(Photo Credit: @SportingKC/Twitter)
It was a fun ride. One you knew was going to come to an end likely sooner than later, and while we may have been swept along on a Vanni Sartini wave of positivity and excitement, the ending of the ride hit home hard as Vancouver Whitecaps’ playoff train came off the tracks in Kansas City.
The Whitecaps headed to KC full of confidence. In the end they put up a good fight but found the home side too strong for them, as their quality and their ability to convert their chances shone through in a 3-1 victory thanks to goals from Khiry Shelton, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, and Graham Zusi. Cristian Dajome had a first half penalty sandwiched in there for the ‘Caps, but it was to prove a brief moment of joy for the visitors who were one and done and head back to Canada to begin their offseason.
Sartini made a couple of interesting line-up changes for this one, bringing in Andy Rose in the back three for his first action since early October, and handing Marcus Godinho a start in the right wing back role, with Cristian Gutierrez out with a hamstring strain and Javain Brown not long back from international duty with Jamaica.
It was going to be interesting to see which team came out on the front foot with the desire for the early breakthrough and it soon became clear that was to be Kansas City.
Gadi Kinda came closest in the opening exchanges, flashing a shot narrowly wide seven minutes in, and 10 minutes later KC took the lead when Shelton produced a neat finish to put away a quality Zusi cutback.
— x – Sporting Kansas City (@SportingKC) November 20, 2021
KC immediately sensed blood and pushed for a second, giving the Vancouver defence a torrid time, but despite bending, they didn’t break and slowly started to come back into the game.
They were then handed the opportunity to do just that on a silver platter in the 38th minute when Luis Martins inexplicably stuck an arm out in the box, and although the referee didn’t have a clear view of the incident, a video review saw Alan Kelly point to the spot.
Dajome stepped up to coolly fire home the spot kick past Tim Melia and the Whitecaps were suddenly right back in it.
— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) November 20, 2021
The goal seemed to stun Kansas City, who looked a little out of sorts for the next couple of minutes as Vancouver pressed. It felt like half time was going to come at the wrong time for the Whitecaps, but in the end it didn’t come soon enough.
With the game three minutes into stoppage time, Johnny Russell sent in a dangerous corner from the right. Max Crepeau came out to meet it but he was blocked and couldn’t get a decent punch on the ball to knock the danger away. KC lofted the ball back into the danger zone and it eventually fell to Isimat-Mirin to poke it home and send the home side in with a half time lead.
— x – Sporting Kansas City (@SportingKC) November 20, 2021
It was a heartbreaker for Vancouver who had fought hard to get back into the match, but they were still very much in the game and you certainly wouldn’t write them off just yet with their recent come from behind heroics.
The next goal was always going to be crucial and it went the way of Kansas City in the 58th minute, and what a goal it was, as Zusi hit a screamer from 20 yards out that flew into the top left corner of the net and beat Crepeau all ends up.
— x – Sporting Kansas City (@SportingKC) November 20, 2021
It was some strike, and while you can lay some fault on Gaspar for not closing down better, it was unstoppable and that will certainly be one of the goals of the playoffs.
For all of Vancouver’s fighting spirit and comeback kings mentality, it really felt like the ‘Caps were toast when this one went in. Yes, depending on when they scored a second they could still be in with a shout, but KC felt in control and they saw out the remainder of the match fairly comfortably really.
It’s not that Vancouver didn’t have their chances. Andy Rose had a weak header straight at Melia easily saved just past the hour mark, then the KC keeper pulled off a fantastic stop to deny a quiet Brian White in the 69th minute, when the ‘Caps leading scorer rose well to get on the end of a Gaspar cross.
Substitute Lucas Cavallini thought that he’d thrown the Whitecaps a late lifeline when he put the ball in the KC net with four minutes to go, but Gaspar was correctly called offside in the build up, and that was to be it. The Whitecaps playoff dreams were over at the first hurdle.
With all the hype and drama and excitement of reaching the postseason on the final day, the loss feels deflating, but it shouldn’t really. The team have done themselves, the crest, and the supporters proud in even getting to this stage with all that they been through this season. Sartini had instilled a real enthusiasm for the team not seen in many a year.
It was a very likeable group. One you wished nothing but the best for. They overcame the odds to make the playoffs and fell short in the end, not through a lack of effort or a lack of desire to attack as we’ve seen in previous playoff campaigns, but because they came up against a quality opponent who took their chances when they came.
There’s so much to be proud of from this season and so much to look forward to next year. It will be a major surprise if Sartini isn’t the man leading that campaign, and as he said after the match, the bar has been set now. This year it was the first round of the playoffs. Next year, it has to be at least the second.
Onwards and upwards. It’s going to be a short offseason. Let’s hope the team come back stronger than ever.
FINAL SCORE: Sporting Kansas City 3 – 1 Vancouver Whitecaps
Possession: SKC 37.3% – VAN 62.7%
Shots: SKC 12 – VAN 6
Shots on Goal: SKC 5 – VAN 4
Saves: SKC 3 – VAN 2
Fouls: SKC 10 – VAN 9
Offsides: SKC 0 – VAN 1
Corners: SKC 3 – VAN 4
KANSAS CITY: Tim Melia; Graham Zusi, Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, Andreu Fontàs, Luís Martins; Rémi Walter, Gadi Kinda (Roger Espinoza 87), Ilie Sánchez; Johnny Russell, Khiry Shelton, Dániel Sallói [Substitutes not used: John Pulskamp, Roberto Punčec, Alan Pulido, Amadou Dia, Grayson Barber, Cameron Duke, José Mauri, Wilson Harris]
VANCOUVER: Maxime Crépeau; Florian Jungwirth (Érik Godoy 46), Andy Rose, Jake Nerwinski (Javain Brown 73); Marcus Godinho (Déiber Caicedo 65), Russell Teibert, Leonard Owusu (Lucas Cavallini 73), Bruno Gaspar; Ryan Gauld; Brian White, Cristian Dájome [Substitutes not used: Thomas Hasal, Ranko Veselinović, Janio Bikel, Ryan Raposo, Tosaint Ricketts]
On the game:
“The effort was really good, probably the first 10-15 minutes we had to adjust, you know a little bit of nervousness, a little bit of the environment, they were pushing them. But then we entered in the field, I would say really well. We conceded a goal on a transition, actually a really good goal, really good transition, but we were attacking when we conceded the goal. And then we keep pushing, we keep attacking and I would say we deserved the 1-1. Unfortunately, the 2-1 [goal] has been something we could have done better, but it’s okay. And in the second half, we did very well, we had four chances to score: the one with Andy, the one with Brian, great save by Melia, and another cross by Deiber went out for just a millimeter. We knew that they are a good team and probably the more used to this kind of game and a little bit disappointed for the result. But we put everything in it and we don’t have any regrets, to be honest.”
On the season:
“Well, the season has been crazy, of course, this result doesn’t change the fact that I think we did a great job in the second half [of the season], a fantastic job actually, getting to the playoffs and even if we lost today, even in a playoff game, we showed that we are a playoff team because we put the fight in a tough stadium ‘til minute 93rd. And they were scared at the end of our coming back. So first and foremost, I’m proud of the players, I’m proud of the guys that helped me so the staff, the technical staff, the performance staff, the medical staff, because I think that we’ve put so much effort in that that we showed to everyone that we didn’t come here because of a fluke. That’s our spot and hopefully for the organization it means that it’s a starting point for next year.”
On the game:
“We always knew it was going to be a tough place to come play. Kansas City is a good team and we knew the first 15 minutes were going to be a challenge. Kansas City is a good team, you’ve got to tip your hat to them cause they played a good game, but we came back and all season long. Vanni mentioned for the 20 games there we were resilient and we show resilience in this game as well. Always fighting adversity, [if] we go down a goal we [can] always dig ourself out of a hole. I thought after Dájome scored a good PK that we settled into the match very well. And, you know, it’s unfortunate that it’s a small detail, conceding right before halftime and that’s always a challenge. But again, you know, we come out strong and we have some good chances and opportunities and if we capitalize on one of those, like Vanni said we might be doing a different interview here. But again, Zusi scores a good goal and what can you do. But even after that, this team showed tremendous fight. It makes you really proud to be on a team like that where every guy is pushing to the final whistle and nobody’s giving up, nobody’s putting their head down and everybody’s fighting for each other. This is what this sport is all about, that camaraderie. It’s that feeling of being a part of something and whether that’s with your teammates, whether that’s with your coaching staff, whether it’s with your fans, we all felt a part of something this year and we built something that we’re going to carry over into the next season.”
On the season:
“We built something sustainable and good, something to be proud of, something that the fans are proud of. I think about how much we’ve gone through this year, being away from home for four months and all the adversity that we’ve gone through, it’s only made us stronger as a club and as an organization. And you see that in those pivotal moments of getting into the playoffs and all of the 25,000 people staying in the stands singing stand by me with their phone lights on and it’s a special moment. Those are memories that you don’t forget, those are memories that are bigger than sports and those are memories that last a lifetime. We’re talking about next season, every single guy in that locker room wants to get back on the field. And this one’s tough to swallow because like I said, we’ve gone through so much and we really felt that we were building something special, that we could achieve something special this season. But that foundation is there, that’s not going anywhere. That’s a solid foundation for us to build on and I’m really looking forward to next season. But when you put so much into a season, and I know you guys want to hear that I’m looking forward to next season, but this one’s going to sting for everyone for a little bit. These interviews are always tough to do after games like this because you know your season’s over and all that work, there’s no going into work and playing another game this season. We’ve got to wait a couple months and then that part of it sucks, and that’s the highs and lows of sports which are always difficult to go through. But that’s why sports are beautiful, that’s why we play this game.”
On the match:
“In the build up, we had difficulties finding our midfield. That hurt us because we were going long. We were good when we were able to find our midfield. Obviously, we go down 2-1 a halftime. so we’re kind of chasing the second half. And that’s it.”
On the season as a whole:
“You know, it’s been challenging for the organization, for every single individual that was part of it. Salt Lake feels like years ago, but it was true, it did happen. Then coming back to Vancouver was really good to us, for individuals and for the collective coming back home was really good. We could see with our records, I would say the first half and then the second half of the season, we can see the results speak for themselves.”
On the performance of Graham Zusi:
The ability for him to get on the back side of that first goal was unreal and (he played) a great ball. Not easy to do and then a tremendous finish by Khiry (Shelton). And then his goal was spectacular. It was kind of like the one he scored on the south side coming in with his left foot. This was a little different. He just overpowered the goalkeeper. Him and the team were locked in. They were incredibly disciplined in today’s game.
On the additional motivation for the match:
It’s easy when I don’t have to do my job. I don’t have to provide external motivation for the team when somebody else does it for me. I really appreciate it. That was an excellent decision on their part.
On bouncing back from a three-game losing streak:
The season is the season. When the 34 games are over and you’re now entering the playoffs, it doesn’t matter anymore. Everybody is starting from ground zero. It was all about getting ourselves ready to play this first game. Now we’ll go in tomorrow and we’ll get regenerated. We’ll get the guys who didn’t play a little bit of work. Then we’ll wait for our next opponent to see who that is and we’ll start preparing for that. The mentality of the guys has been very good. They’ve responded really well to the two weeks. This might be the first time that we’ve had two weeks off and then we’ve come back and won. It says a lot about the group. The mentality is good. It’s always been really good all season long. There’s been a great consistency, even when times when something maybe had happened. They learned and they got better from it. This is an interesting group. They’re mature. They get it. They’ve got an internal flame that’s been burning for a long time. It’s a good group. They’ve got an idea. They’re committed to what they want to do.
On the game plan with switching the point of attack:
It was something we had identified. We had the same kind of opportunities in the game that we played at their place, especially from Zusi’s side from right to left. We found a lot of diagonal balls were going to be a part of the game. The other is that you could see in the first half, especially the amount of times that we played very direct and Khiry did a tremendous job today of running into space and holding balls up. He was just a nuisance for their back three. They had a really difficult time with his movement off the ball. And then his athleticism into those spaces was just tremendous. Tonight, he was fantastic on the ball. The goal he scores is great. It was two things. One is we played a little more direct and the other thing is we allowed them to try and make the game. It’s not easy when you have to make the game and try to break a team down. We know that all too well. I thought our guys were really organized defensively and it caused them some issues. It put us on the counter quite a few times.
On the importance of the goal right before halftime:
Whenever you can take the lead right at halftime, right before the end of the half, is huge going into the locker room. There’s so much momentum and more than likely what the other team’s staff was thinking is now changed. Now they’re down and they have to figure things out differently. We could change our thought process a little bit as well. It’s a lot easier to do it that way than the other way, being up a goal rather than being down a goal. The other thing is, (Nicolas Isimat-Mirin), this is why we brought him here. It wasn’t just because he scored the goal but because his defensive actions 1v1 tonight was big time. They were really big time. He is a tremendous defender. I’ve said it all along, if he were – and I don’t take a lot away from (Andreu) Fontas because he’s played really well all season long – but if he would have been in all season long without his injuries, there’s no doubt that we would be defender of the year. He just has unbelievable quality.
On flipping the script from regular season home matches after long breaks:
We have an experienced group of guys. There have been some games over the course of the season, which is going to happen over 34 games, you’re going to have let-downs. Whether it’s at home or away, it’s going to happen. The one thing about this group is they always responded really well from whatever the lesson was. Their mentality has been good. It’s hard to say about a lot of teams. The other is that this group has found ways to also come back from being down. That’s not an easy thing for teams to do. A lot of times it takes a whole season to figure that out. We figured that out early on that this group had that in them. Not to say that you want to go down a goal or what have you, but when you have a mentality like that you can put other demands on the team that help take shape over the season. There’s been many times I’ve been in this room and people ask me, ‘Hey, how come you didn’t use all your subs or what have you?’ It’s pretty simple. Back then I was trying to build a group of guys to be able to fight through these types of environments because I know what the intensity and the aggressiveness is like in the playoffs. If you don’t have a tough team that can fight through that and you have to continue to throw on a bunch of different guys and keep changing the team around you lose a lot of continuity. This group has responded really well from that on the physical side and also mental.
On neutralizing Vancouver’s Momentum:
You can never underestimate your opponent. That’s why everybody loves sports. It really doesn’t matter what you did before. You play this game today and anything can happen. If there are two things I know, one is the playoffs are a different animal and the other is you have to be very careful about challenging the pride and the respect of another group of people, especially when you’re competing against them. When you provide the external motivation to a group of guys that are pretty proud and are really professional about what they do every day, and they’re extremely humble and committed to what they do and have a lot of respect for the opponents, it changes things really quickly.
On the fitness of Alan Pulido:
I was actually bringing him in at halftime, but the fact that we went up two one at halftime, it allowed me to pull back. Then we went up 3-1. It made no sense for me to put him on the field. He’s ready to go. I was going to put him in during the second half but I felt like it was better to not try and push him for 60 but he definitely had 45 minutes in him no problem. It really helps out a lot, winning the way we did and not having to bring him on is tremendous. Now we can build him up for another so many days and he’s going to feel good. He feels good right now but it’s just more time which is great.
On his goal:
It was a very good counter-attack. It came down the left side. Daniel (Salloi) cut in like he’s done so many times and that drew a lot of attention of the defenders as it should. He’s had such a good year scoring goals. It opened up the space for me, he played a perfect ball and in that spot it was always going to be a touch and hit for me. I caught it clean and celebrated with the fans.
On his overall play in the match:
The first game of the playoffs is always kind of a tricky one. The energy is just so high and the games can be a bit hectic. I thought we were very smart in our play tonight. We didn’t try to force anything while playing out of the back initially and then our guys up top, when we did play long, were fantastic in their hold-up play. They allowed the rest of us to come up there and help them as well. It was a very solid smart performance from the boys. Defensively very sound. I think we showed a lot of character to not get frustrated when they got the equalizer towards the end of the first half. It was, for me, against the run of play. For us to not lose our heads in that moment and get the huge goal before the first half ended was everything to me. We regrouped a bit at halftime. The first goal of the second half was going to be huge depending on whom it came from. Luckily it was us and then we defended well to the end.
On neutralizing Vancouver’s momentum:
They’re a dangerous team. With their style, you know what to expect but it’s still tough to defend. They’ve got some guys up top who can really play well with their backs to the goal. They knock it down to their up-and-coming midfielders and they’re dangerous on that second ball play. We had a full week of training to try and neutralize that. For the most part, we did a really good job at doing that. A lot of respect for Vancouver and the way they finished the season. It was a 3-1 victory but still a tough match.
On the long balls between him and Daniel Salloi:
The way they play in that three-back kind of system, with the three interior players, made the switch of play on all night. I think we could have utilized it even more so at times. That’s where the space was. The long ball from me to Daniel, and Luis (Martins) to Johnny (Russell) was where the space was tonight. The first goal, I was able to intercept a ball in our half and then count them on a quick counter. It was kind of side to side and then Khiry had a great finish there at the end. We knew that’s where the space was going to be and a couple of the goals came from that.
On if the team uses Vancouver manager Vanni Sartini’s quotes as bulletin board material:
Not necessarily. They were confident as they should have been. They had a really good end to the season. They were flying on all cylinders. Lots of good results from them towards the end of the season so I think their confidence was deserved. But playoffs are a bit of a different beast and I think we did well to get that win.
On flipping the script from regular season home matches after long breaks:
We did everything the exact opposite leading up to this. No, that was the way things happened to go in the regular season. When playoff time came around you could get the feeling from the group that we were ultra-focused on the task at hand throughout this whole week of training. I was extremely confident in the way that we were playing leading up. We got some guys who were banged up healthy again as well. We’re continuing to do that for the next one. Really, I feel really good about where we are, the groups mentality and the way that we’re playing.
On the mentality of this group going forward:
We’ve shown a fantastic mentality throughout the whole season. When we have lost those games, we’ve come back and won the next one. More than I would like to be a part of we’ve come back from being down in games as well. I don’t question this groups’ mentality at all. But you’ve got to bring it every single match. We’ll take the strengths from this game that we showed but there’s still some things to work on for sure. The groups mentality was fantastic tonight and we’ll continue that for the next one.
On his assists vs. Goals in MLS Cup Playoff Matches:
To be honest, as long as we’re winning it doesn’t bother me whether I’m scoring, assisting or none of the above. As long as we’re winning games that’s all that matters.
On tonight’s gameplan:
We went into last week, into training, and we found parts of their game that had weakness. I think we exploited that tonight as a team. We attacked it. We executed and it showed especially when you have a comment from their coach. I take it personal. That was disrespectful in all manners. I don’t care. It was disrespectful and we came out and did our thing.
On the extra motivation tonight following Sartini’s comments:
I was watching it before we went out. We’re a confident team, but we’re humble. We don’t disrespect any opponent we play. We have the utmost respect for the opponents we play because we know this game can go either way. It’s just crazy that you have a coach that’s joking around and saying stuff like that in an interview. It’s beyond me.
On his goal tonight:
Ball gets switched to Zusi, I’m in the middle, Zusi hits it, I’m beyond the defender, I check back, GOAL. It’s emotional for sure, but it’s what we needed to do to get started and get on the right foot.
On tonight’s performance at home after a long break:
We’re a confident group. This season has been a little bit different at home. We’ve done better away. But this group, the fight, the determination from each player, it’s all in. Everyone gave their all tonight. We move forward. We start focusing tomorrow on what we need to do to go on to the next game.
On improvements going forward against Real Salt Lake or Seattle Sounders:
You look at the results we’ve had here against them, two very good teams. But both games we were on the upper hand. Towards the end of those games, one of them we were unfortunate and in the other, we were knocking at the doorstep. We have an amazing team. We work day in and day out and we worked so hard this season to get to where we are. We’ll wait for that game and whoever we play, we’ll attack it that way and take it day by day.