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Comeback kids: Vancouver chops down Portland with superlative second half

Come ‘Stand by me’ in a playoff position

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Headed into halftime, it was a 2-0 deficit for the Whitecaps and it seemed as if Providence Park was going to rear its ugly head again — on a night where the team’s main playoff rivals all won their matches.

Someone forgot to tell the Whitecaps.

A comprehensive second half was fuel for one of the finest comebacks in recent memory, powering Vancouver to a 3-2 win, lifting them into a playoff spot for the first time all season. Game breaking sub performances from Brian White and Cristian Dajome highlighted the dominant second 45 minutes.

Vanni Sartini leaned on rotation with a midweek match. Lucas Cavallini replacing Brian White up top was the big change but Cristian Gutierrez returning to the starting XI was a welcome move, slotting into the back three next to Flo Jungwirth and Jake Nerwinski. Marcus Godinho made his first start for the Caps and Janio Bikel also returned to the lineup after a few games on the bench.

Early on, the Timbers found it way too easy to intercept the few Caps forays forward and create free flowing attacks going the other way. It took 15 minutes for Portland to open the scoring, with a goal that was coming from almost the first minute. The ball bounced around, found Cristhian Paredes, who controlled it for Yimmi Chara and it was a cool finish to put the Timbers in front.

The Caps grew into the game with a series of half chances and it looked like they might be able to get into the half down 1-0 but a poor turnover and chaotic defensive response let Dairon Asprilla put away Portland’s second of the match.

Vancouver managed the start of the second half well, with a boost with some wise Sartini subs. There were few clear cut chances, so Deiber Caicedo decided to handle things himself. The Colombian took advantage of some out of position midfielders to dribble by basically the entire Timbers team before calmly depositing it past Steve Clark. Credit to Brian White for making it hard on the defenders for choosing whether to go with Caicedo or pick up his run.

Bringing on Brian White for Lucas Cavallini gave the Caps the momentum and that continued to manifest itself. A fluid break from the Caps appeared to fizzle but Bruno Gaspar hooked his boot around a cross from the endline and White rose above to power home a header, leveling the match with his 11th goal of the year.

Minutes later, another Caps move caught Jose Van Rankin out of position. His frantic tackle to get back to Cristian Dajome ever so slightly nicked the wingback and the Caps were awarded a penalty, the second time the Timbers fullback has conceded a similar foul in recent matches. Dajome finished off the fruits of his labor, propelling Vancouver to an improbable 3-2 lead. A soft penalty, perhaps, but Van Rankin made contact and will ultimately have no one to blame but himself.

The Caps controlled things until the end, despite a Diego Valeri strike in stoppage time that drifted wide — but only after stopping the hearts of Vancouver fans everywhere. If I develop an ulcer we’ll know why — but all three points are headed back north of the border.

Key Takeaways

  • The Timbers did an excellent job early on of letting the Caps meander up to the edge of Portland’s defensive third and then clamp down, particularly cutting off the pathways to Ryan Gauld. Clipping Gauld’s wings completely changed the Caps’ ability to maneuver, pushing them out wide. I’m not sure Gauld and Cavallini are fully on the same page yet either, which will presumably come with time.
  • It cannot be overstated how much bringing on Brian White and Cristian Dajome changed the match. The Caps looked like a totally different team, making runs, stringing passes together and creating real, honest-to-God chances. White was more fluid and drifted into more dangerous spaces than Cava did and Dajome meant Portland couldn’t just let them hack away aimlessly from the wings. A Sartini masterclass — the Owusu sub was also a nice move.
  • Javain Brown had a mare, with some really sloppy turnovers (including one leading to Portland’s second) and defensive errors. Moreover, I think his shelf life as a left back might be nearing its run, with defenses easily keying in on the fact that Brown has to shift over to his right foot for crosses, cutting down on one of his best assets.
  • Deiber Caicedo was clearly frustrated in the first half — the Caps weren’t doing a great job of getting him the ball and the half chances he got didn’t go his way. Credit to him for persisting and taking advantage of what the Timbers gave him, leading to a fantastic individual effort.
  • Forget Fergie Time, the Caps were victims of Savarese time when they added seven minutes on at the end.
  • Is this what joy feels like as a Whitecaps fan?

Personal Thoughts

The 86 Forever group chat predicted a wild match but phew, I didn’t expect it to be that wild.

A phenomenal second half and it was a totally deserved win for the Caps. The cliche of one team wanting it more than the other is tossed around a lot but this was a second half where the Caps were more physical, more determined and more intelligent.

We must mention (briefly) the first half, however. The backline was ... suboptimal. It was so nice having something approximating a first choice defense and that’s what made the disorganization on Wednesday so disappointing. The best of the three centerbacks was Cristian Gutierrez, who arguably should have been starting at his natural left back spot instead. Things got better as the match went on, proof that sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

This match will further prompt reflection on Lucas Cavallini’s role with the Caps. It was not a bad performance from Cava but it was one where he struggled to get involved in the way he clearly wanted.

It is no coincidence that the Caps used space better when Brian White came on, owing to the fact that White is a much more fluid forward. The first half, meanwhile, was a lot of Gauld being cut off by the Portland defense, forcing Cavallini to track back and receive the ball and struggle to find any options, with Caicedo largely marooned in making runs forward. I’m not going to give up hope that this personnel can figure things out but they are going to need to look more like they did in the final half hour if the playoffs are to remain a possibility.

Ultimately, however, the three points were what mattered. It was the little things — a press which denied Portland much of anything in the second half, gritty challenges to force turnovers and even some dark arts — which defined this match as much as Caicedo’s solo effort. If anyone in MLS was sleeping on Vancouver, this will put them on notice. Even if they don’t ultimately make the playoffs, this is one all fans can savor for awhile.

[Cue ‘Stand by Me’]

Man of the Match

While they were both subs, Brian White and Cristian Dajome changed the tenor of the match. It is fitting to say they were men of the match because the game only really started for Vancouver when they came on in the second half. Dajome’s spacial awareness (and, yes, that includes the awareness to go down a bit softly) won numerous fouls, including the penalty, but his presence on the pitch was most impactful, as it meant Portland had to honor the left wingback role in a way they did not with Javain Brown.

White’s header, meanwhile, came on top of a series of intelligent, calculated runs that opened up things for everyone else (see: Caicedo’s goal). And give Caicedo, Cristian Gutierrez and Janio Bikel credit for a quality 90 minutes. Guti in particular looked rock solid out of position and Bikel didn’t miss a beat in terms of his passing, despite being on the bench.