VANCOUVER — If this is the road to redemption, it merely illustrated how far off-course Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps have drifted this summer.
With both clubs floundering in the Major League Soccer playoff race — TFC as the league’s defending champion — the Canadian Championship and entry to the CONCACAF Champions League might be the best chance for either team to salvage 2018.
But Wednesday’s 2-2 draw in the first leg of the national championship will be remembered largely for each team’s failure: Toronto for being unable conjure a win with Vancouver down to 10 men for the entire second half, and the Whitecaps for surrendering an own goal in the final seconds of what would have been a remarkable, shorthanded victory.
Whitecap coach Carl Robinson loved his team, but hated the referee.
David Gantar issued a straight red card to Vancouver midfielder Felipe Martins in first-half injury time. But, in the second half, the Whitecaps took a 2-1 lead and actually played better with 10 men than TFC did with 11 — right up until Canadian defender Doneil Henry headed the ball into his own net after, Robinson said, Gantar missed a foul upfield against Toronto.
“I wish I could tell you what is in my mind at the moment,” Robinson said when asked about Gantar. “He spoiled the game. It’s not a red card, and he’s got that wrong. ‘It’s okay.’ This is what I hear all the time: ‘It’s okay, there’s another game.’ He’ll be officiating again on the weekend. It’s not okay. He spoiled the game on live, national TV today. The 12th person spoiled the game. I’m fuming, as you can tell.
“We sit in meetings with (MLS head of officials) Howard Webb. Howard, great guy. Really good. He tries to get the officiating good. We’re talking about good players now (in MLS). Top, top players. You’ve got to get the officiating right, and it clearly wasn’t right.”
Felipe was sent off for lunging into a 50/50 tackle against Marco Delgado, catching the Toronto midfielder with his studs. Tied 1-1 and having controlled play in the first half, TFC should have seized the red card as an opportunity to earn a road win and all but clinch the Canadian Championship.
Instead, Toronto was lucky to escape with a draw and head home for the final’s second leg next Wednesday with the advantage of two away goals.
“The vision of the game wasn’t necessarily what we anticipated,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the result that matters when you go home.
“I think in the second half, with them being down a man and us having so much possession in the first half, we got a little bit too casual. The look of the second half became different because we got too casual on the ball, too slow in everything we were doing.”
Down to 10 players, Vancouver nearly went ahead in the 53rd minute but Yordy Reyna stubbed his shot after Jake Nerwinski set him up directly in front of the Toronto goal. In the 73rd minute, Toronto goalie Clint Irwin needed to make a big save on Alphonso Davies after a long, solo run by the Whitecaps’ wonderkid.
But 10 minutes later, Toronto fell behind anyway when Erik Hurtado was played onside by Eriq Zavaleta, ran on to Russell Teibert’s through ball and calmly side-footed Vancouver into a 2-1 lead.
TFC barely threatened the Whitecaps’ net. But late in second-half injury time, Michael Bradley’s desperate ball forward was headed across the Vancouver penalty area by Jozy Altidore and defender Henry, under pressure, tried to head the ball back to Stefan Marinovic as the Whitecap goalie was coming forward.
Vancouver had taken a 1-0 lead on Kei Kamara’s 24th-minute penalty after an astonishing handball by Toronto’s Tosaint Ricketts, who leaped with his arm raised to palm away Cristian Techera’s corner kick.
The Whitecaps managed to hold the lead less than two minutes before Jonathan Osorio volleyed in an equalizer after Vancouver defender Marcel de Jong overcommitted on a tackle and left a channel open for Delgado.
“I think we gifted them the first goal with the handball,” Vanney said. “I guess they gifted us the last goal with the own goal. It’s a tough play for Doneil. When you put centre-backs in tough positions, sometimes those things happen. We’ll take it; it was at the dying seconds of the game.”
Robinson said: “I’ll talk about my boys’ performance today: I thought it was absolutely terrific, especially in the second half when we showed unbelievable character. I’m disappointed we only scored one goal when our counter-attacking was phenomenal. And then we get our teeth kicked in at the end with the own goal.”
Both teams are running out of teeth.
Six points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, TFC plays New York City Sunday at BMO Field. Four points adrift in the West, the Whitecaps have an even harder matchup Saturday when they visit Portland.