Vancouver Whitecaps headed down to Portland this past weekend hoping to come home with a six point haul. But best laid plans and all that, for despite two strong performances that merited more, the ‘Caps return with just the one solitary point.
Boosted by Saturday’s fighting comeback to claim a draw against the Timbers in MLS action, WFC2 took to the pitch at Merlo Field on Sunday evening looking to make it three straight wins over T2 in USL action in the past few weeks.
But despite going ahead thanks to an 8th minute Robert Earnshaw penalty, the ‘Caps wilted on a horrendously hot night and ended up going down to a tough 4-2 loss against their Cascadian rivals.
The Timbers were having success up both wings and leading scorer Kharlton Belmar headed home a Santiago Biglieri cross from the right ten minutes later to tie things up. Fatawu Safiu put the home side ahead in the 29th minute after good work on the left, cutting inside and burying a low shot into the far corner.
The ‘Caps thought they’d tied things up again on the stroke of half time when Earnshaw poked home from close range after Craig Nitti had headed on a Marco Bustos corner, but the linesman had his flag up for offside.
There was more agony just after half time when Nitti headed a Deybi Flores free kick off the right post. Those fine lines again and the Timbers made the ‘Caps pay when they added a third through George Fochive four minutes later in the 52nd minute after T2 had hit the crossbar and had the rebound cleared off the line.
Kianz Froese pulled it to within one again with 12 minutes remaining with a beauty of a curler from the edge of the box.
The ‘Caps pushed hard and looked like they were odds-on to level it at three apiece but couldn’t find the breakthrough and were caught again with three minutes left when Blair Gavin fired home.
A frustrating night for WFC2, who outshot the hosts 22 to 16. It certainly felt like they had put in a performance that deserved to see them take something from the game. Unfortunately, putting the ball in the back of the net is the key thing in that regard, and as has been the case for much of the season (and as with the MLS side), that has proved to be their downfall.
“Yeah, disappointing obviously,” Koch told AFTN after the game. “We felt we could have come here and got three points tonight. We created enough opportunities and if we took them we probably would have got the three points. That’s football. It’s the bounces, the decisions that go during the course of the 90 minutes. We’re very, very disappointed to leave here with nothing.”
The not taking of those chances aside, what we found particularly disappointing was that for a team that started 9 MLS players, they were outfought and outgunned by a T2 side of less talent. On paper at least.
Playing MLS guys naturally does not guarantee you a win. But considering one of the prime objectives of the USL team is to get these guys crucial competitive and developmental minutes and for these fringe and depth first team players to show Carl Robinson that they’re hungry and pushing for a starting spot, it left a little to be desired.
Robinson was in attendance watching the game. What he must have made of some of the performances will be interesting to find out. Erik Hurtado, in particular, was posted missing for much of the match and was subbed off just past the hour mark. Deybi Flores didn’t stand out much for me either.
On the flip side, Kianz Froese put in a good shift, and Robert Earnshaw looked sharp at times in a deeper role, and got some much needed minutes under his belt as he returns from a calf injury.
The team actually looked better once the USL squad guys subbed in. Not entirely a surprise considering they have developed much more chemistry from regularly training and playing together. It’s unfortunately the nature of the beast of this team right now.
“It’s a tough one obviously because it’s an exercise,” Koch admitted. “We need to get players minutes and it’s tough when they don’t train together every single day. That’s part of it. We know what it is. We knew today’s game would be tough.
“We’re excited to get the MLS guys and they’re excited to play, which is great. It did take us a little bit of time to start to gel. I think the positive from today was that there was a lot of good football played. We played very well in fits and spurts. Unfortunately, we made too many mistakes and they capitalised on them a couple of times and scored in those situations.”
Temperatures were around 34 degrees at kick off time, what it was at pitch level, we don’t know, but a few Whitecaps were visibly flagging, including Chris Serban, who was being given a torrid time by Safiu and it was no surprise when the Ghanaian got the better of him for the second goal.
But it was the same conditions for both sides and Portland had a few players who were struggling a little with the heat themselves.
Koch acknowledged it was tough out there but feels there’s no way you can use that as an excuse for the loss.
“Yeah, I think the heat did impact the first 45 minutes, for us and for them,” Koch told us. “I passed the comment when I came out to Earnie at the start of the second half, looking at a couple of their players they looked gassed too, even coming out for the second half.
“I don’t think it impacted us any more than it impacted them. The first 30 odd minutes was a very high tempo game and then it sort of slowed down the last 15 minutes of the first half. So it did impact it a little bit, but nothing significantly.”
And talking of Serban, the talented full back was taken off in the 41st minute after being on the receiving end of a flying elbow from Safiu.
The incident happened right in front of us and it looked a bad elbow to what we thought was Serban’s cheekbone at the time. As it turns out, we were close, and it’s not looking like good news for the Residency alumni.
“I thought it was a bad elbow too,” Koch agreed. Apparently he has a broken jaw, so he’s at the hospital right now. We’ll see. He’s a tough kid but we’ll leave that to the medical guys to determine when he’s going to be back.”
Got to wish Chris all the best for a speedy recovery. It’s a tough one for the lad, who’s been continuing to develop week upon week and has been one of the standouts for WFC2 in recent games.
If Serban’s injury is confirmed, it’s a big blow for the ‘Caps heading down the stretch, coming on the back of Brett Levis injury a few weeks ago. With a tough schedule coming up to close out the regular season, it leaves the USL squad looking a little bare.
Despite an encouraging, creative and attacking performance, at the end of the days it’s another road loss, with the worst defence in USL shipping another four goals in the process.
WFC2 still only have one away win for the season and that came in their second game of the campaign. They’ve played well at times but just haven’t gotten the breaks or their shooting eye in on some occasions.
Koch has previously told us that the youthful make up of the WFC2 squad is one of the factors in the differences between their home successes and struggles on the road.
Not an easy aspect to find a solution to this season, but a learning experience that should set the team up better for next year, and that personal growth is a big goal for the team after all.
So is there anything that can be done to flick the switch and change those fortunes sooner?
“Good question,” Koch replied with a wry smile. “If you find the answer let me know please. In all seriousness, today the performance was good enough to get the result and we’ll take a lot from that. A lot of the time, if you get a good performance that will lead to a positive result, at home or away.
“If we can focus on getting good performances on the road, eventually that’s going to lead to picking up more points on the road. We’ve been playing well at home and thankfully that’s been getting us points, but we’ve got to turn that around and get that on the road too.”
And if WFC2 are to make the playoffs in their debut USL season, they’re going to have to turn that around pretty sharpish.
The ‘Caps return to Thunderbird Stadium this Friday for the final time until September 6th. They may close the season out with three straight home games but to get to that point, they have a gruelling four game road stretch including trips to Seattle and Portland, once again.
With just three points separating Orange County Blues, in the sixth and final playoff place in the West, and the chasing pack of five teams, every single point counts and it could very well be that the ‘Caps playoff hopes are shaped and decided by how they do in those four straight away games. By the time they get back up to UBC in September, it may not matter.
“I think every game is going to make or break it right now,: Koch mused. “We’ve got eight games to go. We’ve got Tulsa next week. They’re fighting with us. It’s a battle. Everybody’s in it right now. Eight games. Every game’s going to be huge.
“We’ll focus on the first one, hopefully get through that, then we’ll have to turn it around on the road the following week. But every game’s an absolute battle. You could tell tonight. Portland picked up three points, they’re tied with us right now. It’s going to be a dogfight till the bitter end.”
The ‘Caps can certainly give themselves a big boost is they can take at least four, but ideally all six points, from the upcoming home and away series with Tulsa Roughnecks.
Tulsa head to Vancouver on Friday, before the teams meet again in Oklahoma a week later. The Roughnecks currently sit just one point back of the ‘Caps in the standings, but have two games in hand. Friday is now huge and Koch won’t allow his squad to start thinking too far ahead.
“Yeah, [at least] four would be great,” Koch told us. “You want to win at home obviously and then if you can pick something up on the road, that would be great. To be honest, we’re not even thinking about Tulsa away yet. We’re just going to focus on the game at home. We want to get three points at home.
“For us to give ourselves the chance to make the playoffs, we’ve got to win pretty much every game at home and if we can pick up anything on the road, that would be an extra bonus. We’ll focus on getting ourselves ready to play at home to Tulsa on Friday.”