There were no signs of slowing down to the Vancouver Whitecaps‘ drive for the MLS Cup playoffs Saturday night. Returning to BC Place off a difficult midweek draw at Houston, Vancouver made out as the most unwelcoming of hosts, turning aside the visiting San Jose Earthquakes in style, 3-0, powered by a Brian white hat trick.
As has been the case since, well, the beginning of the season, the Whitecaps were in need of all three points to climb the table and maintain their chase for the playoffs. A Minnesota draw earlier in the day meant that a win this evening could narrow their gap on seventh to a single point.
Coach Vanni Martini made it clear with the night’s lineup that, unlike the means-to-an end starting eleven fielded Wednesday, there was no intent on ending the day without all the spoils:
Six changes were made to the starting lineup following Wednesday’s draw, with Michael Baldisimo, Janio Bikel, Javain Brown, Lucas Cavallini, Patrick Metcalfe, and Ryan Raposo all making way for Deiber Caicedo, Ryan Gauld, Bruno Gaspar, Florian Jungwirth, Russell Teibert, and Brian White. The formation remained the same, but its composition was quite different.
The Whitecaps were quick to make their mark on the match, taking every bit of space afforded to them by San Jose. Case in point: how often can you say you bore witness to slaloming runs from Jake Nerwinski and Russell Teibert? Players like Gauld and Cristian Dajome were quickly closed down upon, but Nerwinski and Teibert often found themselves with plenty of room to dribble.
It was a wholly reasonable defensive choice for the Quakes to make, to move quickly on players keen to run while giving ample time to those you’d assume would pass first. Doing so, however, would incidentally result in Vancouver’s first shot on goal.
A lengthy carry from Teibert five minutes into the match turned into a cross from the side of the box to Gauld, who’s control-and-volley would fly straight towards JT Marcinkowski. Efforts from Dajome, Caicedo, and White would soon follow, each breezing by the outside of the San Jose goal.
In contrast, the Earthquakes started out by waiting for moments to counterattack, possibly as a means to settle into the match. Doing so did result in earnest attacks as the half wore on, though any breaches of the Vancouver penalty area would usually result in blocked crosses or shots easily within the reach of Max Crepeau.
Ironically, their first shot on target, off a cut inside from Cristian Espinoza placed right at Crepeau, became the impetus for the Whitecaps to build from the back and open the scoring:
Leo Owusu, after having made a nice recovery of the ball in the build-up, found White atop the D, where the ‘Caps striker made a deft layoff to the onrushing Gauld. The resulting shot from the Scot was parried by Marcinkowski straight into the path of White, who made no mistake about punting the ball into the open net.
The Whitecaps would see out the half with no other shots on target, though their consistent disruption of the Earthquake attack would prevent the visitors from getting comfortable. The reset couldn’t come soon enough for San Jose, as half time afforded them time to regroup and open the second forty-five with a renewed sense of belief on the ball. In kind, the Whitecaps would now wait for moments to react rather than continue to press and agitate.
There’s always an inherent danger in letting your opportunity come to you, particularly while holding a slight lead, but that patience proved fruitful for the ‘Caps. An early shot from Dajome rippled the top of the net, but the build-up to the effort was emblematic of the half: let San Jose’s build-up fail, then punish them for being out of position in transition.
White nearly notched his second in the 58th minute, with Gaspar putting the striker through after a bad San Jose back pass. Marcinkowski was up to the challenge on this shot, but White was clearly destined for a second goal:
Rising between Nathan and Shea Salinas, White met a well-placed Caicedo free kick to nod it inside the far post for a 2-0 Whitecaps lead.
From this point on, it was really all about the Earthquakes sending players forward and the Whitecaps turning them away, particularly after San Jose’s four-man line change in the 64th minute. The appearances of Chris Wondolowski, Cade Cowell, Carlos Fierro, and Andy Rios was Matias Almeyda undoubtedly unloading his clip to try and get back in the match.
Incidentally, I’ve never seen so many players leave the far side of the pitch and make that weird walk of shame behind the opposing goal and back to the bench.
But that’s the luxury of sitting on a lead when the opposing attack threatens without being threatening: for example, you end up getting breakaways for Dajome against the run of play and shots for a pressing Gaspar off bad turnovers. Fresh-legged subs Javain Brown (on for Gaspar at 68’) and Tosaint Ricketts (for Caicedo at 71’) only made it all the more tilted in favor of Vancouver.
Did I say White was destined for two? Better make it three:
A third goal, and his second header of the night? Forget Man of the Match; how about Brian White for Player of the Week?
Once the final Vancouver subs were made, with Ryan Raposo, Janio Bikel, and Kam Habibullah respectively in for Gauld, Owusu, and White, the frequency and severity at which Crepeau was tested began to climb, but he was ultimately able to hold on for his fifth, and the team’s sixth, clean sheet of the season.
- This starting eleven was certainly better than the last, a great example of the taste of home cooking vs. eating fast food in the drive-thru. That’s the unflinching life on the road in MLS, but it does speak to how important results at home can be. Vancouver being able to calm down and play their game was incredibly crucial.
- It’s easy to say this about Brain White after the night he had, but it’s equally valid with Florian Jungwirth, as well: they are looking more and more like the savviest mid-season signings the Whitecaps have ever made.
- Bruno Gaspar looked far more comfortable tonight than he had in his previous appearances. He still didn’t go a full ninety, but the effort was a solid one.
- Recall that feeling you get when SKC always seems to thump the Whitecaps? Not only is that how the Earthquakes are unquestionably feeling right now, but it speaks to both having a strong matchup against your opponent and knowing how to expose weaknesses.
- How great is to see every one properly get back in formation on defense? And quickly?
- If you’re San Jose, it sucks to drop points in a playoff chase, but to do it to a team you’re chasing that also has a game in hand? Their season is unofficially over after tonight.
- Going back to White (because how can you not when he was everywhere?), there was a lot of Twitter praise speaking to a number of benchmarks and achievements for the striker. Not that it needs to be asked, but he’s tacked on to start regardless of who’s healthy, right?
- Hey, it’s Kam Habibullah! Jokes aside, it’s great to see the homegrown local make his first appearance at BC Place.
Damn, that felt comfortable, and really makes the unexpected starting lineup that slugged out Wednesday’s draw all the more justified, to get a midweek result before claiming all three points on Saturday. San Jose certainly had their moments, but seldom were forced into tight angles and narrow passing lanes. The Whitecaps defense held its nerve throughout, which resonated all the way up the pitch. Everyone was hustling, the press was there early, miles were taken where inches were given. And once that first goal was secured, after a fine build-up and proper goal-crashing? Everyone remained resolute and patient, waiting for opportunities to attack as they became available.
With all that in mind, next week’s trip down to Seattle will be an entirely different animal. It will be interesting to see if Vanni Sartini can plan for the Sounders the same way Brian Schmetzer always seems to for the Whitecaps.
Tonight’s win leaves Vancouver a single point behind seventh-place Minnesota, who thankfully drew with Dallas earlier in the day. Next week will be a doozy, but am I that crazy to think we have a great shot at sneaking into the playoffs?
And for what it’s worth, dare I say it, but Luis could very well be a prophet:
If by July we have a new coach and number 10 I think we'll make the playoffs— soccer boy (heel) (@Hasslis2ndShirt) June 22, 2021
Then again, let’s see where things stand at the end of the month before we anoint him as the second coming of Nostradamus.