Following opening weekend, the prevailing narrative around the Vancouver Whitecaps was "a tale of two halves" - the 'Caps came out gangbusters in the first 45 minutes before fading noticeably and surrendering three goals to the visiting Toronto FC. This time around, it was still a tale of two halves as the Blue & White arrived in the Windy City to take on the Chicago Fire, except it was the Whitecaps coming on strong in the second half to snatch a road victory from the jaws of a draw.
Head coach Carl Robinson made one change to Vancouver's starting line-up for the match against Chicago, inserting Sam Adekugbe into the left-back spot in place of Jordan Harvey. More interestingly, Robbo also abandoned his favoured 4-2-3-1 for a more defensive-minded 4-4-1-1, putting Kekuta Manneh and Mauro Rosales alongside Russell Teibert and Matias Laba in midfield with Pedro Morales as an advanced midfielder behind lone striker Octavio Rivero. Personally, I was more shocked by the continuation of the Kendall Waston and Pa Modou Kah partnership from opening day - it would appear Diego Rodriguez is not quite ready for prime time in Robbo's eyes, which is troubling if you're a fan of defenders not conceding penalties or earning yellow cards with worrying regularity.
Despite some choppy, broken play to start the game, Vancouver managed to threaten Chicago first, with Manneh's run along the touchline drawing a yellow card from Matt Polster in only the 3rd minute. Sadly, despite being oh-so-close to the penalty area, Manneh was brought down a half-step outside and Vancouver only came away with a free kick and nothing more.
Not six minutes later, the demon of poor finishing reared its ugly head on a Vancouver counter. Pedro Morales, ever quick with his feet, received the ball after Manneh forced a turnover and the pair took off. The young Gambian looked to have his man beat as the attack raced towards goal but Manneh opted to set up Morales for a clear, uncontested shot just outside the six-yard box. The Chilean promptly hammered the ball a good five metres high, spiking my blood pressure about the same distance. More heart conditions would be tested two minutes later as a Chicago chance ended with a mad scramble in the heart of the Vancouver penalty area that, despite the appeals of the fans for a penalty (non-existent on replay), mercifully came to nothing.
As the game touched the 20-minute mark, Manneh again got himself into a prime scoring position, this time thanks to a scuffy cross from Mauro Rosales. With a defender onrushing, did Manneh shoot? Nope. This time, he tried to set up Rivero on the far post but "El Cabeza" was a half-step late and couldn't connect. Look, I'm all for good team-play and buildup. When that doesn't produce results, somebody has to be the Greedy Gus to start pulling the trigger and force saves out of the goalkeeper. That needs to be Manneh. Shortly afterwards, Waston got himself booked for an arm to the face of Quincy Amarikwa well away from goal. This would lead to a sequence of play much closer to the Vancouver goal, forcing a fine toe save out of David Ousted from a wide-open Joevin Jones. Paging Steven Beitashour - that's your area of the park. Please defend it.
Finally, at the 38-minute mark - after a long stretch of Chicago dominance and chances, most notably cause by exposing Vancouver's flanks with alarming ease - Manneh showed signs of attacking instinct and fired off two chances on Jon Busch. The first had pace and forced a save out of the Chicago goalkeeper (albeit an easy one) and the second, after some scrambly play, was an easy roller for Busch to claim.
With only a few minutes to go before halftime, Rosales found himself the recipient of a thumping Lovel Palmer challenge and went down in a heap. Referee Fotis Bozakos saw no foul and allowed play to continue, forcing the Whitecaps to send the ball into touch to allow Rosales to receive medical attention. Foul or no, the injury was real enough - a sprained ankle, according to the TSN broadcast - to end Rosales' day. On that sour note, the half wound down and left the score at 0-0. Chicago had the edge in possession (57%), shots (9), shots on target (3) and corners (4), reflecting just how much their game improved once they figured out where to hit the 'Caps and hurt them:
Mauro Rosales' ankles the flanks. Ousted had done his part to keep the team in the game but he'd need more than a little support on the attack if things were to improve.
The second half began with Nicolas Mezquida coming into the match to replace Rosales. Strangely, this seemed to give Beitashour the impression that now was the time to begin rampaging up the flanks. While it certainly looked good, it didn't provide any early chances of note. The same goes for Adekugbe, who turned on the jets at one point to completely leave his man in the dust to earn a deep throw and, sadly, nothing more. As the half wore on, this tendency to advance showed up less and less in order to focus on shoring up the defense. I'm fine with that - addressing your weaknesses is far preferable in a road match than attempting to exploit your strengths without being caught.
In the 58th minute, Ousted gave us a brief scare as he introduced himself to Amarikwa's cleats with a brave challenge to claim the ball against the onrushing Chicago forward. While the Vancouver defence indicated in no uncertain terms their displeasure with the challenge, Ousted picked himself up and was fine to continue his stellar defense of the goal. Five minutes later, Mezquida had arguably the best chance of the match after being sprung with a beautiful long ball along the deck by Manneh, who had to shrug off a challenge to retain possesion. Mezquida bore down on goal from the right but his shot wasn't accurate or powerful enough to beat the arm of Busch. I have to imagine somebody, probably Ousted, shouted to the team in general, "He's willing to take cleats to the face - cleats to the face - to keep us in the game! What are you [expletive]s doing?!"
Mezquida would be involved in another great chance in the 71st minute, after receiving a nice ball from Rivero on the counter. Mezquida withstood a challenge, opting not to go to ground - had he done so, there's a fair argument to be made he would've earned either a free kick or a penalty, depending on where he fell - and managed to pry the ball free of the onrushing Busch. Sadly, Mezquida's sharp-angle shot would go the wrong side of the post and only find the side netting. Two minutes later, Mezquida returned to favour to Rivero on another quick counter and sent his countryman through on goal with another lovely ball only to get the same result: one shot, not on target - and in Rivero's case, off target by a large margin. In a final bitter twist, Mezquida earned himself a yellow shortly thereafter for a clumsy challenge (officially listed as "Dissent") from behind. Not to be outdone, Rivero also was shown the yellow card for diving(!) in the 81st minute after he went to ground in the penalty area. Look, I love a speedy counter-attack as much as the next soccer fan but at some point there has to be a result for all that effort other than scuffed chances. At the very least, the 'Caps need to be drawing fouls, not conceding them.
Thankfully, all that effort would earn the visitors a goal in the 86th minute. With the 'Caps sending numbers forward, Morales sent a cross to the far post. It was met not by a Whitecap but by a Fire, with Lovel Palmer heading the bar away... but only as far as Beitashour right in front of goal. The fullback took a touch, remembered he's not a striker, sent a simple pass across the face of goal to Rivero - a striker! - who calmly buried the ball for, if you can believe it, the first Vancouver goal in Chicago in their MLS history. As Tychus Findlay might say, "Hell, it's about time." 1-0 for the good guys on the road - how often do we get to say that? (Answer: not often enough.)
From there, it was shut-the-game-down time with Gershon Koffie entering the game for Pedro Morales and everyone on time-wasting duty. Darren Mattocks, who had entered the game earlier for Kekuta Manneh, wisely killed some time at the corner flag. Beitashour, who will have made everyone forget how abysmally he defended this game with that assist, rolled a slow ball deep for a throw. Rivero, as one does, milked an injury. This seemed to aggravate the Fire, who took out their frustrations via Kennedy Igboananike slicing down Adekugbe in the 96th minute, earning himself a yellow and Adekugbe the worry of an entire fanbase as the young fullback initially called for the bench immediately after going down. Thankfully, the rising CanMNT star walked off the injury and finished the game, as did his teammates with a 1-0 road victory.
So, what do we take away from this match? A few things:
- Rivero can score - two goals in two games proves that. I'm more concerned about the high number of whiffs that didn't result in goals. That he's getting the chances is good; that he's only really threatening and/or scoring once or twice a game isn't so good.
- Sam Adekugbe proved beyond a shadow of a doubt he's ready to challenge Jordan Harvey for that starting spot. Next question: can someone challenge Steven Beitashour? That's two matches in a row of sub-par defensive effort from the formerly unshakeable right-back. Is it Ethen Sampson's time to shine?
- I mentioned in the comments section last match that Mauro Rosales looked slow to me against Toronto FC. Against the Fire, Rosales looked more like his old self until the injury. Then Nicolas Mezquida came on, looked like Mauro Rosales circa 2012 and I found myself not caring how long Rosales needs to recover from his reported ankle sprain. We have his replacement ready to go.
- To emphasize: Rivero + Mezquida = stuff happens. We saw it in preseason and we saw it tonight. I'd like to see more, please.
6' - (VAN) Octavio Rivero (Steven Beitashour)
4' - (CHI) Matt Polster
22' - (VAN) Kendall Waston
66' - (VAN) Pedro Morales
76' - (VAN) Nicolás Mezquida
82' - (VAN) Octavio Rivero
90'+6' - (CHI) Kennedy Igboananike
45'+2' (VAN) Nicolás Mezquida for Mauro Rosales
59' (CHI) Kennedy Igboananike for Matt Polster
76' (CHI) Guly for Quincy Amarikwa
82' (VAN) Darren Mattocks for Kekuta Manneh
82' (CHI) Alex for Michael Stephens
88' (VAN) Gershon Koffie for Pedro Morales