It wasn’t a particularly inspiring performance by the Vancouver Whitecaps, but Saturday’s scoreless draw with Real Salt Lake was effective.
Coming away from Rio Tinto Stadium with any points is difficult, no matter the method, and while the Whitecaps struggled to generate much in the way of offence, only attempting five shots to Real’s 17, they mainly restricted the home side’s chances to those of a peripheral nature.
The draw means the Whitecaps finish with the highest points total among Canadian MLS clubs, meaning they’re the No. 1 seed for next season’s Canadian Championship and will play NASL side FC Edmonton in the semifinals.
If the team can duplicate Saturday’s performance on Thursday against the LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in the first round of the MLS playoffs, they’re going to make it very difficult for the defending champions.
Vancouver coach Martin Rennie steered his team to the result by doing some tinkering, dropping Kenny Miller, Barry Robson and Camilo from his starting lineup in favour of Dane Richards, Darren Mattocks and John Thorrington.
Richards and Mattocks, the prototypical “speedy Jamaicans,” offered Vancouver a different look as a strike pairing in the early stages of the match, but didn’t do much to worry the Salt Lake backline.
Mattocks did come close in the 57th minute, heading home an Alain Rochat free kick with a mighty leap, but the assistant referee flagged for offside, negating what would have been the game’s only goal. Replays subsequently appeared to show the officials made the correct decision.
Indeed, Rochat’s set-piece performance was a refreshing alternative to the often disappointing delivery of Robson from dead ball situations in recent weeks. The Canadian-born Swiss international sent in a number of threatening balls in the first half, including one which narrowly missed Kyle Reynish’s goal after the backup goalkeeper appeared to see it late.
Thorrington put in a workmanlike performance in midfield, perhaps most encouragingly lasting a full 90 minutes for the first time since Sept. 15. Matt Watson and Gershon Koffie also covered a lot of ground alongside Rochat in the middle, but as is becoming a trend, Vancouver struggled to keep the ball with just 37.3 per cent of possession.
That statistic will surely carry over into Thursday’s match, so playing tight and hoping for a goal from a counter-attack or set-piece situation seems the most likely way this team will take care of business if an upset is in the cards.
The starting lineup kept the team in the game, and Rennie commented afterward that he felt his substitutes were able to make a difference. Robson in particular seemed to add a bit of needed offensive impetus after coming on, and his set-piece delivery after his introduction seemed to be an improvement over some of his recent performances.
In any circumstance the Whitecaps were always going to be underdogs against LA on Thursday, but at least this result shows – perhaps most importantly to the players themselves – that they’re capable of going up against some of the league’s best teams and stifling them on the road.
That belief was surely lacking after such a long and terrible road drought.
Now, the players can look at this game as a draw that could have been a win had a marginal, albeit correct, offside decision gone their way.
Rennie’s decision to drop his two designated players was a big call and it will be interesting to see whether he sticks to the starting lineup that brought about this result, or if he decides to make a change or two to bring one or both of Robson and Miller back in for the Galaxy.
It will certainly be a tough call to make – while neither Robson or Miller have played at the level expected of designated players, Robson had one of his best performances as a Whitecap in Vancouver’s 2-2 draw with the Galaxy on July 18.
In that match, the Scotsman went head-to-head with David Beckham in perhaps the most captivating individual battle within a match in Vancouver’s brief MLS history. That match showed the best of Robson: passionate, combative and effective.
If Rennie decides to make a change to accommodate Robson it will certainly be understandable given the knowledge of what he’s capable of doing against the Galaxy.
On the other hand, if the team goes for the same formula on Thursday, starting defensively and then bringing on Robson to change the game late, if it goes anything like Saturday’s match that could be the ace up Rennie’s sleeve.
Martin MacMahon is a Vancouver-based writer who covers the Vancouver Whitecaps FC for Goal.com. Follow Martin on Twitter