SEATTLE, WA - On a gloomy night at CenturyLink Field the Vancouver Whitecaps played the game of the season against the Seattle Sounders to defeat their high-flying neighbours from Middle Cascadia and win a record fifth Cascadia Cup.
It was a memorable victory, but one that had to be earned by the Caps, who needed to win tonight not only to bring the Cup back to Vancouver for another year, but to keep pace with the Portland Timbers for the final playoff berth in the MLS Western Conference.
The match started with an initial feeling out period in which the two clubs produced few quality chances, but both sides traded long range attempts that failed to test either David Ousted or Stefan Frei.
Seattle forward Clint Dempsey found himself in the thick of the action and drew a couple of fouls which resulted in a pair of free kicks for the hosts. Matias Laba did a poor job of timing his tackle and hacked down the surging Dempsey. Laba was was not rewarded with a card for his challenge, and fortunately the Sounders were not able to take advantage of the ensuing free kick.
The two clubs then exchanged several quality scoring chances. Firstly, Vancouver's Steven Beitashour did well to block a shot from a wide open Obafemi Martins and sent it out of play for a Seattle corner.
Next it was Vancouver's turn as the Caps quickly countered with the speedy Kekuta Manneh. The youngster cut in from the the left side and then used some fancy footwork to make some space for himself, but his low shot was stopped by Frei and turned behind for a corner kick.
With just over five minutes remaining in the first half the Sounders began to press a little more in search of the match's first goal. The Whitecaps' defense continued to hold, but conceded a corner kick. The ball was swung back into play and was initially cleared by the Whitecaps, but then Manneh turned possession over far too easily just outside his own 18-yard box and forced Pedro Morales to put the ball out of play for yet another Seattle corner kick.
Just before half time Manneh found himself on the wrong end of Martin's studs and crumbled to the turf in pain. The youngster required several minutes of medical attention before he was able to resume play.
Upon returning to pitch Manneh raced onto a beautifully weighted pass from Morales. Once again Kekuta cut in from the left side and put a beautiful move on Seattle's Chad Marshall, which left the defender completely tied in knots. Manneh was not to be denied for a second time and calmly placed shot between Frei's legs to score the only goal of the match on the stroke of half time.
Sadly the injury Manneh received care of Oba's studs meant that the young Gambian was unable to continue in the match and was replaced by Kianz Froese at the start of the second half. Froese, who is a product of the Whitecaps' youth system, drew into the squad due to the absences of Sebastian Fernandez and Darren Mattocks, who were not available tonight because of suspension and international duty respectively.
Froese was immediately found himself in the heat of the battle, and dished out several crunching tackles in the process. It was an impressive performance by the 18-year old midfielder, who certainly did not look out of place in such an important match.
As the match progressed the Sounders were forced to push for an equalizer and the game became a little scrappy at times. Morales was forced to leave the match in the 80th minute due to cramp, but his injury was overlooked by referee Jair Marrufo for a prolonged period of time. Eventually our Chilean Maestro was replaced by Nicolas Mezquida for the remainder of the match.
The Whitecaps defense proved to be resilient in the face of almost non-stop Seattle attacks in the dying minutes of the match. Every time the Sounders played the ball into the Caps' 18-yard box Kendall Waston rose up from the mass of bodies to head or clear the ball out of the danger zone.
Just before the match entered into second half injury time the Caps had a bit of a scare when Martins, on a play that can't be seen as anything other than a deliberate foul, crashed into Ousted, and sent the big Dane to the turf in a heap.
Vancouver managed to stand firm during a frantic extended period of stoppage time and managed to win the match by the narrowest of margins and in doing so won a record fifth Cascadia Cup.
Extra Time: with the Portland Timbers winning back-to-back matches against the San Jose Earthquakes this past week the Whitecaps also needed to win this match to keep pace for the final playoff spot. With two matches remaining Vancouver is now just a single point ahead of the Timbers.
Vancouver will now close out the season against the Colorado Rapids and the San Jose Earthquakes. Portland, on the other hand, have the tougher schedule as they will first play Real Salt Lake at home and then finish the regular season away to FC Dallas.
The playoff race will go down to the wire, and at least on paper the Whitecaps have the "easier" schedule than the Timbers, but we can worry about that again tomorrow. While there is still a lot of work left to do this season we have reason to celebrate tonight - we are Kings of Cascadia and that is something. In fact it's something very important.
So go and celebrate and be proud of what our team accomplished tonight against all the odds. The Whitecaps went into hostile territory and played a smart and responsible game and came out on the other side as champions. In the past three weeks we have seen the Caps beat teams that are all higher in the standings than they are. They have pulled together, found strength in one another and have found a way to win, and I for one, am very proud of them tonight.
If that doesn't give us reason to be hopeful about making the playoffs then I don't know what will.
Well done, lads.
Man of the Match: Russell Teibert