Is there anybody wondering why I've made Terry Dunfield this site's Vancouver Whitecaps poster boy? Why I've given 18-year-old Russell Teibert the nickname "Canadian Soccer Jesus"? Why, even after a dismal loss like last weekend, I can come out practically slobbering over Dunfield's awesomeness?
The Vancouver Whitecaps got a little bit lucky against the Montreal Impact. They dodged a couple close calls, survived a few little mistakes. Montreal managed not to put their game together, as I so feared they would. But the chances weren't going in, and Bill Gaudette was in full-on Bill Gaudette against the Whitecaps mode. We seemed to be doomed to that specialty of the 2010 Vancouver Whitecaps: the impossibly, gut-bustingly frustrating 0-0 draw. There was some great play from up and down the lineup, not many real passengers, but Montreal was just frustrating enough and they were just barely getting enough of the ball...
Then. Russell Teibert gets the ball along the left wing, fairly deep. Terry Dunfield, who really ought to be playing further back except who cares, is up near the top of the goal area. Canadian Soccer Jesus slings in a driven cross, low, and Dunfield (who, remember, busted his face open on Saturday) dives to connect a low header, popping the ball past Gaudette and giving the Whitecaps a 1-0 lead they would not relinquish.
They actually looked a lot like last year's Whitecaps. Except for the goal part. It was like a thunderclap. Like glass breaking and Stone Cold Steve Austin coming in to give the entire city of Montreal a Stunner. It completely upset the narrative, marked this mediocre MLS team as maybe a shade better than last year's slightly-more-than-mediocre NASL team, and of course but the Whitecaps in control of their Voyageurs Cup first-round match.
I keep telling you people. This is a fantastic tournament.
In many ways, of course, this game was a little too typical. Vancouver - Montreal battles in recent years have been close, fiercely fought... and often not good for Vancouver. We drew both Voyageurs Cup matches last year when we needed wins, lost both games of the 2009 league final, stumbled against them in the Voyageurs Cup that year as well... the Montreal Impact have always played the Whitecaps particularly tough.
This match,at first, followed the exact same narrative. The Impact only had a handful of decent chances, almost all of which came in the first half. Jay Nolly was vociferous and effective in goal, the ramshackle Whitecaps defense held together (with even Blake Wagner acquitting himself well), and most of the threats were cleared. Still, there was always that looming possibility of a Montreal breakthrough. Michael Boxall and Alain Rochat seemed to have Big Ali Gerba well in hand, but lots of defenders have said that. The Whitecaps certainly ramped up slowly, but they always had an element of control. Had I been a neutral, I would have been confident the Whitecaps would score eventually; they were sometimes sloppy but completely composed, slowly pushing forward and grinding down the (generally effective) Montreal defense.
A few players, particularly in midfield, stood out for all the right reasons. Russell Teibert was an absolute dynamo on the left wing, slinging in cross after cross and utterly outstripping the Montreal players trying to defend him. Dunfield, goal aside, put in his usual highly effective two-way performance, and Mouloud Akloul was surprisingly useful in central midfield. A big, somewhat quick player with good technical skills, Akloul is an interesting choice as a central midfielder and, I thought, acquitted himself fairly well. While I'd still like to see Akloul at centre back and Rochat returning to left back, I'm willing to give the Akloul-at-midfield experiment a chance.
Still, there were no goals for an awfully long time. The best chance probably went to the Impact not long before half, when Zurab Tsiskaridize corralled a free kick that deflected off a Whitecaps player and unleashed a terrifying shot that beat Jay Nolly cleanly and was a little too close to going in, just ripping the side netting (again, this was Zurab Tsiskaridze, whose offensive inability in Vancouver probably cost him an MLS tryout). The Whitecaps had the advantage in the first half but they didn't have dominance.
The Division Two Whitecaps would not have played a good second half. We've seen it enough times from inconsistent players like Ansu Toure, Justin Moose, Marcus Haber, and yes, Nizar Khalfan. It's almost a Whitecaps tradition, as surely as "White is the Colour" and guys named Lenarduzzi. They'd start forcing the ball, they'd start making mistakes, they'd get a little too individualistic. Most likely we'd end with a 0-0 or a 1-1 draw; perhaps Montreal would snap up a goal on a counter after Vancouver pressed a little too hard and we'd lose 1-0. It's a very old song, and maybe that's why the Whitecaps didn't play it.
Instead, they came out for the second forty-five and shoved the ball down Montreal's throat. They looked like people imagine MLS teams should always look against NASL teams. Attack, attack, attack, and yet with enough poise at the back that, if Montreal got the ball and tried to turn up field with their considerable speed, nothing came of it. It was a joy to watch after the past few weeks of Whitecaps mediocrity. The Impact helped the Whitecaps a little as well, of course; there's no chemistry between the players. Players who should have known better. A veteran like Rocco Placentino would pick on Eric Hassli, push him around, get the ball off him with plenty of time, and whack the ball nowhere in particular. Ali Gerba, who notwithstanding the great work of Rochat and Boxall is still Montreal's most serious threat, was starving at the top of a 4-5-1 without receiving any service whatsoever.
Actually, that 4-5-1 might have been Montreal's biggest error. Marc dos Santos made a big deal before the game of saying how he had Teitur Thordarson's number tactically. Apparently not. Dos Santos must have figured that a five-man midfield would let his team move the ball around well and patiently develop strong attacks, with the wingers moving forward to either score themselves or sling crosses to Gerba. What actually happened was that the ball, when it got to the midfield, was promptly wasted as the superior defense of Dunfield and Akloul shut down anything they tried in the middle. It was amazing to watch. Leo Di Lorenzo, on the right side, is as accomplished an attacking midfielder as there is in the NASL. He had to try and take on Russell Teibert and Blake Wagner on the Whitecaps left, which ought to be just about the easiest thing in the world. But the Whitecaps' dominance of the centre of the field meant that Di Lorenzo hardly ever got the ball as part of an organized push forward. When he did have the chance, he could generally get by Teibert easily enough, had a bit of trouble dealing with Wagner, and then was stuck because he had nowhere else to go: he couldn't cut inside without getting beat by the centre backs and he couldn't pass it off because his teammates were in an even worse position than he was.
Really, with the Whitecaps buzzing and forcing good saves out of the relentless Gaudette, a Vancouver goal was all-but-inevitable. That doesn't mean it wasn't a profound relief when it came, though, when Dunfield headed in Teibert's cross. A winning goal against a Canadian rival in the Canadian championship, made entirely by two Canadians. On a night when Stephen Hart was in the stands at Stade Saputo to scout out future Canadian internationals. It's like something out of bad fiction.
In reality, of course it's very good.
Game Ball: This one goes to Canadian Soccer Jesus, Russell Teibert. Making his return to the lineup for the first time in over two weeks, Teibert played all ninety minutes (which, in itself, is fantastic). But more importantly he was also by far Vancouver's most dangerous attacking player. He pretty much owned the left wing, doing what he saw fit against a pretty good pair of veteran right-side players in Philippe Billy and Luke Kreamalmeyer. If Hassli or Sanvezzo had been on better form, he might have had a few assists. I'd like to see him go for goal a bit more aggressively himself sometimes, but it's hard to complain too much.
Most Disappointing: Davide Chiumiento could not have been less interested in that game. He jogged up and down the right, turned the ball over a lot, barely used his teammates, and probably didn't generate a single chance on his own. I love Chiumiento when he's on his game, but last night demonstrated why he can be as dangerous to the Whitecaps as he can be to the opposition: this time, he just didn't care.
Next Up: The Whitecaps travel to scenic Columbus, Ohio to take on the Crew on Saturday. Kickoff is at 4:30 PM PDT, broadcast live on Rogers Sportsnet One.