Coming into the last group stage match of the MLS is Back Tournament, the Whitecaps knew exactly what they needed to do to have a chance at advancing. A win for Vancouver by a scoreline of 2-0 or greater would have done the job, with results elsewhere having lined up for that to be the case. Marc Dos Santos’ game plan was an interesting one to say the least, giving the first MLS starts to two players.
Waking you up with a surprise...— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) July 23, 2020
It's our 5-3-2.#VWFC #CHIvVAN pic.twitter.com/9KzKhfpAfO
While many could call into question starting Jasser Khmiri after two middling and controversial performances in a ‘Caps shirt, the extra defensive support was put in place to provide adequate cover for Thomas Hasal, who took over Vancouver’s number one spot in the place of the injured Maxime Crepeau.
Chicago Fire meanwhile, lined up knowing that even a draw could get them through.
Playing for our place in the last 16.— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) July 23, 2020
Right after kickoff, it seemed that it would be the same dour affair from the Whitecaps, with possession being given to the Fire in a seemingly endless barrage of attacks while the ‘Caps just weren’t able to find any creativity in the final third.
A goal line clearance by longtime servant Russel Teibert in the third minute kept the Whitecaps from having to climb an even more fearsome lead, and Rusty generally put in a good shift both in attack and defense, tracking back hard but also creating a small opportunity right before the tenth minute.
Perennial tournament whipping boy Jasser Khmiri made some questionable defensive moves, and after a particularly bad missed tackle, Thomas Hassal was forced to make a quick double save, punching out the fist and catching the rebound which came from a header.
That must have inspired the newly capped keeper, who went out of his box to attempt a Van Persie-esque diving header to stop a Robert Beric run. Unlike Van Persie though, Hasal completely missed the ball, and Beric had the goal in front of him, luckily ending up offside after all was said and done.
The next play of note was an impressive bicycle pass by Owusu in the 35th minute, which unfortunately caught Raposo offside.
That would basically define all of the attacking plays which the ‘Caps made in the first half except for a single blasted shot by Hwang In Beom in the 41st minute that soared high above the crossbar.
In the play that followed, Chicago Fire launched an attack that looked dangerous, with Jonathan Bornstein playing in a grounded cross to Robert Beric who was unguarded in the box, but was intercepted by a confident dive from Hasal.
Big stop from the kid#VWFC #CHIvVAN pic.twitter.com/fCISGa8beM— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) July 23, 2020
Soon after that, Khmiri was substituted off for Christian Dajome to landing incorrectly on his left knee, and the ‘Caps switched to a 4-4-2 formation, and maybe this could have been the catalyst to what happened later in the match.
At halftime, the score was 0-0 and it didn’t look like the Whitecaps were close to achieving what seemed to be the impossible task of scoring two unanswered goals.
When the game resumed, the Whitecaps began attacking marginally better, although it was broken up by Hasal being forced to make a dive after he gave the ball away in an errant pass.
In the fifty first minute, Dajome was battling with a defender in the box and was knocked down cleanly, leaving the ball rolling which Raposo got to but managed not to take advantage of, as he took to much time to make a move and was quickly dispossessed.
This is probably what inspired his substitution in the fifty seventh minute, wherein Yordy Reyna came in for the ‘Caps’ 2020 draft pick, as he looked pretty anonymous in his time on the field.
A running save by Hasal was the last of the interesting plays before a stoppage which swapped out Theo Bair for Christian Gutierrez and Owusu for David Milinkovic seemingly promising a more attacking lineup of ‘Caps players, with Dajome, Reyna, and Milinkovic now on the field.
Unfortunately, they had less than a minute to play with their new players as lightning storms in the distance forced the game to suspend due to weather conditions.
Whatever Marc Dos Santos told those players in the hour and a half that the game was suspended for, must have been something magical, because against all odds, the Whitecaps looked like a completely different team coming out of the new resumption point of 9:05am PST.
Less than five minutes in, and Ali Adnan served Yordy Reyna with a through ball, and which, in classic Reyna fashion, he dibbled past defenders and rounded the keepers for an easy slot into the right side of the Chicago net.
Lovely, isn't it?#VWFC #CHIvVAN pic.twitter.com/MCO4j0p24F— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) July 23, 2020
The Fire were stunned, but knew that they were still in it, so they kept pushing forwards and forced Hasal to make some more saves.
But again, less than ten minutes after the first, Reyna had the chance to return the through ball favor by lobbing a high ball over two Chicago defenders and into the path of Dajome, who scored a goal of his own.
Oh baby #VWFC #CHIvVAN pic.twitter.com/Zuf89zYpLc— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) July 23, 2020
Suddenly the Whitecaps found themselves in a position which they were familiar to in this tournament, a two goal lead with 20 minutes to go. Would they hang on, even with missing key players and being plagued by injuries every game, or would they collapse under the pressure much like they did against San Jose on their first matchday? The margin of error sure didn’t allow for anything to even go a centimetre off of plan, lest the Whitecaps prove their detractors right.
Luckily things went well, and many positive attacks and defensive plays were had.
CJ Sapong threatened to spoil the party following a shot rebounding off of the Vancouver crossbar and into the air, where a scuffle ensued between him and two defenders that ended with a ball in the back of the Whitecaps net, but the goal was called off due to it hitting Sapong’s hand before going in. That was as heart wrenching as it got for the Whitecaps for the rest of the match, and they managed to keep Chicago at bay until the final whistle blew.
After two frustrating defeats, many people had the Whitecaps written off as the next team eliminated in this competition, including many of the Whitecaps faithful, but it seems that Marc Dos Santos’ unusual strategy worked in the favor of the ‘Caps themselves for one and they were able to grind out a well deserved victory.
This team is far perfect, far from good enough even, but this victory proves that there is something inside of the team, something that can be built upon, no matter how small or shaky the foundation is. It’ll be interesting to see how the ‘Caps carry this positive momentum forwards into their Round of 16 game. How far they’ll go? No one can say, but at the very least one can see that the team has found the fight to claw at it until the end.
The Whitecaps’ next opponent could be either Toronto FC or Sporting Kansas City playing them on July 26th at 5:30 and 8:00 respectively.