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Match Report: If 2020 Were an MLS Match

There was a lot going on today beyond the scoreline of a 4-3 Whitecaps loss to San Jose. A lot.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC v San Jose Earthquakes - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

After a four month layoff, it wasn’t hard to be excited about today’s match, but the return to the pitch for the Vancouver Whitecaps made for an outcome arguably unique to MLS, albeit fitting to the tumult of 2020, as the ‘Caps could not hold off the San Jose Earthquakes, eventually falling 4-3.

This wasn’t just your regular irregular game, where a multi-goal lead was ultimately overcome after ten minutes of stoppage time. Instead, we were given nearly an entire day of events that none of us could have imagined back when the 2020 MLS season first began.

With this being Vancouver’s first match in the MLS is Back tournament, it’s worth noting that both teams took the field fully masked as part of the COVID-19 bubble precautions. And as other clubs had already done through the tournament, each Whitecap entered the pitch with a personal statement related to social justice written at the base of their respective jerseys, giving a voice to the forgotten, the fallen, and the innocent.

Taking the pitch fully masked, the starting players for both teams formed around the center circle, taking a knee and raising a fist in support of Black Lives Matter and the continuing fight against racial and social injustices:

Last but by no means least was the tribute paid to current Whitecap and former Earthquake keeper Bryan Meredith, who returned home earlier this week following the unexpected passing of his mother:

So, yeah, there was a lot going on, and we haven’t even started on the match.

For the lineups, it was already well-known that the Whitecaps would have a significantly shorter bench. None of Fredy Montero, Lucas Cavallini, Tosaint Ricketts, Andy Rose, or Georges Mukumbilwa made the trip to Orlando, so there was certainly going to be questions as to who Marc Dos Santos would be starting Wednesday night.

But thanks to the unexpected bitcoin hack/lockdown of verified accounts on Twitter, the announcement of each club’s Starting XI came from unexpected, potentially specious but ultimately accurate sources. First, Vancouver’s came from an anonymous VWFC intern...

...which led to the eventual reveal that preseason signee Janio Bikel was unavailable (and will most likely miss the whole tournament) due to a left adductor strain, while Erik Godoy was also out with an injured left quad.

In Godoy’s place was Ranko Veselinovic, making his first start for the Whitecaps since his loan to the club in February.

And after being named to the Starting XI, today’s match also marked the 200th MLS appearance of the Whitecaps’ Russell Teibert!

Meanwhile, San Jose’s eleven came from an apparent fan account of a Matias Almeyda bobblehead:

The real Almeyda’s Earthquakes hit the Orlando turf with the same Starting XI that drew MLS Cup holders Seattle last Friday, and quickly put Vancouver on their heels, getting upfield early and often while keeping the Whitecaps penned in their own end.

While San Jose looked calm controlling the ball, Vancouver was effectively skittish, seemingly comfortable in conceding possession with an assumption that they could dispossess and counter.

That reeks of Robbo Ball of years’ passed, but in the 7th minute it proved fruitful:

Hwang In-beom gathered a sloppy touch from Cristian Espinoza and fed Ali Adnan along the wing, who cut inside Guram Kashia and rifled a fantastic shot far post past Daniel Vega before Oswaldo Alanis could close him down. 1-0 ‘Caps.

Despite the deficit, the Earthquakes went right back to work, constantly gaining possession and working their way into the final third, only to forced the Whitecaps into conceding five early corners.

That fifth corner, however...

What you just saw was Cristian Dajome pickpocketing Judson and sending Yordy Reyna on a sixty yard breakaway, as all ten of San Jose’s outfielders were committed to selling their fifth short-corner.

At the end of his run, the Peruvian striker attempted to lay a pass back, but rather than having the ball find its way back to Dajome, the backtracking Judson, in an attempt to make up for the lost possession, sprinted sixty-five yards to intercept the pass and redirect it into his own net.

Suffice to say...

But by God were we laughing way too early, and far too often.

In spite of everything, including my theory that these shortcoming were due to Alymeda’s shorn scalp, going from Samson to Walter White earlier this spring, the Earthquakes stuck to their game plan and pulled one back just before half.

On their ELEVENTH! short corner of the first half, Magnus Eriksson found a relatively unmarked Andres Rios at the corner of the six, who flicked to the far post one of the most nonchalant goals you’ll ever see:

Fittingly cold as ice, as the Whitecaps looked absolutely frozen in their zonal defense. Overall they had to be confused, but ultimately grateful, to finish the first half with a 2-1 lead born from a single shot on target and a heatmap straight out of 2019:

And that’s when things got weird, which is saying something for a men’s professional soccer tournament taking place in mid-summer Florida during a pandemic.

Following a brief spell of decent possession for the Whitecaps to open the second half, Adnan drew the first yellow card of the match, getting hit in the head by a ball thrown at him by Espinoza. If I had a gif for that one I’d show it to you.

Three minutes later, SJ keeper Vega gave Vancouver back its two-goal cushion when he severely underhit a ball played across to Kashia on the wing:

David Milinkovic intercepted the gently crossed ball and laid back Dajome who buried from the center to make it 3-1.

San Jose certainly needed to do something besides gift goals to Vancouver and in true Solskjærian fashion, Almeyda nearly made a full line-change, making four subs in the 63rd minute.

Leaving the pitch were Judson, Nick Lima, Tommy Thompson, and Valeri Qazaishvili, for Chris Wondolowski, Shea Salinas, Carlos Fierro, and Danny Hoesen, respectively.

Over the next nine minutes, San Jose kept up the possession, taking whatever space Vancouver was willing to concede, only for Wondo to score what may be the most Wondoest of all his 160 career MLS goals:

After a deflected Hoesen cross looped into the air, the slightest of Wondolowski follicles flicked the ball on to Fierro, only for the forward to completely whiff on his finish, leaving the ball to bound past a hesitant Max Crepeau and into the net.

With the Quakes holding all the possession, the Whitecaps’ 3-2 lead was tenuous. The substitution of Reyna for Ryan Raposo did little to change things before Jasser Khmiri drew a yellow for a big tackle on Rios, going through the ball before absolutely clattering the man.

In the 81st minute, with the Quakes maintaining the better play despite possession being relatively even, Theo Bair came on for Dajome just before this happened...

On the Earthquakes’ EIGHTEENTH! corner of the match (they finished with twenty-two...), Eriksson picked out Alanis on the edge of the six, climbing over Khmiri to equalize.

But, wait: there’s more!

Almeyda made his final sub in the 87th minute, swapping Paul Marie for Espinoza shortly before the final Whitecaps substitution, necessitated by what appeared to be a Leonard Owusu hamstring injury at the 90+1’ mark.

Two noteworthy points for this substitution, the first being the MLS debut of homegrown player Patrick Metcalfe for Vancouver.

The second, however, was the realization that Dos Santos, in making only three subs at three intervals during the match, would opting to not make use of all five substitutions afforded the team in matches during the tournament.

It’s possible that two fresher legs may have helped during the 9 minutes of added injury time, as hindsight always makes for a guessing game of “What Could Have Been?”, but I doubt that any of the two players left on the bench could have done worse this:

Yes, that’s former Whitecap Shea Salinas, the right-footed Messi of Lubbock, TX, taking the ball from just inside center, outpacing Metcalfe, cutting inside Khmiri, controlling a favorable bounce off Veselinovic, and sliding a shot under Crepeau for the game winning goal, that some jackass foretold, in the 98th minute.

Though the Whitecaps did have a last gasp free kick, following a fairly ridiculous shove of Adnan from Fierro along the left wing, nothing came of it as San Jose pulled off the 4-3 comeback.

This game was Hot Rod’s never-ending roll down a hill.

This game was what happens when you mainline detergent.

This game wants to know how much bitcoin you have to offer.

This game’s long term financial plan was to buy one hundred lottery tickets.

This game was the entire last season of Game of Thrones if it had How I Met Your Mother’s ending.

It was exhilarating and exhausting and entirely appropriate for a league-wide, Florida-based soccer tournament taking place during a pandemic. Perfectly fitting for “the greatest rivalry in league history.”