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Timbers fell Vancouver, Whitecaps fall to third

After opening the scoring through a Kendall Waston header, the ‘Caps ultimately fall to Portland 2-1, and into the MLS Cup Knockout Round

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday afternoon, the Vancouver Whitecaps had a second chance to clinch the club’s first Western Conference title, after failing to do so at home last week against San Jose. To win the conference outright, the ‘Caps needed at least a draw against a Portland Timbers side that had gone 7-1-2 in their last ten matches.

Despite taking the lead off a Kendall Waston header in the 29th minute, the Whitecaps could not answer the Portland attack, as the host Timbers rallied with unanswered goals from Liam Ridgewell and Darren Mattocks to take the match, the Western Conference title, and the Cascadia Cup, all in one fell swoop.

Carl Robinson fielded a side with four changes to his starting line-up from last week’s draw against the Earthquakes:

Starting XI: Marinovic; Nerwinski, Waston, Parker, Harvey; Ghazal, Igiebor; Ibini, Reyna, Bolanos; Shea.

Christian Bolanos and Bernie Ibini came in for Cristian Techera and Fredy Montero, which initially pushed Brek Shea to the top of the formation. On the back line, Jordan Harvey started at left back in place of Marcel de Jong. Finally, late season signee Nosa Igiebor made his first MLS start & appearance, replacing Tony Tchani alongside Aly Ghazal in the defensive midfield.

If the intent of the Whitecaps for this match was to pay close attention to Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri, the opening minute certainly indicated as such, with Aly Ghazal quickly making a mark on the Argetine’s foot for an immediate free kick.

From that point onward, the Timbers would hold a majority of the possession, though their efforts on net came with no immediate result. Similarly, most, if not all, of the Whitecaps' early possession would begin with a quick jaunt into the attacking third, only to be resolutely met by a stern Portland backline.

That isn't to say Vancouver's defenders did not also have a strong start, as the ‘Caps back six did well to step-up and disrupt the Timbers’ pressing passes.

But despite such positive defending on both sides, and the blue-and-white’s touch in the attacking third being relatively non-existent, particularly compared to that of Portland, it was quite surprising to see the Whitecaps open the scoring in the 29th minute:

Following a David Guzman foul on Bolanos, Yordy Reyna floated his free kick into the Portland penalty area, right into the path of Kendall Waston, who shook his marker and redirected the ball into the net for a 1-0 lead.

A lead, mind you, that lasted all of three minutes:

Following a free kick that looked eerily identical in distance to the one the Whitecaps had minutes earlier, a resulting corner kick bounded across the penalty area to the lurking Darlington Nagbe. The winger curled a shot back at the goal mouth, only to have the keeper Marinovic parry the ball directly into the path of a out-stretched Liam Ridgewell, who's lunging volley levelled the match at one apiece.

Knowing that a tie won’t be enough to win the Western Conference, let alone the Cascadia Cup (as Portland needed a win over Vancouver to hoist the supporter’s silverware), Portland maintained the momentum off their equalizer to close out the half with six(!) more efforts on net.

Thankfully, a number of those shots skied over the net or, in one specific instance at the close of the half, cleared off the line by Jake Nerwinski:

If anything, the halftime scoreline could have had the Timbers up by one or two. The Whitecaps defense were able to weather any general attack on net, but whenever their counterattack fizzled, Portland’s counter-to-the-counter appeared far more intense and dangerous, with the only shared quality of each team being the lack of finishing.

In stark contrast to the scramble that closed the first half, Portland came out of the restart with a composure that promptly earned them a 2-1 lead:

The play began with Nagbe carrying the ball to the center of the pitch, and somehow taking five defenders with him. Once Blanco was able to control & carry the laid-off pass, he found a wide open Vytas, whose positioning drew Marinovic well out of his net. Rather than finish the attack himself, the defender instead slides a pass back to (who else?) Darren Mattocks, who finishes the goal by slotting between Parker and Waston.

The play itself was far more composed than how the first half ended, but I’m more confused by this:

With the team holding onto a 1-1 tie that will earn them a bye in the first round of the playoffs, how can a mark be left that wide open?

I suppose that perhaps Nerwinski should not have followed Valeri across the box as Nagbe gained the area, but why is Bolanos so far up the pitch? We’re less than three minutes removed from the restart, so it may not feel like there’s no immediate need for the type of gritty defending often found in teams holding for a result, but this just comes across as far too lackadaisical when first place is on the line.

Now behind a goal, it was up to the Whitecaps to take the match to Portland. Fredy Montero’s entrance into the match in the 56th minute, replacing Bernie Ibini, marked a slight uptick in possession for Vancouver over the fifteen minutes that followed.

However, the only real threats on net were this Jordan Harvey effort, smothered by Jeff Attinella...

...and this Brek Shea shot from outside the area:

In the 67th minute, Bolanos made way for Crisitian Techera, with a cramping Nosa soon to follow, being replaced by Erik Hurtado. To Nosa’s credit, he performed well in his first MLS match:

With the last of his three substitutions made, Carl Robinson’s side seemed to fall back into a pattern of waiting to gain possession and make the most of the ensuing breakout, where the difficulty continued to be penetrating the Portland back four.

For example, Waston rose well on an 85th minute free kick to head the ball into the six, then come back around for a second chance after Shea collected the clearance, but each attempt was well met by the Portland defense:

To their credit, the Whitecaps kept up the fight well into the five minutes of added time, but were ultimately chasing a Portland team that were effectively countering the Whitecaps regular counterattack style.

With all of today’s MLS matches in the books, the Whitecaps find themselves in third in the Western Conference. To say the least, the Whitecaps’ final placement in the standings is a far cry from the expected twentieth-place finish granted the club at the start of the season.

And yet there’s reason to be disappointed after the team could not follow through on two chances to win their first conference title and a first-round bye in the playoffs, falling in the standings behind rivals Portland and Seattle, no less.

The Whitecaps have certainly defied expectations, but they’re now left with a first-round knockout match against the same San Jose side that earned a draw in Vancouver last week.

But ignore the draw, their 10-man loss to the Earthquakes in March, or how the Whitecaps are going up against a side with a -21 goal differential. The focus now needs to be on winning, and nothing less, if the Whitecaps are to have any chance at lifting the MLS Cup.

And for the blue-and-white, that starts in Vancouver in three days.