VANCOUVER – Welcome to Vancouver, Fredy Montero.
The Vancouver Whitecaps’ newest Designated Player scored the second goal Thursday evening at BC Place to ensure his new side’s passage to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, where the club will take on Mexican giants Tigres.
It was a 2-0 win on the night over New York Red Bulls and a 3-1 aggregate victory over the two legs.
Beyond being an important fixture in and of itself, this series has provided a preview of how the Whitecaps will look ahead of their opening match of the Major League Soccer regular season this Sunday at BC Place against the Philadelphia Union.
As we’ve seen with MLS teams and clubs the world over, it’s important for a striker to score early to avoid the pressure that comes with an extended dry spell, with clubs in this particular league the DP tag adds an extra layer of expectation.
That reality is not lost on Montero, who’s acknowledged the benefit of scoring with his first touch as a Whitecap—a powerful, cleanly hit ball off an Alphonso Davies corner kick and flicked on by centre back Tim Parker, which goalkeeper Luis Robles had little chance of stopping.
“It’s always good, you take some pressure off your shoulders,” Montero told reporters following the match. “Everybody was expecting [something] good from me, and I thank God for the opportunity to score with my first touch.”
Speaking of Davies, the 16-year-old was arguably Vancouver’s best performer on the night. With a build and a football brain you’d expect from a player 10 years his senior, he coolly slotted home the game winner and tormented the Red Bulls’ backl ine for much of the match while playing predominantly on the right wing.
“He’s good, he has a lot of quality, he’s young, we need to take it easy with him,” Montero said of his first match playing alongside Davies. “He’s going to get more experienced with the games. He has to keep doing what he’s doing. He’s working hard in every single training and you can see 90 minutes today, how hard he was running to the front and to the back to defend the team.”
Also making his debut for Vancouver was newly acquired attacker Brek Shea. The enigmatic left footer showed brief glimpses of his quality while playing in a No. 9 role, an unconventional position for a player who has primarily played in wide roles either as a winger or fullback in recent years.
The lanky forward missed an absolute sitter at one stage early in the first half but he looks to be an interesting option for coach Carl Robinson this season.
“Brek was outstanding, by the way, he really was from the first minute he was a threat, playing up as a No. 9,” Robinson said. “He wanted to get in behind. He should have scored as well, and then he went to the left side. We’ve got an exciting player in Brek Shea as well.”
Robinson clarified after the match that there are no plans to use Shea as a striker—initially the plan was for Nicolas Mezquida to start up top, but that changed following a training ground injury.
Kekuta Manneh once again looked dangerous in a withdrawn striking role but his end product largely wasn’t here. It will be interesting to see if Robinson sticks with him in this position or pushes him back out wide to get him on the ball more often.
On the left flank, Marcel de Jong put in a strong shift. He seemed to bring his shooting boots and nearly caught Robles off guard with a powerful swerving shot in the first half. The Canadian international likely won’t be a regular starter this season with so much wide talent in this squad, but has done nothing to hurt his chances with this showing.
In central midfield, Russell Teibert and Matias Laba were solid without being commanding. Laba walked the line as he often does by playing more than a full half while carrying a yellow and receiving a final warning from the referee. It would have been easy for Robinson to yank the Argentine but he trusted his pugnacious midfielder and the gamble paid off.
On the back line, returning players Jordan Harvey, Tim Parker and Kendall Waston were steady and composed as the Red Bulls piled on the pressure for stretches of the second half. Waston in particular appears to be more composed and in control while wearing the captain’s armband.
At right fullback, Jake Nerwinski started his second consecutive competitive match. It’s a steady pair of showings to begin his professional career, but one wonders how much longer the 2017 draft pick can hold off veteran Sheanon Williams in that position.
As ever, at the back, David Ousted was outstanding, making two very important saves that made this victory appear a lot more comfortable than it was in reality.
The exciting thing for Whitecaps fans is that there are still other players who could add further attacking firepower when fit. Christian Bolanos, Mezquida and new signing Yordy Reyna, all injured, are players who would arguably be in the starting lineup if fit.
Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues.