(Photo Credit: Juan Luis Díaz / Mexsport / CONCACAF.com)
LANGFORD, BC – It was a nearly perfect night. On Wednesday evening, Vancouver Whitecaps were two regulation minutes away from snatching a surprising-yet-well-deserved victory against an in-form Tigres. However, one moment of brilliance from André-Pierre Gignac denied Caps’ Head Coach Vanni Sartini from bringing an unlikely lead to El Volcan on Valentine’s Day.
#1 Pre-Season Or Not, Whitecaps Mean Business
Given the circumstances of both teams heading into the match, one can be excused for thinking that Tigres were going to have a relatively easy time against the Whitecaps at Starlight Stadium. Tigres were five matches into their 2024 Liga MX Clausura season, and were undefeated so far (3W-2D). The Whitecaps, on the other hand, are just a little over a month into their pre-season, just coming back from their Marbella training camp in Spain. They had four friendly matches, of course, but none that really sized up to the strength and notoriety of a top Liga MX side.
That being said, Whitecaps fans were treated to a fantastic surprise: the Whitecaps were up for this. A shaky start where Tigres dominated 70% possession for the opening made for an antsy environment over the jubilant and ever-energetic Tigres fans. But soon, the Whitecaps began playing their game. Structured, high-pressing forced Tigres to lose the ball in dangerous areas in the middle, opening up the way for the ‘Caps to quickly strike. Slowly but surely, Whitecaps fans could sense something in the air. It felt like they could nick something here.
“I think we did a very good performance,” said Sartini in the post-match presser. “And against a very good team to be honest. We basically applied everything we talked about during the week to our games.”
There were a few occasions where we saw a counter attack with numerical advantage for the ‘Caps, overloading the Tigres defense and creating some stellar chances. But it was in the final ball where the signs of pre-season shone through, as most were just a little rough in execution, as can be expected.
“We could have been better on the ball,” explained Sartini after the match. “The first half was a little bit like you could see it was our first game. We always needed an extra touch to do something. We were a little bit too frantic to break the line immediately, while we had talked about moving the ball side to side to move them.”
However, it was making lemonade out of lemons where the Whitecaps managed to get the go-ahead goal. A lofted pass from Ryan Gauld, who later admitted he underhit the pass, found Brian White’s head, and his clever flick on into Damir Kreilach’s path allowed him to tuck it past Nahuel Guzman and into the net. While the initial pass was not according to plan, the players stuck to the principles and created that goal out of nothing.
Even though tired legs might have been what allowed Tigres back into the match late on, that period between the 30th and 75th minute showed what the Whitecaps are capable of at their very best.
#2 Both New Faces and Old Faces Impressed
It was a first real look at two of the Whitecaps’ newest signings. Kreilach started the game, and quickly demonstrated why the Whitecaps were keen on signing the Croatian so early on in the offseason. The ex-Real Salt Lake attacker seemed right at home alongside Gauld and White, joining up in their quick transitional attacks, holding up play, and making smart runs. His goal encompassed his work-rate, ability to read and react quickly to situations, and finishing prowess. That is exactly the kind of player the Whitecaps needed last season when they needed a difference maker to help them out of sticky situations.
“This was our first official game together, but I knew them even before when I played against them,” Kreilach said about his connection with White and Gauld. “The quality of the players [here at the Whitecaps] is unbelievable and now it’s up to us to show this quality on the field every single game.”
We also saw a little bit of Fafa Picault towards the end, and while he wasn’t on the ball that often, he provided some flashes of what he can bring, including creating a fantastic chance to extend the lead towards the end. But there were some players that ‘Caps fans have already been familiar with that impressed the most that night. Mathías Laborda looked every bit like the player that the Whitecaps wanted to sign last year, as he seemed more settled, composed, and efficient than ever before. He had the most tackles in the game (3), had four recoveries and was only dribbled past once against some of Liga MX’s toughest attackers. If it had not been for Gignac’s wonder goal, Laborda might have been the one receiving the Man of the Match award for his impressive defensive efforts.
Another impressive figure was Pedro Vite. When the line-ups came out, many fans became slightly concerned as the midfield had no out-and-out defensive midfielder, with Andres Cubas out for the match and Sebastian Berhalter on the bench. Many believed that it would have to fall onto Alessandro Schöpf to pick up the defensive duties, to allow Vite to roam forward. However, it was the reverse. Vite was the one dropping back and picking up the ball, as well as making last ditch slide tackles and muscling players off the ball. It was something that was surprising to many, but not to Vanni Sartini.
“I was very happy, but not that impressed because I know that he can do it,” said Sartini about Vite’s performance. “To be honest, I think Pedro [Vite] is a midfielder. He established himself [last year] as a midfielder… [and] he’s really matured a lot, and I hope he can continue to mature.”
“He can play as a number eight, he can play in a double-six, today he was our six in possession… if we play a diamond, let’s say, he can play all four positions.”
Whitecaps fans will be happy to see both the new recruits making an immediate impact, and some more seasoned players getting settled and comfortable in this highly demanding system. Both will go a long way to ensuring success under Sartini and his team.
#3 There’s Still All To Play for in Monterrey
It seems a tall task to go to “El Volcan” and defeat a fully-backed Tigres side, especially since the home side has not lost at home since the “Clasico Regiomontano” versus Monterrey in early August. However, that performance in Langford should give fans hope. The Whitecaps demonstrated their ability to break down Tigres’ defence and punish them in transition. Wednesday’s match is a perfect springboard for them to build on that performance and become even better. A bit more clinical nature and tighter passes, and the Whitecaps could have gone in with a couple of goals advantage. One might even say that they should go in with confianza.
“I think we can be confident going into [next week’s game],” remarked Brian White after the match. “I think we had a pretty good performance. We had a couple of really good chances that if we executed and followed through one, we could be up a couple of goals going into the second leg.
“I think knowing that we can create those chances, and that we can stifle their chances, it’s going to be a tough test but… I think we can be successful down in Mexico.”
There, of course, is a stark difference between the game in Langford and the upcoming game in Monterrey: the crowd. While it was only a couple of hundred supporters in the away supporters section for Tigres, their voices and chants made it feel like thousands. One can only imagine how volatile and hostile the environment will be for the Whitecaps when they travel down to Mexico. There may be 3:00am fireworks in their future for all we know. But that is why it’s important to have players that are used to that, like Damir Kreilach.
“We just have to stay calm,” explained Kreilach about the fan pressure they might face in Mexico. “We know what we have to expect. There is definitely going to be a tough game and it’s all about how you approach it. We have to control the first 15 minutes.
“We know they’re going to go hard on us, having their fans behind them, but… if we approach this in a great way, then of course it’s going to be positive”.
If the Whitecaps do manage to pull out an upset in Monterrey, then not only will they knock out one of the biggest contenders for the Concacaf Champions Cup, but they’ll also set the tone early that they might be a force to be reckoned with in MLS.
And that would make for a more than perfect start.