WFC2 are heading to the USL Western Conference final after Canadian international Daniel Haber slotted home an 89th minute winner in a dramatic semi-final at a rain-soaked Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
For a player that picked up an injury in the last regular game of the season that came close to ruling him out of the playoffs, the joy and relief on Haber’s face was plain to see.
As he ran to the touchline to be mobbed by his teammates it capped an excellent individual and team performance, and the reactions showed how much the goal, and the victory, meant to everyone on that WFC2 squad.
“Emotions were riding high at the end of the game there,” Haber told reporters after the match. “We saw them score twice. All year we’ve been resilient and felt we’ve been the underdogs and overlooked. We knew we’d be fighting till the end.”
And fight they did. There’s little doubting that OKC will have felt in the ascendency after coming back from being two goals down, but the ‘Caps found another gear from somewhere to get the win.
It was a cool finish from Haber. The easy thing to have done was to fire it on goal at the first opportunity, but he showed poise, to get full control of the situation and make room for the shot.
“Initially I was just going to try and hit it first time but the ball popped up in a sort of awkward position,” Haber said of his goal. “I just figured if I didn’t have a clean look, just kind of take a touch and try and get the defender spreading his legs a little bit and I think it went straight through.”
That it did. Through two OKC defenders in fact. But as huge as the goal was, Haber was quick to praise the build up play that led to the crucial strike.
“I’ve got to give credit to the guys who made the play,” Haber added. “Tommy [Gardner] went in there and he got a deflection. The ball popped up to me and I just tried to stay as composed as I could.”
This is how you get to the @USL Western Conference Final
— Whitecaps FC 2 (@wfc2) October 8, 2016
That composure, and Haber’s overall importance to the team, was praised by his coach Alan Koch after the match.
“He has a little bit more experience [than some of the others on the team],” Koch told us. “For a younger Canadian player, he’s played in Europe and the middle east, and played in the Europa league. To have a guy like that, at that moment, you saw what an element of class can do and full credit to him for finishing the opportunity.”
The goal was Haber’s eighth of the year, putting him second on the team in terms of scoring. He also leads the team in assists, and has been a key addition to Koch’s squad this season.
The experience he brings from his spells in Cyprus and Israel, as well as what he’s learned from his caps with the Canadian national team, have been important to a young and fairly inexperienced ‘Caps squad.
He also likes a late goal. Saturday’s was his third of the campaign at the death, but he feels it just epitomises the whole never say die spirit of the squad this year.
“We’ve all worked really hard to be prepared and to be fit for end of game moments like that,” Haber said. “The most important thing is just to try and stay composed and concentrate, all the way through the game.”
The scenes of joy at the end of the match were natural and only to be expected. They were also good to see. This is a Whitecaps team that has constantly played down their achievements this season and tempered expectations.
They may have jumped out to a strong ten-game unbeaten start to the season, but with such a long season, and the regular season counting for little else than playoff qualification and seeding, they’ve been saving their celebrations for the games that really matter.
“North American soccer is a playoff system,” mused Haber. “We play all year and there are different games that have special moments at the end. I don’t think there’s any feeling like winning a game like that at the end in the playoffs, especially when it’s that tight. It shows how close of a group we have and how much we’re willing to do for each other.”
Getting that late victory in the way they did will do wonders for a WFC2 side that was already confident after their impressive road victory in Colorado Springs last week.
The team genuinely feel that they can beat anyone in the league, and whether they fall behind or give up a lead, they’re confident they can get the job done. To come back last week, and then to win it at the death this week, sends them into next week’s Western final with no fear and a massive belief in what this squad is capable of achieving.
“It gives us all the confidence in the world as a team,” admitted Haber. “I’m just so proud of the guys for continuing to push. We looked around and it would have been easy to throw in the towel there. Big team, scoring lots of set pieces. We saw what they did last week.
“But you could see it on our faces. Everyone on our team. We didn’t want the season to end here. That came through in the end.”