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Smash. And. Grab: Caps use late goals to dump Houston

MLS: Houston Dynamo FC at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The only possible way to explain the 2022 Vancouver Whitecaps is a meme:

True to form, the Caps used two goals in the final moments of the match to smash and grab a 2-1 win over Houston Dynamo, a vital result in keeping their playoff hopes alive and well.

A COVID-19 outbreak meant some unusual faces were required to help secure the win: Ali Ahmed and Simon Becher connected on the equalizer in the 88th minute, while Lucas Cavallini smashed home a stoppage time winner for the subpar Caps to see off the subpar Dynamo.

Because they were, once again, shorthanded, the Caps had to shuffle the deck. The backline we’ve come to expect was back on the pitch, just this time with a Russell Teibert and Leonard Owusu midfield. Ryan Gauld lined up next to Pedro Vite, with Tos Ricketts up top as Lucas Cavallini gets back to full fitness. Of note on the bench: Ali Ahmed and Simon Becher made their MLS debuts, Alessandro Schopf went right back into the lineup, Janio Bikel popped back up and Sebastian Berhalter returned from injury.

The Caps continued their trend of conceding early, this time in freakish fashion. Sam Junqua lofted a ball in after a broken corner for Fafa Picault who kinda sorta maybe tapped it. Either way, it froze Cody Cropper and the ball trickled into the net for a road goal just six minutes in.

The Caps had a couple half chances and one decent penalty shot. But the first real chance of the game came when Ryan Raposo played an intra-wingback cross, seeking out Julian Gressel. His touch one-time volley went narrowly wide.

It did underscore some lively play from the Caps early, however, with Gressel and Pedro Vite looking particularly threatening on the right side. When the Caps used some quick-fire ball movement, they were able to create chaos for a Dynamo team that seems to embrace chaos on both sides of the pitch.

The Caps should have been 2-0 down inside 25 minutes but Picault couldn’t beat Cropper, who recovered from leaving his near post wide open to make a fingertips save.

The Dynamo liked to sit in possession and string many, many passes together before trying to work something. Their most effective moments came when they could find some space in behind the midfield and really attack the backline, particularly as they were getting relatively little defensive support from the wingbacks.

The Caps looked much better to start the second half and in fact continued that momentum, holding a majority of the possession and wasting little time to chase the game. Lucas Cavallini came on and had a good chance on goal. Julian Gressel had an even better chance come his way, rocketing a one-time shot off Steve Clark.

Meanwhile, a few minutes prior, a botched headed clearance from Javain Brown helped keep Cropper awake, as he made a fingertips save to deny a wide-open Thorleifur Úlfarsson. Veselinovic was caught out trying to cover for Brown and Cropper pushed the ball off the post.

It was an unlikely source of an equalizer for the Caps. Though they showed steady signs of improvement throughout the half, they didn’t really look close to a goal until Gauld and Ali Ahmed played a lovely combination, allowing the youngster to charge into the box. His cross pinged off Simon Becher and into the back of the net, a debut goal for the Caps’ first round SuperDraft pick.

If you thought the Caps were destined to wind up with another draw, well, think again. A stoppage time corner came to naught but the ball was won back by an adroit Ranko Veselinovic, who played a perfectly weighted touch into the path of Cavallini. He carried the ball into the box and smashed it past Steve Clark to win the match.

Match Thoughts

  • I don’t have words to describe conceding that goal. It’s like the Caps are trying increasingly dumb ways of conceding early and succeeding.

It is starting to be a real problem for the Caps, this giving up a goal early trend and I’m not really sure the root cause. The entire first half was sloppy defensively, though I chalk some of this up to the makeshift midfield giving lots of space in between the lines.

  • This was the first match where you could really see where Julian Gressel can help take this team. The chemistry wasn’t always there — there were a couple misplayed passes in dangerous areas — but by and large he was excellent, zooming around the pitch to make plays. There were some Antonio Conte-esque wingback to wingback switches and he really should’ve had a goal at some point.
  • No one should take a long shot ever again. This isn’t based on any statistical or tactical perspective, just on the desire I felt to smash my computer every time Teibet or Raposo skied a shot after a methodical build up.
  • The winning goal from Cava was both the Cava-like finish we were waiting for all match, a bit of suspect goalkeeping and an absolutely world class touch from Ranko to play the striker in on goal. It was an off night from Cava but when you have that quality, all you need is one really, really good chance and a bit of luck.
  • Credit to Simon Becher, who admittedly did nothing aside from score the equalizing goal, but like Cava and other great strikers, put himself in position to get a goal. Ali Ahmed, I thought, was quite good — his ball into Becher was a bit fortunate but I thought he showed a lot of gumption and creativity for his first match. He needs to be getting regular game time and the Caps have a glut of wingbacks at the moment but I’d like to see him back with the first team sooner rather than later.
  • Did the Caps deserve to win that match? No. This was not a great performance, suffering from the same flaws that the team has had all year. When the service was there, the forwards were out to sea. When there was a good run to be had, the service was lacking. And the midfield put a lot of pressure on the backline, who didn’t do themselves any favors either.

But sometimes you need these results to re-orient the team ahead for better performances. And given that Andres Cubas was not available and the team was rolling with two Whitecaps 2 players on the pitch in the pivotal moments of the match, I’m not throwing this one back.

Man of the Match

Julian Gressel, for my money, is MOTM for the reasons outlined above, as well as the fact that he kept things up when Vanni Sartini moved him up to winger due to the paucity of attacking options.

Ranko Veselinovic gets credit for the winning assist and a good defensive performance. And Ryan Gauld was again Ryan Gauld, its just no one could quite get on the end of his more dangerous crosses.