VANCOUVER—Whether it’s fair or not, matches like Saturday’s between the Vancouver Whitecaps and New York City FC will always be used as a barometer of where a team is at.
Yes, the Whitecaps lead the Western Conference with 48 points, and yes, New York sits out of a playoff position even with this 2-1 victory. But when a side trots out Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa, there is a reckoning of sorts that goes on—just how do the Whitecaps compare against some of the world’s most decorated stars?
The answer to that question of how coach Carl Robinson’s men fared isn’t altogether obvious.
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On one side, Vancouver looked dangerous throughout the match, especially on the counterattack, only to waste so many of those opportunities.
Conversely, New York goalkeeper Josh Saunders was perhaps the best player on the pitch, making several saves vital to his side’s victory. That’s an indicator of just how dangerous the Whitecaps were on this night despite failing to score from open play.
Beyond all that, there’s also the reality that this wasn’t a full strength Vancouver side. Designated Players Octavio Rivero and Pedro Morales came on as substitutes but neither was deemed fit enough to start the game and play significant minutes.
Also of note was the absence of Steven Beitashour at right fullback. He’s the sort of player that goes unappreciated by most until he’s not there. Calm in possession, capable with crosses, and steady in his position, there’s a reason he’s played in an MLS all-star game.
In his place stepped in Jordan Smith, the 24 year old Costa Rican on loan from Deportivo Saprissa. In a word, Smith is frustrating—frustrating because he’s clearly a tremendous athlete and capable of contributing so much offensively. He had a number of lovely crosses into the box and played a vital role in generating his side’s late penalty with a powerful blast from distance. But defensively he looked lost for much of the game, and indeed was burned on Lampard’s opening goal on the right side.
Another player who didn’t have his best outing was Gershon Koffie. The Ghanaian, who can at times raise his level for big games, failed to impress on this occasion and looked a step below his elders Lampard and Pirlo in the centre of the park.
The penalties are also worth discussing. They cancelled each other out, but referee Ricardo Salazar will likely look back on both of them with regret.
Kendall Waston did well to follow up on Smith’s cannon-like shot from distance, but there will be plenty of conversations about whether Angelino’s challenge late in regulation was a foul.
The penalty called on Matias Laba in injury time was perhaps even more dubious. The Argentine appeared to win the ball, only to see Lampard fall and Salazar point to the spot.
It would have been cruel to see the visitors leave a sold out BC Place without three points, so perhaps despite Salazar’s adventurous final 10 minutes justice was done in the end. Regardless of whether the correct calls were made or not, the late drama and controversy only added to what was a wonderful spectacle at the sold out stadium.
Fans were treated to some vintage Pirlo passing, perhaps best highlighted by Lampard’s goal, where the Italian found a streaking Angelino with a perfectly weighted pass. Angelino would then set up Lampard as the midfielder made one of those signature runs that brought him so many goals for Chelsea over the years. Those in attendance then saw Villa score from the spot for the winner.
If you came for the New York stars, they came as advertised. Certainly there will be few if any people who left that stadium feeling they didn’t get value for money. Games involving the league’s top clubs always have that extra buzz about them in the buildup, but the delivery isn’t always there.
The artificial turf at BC Place is a deterrent for some star players, but New York’s star trio showed up and acted as if it was a non-factor, playing key roles in ensuring their side remains in playoff contention.
Robinson’s high flying kids remain co-leaders at the top of the MLS standings despite this result, but New York’s old dogs have handed them a lesson that there’s still a long way to go and plenty to improve on.
Martin MacMahon is a Vancouver-based writer. Follow him on Twitter