and the also-in-danger-of-folding NSC Minnesota Stars. Their return home isn't until the week after and a meeting with those bastards the Montreal Impact on Friday.