It was so good to see the Vancouver Whitecaps back in action that I'm inclined to forgive them the quality of the game.
The Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers played a moderately entertaining, see-saw match which saw a couple nice chances at both ends go wide, while both goals came off of ugly mistakes as the two teams battled to a perfectly just 1-1 draw. Neither team got into a rhythm too easily, alternating periods of dominance with stretches of lackadaisical failure. And both teams were more-than-willing to mix it up, slowing the game down with fouls and near-fouls that the referee struggled to control. In the first half Portland showed most of the muscle, but in the second Terry Dunfield, Atiba Harris, and Kevin Harmse led the Whitecaps into standing up for themselves. It would have been inspiring if not for the way it bogged the game down and prevented either side from getting a winner.
All the same, it wasn't exactly a bore draw. The Whitecaps got a goal even without our sparkling new designated player; an own goal, but one created by some good work by Vancouver. Joe Cannon made an appearance and looked tremendous. The Vancouver Southsiders and the Timbers Army hung out once again, to the point of spending much of the second half chilling together behind the Timbers goal, and had a good time in spite of MLS's constant paranoia about mingling fans.
And the Vancouver Whitecaps kicked a ball again before our very eyes. That alone was worth the price of admission.
In a friendly like this, one's eye is inevitably drawn towards the new players. My eye was pulled towards Long Tan and for all the right reasons. I've bashed Long before, mostly on the strength of his mediocrity last season with FC Tampa Bay. But he actually showed me something in this game: the kid has a dandy first touch and handles the ball far better than I expected. He showed good aggression towards goal and was a bit of a diver but a clever one. I'd say that he was far more effective than MLS veteran Atiba Harris on the night; Harris was full of energy and vigour but ultimately ineffective.
I was not surprised by Alain Rochat, and I mean that in the best way. I was expecting a lot from Rochat and he gave it to me: he may have been my Whitecaps' man of the match. Rochat had all the ball skills and defensive awareness I expected, essentially rendering the left side a no-go zone for Portland forwards when he was in position. But he also showed a pleasantly surprising physical edge and was unafraid to grab onto an attacking player, slide low, or get into the shoving matches that are so typical of MLS. We worry about Rochat adjusting from the more technical Swiss league, but I'm a lot less worried now. And when he tried to turn the ball up field his passes were accurate and he was more than capable of beating midfielders off the dribble. Magnificent. Unfortunately, Rochat seemed to injure his ankle slightly late in the game and came out, walking under his own power but with a distinct limp.
I liked my first look of John Thorrington as a Vancouver Whitecap. He's a little chap but full of energy, and zipping up and down the pitch like a bee he played some beautiful little passes. Thorrington also took many of the Whitecaps' free kicks, and a couple of them were dangerous. He and Terry Dunfield were a potent combination: Thorrington was the skill and Dunfield was the muscle, although of course Dunfield's a sublime passer himself. I think Thorrington may have had the better of central midfield in this game but they were both good.
We're used to berating the Whitecaps' strikers, and Harris in particular struggled with his finishing. But the real problem was that the Whitecaps back eight weren't on the same page as the front two. Passes for Harris or Tan constantly ran long, or caught the player cutting left as the pass went right. It was pre-season and the lack of chemistry showed. The Whitecaps were at their best when the midfielders, particularly Blake Wagner and Wes Knight on the wings, charged forward and took care of business themselves rather than trying to knock it on to the forwards in the time-honoured fashion. With a bit more familiarity, the team would have been fine but they're simply not ready to connect at game speed yet.
It wasn't all positive. I'd be remiss if I didn't look at Portland's goal, which was a howler by poor Jay Nolly. A harmless little shot from the left-hand side that Nolly completely bobbled and couldn't hold onto. The ball bounced to Ryan Pore who slotted it away, and Portland was up 1-0. Luckily, the Whitecaps got one back with a bit of stink to it: when Blake Wagner rifled a ferocious shot that was deflected away by hefty Timbers goalkeeper Adin Brown. But as David Horst tried to control it, Long Tan thundered in to try and force the ball away and it took an awkward hop for an own goal.
In general, the Timbers defenders had a slight advantage over our forwards in both speed and strength. Harris, Tan, and later Camilo da Silva Sanvezzo managed to get half-chances by stripping the ball away from a Portland defender; they're not the most technically talented lot. But they were quick and they were strong and that was enough to neutralize a lot of what the Whitecaps had to offer. Meanwhile, while Jay DeMerit and Alain Rochat looked fine on defense, Jonathan Leathers seemed a bit lost at times and Greg Janicki just barely held on; he was getting run around badly and avoided conceding good chances only by luck, strength, and positioning.
And one last note; a bit of hope for the future. Omar Salgado had a very brief appearance, coming in at the eigthy-fourth minute. And in the approximately ten minutes he played, I could see what all the fuss is about. Yes, he is that tall, and he is that fast, and his touch on the ball is better than is fair for any 17-year-old with that body and that speed. I hope he gets into the Seattle game so I can have a better look, because what I saw was a phenomenon.