Toronto FC may have the headlines, the star-studded Italian duo and total lockdown of the Canadian soccer media.
But the Vancouver Whitecaps are champions of Canada.
Despite multiple chances where you had to wonder if the Caps were destined to be runners up (again), even though their performance was enough to merit a victory.
Indeed, an efficient Caps side made the most of their limited possession, creating more than enough chances to win the match outright — which they seemed on track to do after an early Brian White goal.
But they also had enough defensive foibles to leave Lukas MacNaughton open in the box to head home an equalizer after 20 minutes of bus parking.
All that was left was a perfect penalty shootout for the second time in the Canadian Championship this season, enough to see the Caps lift the Voyageurs Cup and earn a berth in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
Starting the match, Vancouver went with what has become their usual lineup — a bit of a surprise because it meant no Julian Gressel in the starting XI (the German made a sub appearance). Isaac Boehmer ceded the goalkeeper slot to Cody Cropper and Javain Brown was swapped for Tristan Blackmon, who was alongside Ranko Veselinovic and Jake Nerwinski in the backline.
Russell Teibert and Andres Cubas formed the midfield backbone, with Ryan Raposo and Cristian Dajome back as wingbacks. Ryan Gauld, Lucas Cavallini and Brian White formed the attacking band.
The Caps nearly went 1-0 up less than a minute in, with a classic Caps “cross and hope Lucas Cavallini connects” almost resulted in Cavallini connecting but Alex Bono was equal to it.
Despite having a fraction of the possession, the Caps looked up for it early and really made efficient use of it, playing very direct either through the wingbacks or Ryan Gauld moving freely around the pitch to spur on a counter attack.
This paid off when the Caps worked an excellent corner that Toronto struggled to clear. Ryan Gauld squared up a perfect one time cross that Brian White anticipated at the back post to crispy head it by Bono. It was exactly how Vanni Sartini had to have drawn up the first 25 minutes.
The Brian White goal. That cross by Gauld pic.twitter.com/AZN8evaz3L— Manuel Veth (@ManuelVeth) July 27, 2022
Toronto FC turned up the temperature after the goal, getting in slightly more dangerous licks. But the Caps also fought back, nearly getting a second after Raposo was sprung perfectly by Gauld. His shot was palmed away by Bono and White slightly overran what would have been a tap-in second.
Raposo nearly scored again on the stroke of halftime, when Andres Cubas lofted a perfectly weighted ball into the box that flummoxed the TFC backline. Raposo dragged his one-time shot just wide of the mark, however.
A let off for the Caps defensively to start the second signaled Toronto had started to figure out how to move the ball more effectively in the box. Despite a crowd of Caps shirts in the area, Jayden Nelson had space to launch a delicate chip just wide of the bar.
The Caps elected to lean into their play style, bringing on Gressel for Dajome and still content to cede most of the possession to Toronto and find ways to make a menace of themselves on the counter.
The Italian duo were quiet for much of the match but when you have that kind of quality, it usually winds up shining through.
TFC took advantage of the longtime Caps’ bugaboo — corners — to get the ball to Federico Bernardeschi, who curled in an inch perfect cross to meet an unmarked Lukas MacNaughton, who made it 1-1. The Caps would have to come out of their defensive posture.
Sometimes you have moments in soccer where things happen that make the end result seem fated. Tos Ricketts being unable to push a 1v1 by Bono, who made a fingertips save to deny the former Red a goal, seemed like one of those.
Despite a tiring Toronto FC and the away side’s strange decision to swap both of their centerbacks, the Caps could not come up with a winning goal, sending the match straight to penalties.
First up was Ryan Gauld, who capped off an impressive night with a perfect penalty past Bono, despite the keeper guessing correctly. Domenico Criscito duplicated Gauld’s penalty almost exactly, however, to peg things back to 1-1.
Brian White made no mistake with his spot kick, sending Bono the wrong way. Jordan Perruzza confidently matched his penalty, however, making it 2-2.
Julian Gressel gave Caps a heart-stopping moment, when Bono got a fingertip to his penalty but it had enough power to merely deflect into the back of the net.
It was Toronto FC who blinked first. Jonathan Osorio saw his spot kick glance off the upright but credit to Cody Cropper, who probably would have had it covered even if it had been on target.
Andres Cubas stepped up with a penalty reminiscent of his game winner to maintain the Caps’ advantage. Bernardeschi made his penalty to keep the match alive, however.
BUT THEN TRISTAN BLACKMON STEPPED UP AND SEALED THE VICTORY. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Notes and Thoughts
- WE WON THE CUP! WE WON THE CUP!
- Insigne and Bernardeschi are nice. But soccer watchers of culture prefer Vanni Sartini. Despite a couple questionable subs, Sartini’s man management and tactics were spot on against a Toronto FC team that was tired and/or frustrated for much of the game.
- Setting aside the outcome, this was one that had to be entertaining for neutrals and was a testament to the quality of the tournament and the upper ceiling for both teams involved.
- The atmosphere at the match was excellent, deserving of a final and a credit to the fans for showing up in full voice and to the front office for brainstorming some gimmicks to help things along. Seeing the crowd dancing and singing on TV has to also be a great advert for any casuals watching at home.
- OK, so I was confused and disappointed when Sartini went with Ryan Raposo over Julian Gressel. Sure there are domestic player requirements to consider, but given the halftime substitution of the new signing on Saturday I figured he was nailed on to start.
But perhaps this was a situation where seeing things in training helped Sartini make a decision because Raposo was brilliant. He made some gritty, tough defensive plays and had some excellent service, starting from the word go in the first minute.
- Russell Teibert was actually pretty good in this one. The Caps lost a bit of composure when he came off for Michael Baldisimo, a sentence I don’t think I expected to write this evening. Credit to Nerwinski for standing up well against the Italian DPs. Another sentence I wasn’t expecting to write.
- Vanni Sartini was right after the Chicago Fire match: At their best, the Caps can hang with just about anyone. And in this one, they neutralized the sexiest team in MLS and deservedly are champions.
Ending the season with a trophy in the trophy case will help with the feeling of progress surrounding this club. And it will give them a major springboard to build off of as they try and hunt down a playoff spot.
- Oh yeah, I almost forgot ... WE WON THE CUP!
Man of the Match
You want your best players to show up in finals and Ryan Gauld was just brilliant, pinging balls all over the pitch. He was the vital cog in the Caps’ strategy and was the main reason they were so able to effectively spring from a defensive posture into a counter attacking one.
But if you want to hail Tristan Blackmon, I won’t stop you.