Vancouver Whitecaps 2023 season is over. A 1-0 playoff loss at home to Los Angeles FC on Sunday afternoon saw the ‘Caps postseason dreams come to a crashing halt, with the defending MLS Cup champs securing a 2-0 victory in the best of three series.
A controversial first half penalty by MLS Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga was all that separated the two teams, but the action on the pitch was hugely overshadowed by an incompetent refereeing performance that left everyone of a blue and white persuasion absolutely fuming and providing the main post match talking points.
Vanni Sartini made a couple of changes from the first match of the series last weekend. Formationally, he opted to go with the 3-4-2-1, which there were two personnel changes with Matthias Laborda coming in for Javain Brown at the back and Ali Ahmed coming in for Alessandro Schopf in the middle of the park.
It was a fast paced start by both sides, with Vancouver looking to bring the large and loud crowd even more into the match with an early goal to cheer on, and LA very much looking to silence them.
Fresh from his two-goal performance in the first game, LA’s Ryan Hollingshead nearly got his name on the scoresheet again, this time for Vancouver, with his diving header clearance just going inches past the right post and out for a corner in the 10th minute.
The Whitecaps were looking comfortable, moving the ball around well, without cutting out any real goalscoring opportunities, and dealing with the LA set piece opportunities.
The game turned though in the 22nd minute when Mario Gonzalez got the ball in the box and tried to run his way between Ranko Veselinovic and Tristan Blackmon. The latter seemed to win the ball as Gonzalez hit the deck, but referee Timothy Ford pointed to the spot and the visitors had a penalty.
Replays showed both defenders stuck a leg out, but any contact was very minimal, which was never going to see it overturned by VAR.
Up stepped ‘Caps killer Denis Bouanga to drill the spot kick home, sending Yohei Takaoka the wrong way, and LA had the lead.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) November 6, 2023
The goal gave LA a lift as they looked to put the game to bed, and Takaoka made two big saves within seconds of each other, first from close range from a Timothy Tillman shot and then a sprawling save to deny Bouanga.
Takaoka got down well again to deny Tillman in the 32nd minute, before the Whitecaps regrouped and settled back down.
They were still unable to test the LA backline, however, finishing the first half a goal down and with no shots on target.
The Whitecaps came out swinging in the second half and forced their first save from Max Crepeau in the 54th minute when Ali Ahmed got his head onto a pinpoint Sam Adekugbe cross.
LA had been pretty much removed as an attacking threat from the match for the most part,but were still looking dangerous in transition and Takaoka denied Bouanga again in the 63rd minute after another quick break.
Ahmed had another crack at goal midway through the half, a long range dipper that was a few feet over, before White forced a routine near post save from Crepeau.
The Whitecaps had their best chance to tie things up in the 85th minute after a nice move saw Junior Hoilett play the ball inside to Gauld, whose deft first time chip was perfectly onto the head of White but his header was straight at Crepeau.
Then came the stoppage time insanity.
As the Whitecaps became more desperate with time running out, they earned a corner three minutes into stoppage time. Goalkeeper Takaoka pushed forward and as the corner was cleared to edge of the box, referee Ford inexplicably bundled Alessandro Schopf over as he lined up a shot. The ball broke to Veselinovic, who was quickly dispossessed under pressure from two LAFC players setting up a 3-on-1 breakaway with an empty goal.
Carlos Vela brought the ball forward and instead of just firing in the goal himself, he played it forward to Bouanga, who tucked it away for the second time on the day.
The whole play sent Sartini and the Whitecaps players (and supporters) apoplectic, resulting in a red card as he ran onto the pitch to make his feelings known to the ref. With a couple of middle fingers thrown and advertising boards kicked on the way off, referee Ford was called over for a video review and the Bouanga goal was chalked off.
The ‘Caps had one final chance to send the game to penalties with a Gauld shot from 20 yards out, but the Scot didn’t get enough power on it and it was easily held by Crepeau, with two Whitecaps running in the hope of a spill.
There was none, the referee finally brought the match to the end, and the Whitecaps season was over.
Sartini will have a big fine coming, likely with a multi-match suspension for his antics during the game and his postgame comments. Players are going to be fined for mass confrontation. And the club will likely be fined for the debris thrown at Ford as he left the pitch.
It was a performance that left a bit of “a sour taste in the mouth” as Gauld noted after the game. This was a team that certainly could have performed better and gone deeper, but it wasn’t to be.
The offseason post mortem can start soon, but for now let’s just enjoy the ride this season has been, despite the disappointing ending.
FINAL SCORE: Vancouver Whitecaps 0 – 1 Los Angeles FC [LAFC win the playoff series 2-0]
24’ – LAFC – Dénis Bouanga (penalty kick)
Possession: VAN 56.7% – LAFC 43.3%
Shots: VAN 13 – LAFC 8
Shots on Goal: VAN 5 – LAFC 7
Saves: VAN 6 – LAFC 5
Fouls: VAN 10 – LAFC 18
Offsides: VAN 1 – LAFC 1
Corners: VAN 7 – LAFC 9
VANCOUVER: Yohei Takaoka; Mathías Laborda (Junior Hoilett 67’), Ranko Veselinović, Tristan Blackmon; Richie Laryea (Ryan Raposo 56’), Pedro Vite, Andrés Cubas (Alessandro Schöpf 81’), Sam Adekugbe; Ali Ahmed (Simon Becher 81’), Ryan Gauld; Brian White [Substitutes not used: Isaac Boehmer, Luís Martins, Sebastian Berhalter, Javain Brown, Russell Teibert]
LOS ANGELES: Maxime Crépeau, Ryan Hollingshead, Jesús Murillo (Giorgio Chiellini 73’), Aaron Long, Diego Palacios; Timothy Tillman (Matuesz Bogusz 80’), Ilie Sánchez, Kellyn Acosta; Cristian Olivera (Sergi Palencia 86’), Mario González (Nathan Ordaz 46’) (10.Carlos Vela 86’), Dénis Bouanga [Substitutes not used: John McCarthy, Denil Maldonado, Stipe Buik, Filip Krastev]
On the record-breaking crowd:
“The crowd was fantastic. I’m so disappointed that I got sent off, because I’m not going to see them probably the first game of next year. Hopefully it’s going to be an away game. But the crowd were amazing. I told the players they need to be proud of the season that they did. We always said that it was impossible to bring big numbers. But you see, if you do things in the correct way, they see the response and everyone was so excited for this game, and the atmosphere was electric. So the crowd was amazing and I hope that, again, this is only the start and the best is yet to come.”
The biggest takeaway from the season:
“The biggest takeaway from this season is that we are a team that can easily start the next season and say ‘we want to win this thing’. That’s pretty much the biggest takeaway.”
On the growth of the team and the style of play:
“The main things this year was to try to play more, not to be just a team like we’ve been for the first year and a half that I was in charge. Like, okay we’re a team organized defensively and then we’re trying to counter very fast. But also to try to be a team, especially at home, that can play, that can be in charge of the game, that can move the ball from left to right. And I’m very happy with Yohei [Takaoka], I think he was a key piece, having a goalkeeper that can play. It was a key piece found, in players that never played in MLS before like Ali Ahmed, that, now I would say is an established MLS player. Having the growth of young guys like [Ryan] Raposo. And put in our quote-unquote best players White and Gauld in a position to do their best, so I’m very happy about that.”
On the match:
“Obviously we went with the idea to go and be more offensive and create chances. We just didn’t really get it to click in the final third. I think, up until the final third we were decent, but we just couldn’t get that final pass right. Second half as well, we’ve put a lot of pressure on them but we still kind of struggled to get the final pass to create a chance. And you know, that’s what kind of leaves us even more frustrated because I think we were a bit more dominant in the second half, so not really creating many chances was quite frustrating.”
On the fans all year long:
“Like anybody in football, you want to be playing in front of as big a crowd as possible. And I think we’ve done a good job of reconnecting with the fans in the city this year and we just want to thank them for the support the whole year, the ones that showed up every game on the Wednesday nights, the fans that have traveled to the away games. We’re really grateful for it and like I’ve said it gives us that extra motivation to do better for the next year.”
On the match:
“Like Ryan said, I think we played well between the boxes and that final third just wasn’t clicking, our movement, our passes was just a little bit off I think, we couldn’t get on the end of whatever cross we had. So definitely a bit frustrating to not really, you know, challenge Max enough to force that save, get a shot on goal, and more opportunities to score. So it’s disappointing to end this way.”
On the crowd:
“It meant a lot to us that they came out and hopefully the effort we put in was enough to inspire them to enjoy the game. But it’s disappointing to not reward that support with a win. Hopefully they can see that we’re building something here that’s really special, and that we’re not far off from being very competitive at the top of the table, to the top of this league. So hopefully they can see that and they’ll be out next year.”