The Vancouver Whitecaps punctuated their roller-coaster regular season with a dramatic finish on Sunday, battling the visiting Seattle Sounders to a 1-1 draw and clinching a playoff spot in the process.
It’s a result that makes sense for a team that’s fought numerous obstacles over the past two seasons, said goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau.
Pandemic-related border restrictions forced the ‘Caps (12-9-13) to play much of last year in Orlando and Portland, and start this season based out of Salt Lake City. The team sat in last place in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference on Aug. 8. Head coach Marc Dos Santos was dismissed at the end of August.
Still, Sunday’s tie saw Vancouver finish sixth in the West and earn a spot in the post-season for the first time since 2017.
“We’ve come from far. We can’t forget that we were Orlando, Portland, Salt Lake, then home? We can’t forget about that. We’ve come from far,” Crepeau said. “And ever since we’ve come home and played at B.C. Place, the team really pulled together. This team never gave up.”
The closeness of the locker room has helped achieve results on the field, said attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld.
“Everyone’s willing to fight for each other. It’s a great changing room to be a part of. And that definitely helps you out on the pitch,” he said. “In those times when someone’s beaten, another boy’s there to help you out. I think it’s been a huge factor in us putting together huge results and managing to get into the playoffs.”
Vancouver’s post-season spot nearly slipped away in the dying seconds of Sunday’s game. With the score knotted at 1-1, Seattle (17-8-9) made a final push, with Fredy Montero crashing the net and Crepeau was forced to make a goal-line stop, his third save of the night.
While there were some tense moments, interim Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini said his group executed the moment as planned.
“(Seattle) brought like 15 players in. Basically they were all the team there so it was really hard to defend,” he said. “But we actually did what we were supposed to do.”
Pushing and shoving ensued after a boot came dangerously close to Crepeau’s face and another ‘Caps player was kicked in the Achilles tendon.
“It’s not a clean play, it bobbles a little bit, ball’s loose, someone got at the end of it and I have to throw my body in the way and then from there (‘Caps defender Florian Jungwirth) gets kicked and obviously it escalated. Tensions are high, especially at that part of the game,” the ‘keeper said of the game’s final moments.
A Whitecaps loss would have eliminated the team from contention.
Vancouver controlled 51.3 per cent of the possession Sunday but Seattle outshot the home side 10-5 and 4-2 in shots on target.
The Sounders took an early lead after Cristian Dajome was called for hand ball in the penalty area.
Montero took the ensuing penalty kick, firing a low shot into the bottom-right corner of the net to put Seattle up 1-0 in the eighth minute.
“It was a bit of a kick in the teeth to go one down,” Gauld said. “But … we know how much quality’s in this group and we’re going to create chances against anybody. So we just had to make sure we didn’t get too anxious or nervous about being one behind.”
The fact that the goal came from the Colombian striker was particularly painful for Vancouver fans — Montero played three seasons for Vancouver (2017, ‘19 and ‘20) but opted to return to Seattle as a free agent in March.
The ‘Caps refused to be deterred by the early strike and continued to press.
“We’ve been better than them. I wasn’t nervous at all because I knew we were going to score,” Sartini said. “And we deserved to win, actually.”
Vancouver’s aggressive play finally paid off in the 20th minute.
Defender Ranko Veselinovic settled a ball at the top of the penalty area, then sent it in to Brian White, who bumped it over to Gauld and the Scottish attacking midfielder headed it in past Seattle ‘keeper Stefan Frei for the equalizer.
“I took a little bit of a gamble,” Gauld said. “(Veselinovic) put a good ball into the box and I sneaked in hoping the second ball would drop there and thankfully it did. There wasn’t too much thought behind it.”
White was knocked in the face on the play and lay on the field being looked at by trainers as his teammates celebrated. He eventually walked off the field, then got a fresh jersey and some medical attention on the sidelines before returning to the game as fans cheered.
The American striker has 12 goals and six assists since being dealt to Vancouver by the New York Red Bulls in June.
The ‘Caps will be the lone Canadian team in the MLS playoffs this year. Toronto FC finished its campaign second-last in the Eastern Conference with a 6-18-10 record. CF Montreal (12-12-10) was eliminated from the playoff race Sunday with a 2-0 loss to Orlando SC.
Vancouver will face No. 3 Sporting Kansas City in the first round of the playoffs, which begin on Nov. 20.
Seattle comes second in the conference and will take on No. 7 Real Salt Lake.
NOTES: Seattle’s leading scorer Raul Ruidiaz (hamstring) did not make the trip to Vancouver. The Sounders were also without midfielders Joao Paulo (hamstring) and Nicolas Loderio (knee inflammation). … Attendance was announced at 25,117, marking the largest crowd at a sporting event in Vancouver in more than two years. … Crepeau was announced as the Whitecaps player of the year. The 27-year-old Canadian ‘keeper had a career-high six clean sheets in 27 regular-season starts.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press