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Vancouver Whitecaps put five past Real Espana to mark CCL return

MLS: Concacaf Champions League-Real Espana at Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps will have one foot in the next round of the CONCACAF Champions League, seeing off Real Espana 5-0 at home Wednesday night, an exclamation point as they make their return to the competition after a seven-year hiatus.

After two straight matches of not being able to capitalize on a 1-0 halftime lead, the Caps turned on the afterburners in the second half, keeping a relentless barrage of pressure on the Honduran side to carry a commanding lead into the away leg next week.

Vanni Sartini went with a mostly first choice XI for the Caps’ champions league return but dialed up the tactics to add a healthier dose of attack. With Alessandro Schopf injured, Ryan Gauld dropped back to make room for Pedro Vite and Cristian Dajome in attack. Ryan Raposo, meanwhile, slotted in at left back and Tristan Blackmon displaced Mathias Laborda to the right back position. Sergio Cordova, meanwhile, made his full debut up top.

The match began with a nearly fatal mistake from Yohei Takaoka not five minutes in, after the keeper misjudged a ball in, failed to punch it clear and was caught out. A series of saves from Takaoka and his center backs saved his blushes.

Real Espana opened with more energy, however, and Takaoka more than recovered to deny Jhow Benavidez from just inside the penalty area. There might have been a shout for offsides on a player screening the keeper but it was an excellent recovery from the keeper, even as the Caps started slow.

The Caps quickly grew into the match, controlling most of the possession, even though some indecisiveness in front of goal cut down on clear cut chances.

They leveraged this momentum into a goal, however, with a nicely worked short corner midway through the first half resulting in an inch perfect header from Tristan Blackmon into the top corner to beat a helpless Luis Lopez.

The Caps had no problem finding space in behind Real, particularly on the wings, but their principal problem seemed to be taking one touch too many every time they found themselves in a dangerous space. Vancouver produced some nice combinations along the touchline that fed some dangerous crosses, one of which really should have been slotted home.

It was more of the same in the second half, with Vancouver absolutely dictating terms. Sergio Cordova had the Caps best chance for a second to that point, finding himself on the doorstep with the keeper scrambling after a fingertip save but a slight hesitation allowed Lopez to recover and make the stop.

Naturally, it was a shot from range that gave the Caps a much deserved 2-0 advantage. Ryan Raposo had lots of space on the left-hand side all night and he finally made it pay off, latching onto a Gauld feed and cutting inside to beat Lopez at the near post from range.

The hits just kept coming for Vancouver, with another liquid move finally bearing fruit from close range. Cristian Dajome snuck in behind the defense after an expert feed from Gauld and his cross was turned in by a helpless Devron Garcia, who took out his own keeper in the scramble.

The home side remained relentless and kept pressing a fading Real Espana side into submission. Another turnover found its way to Ryan Gauld in the center of the park and he played in Pedro Vite, who made no mistake to find a fourth goal.

Vancouver kept their foot on the gas. Brian White will hope a strong substitute performance will get him off the mark in the league as well, with a superb finish after a good bit of skill and determination from Ryan Raposo to keep the play alive.

The Caps were also content to simultaneously rest some of their key players, giving Gressel, Gauld and Cubas an early night. Sartini also elected to hand debuts to Karifa Yao and J.C. Ngando.

Brian White should probably have grabbed a sixth in the dying embers of the match but I don’t think anyone will be too picky at this point. The result will give the Caps plenty of breathing room for the return leg in San Pedro Sula and allow them the option of giving guys like Ngando more of a look.

Stray thoughts

  • It feels good to win in a blowout for once, eh?
  • Ryan Gauld and Julian Gressel were spectacular tonight. Part of the reason the Caps had so much space out wide was because of the tactical decisions of their opponents but Gauld and Gressel were able to absolutely unlock things (case in point: the third goal). Allowing Gauld to play a bit deeper for much of the match amplified this effect and is something that might be worth toying with more in the future.
  • I watched the Univision feed (because who has Fox Soccer Plus anymore) and the announcers called Gauld “El Capitaine” all match and I’m here for making that a thing.
  • The attack looked a touch more fluid with Sergio Cordova up top but man, he should have had a goal at some point. He also had a Lucas Cavallini-esque habit of wandering a bit out wide at somewhat inopportune times. Maybe this gave Brian White the motivation to get off the mark in 2023 amid an impressive cameo.
  • Espana clearly had a strategy of trying to clog things up in the midfield at the expense of ceding massive amounts of space out wide. On one side, Ryan Raposo did a pretty good job of taking advantage of this and got a deserved goal to cap off a strong performance that should make a good case for his supplanting of Luis Martins.

On the other side, Mathias Laborda struggled at times. While he had a couple nice exchanges with Dajome, a lot of his crosses looked like a centerback trying to cover as a right back which, on some level, is what was happening.

  • Shoutout to Yohei Takaoka for his first clean sheet with the Caps. Let’s not forget his key save inside 10 minutes, which prevented what could have been a big spark for Real Espana early.
  • Real Espana were overmatched after a plucky first ten minutes but credit to Sartini for rolling out a plan that let them put their foot on the opposition’s throat and keep it there. This match showed the potential this team has, with the most goals in a match since 2018. Whether they will show it in the league remains to be seen but this was a good start.

Man of the Match

It is tough to look past Ryan Gauld in this one, with El Capitaine absolutely pulling the strings, despite serving as a deeper lying playmaker. He could have had double the number of assists if the finishing/decisiveness was a bit more on point in the first 50 minutes.

Raposo was also excellent and while it is easy to focus on the goal, his hard work to spring Brian White on goal five was equally impressive.