Vancouver Whitecaps headed into their CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final second leg at home to the New York Red Bulls in pole position, following Kekuta Manneh’s massive away goal last week in the first leg.
With the game tied at one apiece, a win or a scoreless draw would see Vancouver advance to a semi-final meeting with Mexican side Tigres. It’s a position the Whitecaps have been in before in such two-legged affairs, and after coming up short in recent seasons against Montreal and Toronto in the Canadian Championship, and Portland in the MLS playoffs, it was always the thought at the back of your mind until very late on in this one.
Even with their attacking options ravaged by injuries and suspensions, and that horrible history, you fancied the ‘Caps to get the job done and they did. There were a couple of heart in mouth moments when New York could and should have dragged their asses back in to it, but Vancouver deserved to go through and it was a battling team performance that got them over the line.
With two forced changes due to Cristian Techera and Erik Hurtado’s suspensions, Carl Robinson’s gameplan was derailed late on when Nicolas Mezquida limped out of training early on Wednesday and wasn’t cleared to start. He was pencilled in for the number 10 role, but instead Brek Shea came in for his Whitecaps debut in an attacking role, with Marcel de Jong out on the left wing.
Robbo joked it was a “tactical masterstroke” afterwards, but Shea acquitted himself well and should have had at least one goal. He worked hard both offensively and defensively and put himself about well. Considering the emotional whirlwind this last week has been for him, it was a promising start and one that offers up some interesting line-up opportunities in the weeks to come.
The key for the ‘Caps was to get that early breakthrough. New York already had to make up that away goal, but they still had the whole 90 minutes to do that and win the tie if they could keep Vancouver off the scoresheet. They couldn’t. One goal and they were still in the mix, two or more and they’d be left chasing.
It only took five minutes for the ‘Caps to get going. It was an electrifying start and you could see from the off that the pace of Shea, Kekuta Manneh, and Alphonso Davies up top was going to give the Red Bulls kittens.
The breakthrough came from an amazingly cool head from the 16-year-old (we’re obligated to use that it feels) Davies, who composed himself to perfection in the box to make space and fire home a de Jong cross from close range.
It was one of several moments of maturity from such a young player. Wise before his years, you try not to get too much onto the hype train, but he has skill and a football IQ that far exceeds most older players we see in the league.
Two moments of Davies maturity levels stood out for me in the second half.
The first, when he was chopped down as he broke free up the right and jumped over the Red Bulls defender. Davies got up immediately instead of rolling around looking for the foul. His sole focus was to get in on goal and grab his second. Loved seeing that. If we were desperately trying to kill the game off I might have felt a little different!
The other came when he tore into the box and instead of shooting, looked up, and tried to set up Fredy Montero. It was a near perfect ball, but Montero just couldn’t get his feet free to fire home. Many attackers wouldn’t show that unselfishness and Manneh could learn a few things from that.
Montero and Davies look to have an immediate understanding. Despite limited training time together, they were clearly on the same page. Factor in Manneh, and Bolaños and Rosales, then Reyna in the summer, and that’s one hell of a potentially lethal attack.
Montero was only on the pitch for ten minutes when he showed his potential worth to the ‘Caps this season. A DP striker who’s deadly in front of goal, scoring Vancouver’s second in the 76th minute to kill off the tie with his first real touch. I never thought I’d see the day in a Whitecaps shirt. Of course, Octavio Rivero scored on his debut as well, but I think we can all agree that Montero is a different kind of gravy.
The pressure’s on Montero. He knows it. Everyone expects great things out of him after his previous MLS exploits. But he’s also very calm about it, acknowledging people expect him to deliver. So far, so good, and I love his confidence.
Of course, it’s not too much use banging the goals in at one end if you can’t keep them out at the other. The ‘Caps can squeak by with their goal rates of the past couple of seasons, but only if the stalwart defence from 2015 returns.
Again, early days, but the signs are promising. Ousted kept the first of hopefully many clean sheets this season in the win, producing a couple of crucial stops to keep the Red Bulls at bay. The defence were tested last night, and on the few occasions they failed, New York squandered the chance. The Red Bulls could easily have had a goal or two from a couple of decent positions, but on the whole, the Whitecaps defence was impenetrable, and Bradley Wright-Phillips didn’t get much of a sniff.
Kendall Waston was back to looking immense and not a crazy incident waiting to happen. He was a rock last night, and has responded well to the captain’s armband. It’s calmed him down and he was very vocal and marshalled his backline perfectly. The responsibility has worked. He still needs to play hard and have an edge, but it looks like he feels he can wear both hats.
He’ll be missing Sunday through suspension, so let’s see what the back four looks like without him.
Jake Nerwinski got his second straight pro start and looked good. Maybe caught out a couple of times, which defender isn’t, but the rest of the defence were quick to cover and close down any danger. Sheanon Williams will likely be in Sunday, but the rookie has done his prospects for the season the world of good these past few weeks.
Ultimately we can’t really tell what the two legs of this tie mean for Vancouver for the MLS season ahead. Even Sunday won’t tell us much. We’ll have a better idea come June and July, but there’s a lot more hope and optimism there than many had before.
So, history made, but the chance and desire is there to make more. The first roadblock standing in Vancouver’s way to achieving that goal is Liga MX side Tigres UANL, who stunned Pumas UNAM on Wednesday evening with a 3-0 road win to clinch their tie 4-1 on aggregate.
It will be a much tougher test than anything the number-one seeded Whitecaps have faced so far in the tournament, but it’s one Robinson certainly feels his side are ready for and will relish. He says he likes surprising people and proving them wrong. A semi-final win would certainly do that, raising both his and the team’s stock massively as a result.
March 14th in Nuevo Leon and April 5th are the dates of destiny. We can’t wait.
FINAL SCORE: Vancouver Whitecaps 2 – 0 New York Red Bulls [3-1 on aggregate]
VANCOUVER: David Ousted; Jake Nerwinski, Kendall Waston, Tim Parker, Jordan Harvey; Matías Laba, Russell Teibert; Alphonso Davies, Kekuta Manneh (Andrew Jacobson 82), Marcel de Jong (Fredy Montero 66); Brek Shea [Substitutes not used: Paolo Tornaghi, Christian Dean, Sheanon Williams, Marco Bustos, Kyle Greig]
NEW YORK: Luis Robles; Sal Zizzo, Aurelien Collin, Aaron Long, Kemar Lawrence; Felipe, Sean Davis (Mike Grella 80); Sacha Kljestan, Danny Royer (Alex Muyl 60); Gonzalo Verón (Derrick Etienne 8), Bradley Wright-Phillips [Substitutes not used: Ryan Meara, Justin Bilyeu, Damien Perrinelle, Michael Murillo]
On the performance:
“There was a lot of very exciting performances. I think we thoroughly deserved the victory. I think the team, every single player including the subs that come on, put in a massive shift and you’ve got to do that against a really good team. We know that New York are a top team. But over two legs I think we probably deserved to go through. So, individually, some outstanding performances. Everyone deserves a lot of credit for today.”
On team defending:
“I think we’d done it in Red Bull Arena a week or so ago and we’ve done it again today. It means you’ve got to defend from the front, and it means the centre forwards have got to put the work in to try and stop balls going in to the box. But if they can’t manage that then midfielders have got to get second balls and the defenders have got to win the headers, and we did that. We’ve done it last year a number of times, but we also make key mistakes. But new season, new things happen, we’ve got something to look forward to now and an exciting prospect against a very tough team. As I said, I’m really pleased with the performance today.”
On Fredy and Brek’s debuts:
“I don’t put pressure on these guys, I take pressure off these guys. [Fredy] scored with his first touch. The young kid set him up for a sitter, but he lost his balance. He could have had two goals. But that’s what natural goalscorers do. It’s nice to get him up to speed, he’s not fully fit yet. It was a risk, but I’ve got a lot of players out through suspension and injury. I had no real other options, so it was nice having Fredy on the field for 20 minutes. And Brek was outstanding, by the way, he really was. From the first minute he was a threat, playing as a number nine. He wanted to get in behind, he should have scored as well. Then he went to left side. We’ve got an exciting player in Brek Shea as well.”
On scoring in his first match:
“It feels good, I feel happy. I just want to invite all the fans to keep coming to the games to support us. It’s going to be a good year and we are going to give the best that we have.”
On chemistry with teammates:
“Yes, we are starting to know each other better and better. We know that sometimes the game turns difficult because we need to drop back a little bit, but this team has a lot of speed. When we counter attack it’s very dangerous, and we tried to do that today.”
On he and Brek Shea adding experience to a young team:
“Obviously we have a good pedigree in the league. We try to channel the same energy and same hunger that that the young kids have to advance in this competition.”
On Alphonso Davies:
“He’s good quality. He’s young. We need to take it easy with him. He will get more experience with the games and he has to keep doing what he’s doing. He works hard in every single training, and you can see 90 minutes today, how hard he was running.”
On scoring on his debut:
“It’s good. It take some pressure off your shoulders. I thank God for the opportunity for me to score.”
On his fitness:
“It’s getting better every day. Obviously I’m not on the same level as my teammates. But I’m working hard to catch up.”
On an emotional whirlwind of a week:
“From a soccer side, I’m extremely happy to be on this team, with this coaching staff. I think I fit in really well with the style that they want to play and the team does play. From a life side, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Obviously I have a family and I’m on the opposite side of the country in a different country, with different weather. I’m excited. It’s a change, but it’s good.”
NEW YORK RED BULLS
On missed chances
“Certainly there were opportunities that went missing, but I think more so than that, there’s the first part of how the game’s played out. They get the lead in each game, they get an early goal, they have good starts, and then they’re able to really keep themselves compact and defend and make it hard for us to break them down, and then look to catch us on the counter. If you play this team and you give up an early goal lead, you’re going to have a hard time because they’re good at protecting a lead and they’re good at defending deep and in a block. The other part for me is that they deserved the win and to move on in many ways. I think their guys were really up for the challenge. They fought and battled, and 50-50s, and tackles, and fouls. Listen, they made the game ugly at some points, but they showed how much they were willing to fight for every play, and we didn’t meet that standard enough. We let ourselves down in that way. Congratulations to Vancouver. For me, it’s hard to lose this game because we really wanted to represent MLS moving on to the semi-finals, but in all ways we’ll cheer for them and hope to see them and Dallas in the final together.”
On having a big quarter-final when still in preseason and how that sets team up for regular season:
“It’s great to play meaningful games before the season starts, in terms of being prepared for the season. We’ve got a tough turnaround on Sunday; we’ve got to get back quick across the country to play in a game which the Atlanta franchise is really excited about. I think that having two really competitive games under our belt will make us better for the start of the year, and I hope we learn from these experiences and are more prepared for what real games look like.”
On Alphonso Davies:
“The kid was great. He was dangerous all night, tough to deal with in one-v-one situations, fought hard. The kid did great. He was fun to watch. I wish we would have dealt with him a little bit better, but congratulations to him and you guys have a fun player to watch here. He did really well.”
On heading to Atlanta:
“We’ve got to get over the disappointment of how the game went, and I think we’ve got to have a chip on our shoulder a little bit for coming up so short and losing the edge physically. We’ll have to make that when we go to Atlanta that with all the different things that we’ll try to emphasize with what that game will be about that we’re up to just physically put more into it.”
On Red Bulls’ continued struggles in knockout games:
“It’s frustrating. We’ve looked at that carefully. We’ve thought about how to get better in some of these moments. We’ve tried to prepare our team to be up for the challenge in the biggest games. It’s been a perplexing problem that we’ve had as a club, but it won’t deter us. We’ll keep finding ways to get better and get stronger. Everyone’s putting so much in to it to try and figure out how to get this club over the hump. I feel that if one domino falls, a lot of others can start to move with it. These moments are hard to swallow, they are, but you have to find a way to be very resilient in this business and be strong when things are the toughest.”
On the result:
“This is tough because it’s the beginning of the season, you don’t want to get overly concerned with the results. However, this group’s been together with some of these guys for over two years, and today is the culmination of the body of work over those two years. We qualified by winning Supporters Shield in 2015, we navigated through the group stage in 2016, so for us this is a big moment. As a group, when we look at some of the biggest moments we’ve been in, it just hasn’t been good enough. I think this is one of the most obvious challenges for the group this year, is to not only finding ways to be successful during the regular season, but when the biggest moments come around. How can we as a group not only be up for the challenge, but be the best group of guys out there.”
On turning the page to playing Atlanta on Sunday:
“I haven’t turned the page yet. Obviously the game just ended, and as I reflect on the journey to get to this point, what I’m feeling right now is utter disappointment. I know that when we get on the plane and we try to regroup for Atlanta tomorrow, there’s some things that we have to examine, that we have to get better at. But as far as today’s performance, the last two weeks as a group, there’s a lot of disappointment. It’s a bit naïve how we came out into this game and gave up a goal right off the bat, which is going to make the challenge even more difficult, because of the way that they play. Yet, here we are, out of the tournament, out of the competition. And sooner or later, tomorrow at least, we have to set our sights on the regular season.”
On what the team needs to improve on”
“Obviously with the condensed preseason it’s going to be a real challenge to find sharpness, fitness, and collective effort as a group. However, Vancouver is in the same situation, and they found a way to get two results. As we look forward to the season, we know that there’s going to be a lot of challenges, but as I previously mentioned, I think for this group our biggest challenge is how we can find the right mindset, the right individual performances and the right group performance, that when it comes to the biggest moments, we come out with the victory.”