In what would have been a fantastic, early season test of mettle, the Vancouver Whitecaps were never able to recover from an early and absolutely arguable red card to Kendall Waston, falling 4-1 away to Atlanta United.
VANCOUVER: Marinovic; Aja, Waston, Maund; Nerwinski, Juárez, Felipe, Mutch, Davies; Mezquida, Blondell.
The Whitecaps’ second away game on the trot started with a look far different than the first. Rather than replicate last week’s successful 4-1-4-1 formation, or even his battle-worn 4-2-3-1, Carl Robinson penned the 3-5-2 formation that was mere murmurs before the start of the season.
As a result, newcomers Jose Aja, Jordan Mutch, and Anthony Blondell all received their first starts as Vancouver Whitecaps, in place of Marcel de Jong, Russell Teibert, and Kei Kamara, respectively. As well, Nicolas Mezquida was included in the Starting XI for the first time this season, in place of Yordy Reyna.
ATLANTA: Guzan; Escobar, Parkhurst, González-Pirez; Gressel, Nagbe, Larentowicz, McCann; Almiron; Villalba, Martínez.
For Atlanta, there was only one change to the lineup from last week’s home win over D.C. United, with Chris McCann coming in for Greg Garza.
With Atlanta’s reputation as a hard-attacking, the game began rather predictably, with United attacking the flanks as often as possible, though never placing any truly threatening shots on net, with Vancouver doing its thing, waiting for an opportunity to counterattack.
And then, well, the 8th minute happened.
Following a free kick along Atlanta’s attacking left side, referee Ismail Elfath allowed play to run its course, only stopping play when he realized Leandro González Pirez was still on the turf (by way of a Stefan Marinovic rebound striking the fallen player in the side).
It appeared that Elfath was contacted by the VAR, Juan Guzman Jr. (son of the former Toronto Blue Jay???), with an instruction to review the play. After five minutes of decision making, this happened:
Elfath returns from the replay screen to indicate that a penalty will be awarded and as Waston turns his back to applaud sarcastically, Elfath pulls out his double-edged sword and awards Waston a red card, for an elbow to the head of Pirez.
Now, I can spend a LOT of time arguing the validity of the decision, whether all the penalties were warranted, but I can certainly understand the logic behind it all. There was a foul and it was deemed to be a violent one, so a red card and a penalty can potentially be awarded, right?
Please tell me if I’m wrong in the comments, but my understanding was that if a player were fouled under DOGSO circumstances inside the penalty area, the referee can award a penalty or a red card, but not both, unless the foul was a particularly nasty one. At that point, everything is left to the referee’s discretion.
And “discretion” (in this case, I’m referring to the definition of discretion as “opinion,” and absolutely not “subtlety”) is ultimately where the arguments lie.
Was Waston’s elbow intentionally aggressive? Or was it reactionary from Pirez running into him from behind? There are roughly seventeen men jostling for position in the penalty area, so contact is a likelihood. Was Pirez truly struck by an errant elbow? Or did he go looking for something to run into?
For me, I don’t like the PK call, but I get it. Anything excessive in the penalty area can potentially be a penalty. But I don’t like the red card call at all. Maybe it was for striking the opponent in the head, but all that really tells me is that you could potentially do anything to an opponent’s outstretched arm and get away with it.
Yellow card? Maybe. Red card? No way.
Nevertheless, Josef Martinez quickly steps up to his gift and converts for an early 1-0 Atlanta lead:
Amazingly, that would be the only goal the Whitecaps would concede in the first half. Awarding a man advantage to a team like Atlanta, who routinely shred ill-prepared defenses to pieces, should result in a plethora of goals, but most of the team’s attacks were either squandered or stifled.
In fact, Atlanta would finish the match with 21 shots, but only 4 of which were placed on net.
So good on the Whitecaps for seeing it through to half time unscathed, particularly Davies who was forced into helping on the back line for the second week running, with “running” being the optimal word:
The start of the second half saw a change to the Whitecaps’ lineup, with Brek Shea coming in for Mezquida, but little to no difference in how they’d play, as Atlanta continued to press for their second goal.
And in the 58th minute, they’d find it, but not from the foot of a United player:
After an undressing of Juarez, Miguel Almiron’s ball is worked across to Julian Gressel who, strangely, opted to pass rather than shoot. However, if his intent was to have the ball first deflect off Davies, then Maund, and into the net, then good on him.
In spite of the second goal, Vancouver quickly press forward and nearly catch the Atlanta backline napping, as Felipe found Shea on a long ball in behind Michael Parkhurst, with the lanky Texan forcing Brad Guzan into a diving parry.
However, that venture forward for the Whitecaps finally allowed Atlanta to stretch the 10-man team too thin:
Almiron sprung Martinez from center, leaving the Venezuelan with a well-struck finish past Marinovic. And yet, there was no “give up” for the Whitecaps, despite the three goal deficit.
Shortly after his inclusion in the 67th minute, Yordy Reyna made his presence known, to the fans and the woodwork:
But it was Hurtado who found a breakthrough for the blue and white, latching onto a well-struck long ball from Jordan Mutch, carrying in with Parkhurst at his heels, to slot past Guzan:
But as cathartic as it can be to draw a goal back in such a frustrating match, Josef Martinez wasn’t done, finally notching his hat trick in the 88th minute, as he got in behind Nerwinski to head home a cross from sub Andrew Carelton:
After riding high off last week’s away win at a difficult Houston side, Vancouver come crashing back in a loss at Atlanta, 4-1. With the early red card to Waston, we’ll never know if Vancouver could have survived Mercedes-Benz Stadium on an even keel. Nevertheless, at least these weren’t points lost to a rival or a Western Conference side, nor was it a truly squandered opportunity, given the difficulty in playing such a tough opponent at such a lively venue.
The next test, however, will be to see how well the Whitecaps react to what’s ultimately a turd of a result (and the means in which they got there), when they return home to host the LA Galaxy next Saturday night at BC Place.